Giving visitors what they want

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by Courtney Llewellyn

With summer vacation well underway, and people desperate to start traveling again, farms hosting tours and overnight stays are likely filling slots quickly – if they’re not already booked up for the rest of the year. But those participating in agritourism in 2021 are dealing with an entirely new landscape when it comes to meeting customers’ desires and expectations. How do you give visitors what they want, post-pandemic?

“With each generation, with the weather farmers have to face year to year, how we change the nature of our farms is nothing new,” said Elisa Fleming of Verdant View Farm in Pennsylvania. A fifth-generation farmer of a cow-calf beef herd with 74 acres of crops and 25 acres of pasture, they’ve been running a bed and breakfast for 54 years and seasonal farm tours for 12 years. “And now 93% of farmers are working off the farm. As farmers, we’re trying to diversify our income and with all these changes, and more and more people are further and further removed from agriculture. We are the link to help people have a connection to farms and agriculture.”

Fleming was part of “Farm Tours and Overnight Stays,” an online conversation sponsored by USDA-NIFA, the University of Vermont and Northeast Extension Risk Management Education. Fleming noted that during the pandemic, her farm wanted to provide a safe and welcoming environment. They were already providing multiple hand washing stations, plenty of space to spread out, outdoor recreation and private accommodations.

But what are visitors seeking now? They want safe environments indoors and out; limited interaction with other people; outdoor dining options; animal interactions with social distancing; private accommodations and private tours; the ability to stay on the farm all day; and a customer-friendly COVID cancellation policy.

“Accommodating customers and safeguarding our own family and farm was the great balancing act,” Fleming said. But 2021 has been the best year for room revenue in the past five years. “We now have more private accommodations for the B&B. We offer private tours and limit tour size. We discontinued activities where people must be close together.”

The key for host farmers is setting expectations ahead of visits. Before visitors arrive, make sure there’s lots of communication about what to bring, your farm’s policies and frequently asked questions. Let them know what they’ll be dealing with when they arrive through signage, especially regarding any mask-wearing rules, social distancing and interacting with others. While they are with you, ensure both you and they follow safety protocols and be consistent with them.

Fleming also spoke about rooted hospitality – a farm can show what is unchanging in the midst of upheaval. This can be as simple as a welcoming smile or a breath of fresh air. It can be animal therapy, a connection to the plants surrounding them or witnessing sustainable practices.

“Give visitors space to be at ease, to be themselves,” she said. “Share a positive, welcoming spirit that allows ‘normalcy’ to return.”

By pivoting operations, agritourism businesses can continue to provide welcoming and safe opportunities for visitors, Fleming concluded. Set expectations and meet people where they are comfortable. “Ultimately, we can help build connections and provide opportunities for rejuvenation,” she said.

Fun Fad or Long-Term Trend?

Scottie Jones of Farm Stay USA and Leaping Lamb Farm in Oregon discussed current and future farm stay potential in the U.S. “Was it a blip or a trend?” she asked. “Most of us are totally full this summer. The silver lining of COVID is that people have discovered they want to be outside. This is a perfect opportunity for farms that were maybe sitting on the fence when it comes to welcoming strangers. Our experience has been they’ve been very respectful because they recognize that these are our homes.” (Leaping Lamb is already booking for 2022.)

She noted that a survey from USA Today thinks the farm stay vacation is likely a long-term trend, and as time goes by, she sees more and more articles stating that. Farm stays were noted as a “Trend Alert” by tastemaker Pinterest. The seminal travel outlet Frommer’s touts them, as does Lonely Planet. (You can find an extensive list of these stories at farmstayus.com.)

“We offer tours but the rest of the time they’re on their own, and kids are great at figuring out what they want to do,” Jones said. “People seem very happy to just be able to relax and play – to connect with nature and with each other.”

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