Summer slump? Businesses in college towns say planning, adapting key in avoiding downturns

By LINDA HARRIS

The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After selling sandwiches and ice cream treats for the past seven years on Morgantown’s High Street, Tailpipes co-owner Joe Reilly isn’t surprised business takes a bit of a hit each year when the college crowd heads home for the summer.

Tyler Wright of Phoenix Bakery in Morgantown says he and his business partner make sure they give year-round customers a reason to return.
(The State Journal file photo)

But when one door closes, another opens: In Morgantown, the departure of West Virginia University students for summer break is an incentive for the community’s year-round residents to come out of the shadows.

Reilly said it’s all about planning.

“We had to learn as we go,” Reilly said. “We certainly didn’t go in with a perfect plan, but we’ve always really paid attention to our numbers, the areas where we have to improve. Summer break certainly makes it tough, but, if your business plan relies solely on college kids for business, you’re going to be in trouble.

“Football weekends, times when the university has things going on, those are always going to be great days, don’t get me wrong. But there are way more weeks that don’t fall into those categories, and that’s where I really believe your business will make it or break.”

Reilly and his business partner, Evan Tauber, landed in Morgantown a few years back as undergraduates and decided to stay once they saw the potential of opening and operating their own business. Much as they love their student-based customer base, they said, “We also want to make it a family atmosphere so (they’ll) come and patronize our business.”

“In addition to summer, you also have breaks at holidays and other times. It works out to be about four months when (classes) are not in session,” Reilly added. “You have to try and make your business a community (destination), especially for a business like Tailpipes. When people come in from out of town, you want them to think, ‘This is a place we have to go to in Morgantown.”

WVU brought just over 28,000 students to Morgantown for the 2016-2017 academic year, with roughly 11,000 of them hanging around for the summer semester. The other 17,000 or so piled their excess belongings curbside and headed home for the summer months. For locals, their departure means less traffic on Morgantown streets, easier parking and shorter waits for service at restaurants, supermarkets and other business hotspots; for the business community, “it’s a bit of a breather,” a chance to roll-out a lighter menu or test new specials.

“It’s not like it’s a surprise to anybody,” said Morgantown Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Steve LaCagnin. “It all comes down to planning. Businesses that are not on the margin as far as profit goes have the luxury of being able to plan how they will allocate income month-to-month to make it through those times when students are not here. I think that’s key for all the success businesses in Morgantown, planning for that event. It’s not sneaking up on them, they know it’s coming.”

LaCagnin said locals appreciate the slower pace of Morgantown summers.

“I think people feel more comfortable,” he said. “It’s not as crowded, it’s a little more sedate, and I think the city, as well as local entertainers and service providers, understand it and cater to it. We have marathons, a wine and jazz fest, Mountain Fest, you name it — there are all sorts of things go on in this community in the summertime.

“There are literally dozens of things going on that attract the rest of the population to be involved in the community in a way they are not when the students are in Morgantown.”

He said there’s a rhythm to life in a college town, and most businesses figure it out pretty quickly.

“They’ll talk to other business owners, ask them, ‘What do you do when June comes? What do you do in August? How do you handle this, or how do you handle that.’ They communicate very effectively,” LaCagnin said. “The majority of those conversations are by and between individual business owners, particularly small business owners — larger businesses figure out a way to survive, they have the luxury of enough income to make it without working very hard. But, smaller businesses, they have to try and support each other, give each other ideas about how to make it through the lean times. Really, that’s the best resource — the people who have been there, done that.”

LaCagnin also said groups like Main Street Morgantown work non-stop to organize events like “Kid’s Day” and “Chocolate Day” to bring people to the downtown.

“There’s a lot of collaboration to help small businesses downtown do well during the summer,” he added.

Phoenix Bakery co-owner Tyler Wright said customer traffic may slow a week or two after WVU’s graduation, but he’s not complaining.

“We still make enough to pay the bills, the rent, employees and ourselves,” said Wright, co-owner of the bakery on Morgantown’s Kingwood Street. “There’s just nothing to put in the bank after that. It’s really all about saving during the good months when people want to eat bread and prepare for this, so you have something to fall back on just in case.”

Wright and his partners, Danny Hoover and Tracy Strother, worked at the bakery long before they took over its management. For them, it’s a question of scaling back production to avoid waste and reduce costs, all while making sure their year-round customers have a reason to keep coming back.

“I work in front predominantly, so I’m very aware of how slow it can get in summer,” Wright said. “But it’s only for six or seven weeks and it’s never so slow we have to worry that we’ll go out of business. Sometimes I think of it as a nice little break from football season and those times of years when you don’t even have time to think at work.”

Brooklyn-born Ray Glymph came to Morgantown in 2011 to study industrial engineering then decided it wasn’t for him.

“I firmly believe this is one place where, if you have a good idea and a little bit of money to make it happen you can,” said Glymph, who currently owns 4th & Goal Sports Bar, Liquid Lounge, Scorers, a sports bar & restaurant and West Virginia Plumbing & Drain Cleaning Services, all in Morgantown, and also DJ’s. “But you have to plan for it.”

