Working with vendors to enhance and diversify an agritourism business – and the consumer experience – can be both rewarding and challenging. An advantage that all three agritourism businesses shared is that vendors have their own set of customers and followers to bring with them to the agritourism business. Vendors will also typically market or advertise that they will be at an agritourism business on a particular weekend or during an event, further increasing the exposure that an agritourism business receives. Megan Coopey noted that “serving more people is always a good thing because they have fun and then they come back again to shop your store even when there’s not an event."
Other advantages include having the “professionals" (e.g. the individual vendors) manage and control individual activities or offerings, not having to manage “one more thing" on top of what is already a busy/heavy workload, and offering a greater variety of activities/offerings/events for customers.
Megan Coopey noted that “This past year during COVID-19, outdoor concerts, craft shows, and food trucks allowed us to spread out any crowds and socially distance fun, family activities in a way we wouldn’t have been able to do in-house due to occupancy restrictions in our store and cafe areas in PA."
Challenges range from logistics, such as scheduling, to the intangible, such as respect, cooperation, and trust. Communication from the outset is crucial for managing potentially challenging issues. For new vendors, simply the unknown can be a challenge. Lindsay Eshelman with Plow Farms noted that it could be a challenge “getting certain vendors to “believe in" how busy Plow Farms gets - which will create good business for them, especially during special event days." This was echoed by Julie Keene at Flinchbaugh’s Orchard & Farm Market who shared, “We have learned that our name was unknown to many and they doubted the potential of our events. Once they were here - they were very willing in returning because they knew the crowds we welcomed."
Considerations for Having a Vendor at Your Business
There are several issues agritourism businesses should consider when deciding whether to partner with vendors.
Fit with Your "Brand"
One of the first, and most important, aspects to give thought to is whether a vendor aligns with the agritourism operation’s “brand." For instance, an agritourism business with the aim to provide a family-friendly atmosphere of informality will likely see greater success with vendors that are comfortable with crowds, noise, and a sense of chaos or comfort with the unpredictable. On the other hand, if an agritourism operation is geared to provide a sense of exclusivity, it would be crucial to identify vendors that share that objective. Julie Keene at Flinchbaugh’s Orchard and Farm Market notes that they “try to match the vendor to the event – fair foods for kid events, gourmet for adult events, etc."
A vendor’s reputation is another consideration. Regarding the vendor’s business reputation, some points to look at include:
- Does the vendor follow through on their commitments to show up as scheduled?
- Is the vendor responsive to communications, whether phone, email, text, etc.?
- Do they respect, and follow, the operating guidelines set by the businesses they partner with?
- Do they provide evidence of insurance or permits when requested?
A responsible business owner would also review the vendor’s reputation with the public. Key questions may include:
- How does the vendor interact with public members, both at the agritourism operation and other events?
- Are visitors pleased with the vendor’s quality of product or service?
Agritourism businesses should also consider the type of relationship/arrangement that is desired with vendors. For instance, is the agritourism business looking to partner with vendors regularly (e.g., weekly during a specified time frame) or for special events that may only occur once or twice a year? Is there a desire for a multi-year or continuing arrangement or will vendors be selected each year? It is important to make clear the expected length of the relationship.
The three agritourism businesses that shared their thoughts all noted that they try to work with the same vendors from year to year. This is done to create and maintain a sense of community and provide some predictability to the vendors. However, it was noted that vendors who do not respect an agritourism business’s contract or that pull out from attending for multiple years would be dropped.
Number of Visitors
As noted previously, it can sometimes be a challenge, especially for vendors that have not previously worked with an agritourism business, to develop a sense of the financial value to them in partnering. Particularly for agritourism businesses recruiting vendors, they should be prepared to discuss the visitor numbers and flow patterns. This will allow the vendor to determine for themself a predicted return. Julie Keene highlighted this point when she noted, “Don’t overbook food vendors – too many (or too few) for the crowds you expect."
The number and mix of products and services being offered is another consideration when recruiting, inviting, or selecting vendors. Megan Coopey shared, “It is important for us as a business to choose vendors based on unique/quality products but also to limit the repetition of vendors. For example: If there’s already a vendor selling wooden goods, we may add one more with different products, but not 2 more. That amount of competition, based on the size of our event, means that each vendor makes less money. 2 is a party, 3’s a crowd, especially when it comes to money-making." Agritourism operators should also consider how individuals vendor products, services, and activities complement their business.
