By Marie Anselm
Many farms have considered hosting special events on-site as a marketing strategy to attract new and existing customers. Any kind of farm can host an on-farm event, not just those that have regularly scheduled agritourism activities. A special event could include a farm that is usually closed to the public hosting a harvest dinner, or a Community Supported Agriculture operation opening to non-members.From a marketing perspective, farms may find on-farm special events an appealing way of reaching out to large amounts of people. On-farm special events can potentially increase farm sales the day of the event, make new customers to drive future sales, and build relationships with existing customers. However, beyond anecdotal evidence, there is little information on how, if at all, these events help farms gain and retain customers. Hosting an on-farm special event requires a significant amount of time and planning for it to be successful. Before hosting such an event it is helpful for farms to have an understanding of how customers will respond so they can decide if an on-farm special event is a good fit for their marketing goals.
Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Madison County coordinates a large on-farm special event every year: Open Farm Day. Open Farm Day is a collaborative event where around 30 farms across Madison County, NY open to the public for the same hours on the same Saturday in July. Farms of all types and all sizes participate, and for many it is the only event that they host at their farm. Open Farm Day draws almost 4,000 people, many of whom are children and families. Event attendees are able to visit as many farms as they want and receive a free giveaway prize for visiting at least three farms.
To learn more about customer attraction and retention from on-farm special events, CCE Madison County surveyed Open Farm Day visitors via two electronic surveys in 2015 and 2016. To gather visitors’ email addresses, every participating Open Farm Day farm signed-in guests with a form that allowed visitors to leave their email address if they were willing to be contacted to take a survey on their experience with the event. CCE Madison also made a link to take the survey online public. The first survey was sent out to Open Farm Day guests in 2015 and 2016 to a total of 1,125 unique Open Farm Day visitors that attended the event those years. Results from this survey in 2015 and 2016 were aggregated for a total of 366 responses representing a response rate of approximately 35.5 percent. The second survey was a visitor follow-up survey sent in 2016 a year after Open Farm Day only to respondents who took the first survey in 2015. The second survey was sent to 196 individuals who responded to the first survey in 2015 and garnered a total of 65 responses for a response rate of 33.2 percent. Survey responses were tracked by name and email address to ensure there were no duplicate responses.
To isolate how attending Open Farm Day affected customers, these surveys asked visitors if they were a first-time Open Farm Day attendee or a repeat attendee. Results from the survey were analyzed by comparing “first-time attendees”, those that attended Open Farm Day for the first time when they took the survey, to “repeat attendees”. Standard means difference tests were used to analyze differences between these two groups. Results reported below that are “statistically significant” indicate that differences in data are unlikely to be due to chance.
In the first survey of aggregated responses from 2015 and 2016, 49.7 percent of respondents were first-time attendees and 50.3 percent were repeat attendees. Both first-time and repeat attendees showed strong support for local food with 86.3 and 88.6 percent respectively, reporting that they currently purchase local food. This difference was not statistically significant. There was also not a statistically significant difference between first-time and repeat attendees with the number of farms they purchased product from on Open Farm Day; on average, first-time attendees purchased product from 2.6 farms compared to 2.8 for repeat attendees. However, there was a statistically significant difference between the average number of farms that first-time and repeat attendees visited on Open farm Day, which was 4.4 and 5.1, respectively.
There were other ways in which differences between first-time and repeat attendees were statistically significant. First-time attendees were statistically less likely to be familiar with farms they visited at Open Farm Day prior to the event with 58.8 percent reporting some familiarity with farms and 40.7 percent reporting no familiarity, compared to 83.7 percent and 14.7 percent of repeat attendees, respectively. First-time attendees also differed significantly from repeat attendees in purchasing product at Open Farm Day; 87.4 percent of first-time attendees purchased product from farms they visited compared to 93.5 percent of repeat attendees.
Visitors who made purchases at Open Farm Day are a critical group of customers contributing to event sales. Of the total visitors that purchased product at Open Farm Day, 40.1 percent reported that it was their first time making a purchase from at least one of the farms they visited. Examining those visitors that did make purchases at Open Farm Day, 66.4 percent were first-time attendees and 54.2 percent reported no familiarity with the farms they purchased product from prior to the event. Overall, 55.4 percent of first-time attendees that purchased product did so for the first time from a farm versus 25.8 percent of repeat attendees. This means that 43.9 percent of first-time attendees and 74.1 percent of repeat attendees that purchased product were repeat customers to farms. These differences were statistically significant.
