What’s Up Wednesdays: Fill ‘er Up!
Welcome to our new weekly column: What’s Up Wednesdays! We receive so many questions about equestrian business ownership, horse care, barn maintenance, training, farming, and yes – good ol’ barn drama – that we decided to make a weekly column out of it! Send us your questions and concerns, and we’ll be happy to address them anonymously in our column. For our inaugural article in the series, here is a question about filling empty stalls - a source of concern for many barn owners.
What’s Up Linden Leaf!
I own a small, private boarding barn where pretty much everything is included in our competitive board fee. Boarders’ horses receive grain twice daily, free-choice hay, and I do all the turn-out, catch-in, mucking out, blanketing and bandaging myself. I have 10 stalls in my barn and 7 are filled at the moment, but I’m really struggling to fill those last 3! I really thought I’d have them filled by now since winter is approaching. Should I bite the bullet and pay for advertising? Or are there other low- or no-cost alternatives that you might suggest? Help!
Fill ‘er Up!
This is a concern for many barn owners, and we’ve been in this situation before too. The makeup of your barn can change so quickly, due to predictable factors like seasonal fluctuations, and unpredictable ones such as economic changes or new barns presenting local competition. When you have a smaller sized facility, you can feel the pain of those changes more quickly and more significantly than some of the bigger barns that rely on volume to compensate for market fluctuations. But, do not despair! There are certainly many options open to you for not only getting the word out, but differentiating your services from others in your area.
In your particular instance, I recommend turning to paid advertising as a last option. Normally, I’d say something like ‘don’t be afraid to invest money in the success of your equine business’, however being a small facility with a personal approach, now is the time to really lean into that and leverage your strengths. You can get really creative with ideas that convey your personalized approach, and these are things that don’t necessarily need to cost you more time or money!
For example, since you do everything yourself, is there a way that you can differentiate your services from your local competitors and highlight your strengths? Larger facilities might struggle with providing their clients with personalized services, and as a result it’s easy for things to be missed with the horses in their care. This can easily escalate if they have multiple staff members that work only occasional hours and don’t know the horses as intimately as you do.
When it comes to actually conveying all these services to others, there are still many options available to you that won’t cost you anything, or might cost a very low amount such as the cost of refreshments. If you haven’t done so already, you need to create your own website. There are plenty of completely free options such as Wix that have a variety of eye-catching templates for you to choose from. We ran a free Wix site for a couple of years before purchasing the premium version you’re on now, which allowed us secure a dedicated domain name and other features that we needed to grow our business. It might cost you some time to outline information about you and your unique services, but it won’t cost you any money at a time when things are a bit tight. It’s absolutely possible to get a beautiful website live within a couple of hours. A website really is a must-have - think of it like your modern-day business card and brochure, all in one.
Your next stop is social media – Facebook and Instagram in particular. Make sure you have both a Facebook page specific to your barn and an Instagram account as well, and post to them regularly (ideally daily, if possible!). Ensure that your website is connected to both accounts so that you have a complete, holistic online presence for your business. Not only does social media provide you with the opportunity to advertise your services for free, but it gives your barn a legitimacy that competes with the other boarding options in your area.
Now that you’ve set up your platform, it’s time to highlight what makes you GREAT. You can offer your boarders highly personalized care, and its time to get creative with that. Are there simple changes that you can implement within your existing routine that provide customized, next-level care and gives you a competitive edge over other local boarding facilities? One thing you could provide is a weekly report for each horse, which isn’t as daunting as it seems. For example, you can record your thoughts on your phone’s voice recording capabilities as you’re cleaning stalls, and then dedicate one evening a week to dictate those thoughts onto a typed report for you boarders. Even a few minutes a day of talking to yourself can yield something that really sets yourself apart! Running a boarding barn is a customer service business, after all, so anything you can think of to put your customers first is worth considering. Just make sure not to under-charge for your services as charging too little can create the wrong perception among potential boarders and can erode the value of your offerings.
In terms of getting the word out beyond social media, try a more personalized approach. What about contacting your veterinary, farrier, and tack shop network about your open stalls? Offering an open farm day can be a great way to invite potential new clients to your facility. Not only does it give them the chance to see what you do, but it gives you the opportunity to assess how they might fit with your barn environment. You could even invite a vet or farrier to give a talk on new research, or things they are passionate about, to help with attendance. My suggestion here is to not skimp on the refreshments! It doesn’t need to be a caviar and champagne experience, but make sure there are some options for your guests and don’t be afraid to get creative!
Implementing small changes and thinking about ways that you can add value can replace the need to rely on spending money with traditional advertising. I hope these suggestions helped. Please let us know how it goes!
All the best,
Linden Leaf Farm