How Earl Stanley and his family have tapped into the secrets of seasonal-business success
Whether you’re looking for a sugar shack in March, a wedding venue for June or a Christmas market come December, Stanley’s Olde Maple Lane Farm has you covered. Founded in 1993 and located about a half-hour’s drive southeast of Ottawa, the 250-acre farm is a season-driven operation that has become one of the premier event locations in the region. But owner and co-founder Earl Stanley says it wasn’t always a booming business. “I remember in the first few years, we would count the empty beer bottles [after an event] to see if there was a profit or not,” Stanley says. “Bills were paid from the people going in and out, but we made no profit.”
In the early days, Stanley and his brother (who co-managed the farm in its first few years) intended to run a sugar-bush business, offering maple-syrup tapping and tasting and treats in early spring. They then added rodeos on the sprawling property as a way of drawing customers in summer, but attendance – and, by default, the sustainability of that part of their venture – was a problem. A caterer friend suggested they start hosting weddings, but Stanley was resistant. “I didn’t want to do weddings,” he says, “because weddings were always the same old thing.” Despite being reluctant, he opened up the farm to wedding parties in 1996 – and the summer season took off. “Now, we have weddings booked three or four years in advance,” Stanley says.
The farm has also evolved to become a multi-season business. Last year, to complement his key spring and summer revenue streams, Stanley added an “elf outpost” Christmas village – complete with reindeer stables, a sugarplum playground, sleigh rides and a bakery, among other holiday features. And this fall, he launched “Flicks on the Farm” movie nights, showing family classics such as The Goonies on a large outdoor screen.
The benefits of expanding the farm’s offerings have been twofold. “It gives me another opportunity to showcase the farm, to bring in new clientele,” Stanley says. “And now we’re able to manage the highs and lows.” Stanley recognized early on that running a seasonal business could mean ebbs and flows in terms of customers and finances, so he and his team developed strategies to ensure a steady stream of both. They instituted a quarterly payment system for events, collecting installment payments from customers every three months between the booking date and the event date, which provides consistent revenue and helps keep Stanley regularly in touch with his clients.
More recently, his team launched social-media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as a way of keeping their customers up-to-date on the goings-on at the farm, after a short-lived enewsletter program fizzled due to lack of interest. “People like the way we keep in touch [now]. And we’re using social media as a marketing tool,” he explains.
Stanley firmly believes that it’s the quality of service that keeps people coming back year after year, regardless of the season. “I treat the customers well, so they come back many times,” he says. “I would rather make 50 cents five times, than make a dollar once.” 2018 will mark the farm’s 25th anniversary, and Stanley has no intention of resting on his laurels – he’s already planning a huge charity celebration for June, and thinking about new attractions he can add. “I want to keep things fresh [on the farm]. I want the people who are coming back for a second and third time to see something new,” he says. “I keep coming up with new ideas. The evolution will stop when my imagination stops.”