Archive for July, 2012

Small U.S. Farms Find Profit in Tourism

July 18th, 2012 by Mariah

 

SANTA MARGARITA, Calif. — For all the talk about sustainable agriculture, most small farms are not self-sustaining in a very basic sense: they can’t make ends meet financially without relying on income from jobs off the farm.

But increasingly farmers are eking more money out of the land in ways beyond the traditional route of planting crops and raising livestock. Some have opened bed-and-breakfasts, often known as farm stays, that draw guests eager to get a taste of rural living. Others operate corn mazes — now jazzed up with modern fillips like maps on cellphones — that often turn into seasonal amusements, with rope courses and zip lines. Ranchers open their land to hunters or bring in guests to ride horses, dude ranch style.

Known as agritourism, such activities are becoming an important economic boost for many farmers.

Early each morning, Jim Maguire milks the sheep and goats and feeds the pigs on his small dairy farm here before heading off to his day job as a public defender in San Luis Obispo County. His wife, Christine, makes cheese and tends the animals.

But in recent years, Ms. Maguire has added some new chores: changing linens and serving food to the guests who stay at Rinconada Dairy’s two bed-and-breakfast units, one in a private wing of the farmhouse and the other in a remodeled corner of a barn. Money from the paying guests is now enough to pay for the animals’ feed, one of the farm’s biggest expenditures.

“The whole idea is to get the farm in a productive state so that it carries itself, so that it pays its own way,” Mr. Maguire said early on a recent morning as he watched sheep file onto the raised stainless steel platform of an automatic milking machine. “The farm stay is an important economic portion of that.”

The United States Department of Agriculture predicts that this year the average farm household will get only about 13 percent of its income from farm sources. Agritourism is appealing because it increases the family’s income from the farm, potentially reducing the need for off-farm jobs.

The U.S.D.A.’s census of agriculture, which is conducted every five years, estimated that 23,000 farms offered agritourism activities in 2007, bringing in an average of $24,300 each in additional income. The number of farms taking part fell from the previous census, in 2002, but at that time the average agritourism income per farm was just $7,200.

California, the nation’s largest farm state, was among the leaders in agritourism, according to the census, with nearly 700 farms averaging more than $50,000 in agritourism income.

The agritourism movement is fueled by city dwellers who want to understand where their food comes from or who feel an urge to embrace the country life.

Scottie Jones, who raises sheep and runs a farm stay in Alsea, Ore., received $42,000 in U.S.D.A. grants to start a Web site, Farm Stay U.S., which maintains a listing of farm stays around the country. The site began last June and now includes more than 900 farms and ranches, with about 20 listings added each month.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms acts as an online clearinghouse for people who want to trade labor for lodging on a farm, with stays ranging from days to months. Ryan Goldsmith, who manages the group’s branch in the United States, said that interest had grown strongly. Currently more than 11,600 people are registered as members of the American branch, with access to a database of about 1,300 farms, in all 50 states.

Even the corn maze, a staple of rural tourism for decades, is becoming more popular.

Brett Herbst, the owner of The Maize, a Utah company that designs and creates corn mazes, estimated there were more than 1,000 mazes around the country each year, from simple versions to complex behemoths that include games for visitors, with clues delivered by text message. His company expects to build about 220 mazes in the United States this year, about 20 more than last year. Ten years ago he created about 130 mazes.

“It’s virtually impossible to make a living just off traditional farming on a small farm,” said Mr. Herbst. “This really provides an opportunity to keep the land, keep a family farm existent, even amongst urbanization, and allows someone to depend less on an outside job for their income.”

Still, there are hurdles. For example, many farmers complained about insurance costs, which rise with the number of farm visitors.

For years, Christine Cole has charged for tours of her farm, in Sebastopol, Calif., where she keeps horses, raises vegetables and chickens and has three farm stay units.

At the end of April, her insurance carrier dropped her, although she said she had made no major claims. She began looking for new insurance, she said, but was repeatedly turned down. She said insurers seemed unwilling to cover the broad range of activities on her farm. Finally, she found a policy that cost her almost $9,000 a year, about triple the cost of her previous coverage.

“That is more than 10 percent of my income,” Ms. Cole said. “I broke down and cried.”

Some states have acted to make it easier for farmers. Next month, a new law will go into effect in Indiana to limit the liability of farmers when someone is injured on their property while participating in agritourism activities.

Although many farmers said they enjoyed the city-country interaction at the heart of agritourism, it takes a particular type to pull it off.

“If you’re not a people person, forget it,” said Vince Gizdich, who runs Gizdich Ranch, in Watsonville, which includes a “Pik-Yor-Self” operation with berries and apples. The ranch also has a farm stand and a pie shop. As Mr. Gizdich talked with a reporter on a recent afternoon, he was interrupted repeatedly by people popping into the shop or customers calling to ask when his boysenberries and olallieberries would be ripe.

