Opinion: After nearly a quarter-century, Saunders Farm still has no problem scaring up business

I first met Anne Saunders when she came to the Ottawa Senators’ offices – then on Moodie Drive in Bells Corners – on May 20, 1991 – wearing a clown outfit.

How do I know it was May 20?

Because that was her handsome son David Saunders’s 25th birthday. David worked for the Sens, and you can only imagine his embarrassment when his mom showed up dressed like that. It was true mother love.

The Saunderses, led by Anne and patriarch Bill, are a close-knit rural family with four kids – Vicki, the eldest, David, Mark and Matthew. The agri-tourism business they’ve built in Munster Hamlet (population: about 1,300), 40 minutes southwest of Ottawa, is a local phenomenon attracting nearly 100,000 customers each year to a wide range of attractions, including hedge mazes, hayrides, gem mining, puppet shows, mountain slides, day camps for kids, weddings and company picnics.

But Saunders Farm is still primarily known for haunting season, which begins in late September and ends on Nov. 1 each year. The farm has welcomed more than one million guests to its Halloween performances since launching its fall festival 23 years ago.

But it’s not just little kids who seem to enjoy it – teens show up by the thousands. Perhaps they’re attracted by one of the farm’s slogans: “The scariest date you’ll ever go on.”

Before getting into the tourism business, Mrs. Saunders was a teacher at the local public school (now due to close, she tells me sadly) located directly across from their home in Munster, a comfortable, rambling ranch-style bungalow, a few hundred metres east of Saunders Farm. Mr. Saunders was a stockbroker.

They started with cows, lost money on that, then switched to 25 acres of strawberries. That worked fine in the 1980s, but once people stopped making their own jams and jellies, the business tanked.

They met up with Jack Marks from Wisconsin in 1990, who spoke about “haunted rides” as a cash cow. It sounded more promising than what they were doing, so, like most entrepreneurs, they pivoted on a dime. They hired local high school students, dressed them in spooky costumes, hid them in their barns and log buildings and elsewhere on the farm, ran some local newspaper ads, put out some flyers and hoped families would come.

Over the first two weekends, 5,000 guests showed up, paying $5 each. Do you know how many strawberries you have to pick and pack to make $25,000? A ton.

Right from the get-go, the Saunderses decided against following the American example of making their haunting season a gore-fest. They wanted it scary, but not revolting – a family attraction, not a school for serial killers and sociopaths.

The following year they added more hay wagons, planted more trees, began growing spruce and cedar hedge mazes – they now have 10 of them, including a few post and rail ones – more log buildings, a new scary barn, a children’s barn, a wooden truck and railway car, a big playhouse (where their talented amateur high schoolers do stage shows) and a farm shop to sell merchandise.

More recently they’ve added a pavilion that seats 250 people. It also has a state-of-the-art kitchen. The family believes in feeding people decent food; in fact, I’ve never been able to escape their hospitality without being fed.

They used to have suppliers who’d pay them a percentage of sales and come in to provide food and beverage services, but they decided to bring that in-house.

In addition to running environmental tours for schools that bus in children for that experience and for summer camps, they run their own training program – called, naturally, Ghoul School. Just one day of training costs them $10,000 to provide, but just as good food is essential to a tourism business, great staff is as well.

They employ 55 people in summer, 220 in October and four full-timers year-round. It’s quite the economic generator in a place the size of Munster. For those old enough to remember the 1960s sitcom The Munsters, even the hamlet’s name is priceless.

Their staff churn rate is not bad, with a return rate of 75 per cent for the summer season and 65 per cent for fall. Still, there’s a lot of recruiting and training to be done each year.

The business is now run by Mark Saunders, Anne and Bill Saunders’s irrepressible 48-year-old son.

“About 55 per cent of our business is done in the fall,” he says. “In fact, in the 149 hours we operate in October, we get around 500 people per hour entering the farm. The operation does low seven figures in revenues and is profitable.”

Then he adds with a smile, “Some days.”

Not bad for a 102-acre farm.

I ask Mark Saunders what his MMB – magic marketing button – is. You know, the “easy” button, the one you push and clients and customers simply show up.

“Whenever there is a Friday the 13th in September, we’ll do an online coupon campaign,” he answers. “We’ll price the tickets at $13. The last time we did it, we sold 6,700 of them by noon. The nice thing for us, though, is that everyone brings a friend, and that friend pays full price.”

“What other marketing works for you?” I ask him.

“It used to be if (CTV Ottawa weatherman) J.J. Clarke would mention us on the news or even if we put ads in the local newspaper, cars would pour down the road,” he says. “But that doesn’t work anymore. We don’t like the coupon business either, except for the Friday the 13th thing I mentioned, because it cannibalizes our regular sales and undermines our credibility and brand. So today, it’s all web-based … We have a large e-mail list of 38,000 people plus 5,500 Twitter and 12,000 Facebook followers.”

“It’s also generational,” Bill Saunders adds. “Families coming back, now with grandchildren in tow.”

“Word of mouth is big, too,” his son says.

I ask them what’s been their biggest challenge so far. Right away, Bill Saunders answers, “Did you know that 98 per cent of lawyers give the other two per cent a bad name?”

He’s referring to dealing with zoning officials at the City of Ottawa.

“Our experience with the city was made much worse,” Mrs. Saunders says, “by the fact that we had one neighbour who also wanted to run environmental tours on his farm but failed. He decided to make a crusade out of bringing down our place. He’d go through the city’s zoning bylaw, line by line, and then call to complain about an infraction at our farm. An (ordinance) enforcement officer would come, and sometimes, he’d call the police as well. It was horrible. I asked him once why he did it. He said, ‘I don’t do business with women,’ and walked out on me. It got so bad in 1997 he even had our local pastor speak out about the evils of Saunders Farm from the pulpit. That really hurt.”

But the family persevered, and eventually the neighbour sold his property and moved away. Today, Saunders Farm is zoned agricultural and mixed amusement after the city reluctantly created a special zone for it.

The business is now part of a worldwide movement to save family farms by introducing attractions such as farm-stay networks, experiential tourism and agri-entertainment, a drive led by groups such as the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association. Saunders Farm is one of more than 700 members of the organization.

“NAFDMA is based on the idea that everything you need in life, like potatoes, is cheap, but everything you want in life, like experiences, is expensive,” the senior Mr. Saunders says.

Or, as some might say, they’re priceless.

Bruce M. Firestone is founder of the Ottawa Senators and a broker at Century 21 Explorer Realty. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce.