“To grow your business, you have to think bigger.”
– CLINT MASSE
Start with a product you believe in. Gear it to your customers. Advertise like crazy. That was some of the valuable advice learned at every stop on the agri-tourism best-practices tour in the capital region of Manitoba.
There are some very essential ingredients for starting, and growing a rural business. Having a good product and believing in it are key.
Advertising is also critical but it can be challenging figuring out how to pay for it.
Danny Kleinsasser wanted to create a business that would be centred around that talent for barbecues and marinades. He admits to balking when a designer came up with a logo for his business at a hefty fee of $2,000.
But she convinced him that the logo would make his signs stand out. “I made a lot of money off that logo,” the owner of Danny’s Whole Hog Inc. says.
He learned a great deal from listening to his customers. Early in his business, he was asked to do other meats. He knew that growing his business would depend on versatility so now he offers a wide selection of meat to be barbecued.
The business began with him offering to rent barbecues, specially designed by him and supplying the meat. Pretty soon, he got requests from people to look after all the catering and just bring the meat cooked.
Partnering with local businesses, he was able to handle the requests without adding to his workload. He generated popularity with the local community by accessing buns, salads, cabbage rolls and more from nearby business, parlaying it into a very lucrative business for all. He is busy from May to October and beyond. The effervescent Kleinsasser is a superb promoter.
A Maze in Corn established itself by being the first in the area to offer a corn maze. Clint and Angie Masse hustled to ensure the maze would be ready and sure enough, the publicity generated because all media outlets were curious, helped their first year on a minimal advertising budget. Brochures hand delivered by Angie to nearby communities and neighbourhoods helped boost the promos. Their operation in St. Adolphe has also continued to develop as they learned more.
“To grow your business, you have to think bigger,” said Clint.
The couple offers a concession stand, but business really boomed when they added an enchanted forest, a petting zoo and a hay pile for children to play on.
“Before, we were an activity people could fit in between lunch and supper easily,” said Angie. With the extra activities keeping customers on the property longer, the snack shack business boomed. Providing picnic areas and chairs for adults ensures they will be comfortable while their children burn off steam.
A running theme through the day was keeping the business clean. “It’s a lot of work to keep this place from looking like a farm,” said Angie.
She said while city people enjoy the animals and the “idea” of being on a farm, they don’t really want to endure “stinky” smells. They also don’t want to see a farmyard where old equipment and trash is stored openly.
The Masses advised tour members who own businesses to decide who they will target, and pick a venue to reach that group. They promote their business as a “good time with friends and family.”
Angie said that many mazes in the U. S. welcome late-night revellers with open arms and gear their mazes and haunted forests to the crowd. But they decided that wasn’t for them.
Promoting school tours has been a large boon for their business as the children often return with family members.
Clint said they stay open from “August to October 32nd.”
Clint advised to “do it better than expected.” For example, they weren’t required to put in wheelchair-accessible washrooms, but they did anyway. As a result, a lot of wheelchair-bound people come to the maze.
The Masses hire plenty of young staff for their season. By creating checklists, they make all the jobs easy for any of the staff to do. By checking the checklist problems arising from something missed or not done up to standards, can be addressed with extra training. Staff are given bright-orange shirts to be easily identified.
The charismatic Murray Boonstra left the dairy farm business behind after copying his business plan from a brochure he found at a farm tour down east. “If it could work there, I figured it could work here,” he said.
They have U-pick strawberries and raspberries, a corn maze, petting zoo, playground and haunted tours.
Boonstra keeps his eye out for things that will set his business apart. An old fox tower in the field across from Boonstra’s farm near Stonewall caught his eye. After other attempts to restore it failed, Boonstra stepped in and offered to restore and use the tower, mindful that it was a heritage building. He moved it to his farm for inclusion in his school tours. For Halloween, it doubles as the “Tower of Terror.”
With 90 per cent of his business generated by the Halloween season, he doesn’t balk at money spent on a PR person.
He also recommended partnerships and cross marketing. His corn maze contains the logo of a business, paid for by the business. That business gets to promote heavily at his site. In return, his operation is promoted by the business.
A snack shack run by his daughter and son-in-law increased business when they decided to stop allowing outside burgers and dogs to be brought in.
Crowd control is handled by rotating tours that are timed precisely. Wagons take guests out to the different areas of the farm.
A recent experience with the media had Boonstra reminding tour members that any press is good press.
After sharing an anecdote with a reporter about monitoring fights on the berry-picking fields, he had national news media asking about the fights on his berry fields.”You can’t buy that kind of publicity,” he laughed.
The publicity was somewhat negative, but Boonstra’s Farm gained exposure and his phone rang off the hook. The weekend after the story broke, he saw a crowd like he’d never seen before.
Boonstra said his business now comes up near the top when berry businesses are Googled. And that prompted one more tip.
“Have a website, and make sure your operation has everything you said there is,” he advised.
Dennis and Sheri Crockett also rely on the Internet. The soft-spoken owners of Rubber Ducky Resort and Campground have turned old hog barns into a lucrative themed resort. The idea developed from their Rubber Ducky hot tub rental business. The couple was ready to move to Dennis’s family farm, converting one of the barns into a home. With over 3,000 square feet more room than needed, they decided to open and bed and breakfast featuring a hot tub. A second barn became a recreation centre for guests to meet or take part in rainy day activities. A concession inside the centre generates extra income.
The couple grew the business carefully, creating camping sites with hookups. Already out of over 60 sites, 20 are seasonally rented. “We could have this place full,” said Dennis.
Providing activities such as a playground and a tractor-pulled kiddie train has made families flock to the place. There is a hot tub available for campers and a separate one for the B&B guests. A hot tub can be rented to individual sites for private functions.
The site offers an inground pool for summer recreation, and a duck pond stocked with trout for catch-and-release fishing fun.
They advised tour members to do plenty of research and believe in their vision, even if banks and lenders don’t.