Bonnie Swank, of Hollister, Calif., runs a corn maze and haunted house each fall on land that grows vegetables the rest of the year. At a recent agritourism workshop for farmers sponsored by the university extension service, she explained the extensive planning that goes into the annual six-week extravaganza, which can draw up to 30,000 people and brings in about a quarter of the farm’s annual revenue.

“People look at what we’re doing and they say, ‘We could do that and make a lot of money,’” she said. “It’s not that easy.”

Kim A. Rogers understands the hard work. For seven years, she and her husband ran a farm and orchard in Templeton, Calif., along with a busy bed and breakfast.

Finally she had an epiphany: farming was exhausting work and the bed-and-breakfast was providing an increasing portion of their income. So last year she and her husband pulled up their 700 fruit trees and became full-time innkeepers, with a cottage and a bungalow that rent for $150 to $285 a night.

They still have a few sheep, hens and a large vegetable garden — enough to maintain the farm feel.

“A lot of people just want that rural farm experience,” she said.

City Crackdown on Hotels Affects Quaint Bed and Breakfasts Too

July 18th, 2012 by Mariah

New York Times

The Eden House hotel in Washington Heights advertised free Wi-Fi and good subway access at bargain prices. The Loftstel in Brooklyn offered dorm-style beds for $25 a night, and three-bedrooms for just $195. In a city where a hotel room often costs a week’s pay, they seemed attractive options.

But there was one big problem: these arrangements, city officials said, were illegal.

Armed with a new state law, the city has spent the past year cracking down on the growing industry of short-term rentals; since the law took effect last May, nearly 1,900 notices of violation have been issued at hundreds of residential buildings.

“The issue of illegal hotels is one that’s been a mounting problem in the city over the last several years,” said John Feinblatt, chief policy adviser to the mayor, pointing to a tenfold increase in complaints about them since 2006, to about 1,000 last year.

The new law made it illegal to rent out apartments in residential buildings for under 30 days. Owners of an apartment or a town house may still rent out one or two rooms, provided that they live in the home and everyone has access to common areas like the kitchen. Illegal hotels found by the city included small rental buildings, condos and town houses, and many of them were hiding in plain sight.

The Loftstel, a town house on Greene Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, advertised on Web sites, including a New York University site that offers suggestions for short-term housing. (N.Y.U. does not endorse the locations.)

Students and tourists came to the Loftstel from all over the world, said Tommy Walton, 56, who lives a few doors down. They threw “crazy parties,” he said, adding that he was once invited in by a guest and found a refrigerator packed with beer and vodka, but not a scrap of food.

During an inspection last year, the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement found 44 guests in the house, inadequate smoke alarms and other unsafe conditions, problems the city says are common when residences are used for short-term lodging.

The building now stands vacant. The man behind the business, Jeff Pan, said he had “made a clean break from it.”

Joseph F. Porto, owner of Eden House, on West 173rd Street, said that his hotel had served people who could not otherwise afford to stay in the city.

Those who campaign for affordable housing, and city and state officials, said the law was a response to a flood of complaints from New Yorkers who saw their single-room-occupancy buildings converted to youth hostels, watched as their landlords ousted long-term tenants to accommodate overnight guests, or found their condominium buildings suddenly filled with strangers.

State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan, who sponsored the bill, said the rise of Internet listing and reservation sites had “absolutely multiplied” the problem.

But the crackdown has also affected a quieter section of the hospitality industry, established bed-and-breakfasts.

“We absolutely sympathize with the city; nothing is more important to us than the safety of tourists and visitors,” said Vinessa Milando, owner of the Ivy Terrace Bed and Breakfast on East 58th Street in Manhattan. “But we believe we were unintended targets.”

Ms. Milando’s establishment, which has been in business for 14 years, offers six rooms with hardwood floors and brightly colored walls..

Last summer, city inspectors came by. She received notices of violations stating that the building had an incorrect certificate of occupancy and inadequate fire safety measures for rooms to be rented on a short-term basis. She was fined nearly $10,000, and a judge ruled in the city’s favor.

Now, Ms. Milando heads a small trade association of bed-and-breakfast proprietors called StayNYC, which is lobbying for regulations that would allow them to offer short-term rentals.

On Friday, at a hearing about effects of the state law, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat who is chairman of the Assembly’s Housing Committee, said the intent was to stop building owners from profiting at the expense of safety and of others in the community. But he added that he would review whether the law could be relaxed for owners of smaller properties “that got caught up” in the enforcement.

Some small proprietors said they were trying to stay afloat by looking for longer-term guests, who need a room for at least 30 days — one woman who went that route estimated her business was off by 80 percent — but many were just trying to keep their heads down.

“Inspect us for safety; tax us; we welcome it — just don’t shut us down,” said the owner of a town house who offers short-term rentals in three apartments in the building, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid attracting inspectors’ attention. He said he had gone into debt renovating the town house, in which he lives, to accommodate guests, and so could not afford to stop renting the units.

“The industry isn’t going to go away,” he continued. “It’s just going to go further and further underground.”

Check out the Ivy Terrace on TheInnkeeper.com here! keep their heads down.

