NEW YORK – Jerome Cleary was on the verge of taking a trip to Hawaii this month when he started getting emails and phone calls from potential clients. He had to choose between new business for his public relations firm and the white sands of Waikiki.
He stayed home and worked.
"Things are supposed to die down during the summer. People go out of town or go on vacation. But suddenly people wanted to get started on projects," says Cleary, who is based in Los Angeles.
Vacations are on hold for many small business owners this summer as sales show gradual signs of recovery. Many owners don't want to be away when their business is gaining momentum. And those with startups find it's hard to tear themselves away when they're nurturing a very young company.
Cleary last took a vacation in 2008. His business was hurt by the recession because clients who were strapped for cash cut their marketing budgets. But this year, things have been picking up.
He was supposed to leave on Aug. 5 for 10 days. Then in late July, a string of emails and phone calls began. There was something different about them. Instead of getting the usual requests for information from would-be clients, Cleary was hearing, how soon can we start?
"Right now, I don't see any vacation. I'll have to take long walks with my dog, exercise or see movies," he says.
Many owners who took a vacation last summer have opted to keep on working this year instead, according to a survey this spring by American Express. Forty-nine percent of the survey's participants said they planned to take at least one full week off during the summer. That was down from 54 percent a year ago, and a high of 67 percent in 2006, the year before the recession began.
After five challenging years, Luckett & Farley, an architectural and design firm based in Louisville, Ky., has a full pipeline of projects. The firm is so busy that CEO Ed Jerdonek isn't taking a summer vacation, a big change from the past, when he would take at least one.
"There's a lot of action taking place and finally, we're beginning to see some exciting expansion," Jerdonek says.
Most of the firm's 80 employees are taking time off. But senior managers including Jerdonek are staying put because they oversee all the projects. Jerdonek says sacrificing time off goes along with being a leader.
"I'll get a vacation, but it won't be any time in the near future," he says.
Scott Yates isn't planning a real break anytime soon because he's still in the process of building BlogMutt, a Boulder, Colo.-based company that provides content for blogs.
Yates did go away for two weeks early in the summer, but spent almost the entire time working. He took one day off to go to a wedding and another day only because he was in an area where there was no Internet connection.
"It was not a time away from work," says Yates, co-owner of BlogMutt, "It doesn't really count."
BlogMutt coordinates between 3,000 writers and clients who have websites but not enough time to keep a blog going. The company is in its second year, and revenue is up 600 percent. The staff of four is still creating processes to help the company handle its increasing workload. If Yates or his business partner took vacations at this point, he says the company's growth would be slow.
The owners of Smashing Golf & Tennis can't take vacations this summer because they're training new sales people for the company's line of active wear for women. They also are getting their spring styles ready and have to be around for last-minute orders — this is high season for golfers and tennis players.
"I'm not sure I should leave knowing that the selling time is hitting now," says co-owner Kelly Daugherty. "We don't want to lose the opportunity to go to the next level."
Without a break, Daugherty is constantly on the go, juggling the Chicago-based business and taking care of her three children.
"I'll be honest, I feel like it is taking its toll on my stamina," she says.
But not all small business owners are skipping vacation to take advantage of new business. Some are working through the summer because sales are slumping.
Castle Ink's sales of printer ink and toner cartridges began falling earlier this year when Internet search engine technology changed. Those changes meant that the company fell in the rankings when customers searched for cartridge retailers. The company believes its decreased visibility sent revenue down by a third.
Owner Bill Elward decided to forgo his family's vacation and spend the summer working on what's known as search engine optimization, which helps a company rank higher during a search on Google and other sites. He's also trying to get more business with schools and companies.
"Trying to focus on all those things has left us with little time for vacation," says Elward, whose company is based in Greenlawn, N.Y. "We're really hoping to see the fruits of our labor this fall."