Attracting new boarders

I move quite frequently and use the internet A LOT to look for barns in my new area. I use and google searches of “hunter jumper CityX”. I want to see a website that shows me the facility and tells me what’s included (size of indoor, boarding initiatives, etc), the qualifications and experience level of the staff, and information about the programs offered. Pictures are important. If the pictures are all western-type horses grazing in a field, that’s a turnoff. If you want to attract mid-to-high level H/J clientele, show photos of those people and horses, jumping height at home and at shows. A lesson program page can show cute kids on fat elderly ponies, that’s fine. But even the lesson pictures should show correct tack and shiny well-cared-for school horses. I do appreciate a price list on line, though I know some people would rather have you call and ask. I also like a list of shows and events the barn expects to attend. I have been the sole H/J rider at a few barns, and it’s okay, but it’s more fun to show with a group of similar-level adults.
I expect the website to be kept updated – no “upcoming horse shows” reflecting a list from 2012.

Curb appeal can do a lot. I’ve been at several “rougher” barns that had safe facilities and booming business. But they already had an awesome reputation locally. If you’re sort of starting from scratch, you need to bring your A Game, and that means making things pretty. New fencing, etc, is expensive, but having the fencing in good repair and painted, new paint on the barn. Bright aisles and well bedded stalls. Maybe some flowers and shrubs around the driveway and in front of the barn. Keep the facilities in good routine maintenance – the lesson kids may wear a track along the rail, but the more advanced riders appreciate an oft-dragged ring and good footing. Keeping the jumps painted nicely (not crazy color mash-up) make a program seem more serious. As a boarder, I expect safe turn-out, good feed, and clean stalls everywhere (sadly, that’s not the case, but I digress), but extras, like washer/dryer, trail access, free horse trailer parking, hot water wash stall, flexible barn hours, heated/cooled tack room, viewing lounge, all are things that would attract me as a new boarder. Obviously, not every barn can offer all those things, but research what above/beyond things you can offer potential clients.
A fun social atmosphere attracts people more than a cold, business-like one. Doing summer BBQs or Christmas parties, or a monthly group trail ride, can do a lot to make a barn seem like a family, and keep the students and boarders loyal.

Just my thoughts. I’ve seen and boarded at A LOT of barns, at both ends of the price and facility spectrum. The most expensive barns with the nicest stuff weren’t necessarily my favorites. The best ones were the places that took uncompromising care of my horses, had decent and maintained facilities/rings, and a drama-free, fun family atmosphere. I recently bought my own farm and keep my horses at home for now. I love that ability but do sometimes miss the social aspect of boarding. Luckily, I trailer out for lessons with a great coach, and get my social fix there and at shows.

As mentioned above, if you are in a college town get the word out to schools that you are accepting new boarders/clients.
A professional and up to date website, preferably with nice pics and description of services helps. I agree that social media can be a double edge sword. Post happy pics, horses getting baths or you best riders jumping etc. If you are attending shows, get some show pics of horses and riders etc.

As a marketer, it is easier to promote a barn that has a niche. Be they “walk trot to 2’6” or “A show hunter/jumper” they are easier to promote than a place that is a bit of a hodge podge. It’s always nice to be able to say “we specialize in…” That said, my friend owns and runs a lovely place where she teaches H/J lessons on schoolies or to boarders but she also accepts dressage or event riders and even some h/j who ship out to lesson or compete other trainers. Hers is a different model from most H/J barns I know, but she has a waitlist. (She also has a reputation for running a no drama barn.)
While you don’t want to poach from other barns, realistically you will eventually. Long term, be it at shows, on social media, or other venues real and cyber, be sure to always present a positive face. It will keep your name out there. Everyone who boards has a Plan B or should. Without actively trying to steal clients, you can position yourself to be the fall back option.

A word of caution: Be prepared! If you engage in marketing activity you need to be ready for the response. Be sure that the farm looks it’s best, be sure that you are ready to take on the workload if you suddenly double the number of boarders. Be sure staff can work longer hours and be prepared to teach more lessons. Be sure that any service you offer (turnout, blanketing, etc) is something you are prepared to provide from the day the client moves in, not “after we hire a new person” or “If the boarder we trust is doing the chores that night.” By all means answer the phone and reply to emails! Nothing is more frustrating than calling/writing in response to an ad and not hearing back.

Try to convert lesson kids to horse owners or horse leasers and make your own boarders. I’ve had a horse at a rehab barn since the beginning of March that is also home to a lesson program. When I got there, maybe one kid owned her own pony. That kid obviously got to ride more and thus improved more rapidly. Other parents took note of this and now several kids have ponies.

By “working with”, do you mean managing?

If not, it would serve the husband well to hire a “Barn Manager”. Whether that is a full time manager, or the trainer, or someone part time, being able to say the barn is under new management is HUGE.

I was in a similar situation with my facility. It had a horrible reputation (which the people running it were oblivious to, so you’re a step ahead there).