Glymph sees Morgantown as a seasonal business environment, much like a beach town: In season, the pace can be frenetic, but when the season ends — or, in Morgantown’s case, when students head home for break — business can slow dramatically. In business, he said survival may very well depend on whether you did your homework.

“You know (going into it) you’re going to have peak periods, but you’re also going to have maybe two or three months of slow time, as well,” he said, adding, “I’d rather save up for this time of year and take a small loss to create consistency for my clients, so they’ll know I’m going to be open no matter what.”

Glymph said it’s important to “know your community.”

“Every business should be in a business made for the community, not just the people who are here a few months of the year,” Glymph said. “You have to prepare. You have to prepare for the slow days just as you prepare for your busy days and select your clientele wisely; don’t just go after the student population. Sometimes it might be worth it, but, for a lot of business owners, it can be their downfall.”

Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Bill Bissett said the business community is tapped into the academic cycle, “especially those who cater to students.” Some schedule routine maintenance, like painting, for summer months when many of Marshall University‘s roughly 14,000 students head home.

Bissett, though, said the MU campus is actually a year-round draw.

“Later this month, the Appalachian Regional Commission will be here,” he said. “And, Marshall schedules a lot of events over the summer because, unlike during the fall and spring, visitors do have access to a lot of nearby parking, there are a lot of empty meeting rooms and residence halls where they can put people up overnight. There’s still populations coming to town because of the university, so there’s still a lot of opportunities for businesses near the (campus).”

Locals find it easier to navigate the grid streets of the nearby business district, too, particularly if they’re looking for a quick lunch before they go back to work or make last-minute dinner plans.

“As someone who’s lived in Morgantown, Charleston and Huntington, you know you’re going to have an easier time finding a parking spot or being seated at a table more quickly (in Huntington),” Bissett said. “You can even see restaurants changing their menus.

“I think (downtown) is growing as a destination because of the restaurants, because of the concerts and a lot of the other activities we have going on over summer. There’s still a lot of people coming to enjoy what we have here. Marshall may not have as many students in town, but they still bring other opportunities to town, which is a good thing, and their summer classes are pretty full.”

Bissett said it’s a question of understanding the relationship between the business community, Marshall and the Cabell County region.

“You have to know there are going to be fluctuations and make sure you adjust staffing accordingly,” he added.

Black Sheep Burrito & Brews, located next to campus on Third Avenue in Huntington, serves up a strong business year-round, though the pace slows a little after spring semester.

“It seems like there’s a more steady pace when college is in session,” said Brian Stephens, the kitchen manager. “Once class lets out, we have a set lunch rush with a business crowd and a steady dinner push at a certain time of day. It’s what you would expect if you weren’t next to a college campus.”

He said it’s important to adapt: In summer, for instance, they sell more salads and tacos during hot summer months rather than the burritos, nachos and wings in big demand when class is in session.

“It’s a different mix of food, so we can change orders around and change our staffing,” Stephens said, adding,”

I don’t think we see much of a decline, honestly. We do lose some student business, but it seems like we do make up for it with the downtown crowd. It’s just a different kind of business — most of them aren’t living on a shoestring budget like the college students, so you can expect the check average to go up even if you have fewer customers.”

Heather Morgan McIntyre, executive director of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, said businesses in the eastern Panhandle benefit from summer tourism, as well as their proximity to Washington, D.C., even after some Shepherd University students leave town for the summer.

“We have a lot of tourism, a lot of people coming into the area in the summer months,” she said. “The Contemporary American Theater Festival starts in July, and that brings in thousands of tourists — they’ll see the plays, stay in hotels and eat in restaurants — and there are a lot of other activities. We’re very blessed with a lot of tourists coming to the area.”

Meredith Wait, president of the Sheperdstown Visitor Center and owner of Dickinson & Wait Craft Gallery in Shepherdstown, said the community’s tourist appeal is a big deal. When CATF is in town, “it’s all hands on deck” throughout the business community.

“We’re geographically challenged with not enough parking,” she said. “So for some of us, it frees up parking in the downtown area, which is pretty precious through the college year. Those of us who really need that downtown parking are really happy it loosens up when college lets out.

“Those who rely on college business through the year probably feel differently — I can’t speak for them, except I do think they kind of retool to adjust to the summer market. They rearrange hours, bring in evening entertainment to change from a daytime thing, a lunchtime thing, to more of an evening (attraction).”

Wright said accepting the ups and downs of owning a business in a college town comes with the territory.

“It’s just part of having a business in Morgantown, accepting that’s the way it is,” he said. “We’re lucky to get the eight or so months we have. Some towns have to rely on just three months of the year or even one month.”

Glymph said the economy in a college town tends to be based on student dollars, “but if you have a great venue, a great idea” you should market it year-round, and not just to students.

“I think that’s why some businesses fail, they market just to students,” he said.

Reilly said most business owners learn from doing.

“You have to have the attitude that you’re going to try and make it the best summer you’ve ever had, or set a goal to maybe do 90 percent of the business you do the rest of the year, maybe try some really great specials that you put out on social media to entice people to come down,” he said. “If you go into it with the idea that business is going to be slow, you can lull yourself into a position where you’re just trying to hold on until the students come back in August. It takes a certain kind of attitude to make it — I always tell everybody, don’t ever come to work expecting to be slow.”

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