U.S. Farmers Group Looking to Connect with Travel Trade to Develop Farm Stay Vacation Market: After picking up on some cyber conversations regarding the niche market of agritourism that invites travelers to spend a couple of days or a week as guests at a real, working farm, Inbound was able to connect with the Farm Stay Association’s founder and executive director, Scottie Jones, and talk about the farm stay phenomenon. (She and her husband own and operate Leaping Lamb Farm in Alsea, Oregon.) It turns out that the movement, even though Jones’ organization is more than a few years old, is still at the fledgling status, working to build its profile with travel agents and tour operators while, at the same time, shepherding its farmer members along and trying to think marketing as much as they do farming. Following are some excerpts from our online conversation.
Inbound: Just how large is your organization, Scottie?
Jones: To answer your question, we have about 840 working farms, ranches, and vineyards listed on our site. Of those about 160 are paid members of the association. We would love more to help us promote our farm vacations in a more cohesive way, but think we are well represented by the ones who have joined. As the site is really for travelers, we wanted them to have as large a selection as possible to promote even our non-paying members. Funny that there are barely 1,000 farm stays in the entire U.S. when there are 7,200 in England and over 20,000 agriturismi in Italy (both the size of New England!)
Inbound: Do most Farm Stay visitors book on their own–either online through an OTA or through a member’s website–or do they go through a travel agent?
Jones: Most farm stay visitors book on their own. They do it through the member’s site, maybe through our site, which takes them to the member’s booking engine (Airbnb, Resnexus, etc.), maybe via email or phone since some of our members don’t believe in online booking . We have been approached by travel agents from time to time about whether our members pay commission. My response has been to say they need to speak with the specific farm and not only ask but also talk about what that percentage might look like since most farm stay hosts are farmers first and hospitality hosts second and may not know what is standard. As I run my own farm stay, that is how I would deal with a travel agent approaching me.
Inbound: Do you and your members work with tour operators?
Jones: At Farm Stay U.S., we would like to work with tour operators similarly to how we work with travelers. We feel there is opportunity here to send small tour groups to our farms and ranches that can accommodate the numbers. A number of our members offer more than just the overnight lodging, with hands-on participation and classes or activities (cheese-making, cooking, hiking with goats or llamas) that would be interesting to a tour group. Some also have festivals at different times of year that might provide a good day visit to the farm. I think the biggest problem we face with tour groups is capacity for beds in once place. To date, I only know of farms in Vermont working with Vermont Farm Tours, but haven’t really asked the question of our members, but that doesn’t mean they don’t or wouldn’t. I could always ask in our next newsletter.
Inbound: Are groups a part of your business? If so, what percentage of your visitors are groups?
Jones: Again, tours aren’t part of the U.S. Farm Stay Association business plan, but they could be. We just need to know what tour operators are looking for so we can put together some ideas and get buy-in from our members. Personally, I don’t host tours because I only have one cottage so I’m not able to accommodate more than six people (and they need to know each other well enough to share beds and a bathroom!) Many of our members are in the same boat, although a large number of the ranches can take more people and even some of our farms.
Inbound: What percentage of Farm Stay business is domestic and what percentage is international?
Jones: Hmmm, it depends, and this is going to be an anecdotal answer. I know that our ranches in the western U.S. get a large number of international guests, maybe 30 percent, as do many of our eastern farms. Here in Oregon, I get international guests who are living in the states more than those flying in from overseas. Some of this is related to how the state markets itself internationally and how easy it is to get into the airport. Our ranches have the pull that everyone would like to try out being a cowboy and the vistas are generally gorgeous and open and just like in the western movies. I have had queries from farmer/ranches in Australia (more than once) to provide a tour route for looking at farming practices in the Midwest where they are coming with several farmers and their wives.
Jones: We connect travelers with working operations across the States and are the only website specifically focused on farm vacations† and getting people closer to the source of their food and rural American farms. Urbanites are pretty disconnected from farming life with no family farm to return home to on the holidays so we have now taken on a bit of a mystique in terms of what we do and how we do it. I think farmer’s markets have certainly helped to raise awareness of small family farms and we are just the next step for the full experience. People may not want to buy the farm, but being able to be out in the countryside, hear a rooster crow, sit down for a family meal of good local produce, and basically unplug – if only for the weekend – feels good for the soul and good for relationships. Heck, the Italians do this all the time where they leave the city for the weekend to smell some country air.
Americans still don’t know they can take a vacation on a U.S. farm, thinking they need to go to Europe or Down Under (not so bad but the airfare and passport thing self-select the clientele).We are encouraging people to look in their own back yard but we have a ways to go before the term “farm stay” is as recognized at Disneyland. We like to think that the working aspect of our operations offers a different kind of experience from the better known dude ranch vacation or a stay at a bed & breakfast in an old farm house that is no longer associated with a working farm.
One other point, we are farmers and farm stay hosts running this organization with a mission to promote what we do and a passion to inform farms about diversifying their income streams by allowing guests to stay overnight on their farms so that we can grow the category and become a real travel niche in the U.S. similar to other countries. We are at the end of a phone (not like Airbnb or VRBO) and at the end of an email. We will do anything we can to help the traveler or the farmer or the writer to get the message out. Oh, yeah, and not unlike many non-profits, we are looking for partners and sponsors to help get our message out because we are apparently better at marketing than finding money to support our cause …just thought I would throw that in there 🙂
† Another source of information on farm stays and visits is Agritourism World (www.agritourismworld.com ), a directory of that is more comprehensive and inclusive than Farm Stays.
AgritourismWorld acts as a clearinghouse for 3,000 agritourism businesses that accept public visits. It has no centralized reservation number; rather, the public may search the site by destination or type of visit desired and go directly to the business. It has information on some 3,000 farms and “ag-destinations” that are broken down into more than 100 categories of interest: U.S. state and international locations; events; farms with animals; food and beverage producers; gardens and plants; markets and retailers; overnight stays (bed and breakfast locations, camping sites, lodge hotels, RV parks, retreat centers, etc.) and more. A relatively recent venture—it was established by long-time tour and travel industry veteran Charles Presley, a co-founder of Group Travel Leader publication and founder of the Group Travel Leader family of businesses.