Marketing Tips from the Time to Ride Challenge Winners

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Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

Regardless of a stable’s size or location, owners and managers alike are looking for opportunities to grow their businesses. Often, the go-to marketing approach is to advertise to horse owners or horse enthusiasts looking for specialized training, a new boarding facility or a different experience than the one they are already receiving.

Serving individuals already connected with horses and riding is essential; however, there is a frequently overlooked audience that could offer even greater potential for growth in your equine business.

“Research suggests that as many as 30% of Americans have positive feelings about horses or riding, but that doesn’t mean they are currently involved with horses,” stated Patti Colbert, Time to Ride spokesperson.

The Time to Ride Challenge, an initiative of the American Horse Council’s marketing alliance, was formed to connect people with horses. It is designed to encourage horse-interested consumers to enjoy the benefits of horse activities. Time to Ride provides marketing tools and best practices to help stables.

In 2015, the participating stables, clubs and equine related businesses located in 49 states reached a grand total of 41,428 new horse enthusiasts during the summer-long program.

“Our hosts do a fantastic job of bridging that gap. By specifically reaching out to ‘non-horse’ people, they’re growing their own client base by making horses more accessible to local families who may need some guidance getting started,” Colbert added.

We’ve asked three of the top finishers from the 2015 Time to Ride Challenge how the marketing strategies they used earned them a first or second place finish in their respective categories. We also asked them about the increase in business they expect for 2016.

16 Acres Equine Educational Complex--Union Grove, Wisconsin
Business at 16 Acres Equine Educational Complex had stagnated. Regular clients were loyal and steady, but owner Jody Halladay wasn’t seeing many new clients walk in the door. She knew that to sustain her lesson, training and horsemanship programs she needed to bring in new-to-horses or returning-to-horses riders.

In May 2014, she stumbled across the Time to Ride Challenge on the final application day. “I looked at my assistant and said, ‘We’ve got to do this,’” Halladay said.

With little preparation heading into the challenge, they forged relationships with community organizations and provided 2,840 first-time horse experiences. Encouraged by the response, Halladay didn’t wait for the last day of registration to sign up for the 2015 Challenge. By the end of the 2015 event, she tripled her results, providing a whopping 8,955 first-time interactions, finishing first in the Challenge’s medium division and earning a $10,000 cash award.

So, how did she do it?

“We had to get outside of our comfort zone,” she explained. “That meant stepping away from people already involved with horses and interacting with individuals who had never been around horses before.”

To reach those individuals she needed to get involved in the community. She hauled two horses to 34 community events ranging from a nearby sky-diving facility to baseball games, the county fair and more. At one community event she was encircled by kids in flip-flops. “It was scary and exhausting, but worth it. I was so glad we did it,” she said.

She strategically chose events that would offer the biggest return on investment (ROI). “I decided ahead of time we would stay within 30 miles of the barn. These are the people who will commit to coming for weekly lessons, training, etc.,” she said.

At each event, she incorporated interactive activities. “We would show the horse’s teeth and say, this is why you brush your teeth,” she explained. “We had the kids measure themselves in hands and explained how many inches is in a hand.”

At the end of each interaction, participants completed a brief form that requested contact information and the activity they were most interested in learning more about (camps, lessons, etc). When she returned to the farm, she followed up with phone calls and emails.

Getting out of her comfort zone has proved productive. She has welcomed adult clients with newly purchased horses into her barn, her 2016 camps will be full and lessons have increased. “We have so many new lesson students that we’re swamped,” she said. “These new riders are buying 10-lesson packages, they’re excited about horses and making the commitment to riding.

Biggest Takeaway
“As horse people, the first form of advertising we think of is posting a flyer at the local feed or tack store,” she said. “We certainly don’t want to ignore that group, but the largest opportunity for increasing business is to bring new people into the industry.”

Cooperstown Equestrian Park--Hartwick, New York
Regular lessons at Cooperstown Equestrian Park in Hartwick, New York, were already full. Owner Cody Pritchard knew she couldn’t handle an influx of riders in weekly lessons. However, she knew her stable’s proximity to the Cooperstown Dreams Park could be lucrative for her summer camps.

The Cooperstown Dreams Park is a baseball complex that hosts weekly youth tournaments. The complex draws players and their families from around the nation. Throughout the summer 30,000 people arrive and depart each week.

“When the families come into town, we see an opportunity to serve the sisters and other family members who are not participating in the baseball activity,” Pritchard said.

On Fridays, known as turnover days for the park, Pritchard brought one horse to the local miniature golf and laser tag facility to give pony rides. Families newly arrived into town met Pritchard and received details about upcoming camps and lessons.

“It was a great way to promote the farm,” she said.

The tourist population was only one key audience for the Cooperstown Equestrian Park.