First-time and repeat attendees reported similar levels of satisfaction with Open Farm Day. In ranking their experience with Open Farm Day on a scale from one to five with one being “strongly disagree” and five being “strongly agree”, first-time and repeat attendees rated their experience a 4.76 and 4.74, respectively. However, there was a statistically significant different between first-time and repeat attendees when asked if they intended to return to Open Farm Day the following year. Only 86.3 percent of first-time attendees reported they intended to attend Open Farm Day next year versus 95.6 percent of repeat attendees.
More information on this study, including a fact sheet with full result charts and a recorded presentation are available at http://cceontario.org/agriculture/ag-economic-development/agritourism-resources.
The follow-up survey sent out in 2016 to respondents of the 2015 survey did not yield a representative population sample, but its results shed more light on visitors who were repeat attendees in 2015, which made up 64.6 percent of respondents. In total, 78.5 percent of follow-up survey respondents reported buying product from farms they visited at Open Farm Day in the year after the event versus 78.3 percent of first-time attendees and 78.6 of repeat attendees. After attending Open Farm Day in 2015, 56.5 percent of those that were first-time attendees went to Open Farm Day again in 2016 compared to 69 percent of repeat attendees. Of those respondents that did attend Open Farm Day 2016, 100 percent of those that were first-time attendees in 2015 and 97.5 percent of repeat attendees in 2015 said they learned about new farms and farm products at the event in 2016.
These surveys show that there are significant differences between first-time and repeat customers who attend on-farm special events. Repeat attendees are more likely to purchase product, more likely to already be familiar with farms and have purchased product from them, and are more likely to report they will attend the same on-farm special event again. First-time customers reported high satisfaction with the event, reported visiting farms they were not previously familiar with, and were more likely than repeat customers to make first-time purchases at the event. However, first-time attendees were less likely than repeat attendees to report intent to attend Open Farm Day in the following year. Overall, both repeat and first-time customers said they learned about new farms and farms products at Open Farm Day, demonstrating that on-farm events are a good marketing tactic for farms to increase awareness about their products.
Based on customer responses, on-farm special events also have great sales potential. Farms that offer product for sale at these events can see strong day-of sales, as evidenced by around 90 percent of survey respondents reporting buying product at Open Farm Day. Also, Open Farm Day gained farms many new customers the day of the event considering that first-time attendees that also purchased product for the first time, which was 55.4 percent of first-time attendees, represent a group of truly new customers. On-farm special events can encourage repeat customers to increase purchases that they otherwise may not have made if not for the event, which makes on-farm
special events a great way to retain the interest of loyal customers. It should also be noted that 25.8 percent of repeat Open Farm Day attendees made purchases from a farm at the event for the first time, showing that attendees do not always make purchases their first time to an event but that they can be convinced to do so in the future.
It is difficult to tell if these events offer farms long-term customers. The follow-up survey did not yield many responses, but of those that did respond many said they bought product from Open Farm Day farms after the event. Farms may be able to gain first time sales from on-farm special events, but there is no guarantee that these customers will return to become more frequent customers. Recalling that first-time Open Farm Day attendees reported high event satisfaction and frequently bought product but still showed a lower intent to attend the next year, farms can do more hook new customers.
Farms looking to gain long-term customers from hosting on-farm special events should have clear plans in advance as to how they use their event to convert first-time customers into repeat customers. One way farms can do this is by offering incentives to event attendees to visit again, such as discounts on future purchases. Farms should also promote their sales channels at events so that attendees know where to buy product in the future event if they do not live close to the farm. This could include farmers markets, local farm stores, or online sales. Any farm hosting an on-farm event should use them as an opportunity to collect customer email addresses to have a way to market to customers in the future. Staying in contact with attendees is critical to maintaining their interest in the farm post-event.
Hosting on-farm events are an excellent marketing tool for farms, but farms should have realistic expectations about how they contribute to customer attraction and retention. From a marketing perspective, gaining and retaining customers are two different objectives. Gaining customers typically requires more resources than retaining existing customers. On-farm events can be a way to keep loyal customers and encourage them to increase their farm purchases. Farms can gain new customers at on-farm events from day-of sales, but to keep them coming back as long-term customers farms should view on-farm events as part of a larger marketing strategy.
This research is based upon work supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program under subaward number ONE15-229.
Marie Anselm is the Agriculture Economic Development Specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension Ontario County where she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She enjoys being able to meet and work with so many diverse farm operations as part of her work supporting New York state agriculture.