It’s that time of the year when peak season is winding down. You’re swamped with work in your top-performing months, and that “in-between” season is fast approaching. The tourism shoulder season doesn’t have to be a period of dismal sales performance or even closure. It can still be a successful time of year for your business.
In fact, it can be a lucrative secondary revenue period for many tour and activity brands, even when customer traffic is not to the scale of peak season.
We take an in-depth look at the tourism shoulder season and how you can maximize its business value in the following subtopics:
- What is Shoulder Season vs. Low Season?
- Change your Mentality about the Shoulder Season
- 5 Potential Changes to Make to Improve the Value of the Tourism Shoulder Season
- What about Destination Markets?
- Pricing in the Shoulder Season
- Staffing Challenges in the Shoulder Season
- How You Can Get Started With A Shoulder Season Marketing Plan
What is Shoulder Season vs. Low Season?
The shoulder season is different from the low season.
Your shoulder season will be dependent on your tour and activity niche, your target audience, and in what season(s) you operate. Generally, shoulder season occurs a month or two before or after your peak season. For many in the northern hemisphere, this time frame is in the spring and autumn.
Low season is precisely that – low. It is the time of year (typically November-March in the northern hemisphere) that’s difficult to generate revenue. Vacation time or planning for the upcoming year are likely your top priorities in these months.
Sure, there are spikes in event-based activities that can generate revenue in either low or shoulder seasons, such as Christmas, Black Friday, or Easter. However, let’s explore how shoulder season can be a viable selling period and a continuous revenue stream beyond these few event windows.
Change your Mentality About Shoulder Season
To build a viable shoulder season, maybe an attitude shift is in order. We have seen three types of approaches to this seasonal period from different tour & activity operators, including:
The Skeptical Approach
You’ve made money in your peak months, and you are reaping the cash flow rewards in the bank. You may execute a few ad-hoc promotions; however, you don’t believe this time of year is an opportunity to make money or bring in any real tangible business.
The Giving-Up Approach
Perhaps you have tried some marketing tactics during the shoulder season before, but they did little to increase traffic or revenue to be worth the effort. Maybe it was a strategy or execution problem that led to these dismal results?
The Create-Opportunities Approach
Here, you look at the shoulder season as an opportunity. You know some people value fewer crowds or are looking for activities outside of regular peak season. You know that your marketing strategies have to look different from peak months, or they won’t work.
It IS possible to make the shoulder season a solid contributor to your business. We’ve seen clients who have followed solid strategies and execution to make it worthwhile every year, but shoulder season marketing has to be different than your peak season marketing.
5 Potential Changes to Make to Improve the Value of your Tourism Shoulder Season
1. Change Your Target Audience Profile
Your ideal target audience will likely change in the shoulder season. If your peak season customers are predominantly families, those children have gone back to school. Mid-week family activities are no longer happening. So, where is your traffic going to come from?
Example: Lake Geneva Ziplines and Adventures noticed that more couples were visiting the Lake Geneva area in the shoulder season months than families. They developed plans to attract more couples with mid-week activities.
How can you meet the needs of future customers? Some trends may even be new, such as the shift to remote work and varying school schedules due to the pandemic.
2. Recognize Target Audiences in Different Locations
If your target is families, knowing the school schedules is critical. If your tour/activity location borders different states, regions, or even different countries, this can create opportunities with one group of people when the other is back in school.
For example, many tour and activity brands have customers that come from one or more neighboring states. Shifting your promotions and advertising to different markets allows you to capture business opportunities with both student groups.
It’s good practice to review your Google Analytics demographics to understand if audience location and demographics (age) shift from season to season.
Note: Targeting local audiences was a common topic in the industry early in the pandemic, and there are good resources for local marketing initiatives and attracting local customers. This article focuses on the changes you need to make to your shoulder season marketing, regardless of targeting a local customer or not.
3. Change Your Messaging to Meet Different Needs
Your messaging to audiences will have to change to meet their seasonal needs and work hand-in-hand with a new target audience profile or location.
For example, mid-week couples have different needs in the shoulder period. They like shoulder season travel because they want to avoid the more expensive costs of coming out on a Saturday or Sunday, and they prefer fewer crowds. Your website pages and ads need to speak to their needs.
