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Sheep Fests
Enhance Flock Success



By Tim King


A regularly scheduled festival, farm tour, or open house can be a way to build your base of customers for the rest of the year and to sell more lamb and wool products.

Even the festival itself can also be a way to make income. But according to Yvonne Uhlianuk, of Mt. Bruce Station Farm Wool Shop, near Romeo, Michigan, you should start small and have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. Festivals, she says, need to be operated like any other business enterprise if they are going to be profitable.

Festivals, Fairs and Farm Tours Can Expand Your Customer Base While Generating Extra Income
Festivals, Fairs and Farm Tours Can Expand Your Customer Base While Generating Extra Income

Yvonne knows the truth of this from hard-earned experience. She’s been organizing a fall festival at her farm for fifteen years. In recent years she’s also begun hosting a Christmas festival and a spring fiber fair to coincide with the shearing of her registered flocks of Jacobs, Corriedales, and colored Corriedales.

“I started off with mine because I needed to expand my base of customers,” Yvonne said. “I had been going to shows for years.

“That’s a lot of work.

“And it’s expensive.

“And it requires a lot of time.

“Before I set up my first festival I resolved that I wasn’t going to keep hauling my stuff from the truck to shows: I wasn’t getting anywhere!

(“This was before the internet started so shows were the only venue I had to take my product out to customers.”)

The “3 P’s”

Yvonne had been in a variety of businesses before she set out to become a wool and lamb festival entrepreneur. As a result she knew intuitively what she had to do to succeed. Nowadays, as she’s had time to reflect on her experience, she tells all “wannabes” and newcomers not to forget the Three Ps. The Three Ps are:

  • What’s the Point?
  • What’s the Purpose?
  • What’s the Plan?
Yvonne offers a 'Practical Shepherd' workshop. It is interesting for her suburban visitors and it attracts rural people.  The blend of suburban and country folk creates a vibrant mix of festival attendees.
Yvonne offers a ‘Practical Shepherd’ workshop. It is interesting for her suburban visitors and it attracts rural people. The blend of suburban and country folk creates a vibrant mix of festival attendees.

“What’s the Point” may take the least thought. But it’s worth holding onto as a vision. You may want to repeatedly ask yourself, “What is the point of what you are doing?” as you get swamped by day-to-day detail. Reminding yourself of The Point may bring clarity and direction to the apparent muddle.

“The point is a festival, fair, farm tour or whatever you want to call it. They’re all pretty much the same,” Yvonne said. “So you say you’re going to have this festival, Right!?” (While she’s addressing a point, Yvonne drives it home with questions that to her have obvious answers.)

“The next “P” is the purpose. You need to ask yourself if you are going to sell or educate. Or are you going to entertain?” she said. “If you’re going to sell, what are you going to sell? And who is going to sell it? You need to ask yourself the same kinds of questions if you decide your primary purpose is to educate or entertain.”

A Festival Can Help You Sell

The purpose of the Mt. Bruce Station Sheep and Wool Festival now, says Yvonne, is to sell. In its first four or five years its purpose was to sell by building a year-round customer base for the farm store. During that period the festival actually lost money while year-round sales increased. Now the purpose is more focused on the actual festival.

The festival includes a substantial educational component as well as entertainment for visitors. There are workshops and demonstrations galore as well a plentiful music and food. But the ball for Yvonne to keep her eye on is the sales ball. She describes the sales approach as a soft sell. The success of the festival will be measured against its declared purpose: The amount of sales.

“We have a beautiful farm and the festival is promoted as a relaxing day in the country,” she said. “The festival allows people to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and learn about the wonderful things of the countryside and to see sheep and fiber. It’s a soft sell-but we’re still selling.”

Making Plans

If the point is to hold a festival and the purpose is to generate sales, then a plan is required. The third P is for a plan, Right?!

After your festival builds a reputation, vendors will increase interest while adding to the overall income.  Screen for quality and service.
After your festival builds a reputation, vendors will increase interest while adding to the overall income. Screen for quality and service.

The first two Ps don’t include significant number of elements. A plan, however, can become complicated.

Yvonne’s advice is to start small and keep it simple in the beginning. However, there are two categories of things in a basic plan you need to pay attention to whether you are large or small.

The first part of the plan is what you need to do before the festival:

You need a budget, and you need a promotion plan.

Or, as Yvonne might say: What are the bills going to be for your party, who is going to pay them, and who is coming to your party?

