Getting business is not the challenge right now; keeping customers happy is.
Talk to the owner of any firearms range, and he or she will tell you that business has never been better. For a variety of reasons the number of shooters visiting ranges has increased dramatically.
Along with increased business, however, come increased challenges. Customers who can’t get onto the range immediately must wait. It’s incumbent on you to get them onto the range as quickly as possible, and in the order in which they registered, without rushing the customers who already are on the range. That means good organization at your check-in location and a way to track customers who are waiting to shoot.
Dennis Rohman is the manager of P2K Shooting Range in El Cajon, Calif. The facility, which opened in 1923, has an outdoor range for shotgun sports, and an indoor range for rifle and pistol. In the nine years he has been there, Rohman said, he has seen the traffic at the range increase tremendously.
“We’ve gone from very small to up to a four-hour wait on the weekends,” he said. “We had 110,000 people come through our door last year.”
With that level of traffic, Rohman had to institute some serious people-management tools. He chose to bring in pagers that restaurants use; if you haven’t seen one, think about a palm-sized UFO with flashing lights that you turn on remotely from your check-in desk. When the pager starts flashing, the person holding it knows it’s his or her turn.
“When we give someone a pager, we put their name on a waiting list with the time they arrived and the estimated time they can get on the range,” Rohman said. “We put an antenna on our roof so people aren’t stuck in the store; they can walk around our property, watch the shotgunners or sit in the patio areas.”
Because the pagers are expensive—each one costs $60 to $65—Rohman’s staff makes sure customers don’t accidentally take them home if they decide not to wait.
“We retain their drivers’ license when we give them a pager,” he said. “This ensures that they’ll bring the pager back to us rather than just leaving.”
Rohman said the staff uses the information from the sign-in sheet to track whether or not their time estimates are correct.
“We write down the time that we gave the pager to the customer, and we put the time that they actually got onto the lane,” Rohman said. “That way we’re able to see if our estimate was right. Generally one to six shooters ahead of someone on the wait list is a 30-minute minimum wait, seven to 11 is a 60-minute minimum wait, 12 to 16 is a 90-minute minimum wait and 17 to 20 is a two-hour minimum wait.”
Outside, the situation is a little different.
“Outside, with the clay targets, you report to the range officer to get onto a squad,” Rohman said. “The squad sheet tells you which squad is on deck, which will be up next and then which squads are after that. So if you’re on squad six, and you see when squad five goes up, that gives you an idea of how long it takes to get up.”
Range rules do not restrict shooters to a maximum time on the range.
“The wait times we give are minimum times,” Rohman said. “We charge by the hour, so if a shooter is out there for two hours, he pays for two hours. We’ve found that our customers stay an average of an hour and 20 minutes on the range.”
“We have two lounge areas that accommodate about 35 people each,” he said. “We have three giant screen TVs, and we have cable, so there’s a basketball game or a baseball game or a football game going all the time. We also provide free Wi-Fi and we have beverages and snacks. Eventually we’ll have a café outside the building.”
Ed Coleman is the general manager at the Colonial Shooting Academy in Richmond, Va. In contrast to the P2K Shooting Range, Colonial Shooting Academy has been open only a little more than a year According to Coleman, Colonial Shooting Academy is the largest shooting range in the United States.
“We have 51 shooting lanes,” he said. “Our range is on three different floors. We normally operate 25 lanes on the primary level during normal business hours, that is, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. We have seven more lanes that we can add on at any time we have the demand, and we have seven lanes that are set aside for private members. We have 12 more lanes in the basement that normally are used for police training, but if we’re real busy, and we don’t have anything scheduled on those lanes, we use them, too. So at any one time we can be operating 44 lanes without counting our private lanes.”
Although running those lanes takes a lot of staff, Coleman has trained enough staff members to act as range officers that he can pull staffers from other, less essential duties if the traffic warrants it. He said, however, that heavy range traffic is somewhat predictable, so he plans for it.
“Usually Friday nights we’re busy, and now Thursday nights have gotten to be incredibly busy,” he said. “Saturday afternoons, Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons also are busy. We close at six on Sunday, but Sundays from about 1:30 until we close, we usually have a waiting list. Sometimes at lunchtime during the week we get a little flurry but not a long waiting list.”
Colonial Shooting Academy uses a combination of reservations and a waiting list to manage peak traffic times.
“Members can reserve lanes ahead of time, and our members are learning to do that,” Coleman said. “We have set aside Saturday and Sunday mornings from 9 to 11 for members only, and that has really helped; members have learned to come early because they know they get preferential treatment then because they have use of the whole facility. Then, at about 11 o’clock the walk-in trade will start coming in. Some members will have made reservations for later in the day on Saturday and Sunday, and we get them on a range as soon as they show up.”
