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When Mother Nature is in Charge of Your Business

Running a business that caters to tourists can be a wonderful and rewarding experience for many entrepreneurs. But with that seasonality comes an up-and-down approach to planning and managing that becomes a way of life—season after season, year after year.

We spoke with several North Carolina-based business owners who rely heavily on tourist traffic and whose operations must be agile as a result. Each gave us valuable advice about how to plan ahead for the slow periods, as well as how to keep moving forward during the busiest times.

Be Prepared For Anything

“We make 80% of our profits over 2.5 months out of 12,” says Bryan Wilson, who, along with his wife Whitney, runs Miller’s Waterfront Restaurant in Nags Head, North Carolina. “Running a business on the Outer Banks is probably more unique than it is anywhere else. Because of the seasonality of this area…it can be overwhelming if you aren’t prepared for it,” Wilson explains.

“Thirty-two years into this, you know what to expect and how to run a business around it,” Wilson says. For instance, he explains, “winter is remodel time, project time.” And then, “in the summer, we open our doors at 4 p.m., and we are on an hour-and-a-half waitlist by 5:30 pm.”

Brian Miller, who with his wife Beth runs both Miller’s Seafood & Steakhouse and the pizza and ice cream shop American Pie in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, fundamentally agrees with his brother-in-law Wilson.

“Everything slows down around here in the winter,” Miller says. By the late fall, he explains, “I’m laying off staff for the winter. Tourists aren’t here anymore. The seafood industry slows down this time of year. By the time we get to Thanksgiving, everyone is gone for the year. Then once Easter comes around, we open our doors again, building up to the peak summer months.”

Weathering The Weather

Weather is a year-round factor, says Miller, whose restaurants are often at the mercy of hurricanes and sometimes overzealous weather reporting that coincides with the busiest season.

“The weather forecast is extremely important,” he explains. “That’s one reason why we can’t stand it when all those weather trucks show up when we are expecting a hurricane. The weather forecast affects us financially more than the actual weather event itself.”

Business owner Chris Cagle can relate to the all-powerful force that is Mother Nature. “We are the access point for the national forest in our region,” Cagle says. “So when that first spring breeze blows and those first spring flowers start popping up, folks want to get outside.”

Cagle runs the Eldorado Outpost, a one-stop shop in Eldorado, North Carolina for recreational activities, mercantile goods and expertise geared toward those visiting the mountainous Uwharrie region. With his mother Melinda, Cagle started the Outpost in 1995.

“Our season is generally from April 1 to January 2,” says Cagle. “We slow down to a trickle during the rest of January and February, but then it’s like a big waterfall during April.”

What Happens During The Off-Season?

During the slow season, each of these owners has a plan and a strategy.

“Each year,” says Wilson, “I decide what to upkeep over the off-season. Upkeep is one of the most important things in any business. Customers notice the work we do and feel confident in doing business with us. You can’t just rest on your laurels. You need to put money back into the business.”

For Miller, from Thanksgiving until Easter his staff is off and his customers are back at work and school, so his focus is also on areas like remodeling, repairs, administrative duties, menu development and planning for the next season.

“We are wearing many hats. We’re everything, we’re not just business owners,” Miller says. “We are the chefs, and we are sometimes dishwashers, and we are sometimes the guys who have to go mop floors and unclog toilets. It’s all part of owning a small business.”

Wilson agrees and says that he and his fellow business owners get very “creative” in the off-season, especially during what he refers to as the “shoulder season,” or the months just before and just after high season.

He cites the creation of the annual Outer Banks Seafood Festival, as well as a local marathon and private parties like wedding rehearsal dinners, which help fill the slower times. “It always surprises me that we didn’t have these events before,” Wilson says. “This is such a family-oriented beach. These events definitely bring people to the beach, and they help all of the businesses out here.”

There’s more to the off-season than just focusing on physical and structural repairs. It’s important, Cagle explains, that you put some time into your own recharging as well. “We definitely need to take two weeks to decompress and get the season behind us. But then we also look out on the next year and just dream a little bit… It is difficult to envision the future until you have decompressed and taken proper assessment of what is behind you.”

Wilson agrees. “Even though it’s our thirty-second year, we’re still trying to learn something at all times. You learn from years past and focus on next year. All great ideas come from the hard memories, and you can always grow from that.”

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