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BLOOMINGTON - Wally Furrow doesn't sell wine at his El Paso vineyard. He actually banks on personal experiences and entertainment value.

Furrow, who opened Furrow Vineyard & Winery with his family four years ago, shared some of his agritourism marketing secrets with nearly 100 people at a University of Illinois marketing strategy seminar at the Interstate Center on Thursday.

"Ninety percent of the people who come in buy something," said Furrow, Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association executive vice president. "The average customer spent $30 during our first year. They now spend about $43."

Furrow pointed to a gift shop filled with nearly 4,000 items as a draw. In addition, five full-time staff eagerly share their knowledge of wines with visitors who can taste and discuss 21 wines produced at the business.

A key marketing tool has been creation of a wine club. Members join at no cost, but pledge to retain membership for at least six months. Members pick up two bottles of wine chosen by staff every month. Members receive new wines before they are available to general customers.

"Members get 10 percent off everything. We have about 600 members. Forty percent of them who come in to pick up the wine buy a case," said Furrow, who also sells wine at Friar Tuck's in Bloomington as well as the El Paso IGA and some restaurants.

To further encourage repeat business, Furrow has turned to entertainment events including an annual grape stomp, car shows, mystery dinner theaters and Friday night free tastings once a month.

"We put the Furrow name on everything we do," said Furrow. "We just added the Furrow Red Barn Village and Fun Farm two years ago to sell pumpkins. We have a corn maze, animals to pet and a straw maze."

Noreen Dollinger, who owns The Pumpkin Farm near Minooka with her husband, John, agreed that specialty producers need to sell more than their product to succeed.

"People can buy a pumpkin almost anywhere. Why would they come to Dollinger's?" she asked. "During October, we host the largest Civil War re-enactment in Illinois with 900 re-enacters. We also offer horse-drawn hay rides, steam train rides, a haunted barn, a gift shop and play area. We are selling an experience with children or grandchildren."

She challenged fellow agricultural entrepreneurs to be ready to change constantly. Dollinger had to buy billboard advertising for the first time this year because a subdivision made it impossible to put up traditional hand painted signs.

"Last year, 1,000 new rooftops appeared in our area, but I screwed up my marketing. My gross revenue was up only 3 percent," said Dollinger. "I had targeted people who already lived here. The new residents still listen to Chicago radio stations and read Chicago newspapers."


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