By Anne Sabatino Hardy
Anne Sabatino Hardy is Executive Director of Visit Horse Country
I didn't grow up around horses, but I did grow up with a gambler. My dad liked Craps and Blackjack mostly, and played well. According to family legend, during a high school spring break trip to Las Vegas, one successful late-night Craps game was punctuated by “Annie needs a new prom dress!” I can't verify the story (my parents had standards, after all–I was relegated to the room), but indeed my first prom dress was secured during a visit to Caesar's Palace before heading home.
He always told me he preferred those games because of the odds–there was strategy behind the gut feeling, the risk teetering just a bit heavier on the side of benefit than loss.
On some hands, the opportunity comes to double down. A set of circumstances emerge that lend themselves to an increased chance of success, and the success itself stands to be multiplied–if you recognize it, and if you're ready to put a bit more skin in the game.
For Visit Horse Country, that time is now.
The organization celebrated a quiet birthday in November of 2019: five years of operation. Along with that milestone, by the end of 2019, we counted more than 120,000 guests through Horse Country member locations, of which there are now 40. The vast majority of those regularly offer opportunities to experience the very heart our sport intimately, organically, and most importantly, transparently.
The members of Horse Country have thrown wide their gates to showcase the entire life cycle of the horse–Disney said, “from foaling barn to finish line,” we added “and beyond.” In addition to studs, nurseries, training and tracks, clinics and feed, three TAA-accredited aftercare organizations also tell their part of the story to our guests from all over the world.
If there ever was a winning of hearts and minds, it is during these experiences. We have the data that show it. And it's not just fan development, it's so much bigger–it's overcoming obstacles and developing advocates just by allowing people in to see, touch, hear, and fall in love. Recent feedback from a guest embodies everything we all hope to accomplish right now: “Seeing this behind-the-scenes operation will make watching racing more enjoyable for me.”
We enter 2020 in a unique place of opportunity. With a bit of experience under our belts, we've learned some lessons: we're working to boost utilization rates on tours, we've tweaked our marketing strategy and spend a dozen different ways. We've built and rebuilt our web site front and back end. There's still work to do, but halfway through our fiscal year, sales are 40% ahead of the same time last year.
Inspired by successful industry days hosted by Buffalo Trace Distillery, we'll host the first Horse Country Hospitality Days presented by Keeneland (also a member), where we'll invite frontline hospitality & attraction staff to experience our hospitality and build awareness. Our annual community outreach program, Meet the Neighbors, will grow significantly.
We have the most consistent, varied experiences we've ever had available–Horse Country does many things, but we don't give tours, so we are only as strong as our member engagement. Thankfully our members have led the charge–they've invested in hiring staff, making capital improvements and purchasing shuttles, and even reinvesting in Horse Country to allow us to pursue more ambitious marketing, more engaging user experiences. They've embraced the wisdom of our supporters and counselors at VisitLEX, and the tour guest as a customer, worth time, effort and consideration.
We all lose a bet now and then, but my gut and raising says this is the right time to double down.