Developing an Agri-Tourism Operation in Ontario
Table of Contents
Opening your farm gates to visitors involves shifting some of the focus of your operation from production to people. This shift involves innovation, business planning and, most of all, patience. Farm owners who have successfully integrated agri-tourism into their operations report that the transition has enhanced their lifestyle as well as their business.
Agri-tourism supports a growing desire by consumers to head outdoors and to the country for more leisure opportunities. The University of California's Small Farm Center defines agricultural tourism as "the act of visiting a working farm or any agricultural, horticultural or agribusiness operation for the purpose of enjoyment, education or personal involvement in the activities of the farm or operation." Agri-tourism is a subset of a larger recreational industry called rural tourism that includes visits to rural settings or rural environments to participate in or experience activities, events or attractions not readily available in urbanized areas.
Ranked by survey results, the major reasons to go on vacation include:
Developing a successful agri-tourism operation does not necessarily involve a huge investment in infrastructure or capital expenditures. In fact, many farm operators do not realize the agri-tourism potential their farm property holds. The first step is to assess your assets.
Land: List what you have, including pasturelands, wood lots, cropland, wetlands, elevation, topography, etc. Check with your local municipality on what uses are permitted on the farm, based on the official plan and zoning by-law.
Climate: Consider weather patterns (rain, snow, humidity, wind) and temperature and how they may affect the types of activities you might provide.
Infrastructure: List what structures you could use - buildings, equipment, roads/trails, fences, commercial kitchen space, etc.
Other attractions: List those things already on your farm that might appeal to a visitor, such as wildlife, streams, ponds, fishing, livestock, proximity to natural or manmade points of interest, etc.
Operations and Management
Owner/manager strengths and goals: Owner/manager strengths and goals: List the intangible assets you have that can help you with a farm recreation operation, such as people skills, marketing ability, knowledge or skills such as maze building, livestock management, cooking, historical knowledge of the area, etc.
Family and staff strengths and resources: List any skills and strengths that family members or staff could add.
List activities you already do in your operation that might appeal to the public. Remember, what seems routine to you may be considered interesting to the non-farm public. Some examples might include on-site food production, machinery operations (including harvesting and planting), calving and/or lambing, trail rides and crop picking.
An advantage of agri-tourism is that there are so many potential customers. It is wise, however, to target the segments of the market that best suit your business goals:
Identify your target market(s) by creating a profile of the customer you want to attract to your farm for both cultural and financial benefit:
The types of activities you can offer at your farm are many - you just have to use your imagination. Here are some suggestions:
Like any new business venture, the development of a comprehensive business plan is crucial. Conduct a "SWOT" analysis examining the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats such a venture might present at your location. However, another priority is to ask yourself: Do I want to have the public on my farm? Do I like dealing directly with the consumer? Am I prepared to spend every weekend during peak season tied to the farm? Am I prepared to accept the liability of having traffic and people on my farm? In other words, with an agri-tourism business, your farm will no longer be your private sanctuary.
Here are some helpful tips if you are considering such a venture:
Now that you've done an assessment of your property, identified your target market and potential activities, and conducted a SWOT analysis, the next step is to ensure you properly market your agri-tourism enterprise. It is not always a case of "if you build it, they will come" - you have to have an effective marketing plan to attract customers and keep them coming back. Marketing can be as simple as word-of-mouth referral, or involve a regional, national or international media campaign. Direct your marketing style and message to your identified audience. Anything you print or place online must reflect these selling points in a neat, high-quality, tasteful presentation.
The Three Basics of Advertising
The message: Focus on two or three strong selling points and additional information about your products and services. You want to tell the customer about the type of activity or enterprise you offer, additional goods and services, directions to your location and costs of the activities. Try to be original in your marketing. Keep your message simple. You can refer people to a website or invite them to email or call for more details. Make certain the goods and services advertised represent what you can deliver.
