Excerpt from Agritourism: Cultivating a Great Farm-Based Business
Our adventure in Agritourism started with a conversation in the winter of 2001 with a good friend that we had met at our church. He worked for a Christian Youth Camp located in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Someone had donated the use of a farm to the camp as long as the camp paid for the upkeep. The campers would occasionally travel to the farm during the summer for different activities. The camp had decided that the farm had started to become too much of an expense so they asked our friend Eric, who was the caretaker of the farm, to find a way to make enough money with the farm to be self-sufficient.
We decided the quickest way to make this happen was some form of Agritourism. At the time, the fields were being leased to other crop farmers and the owner was raising some cattle so there was no existing crop or natural resource that would be a natural draw to the public. After some brainstorming, we decided that an Agritourism business centered on a corn maze would give us the best chance of success. We were apprehensive at first since there was already a well-established and very successful corn maze within 10 minutes of the farm and numerous others between us and the heavy population centers.
Why did we decide on a corn maze? Well, since we didn’t have another natural draw such as an apple orchard, farm market, pumpkin patch, or other farm resource to start with, we knew we needed something that would be unique and that would be easy to market. A giant picture in the corn about a topic people are passionate about is easy to market—if done right!
Since we were located on the border of Wisconsin and Illinois, we knew we wanted something that would draw the population the hour plus drive from the Milwaukee and Chicago suburbs. We landed on the idea of a Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers theme as we felt that had the most public appeal for our area. We also felt that lack of a unifying theme was the weakness of our competitors. By March of 2002, we started to put this plan into action.
So let’s talk specifics about that first year in business.
Here are the things we offered:
2 Corn mazes that were spread across roughly 20 acres. A “Packers Maze” & a “Bears Maze”
Hayrides (approx. 15 minute ride around the farm)
Football Train (Cow train painted in Bears & Packers colors with flags)
Field Goal Kicking Contest
Corn Cannon (shooting at opposing team themed targets)
A free petting farm & Hay Maze
Pumpkins and gourds
We also promoted field trips as well as secluded campfire locations and package deals for groups and parties.
Activity Prices (Tickets are $1 each):
• Hayride - 2 Tickets • Football Train - 1 Ticket • Field Goal Kick - 1 Ticket for 2 Kicks* • Corn Cannon - 1 Ticket for 3 Shots** • Petting Farm - Free with any purchase • Hay Maze - Free
* Win NFL game tickets! ** Win a prize!
• “Flea Flicker” Package - Your choice of maze and three activity tickets.
(Adults: $9 | Kids (5-12): $7) • “Hook & Ladder” Package - Your choice of maze and five activity tickets.
(Adults: $11 | Kids (5-12): $9) • “Hail Mary” Package - Go for it all! Includes both mazes and five activity tickets.
(Adults: $13 | Kids (5-12): $10)
Over the years we have tried pricing many different ways including a la carte as we did in year one, a gate fee to include everything, season passes, and hybrids of the above. Be watching our site for more information on the pros and cons of the different models.
Soft Drinks (20oz bottles) • Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Lemonade, Dasani Water, Lemon Iced Tea - $1.00 • Powerade (Various flavors) - $2.00
Snacks ($.50 each) • Little Debbie: Snack Cakes, Swiss Rolls, Chocolate Chip Crispy Bars, Cosmic Crispy Bars, Marshmallow Crispy Bars, Oatmeal Creme Pies, Nutty Bars
Candy Bars, Peanuts and Crackers ($.75 each) • Twix, Snickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, KitKat, Nestle Crunch, Salted, Dry Roasted, or Honey Roasted Peanuts, Club & Cheddar, Cheese, Peanut Butter
Ice Cream ($1.00 each) • Ice Cream Sandwiches, Bomb Pops, Cyclone, Sundae Cones, 2 Freezer Pops ($.25)
Glow Products • 1.5” Glow Sticks ($1.25ea or 2 for $2.00) • 6” Glow Sticks (2.50ea or 2 for $4.00) • Tri-Color Necklaces ($3.50) • Red, White & Blue Strobe ($5.00)
We had a lot of room to grow in this area. Our first year our concessions were nearly totally dictated by what we were given through our sponsorship efforts. We will be getting in depth on food & concessions in future posts and books.
8 Lessons Learned from Year One
There were WAY too many lessons learned during that first year to remember or to share in this brief overview eBook. Instead we are going to list our top 5 things we did right and the top 3 things we did wrong.
Things We Did Right
We feel that the number one contributor to our success that first year was our theme. The amount of free publicity and public interest that was generated over our theme, paired with a quality experience when they arrived, was the key. It made people want to drive an hour or more, passing other corn mazes and Agritourism offerings on the way, to come to ours.
The first year is the biggest gamble financially as you don’t know if you will make any money. We were able to secure about $10,000 in sponsorships that first year which is $10,000 we didn’t have to spend in start-up costs for things like Lumber, Concessions, Radio Spots, Aerial Photo, Printing, and much more.
In addition to all the free publicity we received because of our theme, we spent a great deal of time with other marketing efforts that really paid off. Thousands of coupons were delivered to popular tourist destinations, hotels, welcome centers, chambers of commerce, and more. Owners of these establishments were incentivized to give coupons out in exchange for free tickets.
We direct marketed schools, churches, 4-H and Scout groups within 60 miles for field trips and group outings. This was in the days before email lists were prolific so we used auto-dialer software to fax machines. We also sent flyers to many of the same groups through the mail. Press release folders with pictures, tickets, and more were sent to dozens of media outlets in the area.
We did not adapt the “Build it and they will come” attitude. We knew this was a brand new business and we HAD to get the word out if it was going to be successful.
Our first year, our team primarily consisted of Eric and Jamie. Eric was the hands-on guy that could build what we needed and Jamie took on all the marketing and creative efforts. We worked as a great team. We spent very little on any outside services of any kind and this made a HUGE difference to our bottom line that first year.
Even though it was our first year, we knew that we only had one chance to make that first impression. We made sure that everything looked professional, that the value of what we offered exceeded the cost of admission, and that our staff gave friendly customer service at all times.
One of the “extras” that we did that first year and did every year thereafter was to man our information booth with a friendly outgoing staff member. Their sole job was to greet guests and explain how things worked, where things were located, and answer any questions. This not only gave us an immediate friendly interaction with the guests but we saw a significant reduction in lines at the cash registers since guests understood the options and prices.
Things We Did Wrong
Our first year of concessions left a lot of money on the table. As we learned in future years, there is a huge revenue opportunity when you offer unique and festive food for your guests, not just in one place on your grounds, but in several.
We determined that it was still too hot in Wisconsin in July to have people interested in a corn maze. As you can see from our spreadsheet above, our first day open we had 23 guests. You can imagine our apprehension and concern over our “grand opening” numbers. Thankfully, even that first year saw attendance of over 1,000 on a couple of days in October.
3. Haunted Maze
About halfway into that first year we learned that people were interested in having us do a haunted maze. For the month of October we decided to give it a try.
Implementing something without planning is one of the things that we caution against in this book.
We decided to make our Bears maze the haunted maze and have 5 – 10 teenagers in the maze scaring people. It is nearly impossible to haunt a 10-acre corn maze effectively with 5-10 people and few props. It was a good thing we did not do any marketing to promote a haunted maze and it ended up being a great lesson for us that helped us launch an outstanding haunted maze the following year.
Find out the rest of the story to our first year in Agritourism by signing up for our FREE e-Book!