Rinks as Gathering Places:
How to Become a Community Partner

October 30, 2010 No Comments

Operating a roller skating rink can bring joy to a community, along with a steady revenue stream to the owner, if the approach taken is imaginative, unique and it follows a solid business plan.     
“A lot of people say roller skating is dying,” said Jeannie Saya, owner of CalSkate in Rohnert Park, Calif. The 24,000-square-foot facility has an annual average attendance of 75,000. “Nothing could be further from the truth. When people are given the opportunity to skate in a clean, safe, updated environment they have the same fun as they have had for decades. The actual activity of skating is as popular with children and old skaters as it ever was. When you see skaters smiling and having a wonderful time, you know it isn’t the sport of roller skating that is the problem. In fact, the activity of skating is your strongest asset.”      
That’s true even more today, with the popularity of quad skates making a high-profile comeback with appearances in film, network commercials, television and music videos. That exposure is sparking a resurgence in the popularity of quad skates, and the hype is making its way across America.                                    
What does it take to run a successful roller skating rink these days? No matter where the location, whether in a highly populated area, like Skateland Northridge, in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, where 150,000 attend the 23,000-square-foot facility annually, or the 28,000-square-foot Skate Factory in the lesser populated town of Ghent, N.Y., the keys to success are similar: The facility needs to be more than just a skating rink; in a way, it needs to be a recreation facility and a community social gathering place.                                 
“In order to get a good return on your investment, it is also important to constantly update your facility,” said Dave Fleming, owner of Skateland.  “Guests want consistency when visiting our center, but they can also become bored if their experience never changes. If we want to successfully compete with other forms of entertainment, we must remain current in our appearance and experience.”                                                                
Fleming suggested giving back to the community that supports you. “We are so fortunate to operate a business that is conducive to hosting fundraising for schools, churches and other non-profit organizations,” he said. “Giving back benefits to your community is the right thing to do and feels good!”
Your staff is your most important attribute. “Treat them well,” Fleming said, “and it creates an environment that motivates them to be the best they can be. If you take care of your staff, they will take care of your guests.” Finally, he said, learn to work on your business and not in it. Most skating center operators actively manage their rinks. This affords them little time to promote and improve them. Consequently, they look and feel like they did 30 years ago.                                                                                           
Glen Neifert, a second-generation owner of  Rock Roll-O-Rena, a 14,625-square-foot facility with a 40,000 annual attendance in Arnold, Mo., suggested that owners gets to know the customer “and their parents. Once parents are comfortable with your operation, they will drop the kids off to skate without them. The kids will skate more often. Our rink is family owned and operated, so at least two of the four family members are working every session. I think that makes a big impact on a parent, who has entrusted us with their children.”                                                                         
Roberta Molaro and her husband, Don, skated together, dated together and married each other in 1960. In 1983, they bought The Skatery, a 16,000-square-foot facility, in Pillow, Pa., that has an annual attendance of 20,000, and have not looked back since. “The one thing I’ve learned over a 27-year period is that dealing with people is a real, constant education,” she laughed. A lifelong skating teacher, Molaro said giving personal attention to new skaters not only helps them, but also provides much personal satisfaction.
“You have to believe in your passion, skating,” said Saya, of CalSkate. “When we bought the facility seven years ago, it was a building scheduled for demolition. I had no business experience at all. But I had been a skating teacher since 1984. What I learned about this business is to believe in yourself and the sport. I had to start believing in myself and be proud of what CalSkate was. I also learned to keep updating the facility. Because we don’t have a great deal of money backing us, I make sure that we do at least one improvement every year, to keep things fresh. New paint, new signs, it works. People do respond.”
And sometimes, you expand. Don Molaro noted that in the 23 years they have owned The Skatery, they have enlarged the floor to 72 feet by 150 feet, with beveled corners, and replaced the concrete with a plastic-coated, solid maple.
Mary Ann Gazzola, of the Skate Factory, has a much different perspective about what she has learned through the years. In fact, she said, “I don’t have a clue as to how any season will go, because it’s outside our control.”
What Gazzola means is this:  she has learned to be flexible. “Yes, I know in the winter we’ll be busier than spring or fall, but from year to year I can’t forecast what will make people come or not because sometimes it’s things like a season of good movies, a new tech device, Facebook.”
Conversely, she said, when kids come and have a good time, they create their own energy and they will come back, and even more kids will show up the next week. Gazzola also learned, as have others, that birthday parties and special events are the backbone of the business.
And you might think about diversifying. For example, The Skate Factory added a skate park some years back. “It’s small, but well designed,” Gazzola said. “It brought in a whole bunch of other kids we wouldn’t ordinarily see. The synergy has been good.” 
Bottom line: From dealing with high taxes and government bureaucracy in large urban centers (Skateland) to surviving in areas with low populations (like Ghent, N.Y., the Skate Factory), owners know it’s all about customer service.
Neifert, of Rock Roll-O-Rena, perhaps said it best: “You really get to know your community. Sometimes, I feel that maybe I’m not in the business to make a living. Maybe, in a way, I’m a community service.”  And, after all, isn’t that what it’s all about? Sure, return on investment is very important. “But then, we see our older skaters come to our rink to pick up their young children, who are also now skating on a Friday night,” Neifert said. “They see you, give you a hug, shake your hand and thank you for still being here after all these years, well, it makes it all worthwhile.”
Jeannie Saya has her own most memorable moment, and it’s when little skaters “come up to me and find that I am the owner of CalSkate. They say, ‘wow.’ You’d think I owned Disneyland. That was pretty cool.”-

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