“Inspect us for safety; tax us; we welcome it — just don’t shut us down,” said the owner of a town house who offers short-term rentals in three apartments in the building, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid attracting inspectors’ attention. He said he had gone into debt renovating the town house, in which he lives, to accommodate guests, and so could not afford to stop renting the units.

“The industry isn’t going to go away,” he continued. “It’s just going to go further and further underground.”

 

Check out the Ivy Terrace on TheInnkeeper.com here!

 

Pinterest and your business

July 18th, 2012 by Mariah

 

One social site has captured the attention of the masses recently… and it is not called Facebook or Twitter. Sure, the number of users is clearly not as high as what you’d find on those two behemoths, but Pinterest is gaining traction, especially with the female demographic.

What’s the fascination? For Amy Larson, a special education teacher who uses the site for about two hours per day, the whole purpose is in finding interesting design ideas. She pins pictures to her Pinterest board, where she has a few dozen followers, as a reminder about what is cool and stylish. And, by the way, she does not use Facebook much at all, which is more about forming social connections.

“I love Pinterest because it’s like getting a whole bunch of magazines without adding clutter in my house and without the cost,” she says. “There are so many great ideas and recipes, and it’s all organized on the computer so I can access my favorites at anytime.”

Pinterest had an estimated 3.3 million unique visitors in the month of October. While there’s no mechanism for potential customers to buy your products directly from the site, consider the marketing potential: Popular images (with links back to the original source) can get repinned on hundreds of other users’ boards.

Here are nine proven ways to attract the attention of people like Amy, improve your click-throughs, and spread the word about a new product:

 

1. Spend the time

Like any social network, and maybe even more with this demographic, Pinterest.com requires an investment in time. Jason White, who owns Quality Woven Labels, says one key is to build relationships with those who are known for quality “pins” at the site. He says, once these movers and shakers get to know you and your business, they will be more likely to post about your product. White says to focus on the users who get the most likes and repins.

“All of these repins and likes share a common interest, making it easier to take the conversation to Twitter or Facebook to nurture the relationship,” he says. “Like everything else, be real and show your true self. Authenticity is hugely important.”

 

2. Keep it simple

The main appeal of Pinterest is that the site is exceptionally easy to use. Everyone has a “board” where they pin images that are all the same size. Hana Abaza, the co-founder and CEO of Wedding Republic, says it’s best to mimic Pinterest’s uncluttered aesthetic, so she creates boards that are clean and elegant looking. Each pinned photo includes one link back to her site (you click once to see the pin page, and again to see the source site). Abaza says Pinterest dramatically boosted page views. Through her social media efforts she saw a 75 percent increase in traffic, with Pinterest generating most of that.

 

3. Connect your physical presence with your online presence

It’s important to connect the dots between a physical location and your Pinterest page. Becca Bijoch does public relations for the Minneapolis store Creative Kidstuff. Often the physical store will feature online ads and Pinterest promotions. Soon the company website will feature Pinterest buttons. So far, the campaign has yielded about 150 extra page views directly from Pinterest and two direct sales. Not astounding, but that’s only after using the site for about 30 days.

 

4. Make sure your business is a match

This tip might seem obvious, but Pinterest caters to those looking for recipes, room décor, and do-it-yourself crafts. If your company sells power sanders, you might not be a good fit. Quality Woven Labels, which makes tags for custom clothing, has been able to use Pinterest to connect with the perfect demographic: independent fashion designers.

 

5. Use other social nets to feed Pinterest

The new kid on the block may be getting all of the hype, but existing social networks have one advantage: a vast number of users. Justin Palmer, the online awareness director at Sevenly, a custom T-Shirt shop, says to get the most number of eyeballs his company uses Tumblr and Facebook to point people to Pinterest.

 

6. Launch a daily pin theme

Sevenly has created a daily pin to promote its brand. The idea is to come up with a catchy slogan that is tied to the organization’s charity work and memorable enough so that the images get re-pinned. The daily themed pins usually lead to repeat visitors. Sevenly also posts a weekly custom-designed t-shirt, which is often re-pinned by other Pinterest users. Bonus: They come back often looking for the new one.

 

7. Promote more than products

The temptation for any business is to post pins only for products you sell. Giselle Gonzalez is a promoter for Cakestyle, a company that makes wardrobe suggestions for women, and says one key is to post interesting news tidbits, tips, and products from other companies. She says Pinterest users are savvy in spotting a board that is too self-serving and only posts product photos.

 

8. Follow the big hitters

One of the best ways to raise awareness about your company is to start following the big names on Pinterest. This is the proven method on Twitter: When you follow popular figures, and they follow you back, other Twitter users get the message and follow the leader. Sevenly’s Palmer says it’s important to find out who is “pinning” your products and to follow them to see if they follow you back. Most do, he says.

 

9. Selective curating

Pinterest caters to those who love to “curate” or weed out the good from the bad. Presenza, a custom clothing designer, finds unique products beyond their own offering and pins them. The company also uses key phrases on their board like “made in the USA” and “defining confidence” to help define the brand.

 

Check out TheInnkeeper.com on Pinterest here!