Okanagan Lavender Farm
The Okanagan Lavender Farm operations in Kelowna.
In the Central Okanagan Regional District the Economic Development Commission (EDC) began a pilot project last year, linking struggling farm revenues to the burgeoning tourist industry.
There were already a handful of successful agri-tourism businesses out there and the EDC thought they could bring in seasoned veterans to help other farmers starting on a similar path. The result was the 2012/13 Agri-Tourism Pilot Project.
Two of those attending were Ron and Colleen McMillan. The 110-acre McMillan farm has been a hay operation since the 1970s, but in 2004 the McMillans introduced a small pumpkin patch.
Today, says Ron McMillan, hay income only amounts to $10,000 a year. While direct pumpkin sales are also small, for every dollar generated by pumpkins, the farm generates $5 in tourism revenue.
The McMillan’s farm offerings expanded from the pumpkin patch to include hay rides, a gourd slingshot, corn maze and sleigh rides and brings in 10,000 visitors annually. Now Ron says they want information on how to make their operations work more efficiently without having to learn the hard way what others already know.
The two veterans come from the Okanagan Lavender Farm, run by the McFadden family, and Arlo’s Honey Farm, owned by the Kennedys.
Andrea McFadden and Helen Kennedy participated in the talks, encouraging and providing advice to four up-and-coming agri-tourism entrepreneurs including the McMillans.
Kennedy says success comes from planning. “Three words of advice: ‘Prepare, prepare, prepare.’ Your business plan is key.”
McFadden says they learned as they went, often stumbling, but she was determined to learn from the mistakes along the way. She says, “We keep a handbook of all the mistakes we’ve made.”
It is more than the mistakes they made – they have a book by the till for customers to make compliments or critiques. She says that staff are also invaluable for providing insights into what is going well and what isn’t since they overhear customers and deal with all mundane aspects of the business on a daily basis.
Staffing is still one of the biggest challenges Kennedy faces at the Arlo Honey Farm operation. Like most agri-tourism businesses, both of these operations only operate during the summer peak season. This adds additional challenges to recruiting and retaining good staff.
Once staff is in place Kennedy relates another essential piece of advice. One that pertains not only to staff, but to visitors as well. “Just because you said it, doesn’t mean the other person has heard it.” She suggests putting it in writing, whether it is a sign for tourists or a manual for staff to follow.
Policy manuals seem like a wasteful bureaucratic procedure, but Kennedy says she has learned from bad employees and good employees who misunderstood instructions at one time or another. She says, “If it’s not in your business plan to have a policy manual you need to add it.”
The manual is because most business owners spend much time considering the financial out comes of their business decisions, but Kennedy says that isn’t enough. “What can go wrong? What is not in your profit and loss columns or on the balance sheet can still go wrong.” She shows a photo of smashed bee hives under the caption of ‘Bear in mind that things can still go wrong.’ This is a pun because the smashed hives were the result of a hungry bear.
Another crucial challenge is letting the public know about the business, and attracting them to your site.
Both agreed advertising is expensive, but more difficult to assess than the cost, is the effectiveness of a given advertising program, but it is still essential. McFadden comments, “When you’re closed for the winter, people tend to forget about you.”
She says part of the solution is to find specialists who can work with you. They don’t have to be costly. In Kelowna
McFadden had nothing but praise for the Tourism Kelowna team that has done great jobs in promoting her operation.
Kennedy shares an anecdote about some Japanese tourists at her doorstep who showed her a sizeable website entry on the Arlo operation, one she had no hand in creating. She credits that to Kelowna Tourism marketing efforts, but whether it is marketing or accounting, both believe the money is made by focusing on what you do well and outsourcing to others what you don’t.
McFadden has one final piece of advice. When she and her husband started the lavender tourism operations, they hedged their bets with grape vine plantings to provide more income. Ultimately though the grape vines were a side business that detracted from what they really wanted to accomplish with the lavender. McFadden admonishes, “Are you in this business or are you not in this business?”
The next round of consultations for the EDC program are expected to start up in the autumn of 2013. ■
For more information contact Tracey Fredrickson at the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission: email@example.com.