By Bruce Firestone | Uncategorized

Jul 21

How Saunders Farm transitioned from agricultural failure to frightening agritainment success

(A version of this article first appeared in Ottawa Business Journal,

I first met Anne Saunders when she came to the Ottawa
Senators’ offices (then on Moodie drive in Bells Corners) on May 20th,
1991 in a clown outfit. How do I know it was May 20th? Because that
was her handsome son David Saunders’ 25th birthday. David worked for
the Sens, and you can only imagine his embarrassment when his mom showed up
dressed like that. It was true mother love.


The Saunders, led by matriarch Anne and patriarch Bill, are
a close knit rural-based family with four kids—Vicki, the eldest, followed by
David, Mark and Matthew. The agri-tourism business they’ve built in Munster
Hamlet (population just north of 1,300), 40 minutes southwest of Ottawa, is a
local phenomenon attracting nearly 100,000 paying customers each year to a wide
range of attractions including hedge mazes, hayrides, gem mining, puppet shows,
mountain slides, splash pads, jumping pillows, day camps for children ages
5-12, weddings, meetings and company picnics.


But Saunders Farm is still primarily known for their
haunting season, which begins late September and ends November 1st
each year. They’ve had over one million guests come to their Halloween
performances since they opened up their farm 24 years ago for agritainment. It’s not just little kids
who seem to enjoy it—teens show up by the thousands. Perhaps they’re attracted
by one of the farm’s slogans, “the scariest date you’ll ever go on.”


Anne was a teacher at the local public school (now due to
close, she tells me sadly) located directly across from their home in Munster,
a comfortable, rambling, ranch-style bungalow, a few hundred meters east of
Saunders Farm. Bill was a stockbroker.

They started with cows, lost money on that, then switched to
25 acres of strawberries. That worked fine in the 1980s, but after that people
stopped homemaking jams and jellies, and the business tanked.

They met up with Jack Marks from Wisconsin in 1990, who spoke about “haunted
rides” as a cash cow. It sounded more promising than what they were doing so like
most entrepreneurs, they pivoted on a dime. They hired local high school
students, dressed them in spooky costumes, hid them in their barns and log buildings
and elsewhere on their farm, ran some local newspaper ads, put out some flyers,
and hoped families would come.


Over their first two weekends, 5,000 guests showed up,
paying $5 each. Do you know how many strawberries you have to pick and pack to
make $25,000? A ton[1].

Right from the get-go, Anne and Bill decided against
following the US-example of making their haunting season a gore-fest. They
wanted it scary, but not revolting—a family attraction, not a school for serial
murderers and sociopaths.


The following year they added more hay wagons, planted more
trees, began growing spruce and cedar hedge mazes (they now have ten of them
including a few post and rail ones), more log buildings, a new scary barn, a
children’s barn, a wooden truck and railway car, a big playhouse (where their
talented amateur high schoolers do stage shows), and a farm shop to sell

More recently they’ve added a pavilion, which seats 250
people; it also has a state of the art kitchen. Bill and Anne believe in
feeding people decent food; in fact, I’ve never been able to escape their
hospitality without being fed.

They used to have suppliers, who’d pay them a percentage of
sales, come in to provide food and beverage services, but they decided to bring
that in-house.

In addition to running environmental tours for schools
who’ll bus in children for that experience and summer camps, they run their own
training program—it’s called, naturally, Ghoul School.
Just one day of training costs them $10,000 to provide, but like good food
being essential to a tourism business, great staff is as well.

They employ 55 people in summer, 220 in October and 4 full
timers year-round. It’s quite the economic generator in a village the size of Munster. For those old
enough to remember the TV sitcom, the Munsters
(which lives on in endless syndication and online), even the hamlet’s name is priceless.

Their staff churn rate is a not bad 75% return rate for
their summer season and 65% for fall. Still, there’s a lot of recruiting and
training to be done each year.

The business is now run by Mark Saunders, an irrepressible
48-year old. Mark says, “About 55% of our business is done in the fall. In fact,
in the 149 hours we operate in October, we get around 500 people per hour
entering the farm.”

Mark goes on to say, “The operation does low seven figures in
revenues and is profitable.”

Then he adds with a smile, “Some days.”

Not a bad result from 101.7 acre farm.

I ask Mark what his MMB, magic marketing button, is. You
know the “easy” button, the one you push and clients and customers simply show

“Whenever there is a Friday the 13th in
September, we’ll do an online coupon campaign. We’ll price the tickets at $13.
The last time we did it, we sold 6,700 of them by noon. The nice thing for us
though is that everyone brings a friend, and that friend pays full price!”

“What other marketing works for you?” I ask him.

“It used to be if JJ Clark (a local celebrity) would mention
us on the (television) news or even if we put ads in the local newspaper, cars
would pour down the road. But that doesn’t work anymore. We don’t like the
coupon business either, except for the Friday the 13th thing I
mentioned, because it cannibalizes our regular sales and undermines our
credibility and brand. So today, it’s all web-based… we have a large email list
of 38,000 people plus 5,500 Twitter and 12,000 Facebook followers.”

“It’s also generational,” Bill Saunders adds. “Families
coming back, now with grandchildren in tow.”

“Word of mouth is big too,” Mark says.

I ask them what’s been their biggest challenge so far and
right away Bill answers, “Did you know that 98% of lawyers give the other 2% a
bad name?”

He’s referring to the nightmare that dealing with zoning
officials at the city of Ottawa
has been.

“Our experience with the city was made much worse,” Anne says,
“by the fact that we had one neighbour who also wanted to run environmental
tours on his farm but failed. He decided to make a crusade out of bringing down
our place. He’d go through the city’s zoning by-law, line by line, and then
call to complain about an infraction at our farm. An (ordinance) enforcement officer
would come, and sometimes, he’d call the police as well. It was horrible. I
asked him once why he did it. He said ‘I don’t do business with women,’ and
walked out on me. It got so bad in 1997 he even had our local pastor speak out
about the evils of Saunders Farm from the pulpit. That really hurt.”

But the family persevered, and eventually that guy sold his property
and moved away. Today, Saunders Farm is zoned agricultural and mixed amusement.
The city had to create a special zone for them, which they were reluctant to
do. Something about setting a bad precedent, despite the fact that there is a
worldwide movement to save family farms by introducing things like farm stay
networks, experiential tourism and agri-entertainment, led by groups such as NAFDMA,
the North American farmers direct marketing association, of which there are 700
members including Saunders Farm.

“NAFDMA is based on the idea that everything you need in
life like potatoes is cheap, but everything you want in life like experiences is
expensive,” Bill says.

M Firestone, PhD, Ottawa Senators founder, Century 21 Explorer Realty broker.
Follow him on twitter @ProfBruce

postscript: I’ve always liked the idea of agri-tourism, so much so that I’d like to see someone create Food Truck City (combining light sports activities for all ages with bouncy rides for kids and a variety of foods, grown locally and organically to the greatest extent possible),

[1] Cornell
CALS Department of Horticulture reported in 2006, wholesale prices ranging from
$0.75 per pound at PYO (pick your own) farms to $2.00 elsewhere. At $2 per
pound, it’s actually 12,500 pounds or about 6.25 tons needed to make $25,000
wholesale. In 1990, it would have required even more volume/weight.

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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.