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Making the Good Event…Great!
By: Jane Eckert

Special events and festivals are increasingly becoming a primary strategy to market our agritourism operations to attract new customers as well as to get our existing customers to return to the farm again.

You probably receive phone calls from folks during the week asking, “What’s going to be happening this weekend at the farm?”  It’s unfortunately not just about regularly opening our doors to the public—they’ve come to expect something new from our farm entertainment operations. And it makes sense for us to meet that request.  Whether you are doing events during the peak of your season or using them to increase your revenue stream during off-peak season, special events and festivals are increasingly important as a major marketing strategy.

We are most familiar with the fall season events, but it is also quite common in the summer to have themed weekends focusing on our homegrown products such as a Strawberry Festival, a Watermelon Festival, a Peach Festival etc. Of course, the festival doesn’t have to be product themed.  How about a western weekend, or holiday weekends such as the Easter Egg Hunt, Memorial Day, 4th of July, or breakfast with Santa? People are looking for things to do with their families and have found our farms to be particularly inviting at all times of year.

Many farms have now expanded into partnering with non-profit organizations to co-host an event at the farm.  These are often connected to a 5 K walk of the farm, a bicycle ride, fun raising activities, dog rescue groups, the 4-H or other types of clubs etc.  Hosting non-profit organizations at your farm is a great way to connect with your local community while having the resource of a partner for volunteers and the marketing support of the organization’s network of friends.
The non-profit partner also benefits, as your farm venue delivers a unique atmosphere for their event, while raising awareness of their cause along with the funds they earn.

Another category of events that has become increasingly popular today is to host specialty classes right on the farm.  These classes may cover gardening and plants from our greenhouses, cooking classes, wine pairings, craft classes etc.  In addition to classes, the “farm to table” concept has now spread to many farms across North America.  For a Farm to Table event, the farm hosts a dinner—often outdoors—which consists of fresh meats, vegetables, cheese and perhaps wine all grown there or at nearby farms.  Hosting dinners on the farm in our natural settings provides guests a unique environment, great food and an opportunity for the farmer to share our knowledge of agricultural production.

No matter which of these special events you plan to host, my main message here to you is to make sure it is a greatevent, not just average. Provide extra smiles and humor, offer second helpings, and literally roll out the red carpet across the field.  Show your guests a special time, and they’ll tell their friends.  Our customers today have high expectations and if we fail to deliver on these events then we might be losing out on their future business.

Here are several primary considerations when developing your events.

#1 Your food choices are important!  If you are hosting a Strawberry Festival then you should be serving a lot of food choices with strawberries. Just selling strawberries inside the market or offering the field for pick-your-own is not enough.  You also need to make sure you are featuring strawberries in your desserts, your drinks, strawberry pancakes etc.  While it is easiest for you to serve the same concession foods that you always serve, that won’t meet the expectation of the customer. While these types of specialty foods and desserts may take a while longer to create they typically are also worth a specialty price.

#2 Enhance your event with themed decorations. If you are hosting a Strawberry Festival then consider putting up banners or flags with strawberries, create your farm signage with a smiley faced strawberry, use the color red on your table cloths etc.  Your employee shirts or hats this weekend would have a special strawberry themed logo and printed on pink and red t-shirts. Decorating your farm in a special way to match the theme of the event shows that you have given it some thought and want to make this weekend event memorable. 

It’s easy to have fall events because pumpkins, mums, corn stalks and straw bales match the season. However, coming up with ways to decorate your farm, road entrance, food booths, your wagons, market interior etc  for other times of the year and other seasons should be just as fun for your customers.

#3 Create activities that are unique to your theme and/or this event. Most of you already have an established play area for children, a petting farm and wagon rides but what else can you do to have new and fun events for children and their parents? These activities can be simple, such as a bean bag toss into a big strawberry, a scavenger hunt, gunny sack races etc.  Mom might enjoy a quick drop-in class on how to make strawberry freezer jam.

We know from the fall season that the greater the choice of activities that we offer our guests, the longer they will stay on the farm and the more food concessions that they will eat. The fall season has also shown us that people are willing to pay for these types of special activities so please don’t hesitate to charge for them.

# 4 Select the right non-profit partner.  If you are going to plan an event with a non- profit group then make sure to select a good partner and one that has similar goals as yours. If you have been doing events with non-profit groups in the past then you know that they are not all created equal.

You want your partner to commit to the event and not just show up.  Therefore, I suggest during your preliminary meeting you ask questions to find out their goals for doing an event on your farm.  Ask them about the types of activities that they would like to host, the number of volunteers that would be available, what kind of space that they will need etc?  While I strongly believe in hosting these types of events, I confess that I have been burned in the past by my own eagerness.  I just didn’t ask the right questions nor provide the group enough guidance to make it a great event. Remember these are volunteers and it may be necessary for you to provide an onsite employee to assist and monitor their activities and report to you if more help is needed.

Making a good event great is a matter of paying attention to the details.  There is no detail too small for careful consideration and discussion with staff during your planning process.  Plan for problems-ask your team what can backfire if executed poorly and plan your recovery.

When you are properly prepared, event marketing is a very effective strategy to increase your customer loyalty and register receipts.  Today’s consumer expects every adventure to be a new experience, with new sights, sounds, and tastes.  Bringing out last year’s festival banners will satisfy some, but to keep them coming and bringing their friends, invest the time to make each event feel unique and new.

Jane Eckert, a national speaker, author and agritourism expert, is principal of Eckert AgriMarketing (www.eckertagrimarketing.com), a firm that helps farmers sell products directly to consumers and develop their operations into tourist destinations, and Farm Web Design, an Internet marketing firm specializing in agritourism farm websites.  She is also CEO of RuralBounty.com, a consumer based directory of agritourism farms in North America. Jane can be reached by phone 314-862-6288 or at jane@eckertagrimarketing.com