By Sara Hodon
Despite competition from games and technology, after-school sports, and other extracurricular activities, roller skating rink operators interviewed for this article said that they still have a loyal customer base. Like most pastimes, roller skating has gone in and out of fashion, but operators said that it is enjoying a comeback. Besides being a fun way to exercise, roller skating is an affordable activity that families can do together. Parents who made regular trips to their local rink are now encouraging their children to lace up their skates, introducing the sport to a whole new generation.
But operators are also starting to branch out. From dances and Zumba classes to summer camps and roller hockey leagues, skating rinks are no longer solely for skating. John Shigo, owner and manager of The Strand Roller Rink in McAdoo, Pa., said that their rink has become a multi-purpose facility. Besides the skating we have Zumba classes and country line dancing, with the skating on the weekends,” he said. Bonnie Coffin, owner of Big Wheel Roller Skating Center in East Stroudsburg, Pa., said that their facility offers full-day summer camps that include soccer, skating and arts and crafts, as well as a full, year-round menu of programs in addition to skating. Tom Smith, assistant manager of Roller Roost II in Pottsville, Pa., said their recently remodeled facility now includes a full arcade, so kids can stay busy when they take a break from being out on the floor. Operators are finding interesting ways to draw new customers (even non-skaters) while still staying true to their core business. They promote their rink through a combination of traditional and social media. Word of mouth advertising is still a powerful marketing tool, but most have embraced technology and maintain current websites and have a presence on social media pages, particularly Facebook. Operators also distribute an array of coupons for everything from a free pass for open skating to a free drink at the concession stand. These small incentives help to bring repeat business through their doors.
For skating loyalists, Shigo said, The Strand’s popular themed skating nights have been very successful and give open skate a little something extra. “We started doing the theme nights about 10 years ago, and now we’ll do them once a month or every other month. Our first one was a Hawaiian theme, and we bring that back every winter—in the middle of January we’ll turn the temperature up inside and tell everyone to wear Hawaiian shirts and dress for the summer,” he explained. “We have things like Mardi Gras and the Pajama Skate, and we’ll give prizes.” The Strand also holds a Skate/Dance, where non-skaters can dance and enjoy music in the middle of the floor and the skaters can be on the perimeter of the floor. Shigo estimated that between 60 to 70 kids come out for open skating on a Friday or Saturday night. “Our floor is only 75 feet by 30 feet, so it’s not that big,” Shigo said. “We make the most of the space.”
Space is no trouble for Brookpark Skateland in Brook Park, Ohio, home of the largest rink floor in northern Ohio at an impressive 225 feet by 85 feet. Brookpark draws an average of 600-700 skaters each week, explained Owner Trent Bradnan. Brookpark also hosts the oldest roller skating Invitational in the country and draws skaters from all parts of the United States. “We have five or six teachers for the skating club. Our club is open to students who take lessons at our rink. Some of our club members have gone on to compete in Worlds.” But skaters can’t compete unless they know the basics, and many rinks offer weekly lessons for beginners, which often translates into extra revenue if the students stay for open skate afterwards. Brookpark has had tremendous success with their Saturday morning lessons, Bradnan explained. Big Wheel offers lessons during the week after school on a flexible schedule. “We offer individualized lessons. A student may only come for one, or they may come for a few weeks. You can take as many as you need and you pay as you go,” said Coffin, whose daughter teaches each session. And for those extreme skaters looking for an added challenge, many rinks like the Roller Roost are now offering roller hockey teams. “We have two hockey leagues—a junior league for 5-18 year olds, and a senior league for over 18 year olds,” Smith explained.
Nostalgia is a major draw for smaller rinks, many of which have been family owned or part of the community for years. The Strand is a renovated movie theater built in the 1920s. It was closed for many years and reopened as a roller rink in 1997. Cavalier Skating Rink has been a fixture in Chillicothe, Ohio, for more than 60 years, according to third-generation Owner Karen Cheeseman, who currently runs the facility with her husband, Chris. Prior to World War II, Cheeseman’s grandfather rented out metal roller skates to the kids of the community out of the back of a van and carried around a portable rink before buying their building. “We’ve been in our current building since 1950. We were the first rink in Chillicothe and we’re still the only rink in the area,” she explained. “Most of our advertising and promotion is word of mouth. People know that we’ve been here forever. My grandfather retired in 1988 and I took over.” On a typical Friday or Saturday night, Cheeseman estimated that between 100 and 110 kids will come through their doors. “We’re open year-round, but our business goes down in the summer because kids are so busy with other things,” she explained. “Families like to do something different together. We’re not in an affluent area, and skating is cheaper than going to the movies.”
Affordability remains one of the single biggest selling points for roller skating, explained Bradnan. “I think roller skating and bowling are still affordable activities for families,” he said. “Between tickets and the concession stand, movies are so expensive. Skating is still a cheaper form of entertainment.” Skating rinks are also popular locations for parties and are often booked months in advance. “We charge a very reasonable rate for our parties, so parents love it,” said Shigo. “But not just kids—we’ve hosted skating parties for 30th and 40th birthdays. Often the adults enjoy it as much, if not more, than the kids.”
Even with growing competition from technology and full family schedules, operators say that there will always be a place for skating. “It’s a great activity,” said Shigo. “I think parents want kids to take a break and get away from the cell phones and games and be with their friends and get some exercise for a few hours. I think the social aspect and being with friends is the big draw for kids.”