Can a haunted barn save the farm?

CW-MR-1-Haunted barn5by Sally Colby

In the early 20th century, most families who lived in urban areas had relatives who farmed, and those urbanites often spent at least part of the summer on the farm. If that counts as recreation, then agritainment isn’t new. At the time, it was no stretch to find city families visiting their farm relatives for weeks at a time, or perhaps leaving the children on the farm to visit grandparents or cousins. Urban family members developed an appreciation for the hard work that goes into food production, and probably returned to the city relieved that they didn’t have to live that life.

Today, people have fewer direct connections to agriculture and are interested in learning about agriculture. Many seek a farm experience, and that’s where agritainment, developed as a specific farm enterprise, comes in. The fall season, particularly Halloween, lends itself well to agritainment. For some farms, offering agritainment has made a bottom-line difference between failure and success, and often allows a farming family to include multiple generations.

Deciding whether or not to open your farm to the public on any level is the first decision to make when considering agritainment. Keep in mind that an agritainment component means the potential of hundreds (and possibly thousands) of visitors to your farm. Make a comprehensive list of positives and negatives, do an economic analysis and hold several brainstorming sessions to invite ideas. Make sure that everyone in the operation is included in the pre-process. Check with local officials to make sure that what you have planned is allowed in your area.

Everyone involved in the agritainment sector of the enterprise must have the social skills necessary for dealing with a wide range of situations. Both family and employees should be people-persons who enjoy interacting with both children and adults, and have the ability to make decisions and handle any number of crises — especially those that involve safety.

Once the key players (family, employees) are on board, consider what can be  reasonably offered on your farm. Because there are so many options for agritainment, that decision might be the first challenge. A reasonable compromise is to start the agritainment enterprise with just a few features, and add as demand and customers increase. Proximity to population centers will play a big role in determining the level of agritainment your farm can successfully handle.

During the planning process, determine whether the agritainment will be completely separate from the day-to-day farm operation, or if it will include the existing farm operation with tours or sections of the farm open to the public. If there are other agritainment venues in the area, consider what you can do to draw a different demographic. If you aren’t interested in dealing with crowds of teenagers, offering haunted hayrides after dark probably isn’t the best option, but a tamer alternative in the form of a straw bale maze might be just right.

Decide on the purpose of the agritainment segment — do you want to attract more customers for seasonal sales and entice them to return for other farm products such as Christmas trees and then strawberries in spring? Or is your goal to bring in additional revenue during apple and pumpkin season? Do you want to add agritainment little by little each year, or are you comfortable with significant changes in one season? If you’re adding a haunted attraction to your existing orchard and farm market operation, the primary customers for each enterprise will be vastly different. The teens who are visiting your haunted attractions aren’t likely to purchase fruit, so figure out how to draw their parents to the market.

Part of the research and planning process should include visiting as many agritainment venues as possible to see what others are doing. Websites for farm-based entertainment offer a lot of insight about what’s working in certain areas. Maximize the power of consumer input by asking local teens what they like and dislike about haunted attractions.

As ideas are developed, determine whether the current staff will be sufficient for smooth operation or if additional labor will be hired. If the enterprise is successful within a year or so, it’s possible that you’ll need a manager who is solely responsible for the agritainment segment of the operation.

If you decide to invite groups to the farm, make sure there is adequate parking for busses, and that busses can enter and exit the parking area safely. Have plenty of well-trained staff who are prepared to manage groups. Determine a safe staff-to-visitor ratio for various age groups. If fright features are available for older visitors, consider adding something suitable for young children who may be part of a visiting family.

Since most fall and Halloween-centered agritainment takes place on weekends, will you be able to hire reliable weekend help? Be careful not to underestimate the amount of help you’ll need — better too many than too few — and allow for adequate training time for both management and employees. How much you charge will depend on the locale and other agritainment venues in the area. Some operators charge a flat fee for entrance to the farm while others offer free general admission with a separate fee for certain major attractions such as a haunted maze. Consider the fact that fall weekends may be rainy, and plan to have at least some activities suitable for rainy or chilly weather.

If animals are included as part of the attraction, be sure that animal welfare is top-notch and that farm personnel are available to answer questions. This may be the first exposure to livestock for many visitors, and it’s important that they have a positive experience. Biosecurity, handwashing facilities and adequate liability coverage are all considerations when livestock become part of the attraction.

Think about advertising and promotion, especially for the first several seasons. Options include the local or county tourism board, billboards, radio or TV advertising and newspapers. Customers often find agritainment through web searches, and are put off by websites that are slow or contain outdated information. Social media is critical, especially for venues that offer haunted attractions. Tuned-in teens are likely to find out about your attraction through Facebook, Twitter or other social media, so make sure your farm website is up-to-date with information about location, season, prices and features.

Once plans are made and the attractions are complete, make sure that you can deliver what you’ve advertised; whether it’s fun for elementary students or a fright experience for teens and young adults. Be prepared to use criticism in a positive manner that will increase visitor traffic. Handle complaints promptly and fairly, and remember that visitors will tell their friends and family about their experience at your farm.

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