Guerilla Marketing

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You’ve been hearing it on the news for months. It’s just a matter of time before rising gas prices and problems in the housing market ripple through the rest of the economy. A slowdown is coming. Or, maybe for you, it’s already here.

Economic downturns affect every business. But if you’re in the horse business, you know that meeting your bottom line can be tight even in good times. Because horses are luxury items for most clients, and because most horse businesses operate with huge overhead and narrow profit margins, a slowing economy can hurt horse businesses more than others. According to veteran barn owners and managers, the key to weathering slow economic times is like good horsemanship: When business gets slow, savvy business owners go back to basics.

Word-of-Mouth Marketing

Linda Rubio never, ever forgets that the horse business is about people. Rubio has been the owner and head instructor at Miwok Livery in Mill Valley, Calif., for 26 of her 40 years in the horse business. Miwok Livery is a public riding facility catering to 200-plus clients who are largely non-horse owners. They take weekly English riding lessons or trail rides on her school horses. While a few of her students show, the majority are pleasure riders. Rubio has weathered economic downturns before, and her business has always bounced back.

She attributes her success largely to vigilant attention to customer care. “I always greet them with a smile. I ask them what they need, what they want to do, and what they want to learn,” she explains. “Your best customer is the one that has been coming to you for years. Keep them happy, and they will keep coming back and refer new clients.”

Connie Sparks, owner and head trainer of Epona Equine in Belgrade, Mont., knows firsthand the importance of marketing her business by word of mouth. Sparks has worked in all facets of the horse business for 30 years. Most of Sparks’ clients purchase lesson, boarding, and/or training services that focus primarily on hunter/jumpers and dressage. She says her business survives a slow economy about every 5 to 10 years.

“A good reputation in this business brings in more clients than anything else,” says Sparks. “Reputation is everything in a small town.” She has seen horse businesses fail due to negative buzz. “People are five times more likely to say something bad about you as they are to say something good,” observes Sparks. She believes deeply that positive word of mouth flows from treating clients with honesty and fairness. Those qualities, plus good horsemanship skills, are the cornerstone of Sparks’ successful horse business.

Chris and Carol Bearden also place a premium on reputation. They own and operate Poplar Place Stables and Eventing in Briones, Calif. Poplar Place is a training and showing barn which serves the affluent suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. The Beardens structure their business and their lives around the best quality of care for their clients’ horses. With over 80 years of combined experience in the showing and eventing worlds, care and quality training services at Poplar Place are key. And this, says Chris Bearden, is what people in the local horse community talk about.

Carol Bearden explains, “Our clients are all long-term. They are here because they love their horses and they love the care we provide. There is no detail too small to go unnoticed when it comes to providing safe, quality care for our clients’ animals.” The Bearden’s reputation for quality service has gotten them through recessions in the past and will get them through this one.

Helen Miller of Post Oak Farm in Burnet, Tex., agrees that word of mouth is an invaluable marketing tool. Miller has owned her business for 10 years. She offers boarding, training, lessons, and trail riding to novice adults who focus mainly on pleasure riding. She also offers riding vacations to out-of-towners who are looking for a unique riding experience. While focusing on her core equine business is important, Miller shores up her earning potential by manufacturing two horse-care products—BoobooGoop and Work Horse Wound Salve.

Payback Time

Unlike “word-of-mouth” marketing, most equine professionals have found paid advertising not to be cost effective. On the other hand, they know that giving back to their community has tremendous payback potential. Community service is a great way to introduce a horse business to potential clients. And the positive publicity that charity and volunteer work generate is priceless. Miller’s Post Oak Farm donates rides to local charity auctions and sponsors youth activities wherever possible. She also donates her wound salve to horse rescue operations.

Rubio has donated Miwok Livery’s resources to several at-risk youth programs for many years, with very gratifying results, both personally and professionally. She is currently restarting a program designed to support women recovering from breast cancer. These programs have attracted a great deal of local media attention and brought many volunteers (and potential customers) to Miwok, she explains.

Likewise, the Beardens donate countless hours and the use of their facility to local Pony Clubs. They invite Pony Club members who are not their regular clients to Poplar Place on a weekly basis. So anyone who is involved with Pony Club knows them and their facility. Sparks also maintains a very high profile in her community. She hosts an annual multi-state 4-H Judging Congress horse show for youth who are interested in becoming livestock judges. The show is a mechanism which introduces non-clients to her facility and business. She also organizes trail rides benefiting local charities.

One of Sparks’ most gratifying gifts to her community (and a successful marketing ploy) is her scholarships for low-income students. These students often stay with her for years, growing into responsible adults who contribute to the horse community and/or the community at large. Sparks’ success with these students is a source of pride and tremendous positive buzz for her.

I’ll Scratch your Back. . .

In addition to giving back to the community, it’s important to support other horse businesses. While it may feel scary to send a potential client elsewhere or puff up someone else’s business, Rubio, Sparks, the Beardens and Miller all agree that networking only helps their businesses. Carol Bearden explains, “We aren’t afraid of competition. We always speak positively about other facilities. We all have something to offer. It’s a small world and karma counts.”

Miller and Sparks regularly refer business they can’t accommodate, and both say that local competitors reciprocate by doing the same. Rubio has begun networking with other local riding academies by starting an inter-facility schooling show program. The goal, she says, is to showcase students who don’t own their own horses and to socialize with other barns. She expects payback in the form of fun for her clients, and for her business in the form of finances.

Internet Marketing

In the information age, it’s important to remember the powerful financial benefit the Internet can offer—often for free. Miller has found the Internet to be an invaluable tool in her marketing efforts. “Post Oak farm had one of the first equine-related websites up on the Internet in 1998,” she says. “I was already Internet capable and I got our website up before we actually opened.

“I use a lot of websites that allow free product placement. I am also a member of many online equine-related groups that offer a wealth of information to me and represent an advertising medium.” Rubio, Sparks, and the Beardens agree that without maintaining and updating their websites, their businesses would not be nearly as successful.

Remember, You’re Running a Business

To make sure your business stays successful during the current recession, Rubio, Sparks, the Beardens and Miller have some advice. Rubio emphasizes, “The biggest problem I have seen with horse businesses is that they are operated by horse lovers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but many people forget that it’s a business first and foremost. I always know what things cost, I always know what programs are working and which ones aren’t, and I constantly communicate with my customers. I always know what they want. And horses don’t write checks.” Rubio says that she is concerned about an imminent economic downturn and is prepared to adjust her programs accordingly. But since she is constantly watching the books and communicating with her customers, she won’t be taken by surprise. She hopes other businesses follow suit.

Sparks is pragmatic. Her advice to others in the business is to work harder at what you do best, eat less, and persevere. And above all, never, ever, be unfair or dishonest with anyone. Your good reputation will get you through, she advises.

The Beardens stress the details. “Keep your place extra clean, and pay attention to the smallest details. Horse owners love their horses above all else; show that you love their horses just as much, if not more.” Like Rubio, the Beardens are prepared to modify their services or programs if necessary.

Miller advises staying focused on core business activities and being persistent. This, and a strong work ethic will get you through the tough times. Hang in there!