Scary good fun

Bruce Fire­stone dis­cov­ers the se­crets be­hind the suc­cess of lo­cal phe­nom­e­non Saun­ders Farm. >

Ottawa Business Journal - - FRONT PAGE - Bruce M. Fire­stone is founder of the Ot­tawa Sen­a­tors and a bro­ker at Cen­tury 21 Ex­plorer Realty. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @ProfBruce.

Ifirst met Anne Saun­ders when she came to the Ot­tawa Sen­a­tors’ of­fices – then on Moodie Drive in Bells Corners – on May 20, 1991 – wear­ing a clown out­fit. How do I know it was May 20? Be­cause that was her hand­some son David Saun­ders’s 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 Saun­der­ses, led by Anne and pa­tri­arch Bill, are a close-knit ru­ral fam­ily with four kids – Vicki, the eldest, David, Mark and Matthew. The agri­tourism busi­ness they’ve built in Mun­ster Ham­let (pop­u­la­tion: about 1,300), 40 min­utes south­west of Ot­tawa, is a lo­cal phe­nom­e­non at­tract­ing nearly 100,000 cus­tomers each year to a wide range of at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing hedge mazes, hayrides, gem min­ing, pup­pet shows, moun­tain slides, day camps for kids, wed­dings and com­pany pic­nics.

But Saun­ders Farm is still pri­mar­ily known for haunting sea­son, which be­gins in late Septem­ber and ends on Nov. 1 each year. The farm has wel­comed more than one mil­lion guests to its Hal­loween per­for­mances since launch­ing its fall fes­ti­val 23 years ago.

But 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.”

Be­fore get­ting into the tourism busi­ness, Mrs. Saun­ders 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 me­tres east of Saun­ders Farm. Mr. Saun­ders 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 once peo­ple stopped mak­ing their own jams and jel­lies, 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 the farm, ran some lo­cal news­pa­per ads, put out some fly­ers and hoped fam­i­lies would come.

Over the 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.

Right from the get-go, the Saun­der­ses de­cided against fol­low­ing the Amer­i­can ex­am­ple of mak­ing their haunting sea­son a gore-fest. They wanted it scary, but not re­volt­ing – a fam­ily at­trac­tion, not a school for se­rial killers and so­ciopaths.

The fol­low­ing year they added more hay wag­ons, planted more trees, be­gan grow­ing spruce and cedar hedge mazes – they now have 10 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 mer­chan­dise.

More re­cently they’ve added a pav­il­ion that seats 250 peo­ple. It also has a sta­teof-the-art kitchen. The fam­ily be­lieves 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 and come in to pro­vide food and bev­er­age ser­vices, but they de­cided to bring that in-house.

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

They em­ploy 55 peo­ple in sum­mer, 220 in Oc­to­ber and four full-timers year-round. It’s quite the eco­nomic gen­er­a­tor in a place the size of Mun­ster. For those old enough to re­mem­ber the 1960s sit­com The Munsters, even the ham­let’s name is price­less.

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

The busi­ness is now run by Mark Saun­ders, Anne and Bill Saun­ders’s ir­re­press­ible 48-year-old son.

“About 55 per cent of our busi­ness is done in the fall,” he says. “In fact, in the 149 hours we op­er­ate in Oc­to­ber, we get around 500 peo­ple per hour en­ter­ing the farm. The op­er­a­tion does low seven fig­ures in rev­enues and is prof­itable.” Then he adds with a smile, “Some days.” Not bad for a 102-acre farm. I ask Mark Saun­ders what his MMB – magic mar­ket­ing but­ton – is. You know, the “easy” but­ton, the one you push and clients and cus­tomers sim­ply show up.

“When­ever there is a Fri­day the 13th in Septem­ber, we’ll do an online coupon cam­paign,” he an­swers. “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 (CTV Ot­tawa weath­er­man) J.J. Clarke would men­tion us

“It used to be if (CTV Ot­tawa weath­er­man) J.J. Clarke would men­tion us on the news or even if we put ads in the lo­cal news­pa­per, cars would pour down the road. But that doesn’t work any­more … So to­day, it’s all web-based … We have a large e-mail list of 38,000 peo­ple plus 5,500 Twit­ter and 12,000 Face­book fol­low­ers.”

– MARK SAUN­DERS, DI­REC­TOR OF FUN AT SAUN­DERS FARM

on the news or even if we put ads in the lo­cal news­pa­per, cars would pour down the road,” he says. “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 e-mail 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,” his son says. I ask them what’s been their big­gest chal­lenge so far. Right away, Bill Saun­ders an­swers, “Did you know that 98 per cent of lawyers give the other two per cent a bad name?”

He’s re­fer­ring to deal­ing with zon­ing of­fi­cials at the City of Ot­tawa.

“Our ex­pe­ri­ence with the city was made much worse,” Mrs. Saun­ders 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 by­law, 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 the neigh­bour sold his prop­erty and moved away. To­day, Saun­ders Farm is zoned agri­cul­tural and mixed amuse­ment af­ter the city re­luc­tantly cre­ated a spe­cial zone for it.

The busi­ness is now part of a world­wide move­ment to save fam­ily farms by in­tro­duc­ing at­trac­tions such as farm-stay net­works, ex­pe­ri­en­tial tourism and agri-en­ter­tain­ment, a drive led by groups such as the North Amer­i­can Farm­ers’ Di­rect Mar­ket­ing As­so­ci­a­tion. Saun­ders Farm is one of more than 700 mem­bers of the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“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,” the se­nior Mr. Saun­ders says.

Or, as some might say, they’re price­less.

PHOTO BY MARK HOLLERON

Kids don’t have to look far for fun any time of year at Saun­ders Farm.

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