gn-mr-63-1-agritourismby Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Autumn is the time of year many farms and orchards open their doors for farm tours, pick your own apples and pumpkins, farm days and other events.
A recent webinar provided by the University of California Small Farm Program in partnership with FarmsReach featured speakers Scottie Jones, Director of the U.S. Farm Stay Association, and Meghan Bishop-Sanderson of Bishop’s Pumpkin Farm, advising producers on how to get that coveted five-star rating.
Scottie Jones addressed some practices farm owners should focus on, promoting customer satisfaction to boost their ratings.
“You’ve built it, they’re coming, now what?” Jones asked. “The reality is, you’re not farming; you’re in the hospitality business.”
Jones described three essential parts you control when opening your farm to agritourism; the presentation, amenities, and managing and exceeding guest expectations. “That’s what gets you to that five-star customer experience.”
Your first presentation to guests is probably your website.
A website will create a feeling of what people will get when they come to your farm. Website information should be easy to find with clear directions and contact information. Tickets or coupons for events at your farm should be offered on your website. If you offer overnight accommodations, make sure that information is available along with prices. This will increase traffic to your farm.
“That’s what travelers and guests are looking for,” said Jones. “Easy equals welcoming. People don’t like to spend a lot of time looking for information.”
Your website should include photographs depicting what guests may expect when visiting.
“Your next presentation is the outside of your farm. It starts right at the entrance.”
Signs should be repainted as needed to keep them bright and attractive along with fences and buildings. Lawns should be mowed; flowerbeds should be weeded and neat.
“A lot of people don’t go standing on the outside of their farm looking in as if they were a customer. I can’t tell you how important that is to do. For a first time guest, you are setting the expectations right there.”
Introductions are important. When you have a large-scale operation and you can’t greet guests individually, you should have signs that say “welcome to our farm” or someone available to greet them.
“I think it is smart on any size operation to also have written information for guests,” Jones said.
Signs should be provided to make it clear on how things work and where things are located.
Guests’ safety is of utmost importance for any agritourism event or farm stay.
“For overnight guests, I always take them on something called ‘the danger tour’, because I want to show them where they’re allowed to be and where they’re not — and what’s dangerous about our farm.”
Jones said this will set the tone of your expectations for guests right at the beginning of their visit, regardless of whether it’s a ‘you-pick’, wedding, farm stay or an event. This also helps with liability.
“It’s surprising what people don’t know, especially if they’re coming from an urban background.”
Amenities are the second thing to consider.
“If your guest is comfortable and you satisfy their needs; that will make for a better experience for everybody involved.”
Most amenities are the same no matter the size of your operation or event. Parking and potties are the number one concern, food and drinks, safety and availability of information, all impact a visitor’s perception of their visit. Having something they can take away with them as a souvenir of their visit and providing places for photo ops will satisfy your customer and give them a chance to share their experience with their friends. Having informed and friendly staff is also important.
Provide rain/sun shelters, plenty of seating and hand washing stations, to increase visitor comfort.
Informational signage increases guest comfort and may help to protect your products. At a ‘you-pick’, install signs explaining how to pick designated produce and how to weigh it. Various sized bags, buckets or boxes should be available. Pricing should be clear.
When hosting weddings, backdrops are necessary for photos and changing areas should be provided. Changing areas and potties must be spotless. Access to electricity is essential. The ground should be clear and level. A host/hostess or a point person should be available to answer questions.
Farm stays require choice mattresses, pillows, linens and towels. Again, cleanliness, neatness and safety are of the utmost importance. “What would you expect if you went to a hotel?”
Jones says she considers offering boots to visitors a “great amenity.”
“We’re muddy up here and people come with inappropriate footwear.”
Clear communication, including written farm rules, is a priority with all guests.
“It’s not really that hard to provide a ‘Wow!’ farm experience,” said Jones. “As long as you’re clean and you’re neat and you’re safe.”
Jones says she tries to send hand-written thank you notes to guests, although when entertaining large groups that is probably impossible. However, some kind of thank you is appropriate.
“Finally, I can’t say enough about having friendly staff and farmers!”
Meghan Bishop-Sanderson, third-generation of Bishop’s Pumpkin Farm, agrees. Bishop’s hires approximately 475 seasonal employees, each year.
“It actually takes me longer to go through my hiring process than they actually work for me!”
The farm entertains about 180,000 people in the six weeks that they are open, with 10,000 to 12,000 customers visiting the farm daily on the six busiest days in mid-October.
“We really believe that being in agritourism starts with understanding what your brand is. A huge part of your brand is always going to include customer service. So, your brand is not just your logo, it’s not what you’re saying in your marketing materials. It’s more what people perceive you to be.”
Sanderson said the small details of a customer’s experience on your farm make up their perception of who you are as a tourist destination.
“Customer service plays a huge role in how they perceive you to be. We believe this really starts with the employees. Employees are crucial to our business and our customer service.”
Bishop’s employees have a detailed interview process, which has been developed over the years. It begins with each applicant coming to an initial face-to-face meeting, where they are scored. They then fill out a questionnaire that is analyzed for placement on the farm.
“Are they willing to dress up in a pig costume and walk through a parade? Or are they willing to be involved in food service?”
Based on those two scores, applicants proceed to extensive group interviews.
Highest scoring applicants begin training with an orientation, explaining what is expected of them and what is unacceptable.
“We really go over how we want them to serve our customers.”
Bishop’s believe strongly in being servant leaders.
“When you have an employee, you have to give them the tools they need to succeed. We understand that if we don’t give them those tools, they might not be able to do what we expect them to do.”
Bishop’s teaches young employees positive work habits, including coming to work on time, having a positive attitude, being respectful, and most of all, using great customer service, using an “A-Game.”
“This is just continuing to drive the point home of doing a good job. The A’s include; attitude, attendance, appearance, ambition, accountability, acceptance and appreciation. We ask them to bring their ‘A-Game’ every time they come to work.”
Both Sanderson and Jones stressed exceeding customer expectations.
“It’s a basic thing,” said Sanderson. “Instead of saying, ‘Welcome to Bishop’s Pumpkin Farm’, we ask them to say, ‘Good morning! Welcome to Bishop’s! Hope you have a great day!”
Actions, such as carrying a customer’s tray or other item, emptying their trash or replacing a dropped ice cream cone; are also part of exceeding customer expectations.
“These kinds of things will really take that customer’s experience above and beyond.”
Customer complaints are addressed promptly. Social media is monitored to be sure customers are having a positive experience.
Sanderson’s dad likes to say, “Under promise and over deliver!”
“We feel very strongly about having set core values that will help you in guiding your business. One of those values for us is to be authentic. To be who we say we’re going to be, and keep improving!”