The Main(e) Event: Agritourism in the State of Maine

Researcher Spotlight
June 24, 2022
Ashley Avarino
The Main(e) Event: Agritourism in the State of Maine

We are living in an Experience Economy. Brands don’t just sell us products, they orchestrate experiences that sweep us off our feet and keep us coming back. These experiences generate emotion, which in turn creates memories that ultimately drive our likelihood of purchasing products in real-time and our intention to purchase them in the future.

Caroline Paras, a Tourism and Hospitality major at the University of Maine, is researching how the Experience Economy plays a role in agriculture. Where these two intersect is in “agritourism”. Agritourism comprises of an experience on a working farm or ranch, that is conducted for the enjoyment of visitors. Experiences may include a tour by the farmer, picking produce (e.g., apple picking), lodging, or food service. Caroline is primarily interested in the extent to which an agritourism experience transforms consumers into lifelong customers, specifically in the context of farmers and fisheries in the state of Maine.

Agritourism in Maine, USA

In the summer of 2021, two new agritourism events took place in Maine: Wild Blueberry Weekend and the Maine Oyster Trail. Caroline used Phonic either during or following these events to measure the impact of visitors’ experiences on sales in real-time and behavioural intention to purchase in the future.

Wild Blueberry Weekend

Wild Blueberry Weekend featured 14 different blueberry farms across Maine, where visitors could participate in a tour, learn to rake blueberries and take blueberry-focused cooking classes. A team of 6 surveyors travelled between 10 of the participating farms to conduct intercept surveys, where they used Phonic to capture tourists’ thoughts and insights during the event.

Visitors at Wild Blue Berry Weekend making blueberry desserts.

Maine Oyster Trail

The Maine Oyster Trail included 50 sites along Maine’s coast, in a choose-your-own-adventure experience. Sites offered activities such as boat and kayak tours of oyster farms, raw oyster bars by the water, and stands where tourists could learn to pick and shuck oysters themselves. For this event, the research team posted QR codes at each site that visitors scanned to check-in. This generated a mailing list of visitors who were later sent a Phonic survey to follow-up on their experience.

A visitor at the end of their visit on the Maine Oyster Trail.

Key Measures & Outcomes

A primary objective was to document “top-of-mind” feedback about these events, to discover which marketing themes resonated most with visitors.

“We were interested in the types of things tourists would remember. Would it be the landscape, the active participation, a connection that they made with a farmer? And we wanted to capture the richness of their experience by allowing them to respond with their own voice. It wouldn’t have been possible to capture that level of detail any other way.”

Caroline also looked at two quantitative outcomes:

  1. Purchasing in real-time
  2. Behavioural intention to purchase in the future

At what rate were tourists purchasing products during these experiences, and what was their intention to purchase again?

Content Analysis

A thematic analysis conducted on 250 open-ended audio responses revealed that Active Participation was the most cited element when asked about their experience. Tourists remembered and enjoyed activities that demanded some level of physical activity. For example, kayaking to an oyster farm along the Maine Oyster Trail, or raking blueberries during Wild Blueberry Weekend. Another aspect of Participation evident in tourists’ responses was a sense of discovery; half of visitors travelled from out of state to learn about and discover the local agriculture.

Quantitative Outcomes

The two agritourism experiences resulted in different rates of real-time purchasing, but similar rates of behavioural intent.

  • 70% of visitors purchased a product during Wild Blueberry Weekend, while over 90% purchased a product on the Maine Oyster Trail.
  • 82% of visitors during Wild Blueberry Weekend and 84% on the Maine Oyster Trail indicated that they would purchase products again in the future.

In the case of the Wild Blueberry Weekend, Caroline was able to compare these findings to another marketing experience: supermarket demos. Supermarket demos consist of stations in grocery stores, where customers can sample product and interact with a product demonstrator. In 2018, demos were supported by the Wild Blueberry Commission across dozens of supermarkets in the New York/New Jersey area. Although customers were provided a coupon to purchase wild blueberries at these demos, only 16% did so - compared to the 70% who participated in the agritourism experience. Additionally, the agritourism experience elicited higher rates of behavioural intention, with 84% of participants indicating they would purchase products again, compared to only 64% from the supermarket demos.

Main(e) Takeaways

Agritourism provides consumers with memorable experiences, that ultimately influence purchasing behaviour. Both experiences in Maine’s agricultural sector resulted in high rates of real-time purchases - and high rates of intent to purchase again.

Caroline notes that these two measures are a proxy for something even more powerful: consumer loyalty. Do agritourism experiences facilitate an emotional connection to a product, and does this in turn lead to repeat purchasing? Are tourists more likely to purchase Maine Oysters on a menu at a restaurant? Are they more likely to purchase Maine’s frozen Wild Blueberries in the off-season? These are questions that Caroline hopes to answer in future research.

“Agritourism involves all of your senses, along with information and active participation - these come together to create what I call the magic. And Phonic helped us capture the science behind the magic.”

Caroline recently shared that she will be continuing this line of research in a PhD fellowship starting in Fall 2022 at the University of Maine. Congratulations Caroline!

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