Surviving mud season in high country
Special to the Sky-Hi News
“Budget for it. Anticipate it. Know it’s coming. Reserve a certain amount of money to cover your expenses during the off-season.”
Longtime Winter Park business owner
Walk into Smokin’ Moes Ribhouse and Saloon in Winter Park on a Tuesday night in May, and you won’t wait for a table. In fact, yours may be the only table in the popular barbecue restaurant with customers.
“There are some tourists around. Everyone is usually appreciative of us when they find us and we are open. It helps them and it helps us… we want to have consistent hours for our customers. We’ve been here 16 years now, and everyone knows we stay open,” said owner Dan Cormican.
“Mud Season” is a term that was coined in eastern states with severe winters like New Hampshire and Maine. Many ski resort areas have adopted it to refer to the time after the ski resort closes but before roads and trails are dry enough for summer recreation to begin.
Mud Season has also come to mean many other things to local residents: peace and quiet, time to travel and recuperate. But for businesses in the Fraser Valley, it also means time to count your losses.
“Of course we lose money,” said Cormican. “A lot of other restaurants close, so we get a larger portion of a much smaller pie.”
Ron Jones, managing partner of Cooper Creek Square in Winter Park, has endured 39 mud seasons. Short of global warming or significant population growth, he doesn’t foresee business growing during the spring thaw.
“Unless we end up with a population base similar to Summit County or Vail, it will remain a wash. There are no visitors. There are no tourists,” he said from his vacation spot in sunny Florida. “If you can afford to be gone during mud season, and your job allows you to leave, you leave.”
Retaining employees is one reason some businesses choose to stay open, even if they don’t make enough to cover wages.
“If you close, you lose employees and you have to re-train,” said Cormican. Most of his employees want to stay on but also want to take a vacation, so his staff split their time off.
Building loyalty amongst local customers is another motivation to keep the open sign illuminated in spite of the mud. Patrick Brower, who offers free and confidential business management coaching through the Grand Enterprise Initiative, offers this advice:
“The best way to cope with a seasonal economy is to make sure you have a strong local client base because those locals will help you out when the tourists aren’t around. The other benefit is that the locals will then refer visitors to you when things pick up again.”
Jones recommends preparation.
“Budget for it. Anticipate it. Know it’s coming. Reserve a certain amount of money to cover your expenses during the off-season,” he said.
‘Off season’ stays on for some
Some local businesses are more insulated from the seasonal fluctuations. Professional services like bookkeeping, financial planning, law practices, and medical/dental offices rely less on visitors from out of town.
Mark Chua, DDS, and owner of Winter Park Dental sees his business remain relatively stable during the slower months. “Locals have more time to come in because they have time off from work,” he said.
The internet is changing the way people do business, resulting in more ways for businesses in remote locations to reach customers in numerous markets. Real Estate of Winter Park owner Lisa Leclair Waldorf thinks that inclement weather may deter some potential home buyers from making the trip to see a property in person, but they actively watch for new listings online.
“It’s busier more than ever now during mud season,” she said.
And in some cases, it may be a matter of quality over quantity.
“The buyers that are up looking after the ski season ends are the more serious buyers,” said Shanna Lalley, also an owner of Winter Park Real Estate. “They are not just up here kicking the tires.”
Brower believes that finding markets outside of the county could be key to stabilizing income. One of his clients sells her merchandise all over the world in addition to having a local storefront. The result is that her mud season bottom line isn’t so far down near the bottom.
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Winter Park has started processing property owners’ applications for the new Short Term Fix program with the hope of moving employees into housing as quickly as possible.