When traffic gets heavy, Colonial Shooting Academy also uses the pager system that P2K Shooting Range uses.
“We have 25 pagers available,” Coleman said. “We hand those out and people take them and go into our café and have a cup of coffee, or they go onto the retail floor and see what they need to buy. That works incredibly well for us and makes the waiting list go much smoother. We have a little waiting area upstairs that has several lounge chairs and a TV. The café also has a TV in it where people can sit and watch the news or whatever they want to view.”
Colonial Shooting Academy charges by the hour, and when traffic is heavy, staff does limit people to that one-hour time.
“When people come in and rent by the hour, they usually stay about 40 to 45 minutes,” Coleman said. “But sometimes we have to remind them that they’ve stayed their hour. Rather than send somebody to remind them, we have pagers on our range officers, and we can page them and tell them that a particular lane is up in five minutes. They notify the shooters so they can start packing up. That helps turnover a certain amount and makes things a little more efficient.”
Miles Hall, owner of H&H Shooting Sports Complex in Oklahoma City, Okla., had somewhat more than 742,000 customers—he calls them “guests”—through his door last year. Hall also uses restaurant pagers to let customers know when it’s their turn on the range. He was familiar with the pagers before the range became so busy because he has a café alongside the range that also experiences heavy traffic at times, and he already was using pagers there.
“We also set up the rope barriers like they have at banks, and that has proven to be very helpful,” Hall said. “We try to handle things with a combination of giving people pagers and having them stand in line. We give out pagers when we’re totally slammed, and we’ll have those guests go to a separate place to check in. The zigzag ropes are used primarily for everything else because people feel comfortable in that world. They will stand there in line for what seems like an eternity, but because they’re seeing progress and are making steps forward, they’re okay with that.”
To help guests pass the time while standing in line, Hall said, he’s in the process of having signs made to post on the poles that hold the ropes.
“We’re going to use that as an opportunity to give people a chance, for example, to read the range rules before they get to the range counter,” he said. “We’re also working on a TV to put on the line as well to keep guests entertained while they’re waiting. We’re going to run ads for the various gun companies; we’ll use ads from anybody who’s got a decent commercial, and sometimes we’ll use our own.”
Sam Lutz is manager of Lehigh Valley Sporting Clays in Coplay, Pennsylvania. He said the past two years have brought a dramatic increase in the number of shooters coming to the range.
“I used to have one course with 17 stations with two levels, so technically there were two courses in one, but we couldn’t shoot both levels at the same time,” he said. “Recently, though, I’ve divided the course and added more stations. Now I have two separate courses that people can shoot at the same time.”
In the past, Lutz said, he had some issues with shooters who would go ahead of others who had been waiting, and with very large or very small groups.
“What we have done in the mornings is that I will send four groups out on each course,” he said. “Until the first group moves on, I won’t send out another group. I also try to limit group sizes to a minimum of four and a maximum of six.”
Lutz gives out restaurant pagers to other customers who are waiting.
“Now there aren’t single shooters out there backing everybody else up,” he said, “and nobody can jump in front of other people.”
These measures have increased the efficiency of the range.
“Shooters get done sooner and things run more smoothly,” Lutz said.
While people are waiting, they can purchase food at a concession stand on the range. Lehigh Valley also has outdoor picnic tables, and a TV in the clubhouse where customers can sit and wait. Lutz is planning other activities for shooters waiting their turn to go on the course.
“We would like to do more interactive things,” he said. “We’d like to play some videos about the history of sporting clays and about our facility.”
Lutz also has a lot of signs and other information about sporting clays, other clays sports, and other aspects of shooting available for customers to read while they’re waiting.
“We always have raffles running, and we have a big board where customers can put up items for sale,” he said. “Customers are always checking that out and browsing through the pro shop. We also have range officers at the clubhouse so customers can talk to them if they have any questions. I recently hired a club ‘pro’ to give tips while people are waiting. He also does gun fitting, and all of that helps occupy people’s time before they go out.”
Lutz said the longest wait customers have usually is around an hour; often it’s much less.
Traffic management is a problem, but it’s a “good” problem. It’s far better to have more customers than you can handle than be sitting and looking at a range with no shooters on it and that’s losing money every minute that you’re open.
To keep those customers satisfied and coming back, however, takes creative planning and good people-management skills. Because we need all those shooters supporting our industry, finding ways to keep them engaged while they wait and then get them onto the range as quickly and efficiently as possible is a win/win solution for everyone.