Step one was to observe, generally clean up, and make a list of and plan for larger projects. Cobwebbing, using more shavings for horses who aren’t pigs, dragging arenas regularly, mowing, tightening (or painting) fence lines, and weeding flowerbeds are all inexpensive and not terribly time consuming projects that make a big difference.

While doing this, the BM should become the face of the business outside of the barn. Reconnect withe vendors (and make sure any past due bills are paid), attend community events, talk to people in the feed store, etc. When people make an ugly face when the facility is names, respond with something like, “I know, it’s reputation declined when the owner got sick, but since I’ve been here, I’ve X, Y, and Z’d and I’m really excited for the Big Project next year. You should come by and check it out one day, I would love to get your opinion!” Recognize that it has issues, but be positive about the changes.

Step 2 is utilize the people who already like you, your lesson program. Talk to the trainer about flipping horses through her program. If she’s willing to bring in 2-3 new horses a year (or whatever number is appropriate for the size of your program), and she can sell half of the outgoing horses to current lesson students, those are almost guaranteed new boarders. Similarly, having her encourage students to bring in leases will also gain you boarders, even if only temporarily.

Step 3 is appeal to the out of towners who don’t know your reputation. This means a nice Facebook page and website. Nice does not have to be expensive, and there are many threads on here about what good websites include. Quality photos go a long way. While well composed iPhone photos are fine for Facebook, they are not for a website. Ask your current boarders and lesson students if anyone has a nice camera and would be willing to come out and take photos of your facility and several lessons (make sure to include the variety of lessons/riders you have) for a couple of hours. If not, can you borrow it for a day? Many people have nice cameras now, and a nice camera, even with an amateur behind it, will produce pictures nice enough for a mid-level barn. Facebook should be updated once a week at least.

Also find out where these people might be coming from. Do you have a college nearby? Contact their equestrian team/club and let them know who you are. Maybe invite them out for a clinic or event or sponsor them. Also mention the college in your website so search engines pick it up. Similarly, if you have a big business that relocates people, mention their name, or at least how close you are to that city, on your website. And then be on top of emails and phone calls since this is the only way for them to reach you.

Step 4, attract people from the local area. If you do steps 1, 2 & 3correctly, step 4 will come naturally. From my experience, people started to talk about our changes at about month 6. 18 months into it, our reputation is probably more positive than negative now. Any type of open house does a lot. For us, it’s schooling shows we host. For you, it may be a proper “open house”, or a show, or a clinic. Once there’s a buzz that things are changing, people will want to come see it for themselves. The week or two before the event, focus on all of the cosmetic things listed above. Have a friend walk through the barn and point out what negatively catches her eye that we miss because we walk by it 100 times a day. The day of, be the welcoming host that everyone wants at a good party.

Good luck. It’s not easy to change the reputation of any place, but especially a boarding facility. It is possible though. Don’t be discouraged by the people who stick by their opinion that it’s a bad place. Instead, focus on improving and everything else will fall into place.

A lot has to do with the area where a barn is located. Some areas have a slow drift in and out constantly, and in others there is little change.

Advertising goes only so far, Word of mouth works the best, and that takes time. It is also wise for the management to make haste slowly, and assure themselves that the boarders they get are the boarders they want.

Got a question…

OP, is the BO going to be actively involved in setting up website/FB page, spending a few bucks to spruce the place up (paint, a few flower pots and such), rebooting the lesson program including getting suitable schoolies, answering inquiries promptly and all these other suggestions? Or is that all going to fall on you?

Dont get yourself overwhelmed here, much of this falls on him, not you unless he hires an actual barn manager or turns that over to you. I know he says lots of things but, in cases like this, old patterns are hard to break and the older a person is the harder they get to break. If he was bad about being actively involved, returning calls and handling inquiries for (at least) the past 15 years? Don’t get your hopes up that will change.

Great you are enthusiastic and all but…don’t get too personally involved here and certainly do not get roped into being solely responsible for all this marketing, maybe spending your own money and all your free time without getting paid for it unless you are SURE he’s going to follow thru. This is one of the reason so many young trainers burn out, their employers don’t give them the tools to make a barn successful. Despite glowing promises.

Most of these suggestions are all up to him, you can’t follow up without his active support and participation. Make sure he proves he will make good on his promises before plunging in too deep and getting frustrated and embarrassed if there is no follow through.

The reputation of the trainer is also paramount. If I google someone’s name, I want to see results training people to the level that I want to achieve. Fancy barn means nothing to me if the quality of the training is not up to par.

From a business perspective, I think it makes more sense to expand the lesson and training program and slowly build the roster of boarders slowly and selectively from that pool. Regular boarders who are not training clients are not always a good deal for most barns. Income usually comes from lessons, training, sales, layups, etc. The board itself is often a break-even proposition (or even a loss leader).

I know, a board check seems like a good chunk of change, but unfortunately caring for horses costs a huge chunk of change. After you provide the labor and managing the labor (including supervising, payroll, taxes, workman’s comp) and everything else you need to take care of horses there’s not usually much left over. Plus, if the owner’s wife has ongoing health problems, the responsibility of boarded horses is a never ending 24/7 responsibility.