By KAY SHIPMAN
With people ready to travel and summer vacations starting, Illinois agritourism is prime for the newest tourism trends – outdoors, family oriented, road-trip accessible and food, especially local food.
“People are excited to do family activities on the farm. They’ve been with their families inside and they want to do things outside, and it feels safe. Our current pick-your-own strawberry season was exceptional,” said Chris Eckert, vice president of retail for Eckert Inc.
The state’s new tourism campaign, “Time for Me to Drive,” covers every region of the state and highlights road trip itineraries showcasing experiences unique to Illinois. During the pandemic, people became more interested in outdoor activities, and farms can capitalize on that interest, said Karla Flannery, deputy director of the Illinois Office of Tourism.
The tourism campaign launched ahead of the Memorial Day weekend when an estimated 1.7 million Illinois residents were expected to travel, according to AAA. In addition to instate promotions, new ads encouraged travelers from seven states to visit Illinois.
Flannery advised agritourism owners and operators to focus on their strengths to provide certain experiences as traditional tourism destinations. “What we are seeing is agritourism is doing it the right way,” she said. “Find your niche and the people who are interested in those experiences.”
Eckert’s is continuing to use some of the practices it adopted during the pandemic. Like some other agritourism and on-farm businesses, the seven-generation family farm added admission tickets with a specified date and time to eliminate large crowds and even out visitors throughout the day and the week. A ticket system continues this year. “Guests are accepting it, and we love it. You can staff accordingly for busy times,” Eckert explained.
Plexiglass shields remain in Eckert’s’ retail stores in Belleville and Versailles, Ky., and the wagons that transport visitors to the fields remain at two-thirds capacity, but that may change in the fall.
To market tourism during the year, the Office of Tourism publishes a monthly newsletter highlighting events and sights, including agritourism. Eckert said their farm has been included in the newsletter along with a couple of their dairy suppliers, Rolling Lawns Farm and Marcoot Jersey Creamery. Kentucky tourism has also promoted Eckert’s.
“People are interested in off-the-grid experiences,” Flannery said. Email information and descriptions of agritourism experiences to news@EnjoyIllinois.com. Flannery said the office will reach out if more information is needed.
Currently, the Office of Tourism does not offer any marketing links or materials specifically for agritourism. “As this trend grows, we are interested in developing it and will do everything we can to help grow this industry,” Flannery said. “We welcome any ideas to help it grow. There is so much interest right now in fresh food and in getting outside. People are asking for more of that, so we want to provide a window to the world.”
Those visitors may include international travelers, including Europeans and Canadians who are interested in experiencing local culture, according to Flannery.
“Please keep us aware of any new trends. We have a serious interest in growing and supporting this industry,” the tourism deputy director said.
This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association.
Eckert’s employees display some of the farm’s pumpkins last fall. Pumpkin sales skyrocketed as people looked for safe, outdoor family activities during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Eckert’s)
Eckert’s experienced a boom in food product sales and increased demand for farm encounters in 2020 and had an “exceptional” strawberry season this year. (Photo courtesy of Eckert’s)