Another set of needs emerged when the pandemic hit and working parents all over had to find daycare for their children. When their children didn’t have school, they needed a daycare and when their children had virtual school, they needed someone to keep their children on track. This situation created an opportunity for activity operators to offer day camps to help children with virtual school or to keep them busy when they had a day off.
4. Create Tangential Products or Services
To attract and best meet the needs of your audience, you may need to create a related product or service in the shoulder season. Don’t get stuck with offering the same products in your peak months, like a typical 8 am-5 pm tour. Remember that customer schedules are different.
Example: For any outdoor tour company, at this time of year, families with kids in school won’t be able to do a full tour after school. Homework has to be done, and there is limited time to commute. Instead, offering a shortened, nighttime tour with interesting features (like lighting and music) creates an exciting activity to accommodate families.
Tour brands can benefit from shifting their focus to birthday parties and team events during the shoulder season. Team building events in the adventure/ziplining niche can be a successful shoulder season activity. In this case, it creates both a new audience AND a new product.
Lake Geneva Ziplining and Adventures – developed and launched a new tour to support student groups during the school season. The climbing tower created an efficient way to create a mid-week, mid-day student team building product. In the past, offering students a ziplining activity was problematic. Ziplining couldn’t be completed within 4 hours, as school bus schedules restrict these events.
Red River Gorge Ziplining in Kentucky ran a mid-October- “Find BigFoot Event” to take advantage of the popular news, folklore, and alleged Sasquatch sightings over the years. The seasonal promotion enticed families and children to come back during the shoulder season for a specific event.
5. Leverage Other Seasonal Activity
Explore partner alliances to support your activity during these shoulder months. For example, a Minnesota zipline company knew that apple picking was a draw for crowds in the area. They found a local partner that had a significant apple picking and pie sales business and developed a promotion to bring customers into the rural area for a full day of activities. The visitors could pick apples, then head on a zipline tour to add to their day of adventure. As an incentive, each customer received a voucher for an apple pie.
Old South Carriage Company stretches out the Halloween season by heavily promoting their haunted carriage tours during month of October. This is a great example of looking for opportunities to expand seasonal demand.
What About Destination Markets?
Some tours and activities rely predominantly on their customers coming to their city, region, or even country. This scenario is more of a challenge as one company can’t single-handedly bring more people to the destination.
Working with your local Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) can have some significant advantages. These organizations exist to bring tourists to the area and drive tourism activities. Consider pitching a shoulder season marketing idea to them. Perhaps they are open to new ideas, which will help them accomplish their objectives as well. The added benefit is the sharing of audiences and resources.
Some DMO’s run larger events that can be leveraged with tour & activity operators such as the Fall Colors promotion with Travel Wisconsin.
Destination market operators could benefit from brainstorming beyond their traditional business. Like non-destination operators, get acquainted with your local event calendars and school schedules to think about groups, and how you can better attract them in the shoulder season.
An expanded product could entice groups willing to travel farther for something different over time. If an adventure park offers a 2-hour adventure tour and a 5-hour team-building activity with a meal included, it could generate an ongoing seasonal product for corporate groups located farther away.
Creating a new product or brand for locals in a destination market is another option. This scenario is more complex and would require significantly more research, analysis, and planning.
Pricing in the Shoulder Season
Based on the laws of supply and demand, you shouldn’t handle pricing in the shoulder season the same way you do in the peak season.
If demand for your tours & activities is lower and supply hasn’t changed, your price should decrease. Demand-based pricing is widespread in the tourism industry. A flight to New York in July will be priced higher than in the shoulder season months. Your customer also expects this change, its classic dynamic pricing activity.
It’s important to note that demand pricing in the peak season is opposite to shoulder season. If you are turning away customers because your tours are full, why not raise your prices? Additionally, you can decommission less popular tours/activities to make available spots for your more popular ones.
3 Ways to Deal with Pricing When you Match the Price with Lower Demand
Pricing decisions require testing and analysis. You don’t have to immediately look to price discounting and promotions in the shoulder season if you can sustain demand.
For instance, you don’t have to discount if you build demand with new audiences or new products and develop a marketing plan to support it.
However, if you do decide to change your price to spur demand, consider the following:
1. Change your product to some degree to justify a different price point
You don’t want to interfere with the value of your most lucrative tours. Can you change your product enough to lower your price point? Perhaps you offer a shorter tour, or you run it in the evening instead of the day? These types of changes can justify a different and lower price point without devaluing your top tours.