The message that you convey through advertising and the day-to-day operations of your business should be reflective of your brand. Here are some (of many) definitions of brand to consider:
The medium: Marketing includes a wide range of activities, from public relations and advertising, to promotions and trade shows. Paid advertising is the most expensive approach. Carefully consider all forms of media and focus on those that fit your budget, brand and reach your target audience. They may include billboards/road signs, brochures, co-operative ads, newsletters, magazines, newspapers, radio, website, television, trade journals, visitor's bureau, social media or word-of-mouth referrals.
The target audience: Which market segment(s) you wish to target will determine the type of advertising and the best media placement (medium that capture the attention of your target market segment).
How much you decide to spend on marketing will largely depend on the size and type of your operation, the medium you select and the number of times you repeat any advertisements. New operations typically spend 10%-25% of total operational costs on specific marketing efforts. Take the opportunity to question and survey customers about how they found out about your operation. Collecting this type of information enables you to measure success and fine-tune your advertising approach moving forward. With time and an established reputation, costs for marketing are usually reduced to below 5% of gross income from an agri-tourism enterprise.
Many agri-tourism operations are within a two-hour drive of large urban areas (Toronto and Ottawa), which together represent about 75% of the province's population. This increased urbanization of Ontario's domestic market has resulted in consumers wanting to "experience" authentic outdoor farm activities.
The Importance of Relationship Marketing
Happy customers become loyal customers and become the key to long-term success: They will return, and they will tell their friends about your operation. Learn their names. Remember what they like and have it ready for them. Always ask your customers what they liked about their stay and what could be improved. The little touches make all the difference.
Develop a method for regular communication: This could take many forms including an email newsletter or developing a social media following. You may offer incentives (draws, contests, etc.) for customers that provide their contact information or engage with you on social media. Be sure to have permission, and follow regulations, when collecting and using email addresses.
Take care of details: Make sure that your telephone is answered professionally, emails are responded to quickly, your website is updated regularly and customer concerns or complaints are dealt with efficiently and effectively. Addressing concerns or complaints promptly is especially important on social media or other online platforms where other existing or prospective customers may view the critique.
Tell the community about your business: Join the local Chamber of Commerce, local food and/or tourist association. Talk to neighbouring farms, service stations, retail outlets, etc. Give other retailers your brochure and make sure that people in your area know about you. Start close to home, at first, and move out gradually. Remember, it is more important to complement than to compete with other local businesses that are also looking to attract visitors. Explore opportunities to promote collectively, such as local food or tourism trails or maps.
Send information about your company to relevant media: Send them news releases and story ideas. Invite them for a free visit/tour or an open house. You may reach out to media through mailings, emails, phone calls or social media. Think of things that would interest them (e.g., if you operate a pick-your-own strawberry farm, send the editor a basket of strawberries to promote that you are open for business)
Agri-tourism involving farm visits implies risks and potential liability to the farm owner should accidents occur. It is necessary, therefore, to develop sensible risk management strategies to minimize your liability exposure. Safety is your first priority when opening your farm gates to visitors. Your visitors' safety is largely your responsibility. See the OMAFRA Factsheet Managing Risk on Farms Open to the Public, available on the OMAFRA website at ontario.ca/agbusiness.
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)
The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) has created a number of Factsheets and related information dealing with business planning and marketing found by searching ontario.ca/agbusiness.
Agri-tourism adds value to your existing farm operation. For more information, see the Beyond Production Agriculture business information bundle and the Direct Farm Marketing business resources also found by searching ontario.ca/agbusiness.
Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association (OFFMA)
If you want to learn from other farmers who have successfully opened their gates to the public, the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association (OFFMA) has over 300 members ranging from modest pick-your-own farms to elaborate entertainment farms attracting thousands of visitors annually. OFFMA offers its members training and resources to assist in their marketing efforts. Workshops focus on current issues and opportunities within the industry.
Farm Management Canada
See the publication Cultivating Agri-Tourism - Tools and Techniques for Building Success
North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association (NAFDMA)
Conferences, international farm tours, workshops and related publications offered through NAFDMA provide members with the opportunity to network on the profitability of direct marketing.
For more information:
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