Certifications, Permits and Licenses
Depending on the vendor type, it is essential to ensure that they have the required and appropriate certifications, permits, and licenses. For food vendors, according to Martin Bucknavage (Senior Food Safety Extension Associate at Penn State Extension), in Pennsylvania, enforcement of food requirements often falls to city or county health departments or the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture when there is no local oversight. Agritourism businesses should also check with their state, county, and township regarding zoning and associated permitting requirements. Permit requirements may vary depending on whether the vendor is operating at an agritourism business under normal business circumstances or a special event.
Agritourism operators should not assume that their farm business liability insurance will cover vendors. Before having vendors come to an agritourism location, the owner should review their coverage and options with their insurance provider. In addition, vendors should carry their own insurance, particularly if they are providing or preparing food products. Julie Keene at Flinchbaugh’s Orchard & Farm Market notes that they require vendors to list them on the insurance policy and to provide a copy of the policy.
While it is essential to prioritize insurance, you should also talk to your vendors about any state-specific liability laws that may apply. For example, if a vendor is providing horseback rides at an agritourism operation, they may be able to claim liability protection under Pennsylvania’s Equine Activity Immunity Act. That protection, however, only applies if warning signs are posted conspicuously on the premises. If a vendor claims that they have liability protection under specific state law, the operator should review that law or ask an attorney to explain the details. Liability protection laws can be a great advantage and may allow operators to invite vendors who may otherwise seem “too risky."
Management and Logistics
Since integrating vendors into an agritourism business’s operation will add another layer to management responsibilities, it is vital to be fully aware of the time investment required at all stages – pre-season/event, day of, and post-season/event. This is a critical point for agritourism businesses first venturing into vendor agreements – the work is not done when a vendor is scheduled. Time will need to be allocated to:
- Administrative tasks
- Vendor communications (pre-season/event, day-of, post-season/event)
- Financials (deposit processing, payments, etc.)
- Set-up, tear-down supervision
- Post season/event assessment
Logistically, agritourism owners should be mindful of the space they have available for vendors to set up and operate within. Adequate space is needed for both the vendors and customers. It may be tempting to include as many vendors as possible, but if neither customers nor the vendors feel the space is adequate for lines that form, activities to take place, etc., there will be a detrimental effect on the overall experience.
Similar to having an employee hiring process, agritourism businesses may want to consider developing a process for choosing vendors. Developing a standard questionnaire or application can assist in this process. Issues and questions that could be used include:
- Provide a detailed description of the product or service.
-- Ask for references
-- Consider asking for samples and photos
- Is the vendor available on [insert specific dates or timeframe]?
- Is the vendor open/available for rescheduling due to adverse weather events?
- Space requirements?
-- Size of truck/trailer
-- Additional space needs
- Does the vendor agree to abide by the agritourism business’s rules? (be sure to provide a written copy of rules)
- Can the vendor provide proof of insurance or appropriate permits?
- Date by which a vendor must commit
- Mention if you require a non-refundable deposit to reserve space at the event
Depending on event circumstances and the method an agritourism operator uses for recruiting vendors, it can be useful to implement a deposit system to ensure that vendors show up. Megan Coopey explains their reason for doing so – “We also operate off of a first-come, first-serve basis. Some vendors are very busy and would prefer to attend bigger events, so if they hedge their bets and can’t commit, we are not offended but will also not save the space. The fall especially is hectic, so getting commitments can be a challenge, which is why we also require a non-refundable down deposit to reserve a space approximately 3 months prior."
It is recommended that agritourism operators have a written contract with the vendors they work with. Contracts may feel formal, but they offer the benefit of ensuring that both sides, the agritourism operator and the vendor, know and understand the expectations. An additional benefit is that should a question or dispute arise, the contract can be referred to rather than having to rely upon memory of conversations that may have taken place several months in the past. Contracts do not need to be overly detailed or complicated. A contract can be a one-page document listing the date of the event, the money exchanged, and any additional expectations. Another option is to create a “Memorandum of Understanding" which could simply list the business policies of the operation. A contract or memorandum should explain the consequences of cancellation and specify any other details unique to the event.
For agritourism operators considering or starting to work with vendors, Lindsey Eshelman and Megan Coopey shared some of the lessons they have learned through the years:
- Always think about growing your business and not staying the same.
- Ask “What is your goal in adding the vendors?" Consider the return on your investment of time.
- Always stick to your policies to protect your small business.
- Don’t do it all yourself- outside vendors and help are always good! It may be counterintuitive, but having some competition gives people choices and flexibility, which people appreciate.
- Tap your employees for their expertise! Our delivery driver is a part-time musician- he is organizing our concert series and doing a much better job than I would!
Megan Coopey offered the following thought, which perfectly sums the opportunity and reality of working with vendors - “Enjoy the process! It’s a lot of work. Some days are frustrating and long and tiresome, but when it all comes together, the potential for growth of your business is huge! Have fun!"