“Whether your budget is $200 or $2,000 it has to include the cost of the basics,” Yvonne says. “Whatever you want to call it, the basics are the same:

  • “You have to park them.
  • “You have to give them bathrooms, and
  • “You have to feed them.
  • “Besides that, you have to do promotion and advertising.”
On-site food concessionaires like this lamb barbecue makes attendees stay longer, and puts them in a buying mood.
On-site food concessionaires like this lamb barbecue makes attendees stay longer, and puts them in a buying mood.

Promotion

Your promotion can consist of notifying your existing customers by mail or phone. That’s what a friend of Yvonne’s did when she held her first open house.

Notifying friends and customers is also what Sue Ross, a Delano, Minnesota shepherdess does. Ross holds a shearing festival each spring. She tells her customers-many of whom take her winter felting classes-about the upcoming festival. She also lets her fleece customers from previous years know about the upcoming festival.

The result has been that over the years Ross sells all of her fleeces-and takes reservations for the following year-at her shearing festival.

The payoff of Ross’ festival is that she no longer feels she needs it to sell her fleeces.

Sue Ross: Shearing fest built fleece sales to where she must take fleece orders a year ahead.
Sue Ross: Shearing fest built fleece sales to where she must take fleece orders a year ahead.

“It started as a marketing thing and now I can sell the wool pretty easily so I kind of wonder if I should even have a shearing,” Sue says. “But people are counting on it. I’ve had people come up to me at the Shepherds Harvest fiber show in Lake Elmo and tell me they were at our shearing and it was so good for them to get out of the city. We usually get about 80 people to come.”



Inviting Your Wool-Vending Competitors to Your Fest

“Aha!” says Yvonne: Keeping in mind the second P (to sell!) Yvonne started inviting vendors when she reached the point where her festival had more customers than she had lamb and wool products.

Ross has a few vendors come as well. But the vendors are there largely to make the festival more interesting; to entertain and not to sell Ross’ products or services. Yvonne’s vendors are there to make her money.

Interesting and well planned demonstrations can boost product sales at booths and the gate.
Interesting and well planned demonstrations can boost product sales at booths and the gate.

“I had to decide that even though every skein of yarn somebody else sells, I don’t sell one; but I was getting paid from the gate fee,” Yvonne, who charges six dollars per visitor and has between 2,500 to 3,000 visitors, said. “I take that so the more I get through the gate the more I make. It took a long time, but eventually what I lost in sales through my on-farm shop eventually became irrelevant.”

What is relevant is that Yvonne screens her vendors very carefully to assure that they have a high quality service and that they are people who give shoppers a rewarding shopping experience. Then she does everything she can to make sure her vendors succeed. That way, she is certain of top notch vendors returning every year and of festival-goers returning in search of that pleasant shopping experience.

A Friendly Atmosphere

Part of creating that pleasant shopping experience is to ensure that visitors feel welcome.

“I’ve been to some small festivals and nobody is talking to any one,” Yvonne said. “When I walked in nobody said hello. Nobody said the workshops are over here. Nobody said the parking is over there.”

If the purpose is to make money, and if happy customers represent returning customers and positive word of mouth advertising, then the plan must be to do all you can to create a positive festival experience for each customer.

Can You Get Good Help?

Which brings Yvonne to the matter of help.

She runs her festival with a combination of paid employees and volunteers.

Both can create problems.

She advises beginners to stay small and do it themselves. She even cautions against taking family help for granted. If you are going to have help, everybody should have a clearly defined job description-preferably written on a sheet of paper.

Yvonne’s friend (the shepherd who had the open house) asked another friend to help her. The friend came with her autistic nephew. She spent most of her time caring for her nephew.

“If she had been clear and said to that person ‘I need you here at such-and-such time to do this, this, and that,’ there would have been a better understanding,” Yvonne advised.

Wagon rides make happy guests.  Happy guests spend money and return next year.
Wagon rides make happy guests. Happy guests spend money and return next year.

Finally, when Yvonne says that there’s not really any difference between a festival, a farm tour, an open house, or a field day, she doesn’t mean you should treat what you call your project with indifference.

Your name is serious business. Once you choose it, treat it as your trademark; spread it far and wide, on business cards, invoices, posters. And get it on the tongues of happy visitors or customers!

To learn more about the Mount Bruce Sheep and Wool Festival, visit the farm’s website: www.sheepstuff.com/Festival.html.

While you’re there take a look at Yvonne’s top notch purebred Jacob, Corriedale, and colored Corriedale breeding stock. One her specialties, other than organizing festivals, is starter flocks. And don’t forget the Three P’s. Right?!





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