2. Call out your seasonal pricing, but don’t overdo it
If this is a seasonal price point, communicate that. Don’t overdo it by slashing out the higher price point or running the promotion all the time without an end date.
The benefit of a seasonal pricing approach is it attracts bargain hunters who could be trying your product for the first time and are willing to modify their schedule to take advantage of your offer.
Lake Geneva Ziplines and Adventures offered a spring break – mid-week deal with a discount for youths with a paid adult ticket. They discovered a new audience of moms were showing up with her kids, along with a friend – another mom with her children. This price point appealed enough to create a new audience during a typically low traffic period.
3. Offer seasonal pricing without calling attention to it
You can offer an attractive price point without letting consumers know it’s a discount. Let them come to their own conclusion about whether it’s a good deal for them.
Another approach is to offer pricing for different audiences. For example, youth group pricing could be promoted to this specific audience on a group tour page instead of extending this attractive price to all customers.
The Challenge of Staffing in the Shoulder Season
Hiring the right amount of staff in the shoulder is a major concern for operators. The problem could be big enough to avoid pursuing any shoulder season business opportunities at all. How can you possibly plan effective tour capacity utilization when most of your staff have gone back to school?
Some of our clients have used the following techniques to fill their staff requirements in the shoulder season:
- At the beginning of the peak season, don’t hire too many staff members (such as guides). Instead – stagger hiring between the seasons. Hiring too many people early on will give them only 20 hours a week. Those staff members could leave for other work. This reduces your chances of calling them back for future work – even in the shoulder seasons.
- When hiring in the summer, enlist employees with the intent of working during the shoulder season. Gauge the interest of the candidates for off-peak hours early on. Give them time to modify their schedules to work in the shoulder season. This approach will save you from hiring a whole crop of new team members later.
- Consider bonus structures to keep staff and encourage them to work hours in the shoulder months. For example, give a bonus after 50 days worked, encouraging staff to add work hours in off-peak periods.
- When considering wage increases, do it during off-peak months. If you usually increase wages in January, consider moving it to September to incentivize your staff to stay for the shoulder season.
- Share staffing resources with other tour brands with alternate peak seasons. For example, The Lake Geneva Ice Castles event has a four-month season in the winter and recruits from Lake Geneva Ziplining and Adventures staff. This resource sharing keeps the team happy with additional work and coming back to work for both brands the following year.
How You Can Get Started With A Shoulder Season Marketing Plan
Perhaps we’ve convinced you that looking at opportunities for the shoulder season could be an option for your business, but where do you start?
Here are a few ideas to get you started on your shoulder season plan.
Know your school and local event calendars
This is a common theme throughout this article but is worth mentioning again. Some of the best ideas, promotions, and future revenue streams we’ve seen, have come from tours & activities targeting specific groups and addressing their needs.
Low-cost research of new markets and ideas
Do you have a business idea for the shoulder season, but you are unsure if the concept or the price point is attractive to audiences?
Use your email list to test your messaging for free. Find out if there is interest in a new promotion or product without any risk. Alternatively, run a survey to determine when and what kind of activities are attractive to consumers.
Live testing of new products and services
Shoulder season is a great time to test and experiment with new products and services. Since fewer people are visiting, it’s an opportunity to get first-hand feedback on the product while the staff is still available to run it, and you have fewer responsibilities at that time.
Look around your business area, are hotels hurting during the shoulder season? Consider forging partnerships to create weekend packages for a hotel stay and activity. Sharing dollars and audiences can help put your offer in front of potential customers. Contests can be another way to generate visibility with shared prizes from neighboring businesses.
Reach out to community leaders, not individuals
Reaching out to school groups, parents, and people in leadership roles to find opportunities can’t be done with advertising. This task requires a grassroots approach. Pick up the phone, and visit community leaders. Promoting your idea one customer at a time isn’t scalable.
When these groups are happy with an activity, they will come back with future groups repeatedly.
Get business leaders, influencers, teachers, hotel concierges, or hotel front desk personnel to come out and try your activity in the shoulder season. Not only will this put you on their radar, it can also create future recommendations and forge lasting relationships year after year.
The shoulder season doesn’t have to be the end of your business year.
Maybe you have no idea where to start or you have a shoulder season business plan that needs some feedback? If you would like to know how we can help, email us at [email protected].