Children enrolled in summer recreation programs were another important source for camp enrollments. First she hauled Ludevic, a 20-year-old Norwegian Fjord she has owned since he was 18-months-old, to the Hartwick school for a day.

“Each child received a lesson on how to pet, groom and handle a horse and also how to behave around them,” she said.

Then she worked with the Cooperstown school program to bus the kids to the barn for a day. “They got to see what the barn looked like and experience how the horses are cared for,” Pritchard said.

Whenever possible, she included vaulting demonstrations as part of the free activities. “I love sharing things that are new and the kids wouldn’t normally see,” she said. “So many kids do gymnastics that I wanted them to see they could combine the two.”

By the end of the summer, Cooperstown Equestrian Park introduced more than 1,000 newcomers to horses. The facility finished second in the Time to Ride Challenge Small Division and received a $5,000 cash reward.

Well after the Challenge ended, Pritchard continued receiving invitations to bring Ludevic to community events. At Cooptoberfest, a local fall harvest festival, the duo gave 185 pony rides.

“We were scheduled to end at 4:00 p.m. and we still had a line,” she said. “Ludevic needed a break, so we had to tell those waiting he was done for the day.”

Biggest Takeaway
Taking the time to earn certifications through the American Riding Instructors Association (ARIA) and the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) offered tremendous payback for Pritchard and for stables across the country.

“One girl I had in lessons happened to see the farm sign as her family drove past for her brother’s event at Dreams Park,” she explained. “It turned out she regularly rides with another USDF certified instructor. I could tell she had good training and was on the right path. So, we were able to work on new skills rather than starting with the basics,” she said.

Affiliation with professional associations also allowed Pritchard to offer referrals for out-of-town riders interested in continuing with horses upon their return home. “I used both databases to find instructors in their area,” she said.

Jester Park Equestrian Center--Granger, Iowa
As part of Polk County Conservation, the Jester Park Equestrian Center's is a public equine facility designed to educate people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds about horses, natural resources and themselves.

The facility offers English- and Western-style riding lessons, a Young Riders "Tiny Tots" Program, a Therapeutic Horsemanship Program, Special Public Events, Wagon/Sleigh Rides and Pony Rides year-round. JPEC also offers Summer Camps and a Seasonal Guided Trail Ride Program, as well as other community-service based programs such as: At Risk Youth, Partnership Programming, a Teen Mentorship Program and Community Volunteering.

“Through the Time to Ride Challenge our goal was to expose new members of the public to the joys of horses and horsemanship, as well as promote the values of Polk County Conservation by offering outdoor recreation opportunities to the community and the general public,” explained Lela Mullen, Jester Park Equestrian Center facility manager.

During the summer-long challenge, the Jester Park Equestrian Center included a wide variety of horse-related activities that appealed to a broad range of interests and user groups.

“Some of our activities included pony rides, wagon rides, trail rides, horse leading sessions, horse handling and safety, grooming sessions, interactive and educational displays and activities, and riding demonstrations,” she said.

Mullen knew the key to converting first-time visitors into regular users was to demonstrate value.

“Families are looking for the best 'value' for their dollar. The disposable income a family has to spend on trail rides or riding lessons is carefully budgeted with the idea of getting quality services for their money,” she said.

Creating added value can be achieved by emphasizing great customer service and high levels of professionalism when interacting with all clients.

“Due to the public nature of our facility, staff are trained to always be welcoming. We give free barn tours, allow the public to swing by and look at our horses, and make ourselves available to answer questions regarding horses and our industry whenever an opportunity presents itself,” she explained.

Using these tactics, the Jester Park Equestrian Center interacted with 1,000 people who were new to horses and introduced 300 horse people to the services the facility has to offer. The facility has already experienced an increase in business, and Mullen expects to see public interest continue to increase in 2016.

Biggest Takeaway
“It is important to understand that customers are not going to always come to you, you have to seek them out. Increasing traffic at a facility can be as simple as offering a free open house, having a 'try before you buy' lesson evaluation, or offering a reduced rate for a season-opening event. It is important in our current economy to be of a 'value add' for most income generating customers.”

A Sustainable Future
For the future of the equine industry, it is also key to be open and welcoming to newcomers to the horse world.

“Many times, horse professionals are not as willing to educate and teach new horse enthusiasts as they could be,” Mullen said. “It is important to remember that these newcomers are our future, and our job as horse professionals is to help to fuel their interest and enthusiasm with the highest level of care, safety and education we can provide.”

This is what will allow the equine industry to flourish with a new generation of passionate, safe, and well-educated horseman for years to come.

“Reaching out to non-horse people and bringing them into the industry opens so many doors for everyone-trainers, farriers, veterinarians and more,” Halladay concluded.

For more information on Time to Ride visit their website.

Active Interest Media, the parent company of Stable Management, is proud to be a partner in Time to Ride and the Equine Alliance. We believe in the future of the horse industry, and we are working in many ways to try to improve and increase our industry.