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Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Entrepreneurs publish guide for summer fun

Tags: Business
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Shari Wert, left, and Elisa Palter

You know that farm, the one that’s downtown, in Cabbagetown, the one with the farm animals – what’s it called?

Isn’t there a white-water rafting place on the Ottawa River? How do you get in touch with them?

Or that apple farm, the one down the 401, where you pick your own apples and the kids get to play on slides and roll around in the hay – where is it exactly?

If you’re a parent with small kids looking to keep them busy, or you have friends in from out of town looking for something special to do, you’ve probably struggled with those very questions and many more.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of activities available in and around Toronto, but who can keep track of them all and which is the best choice?

There may not yet be “an app for that,” so a couple of aggressive entrepreneurs have come up with a solution that brings together old and new technologies.

Elisa Palter and Shari Wert recently published their Summer Fun Guide, Ontario’s Comprehensive Guide to Year-Round Fun. They also launched a website, www.SummerFunGuide.ca, which contains all the information found in the printed guide along with updates to keep it current.

Much of it is family oriented – as in Riverdale Farm and Chudleigh’s – but there are also listings for adult activities like casinos and horse racing.

Activities are divided into 16 categories in seven regions, and they range from the commonplace to those that are a bit off the wall. Of course, there are the festivals, fairs and shows that attract thousands every summer, plus boat and train excursions. But there’s also information about a helicopter tour of Ontario, the location of the highest bungee jump in the province and the address for the St. Mary’s Quarry, which is today the largest pool in Ontario. “There are a lot of cool things here,” Palter said.

Though the website was launched about a year ago, the print version of the guide came out only in May. Palter and Wert had 250,000 copies printed and they’re available in numerous locations across the province. ONroute, the service centres on Highway 401 is the guide’s main sponsor and it stocks the directory, as do hotels, restaurants, attractions and other venues.

The partners were pretty confident the guide would be a hot seller. In 1994, they had teamed up to produce Help! We’ve Got Kids, a print and now Internet directory. They sold it in 2009.

“We loved dealing with the clowns,” Palter said.

“But it’s 17 years, time to move on,” Wert added.

In the years between the two businesses, Wert and Palter each celebrated bar or bat mitzvahs.

“Afterwards, we said, ‘what now?’” Wert said.

Hence, the Summer Fun Guide.

Over the years, businesses became comfortable advertising in their first directory and they developed the credibility they needed when they approached them with the idea for a new guide.

Business school graduates, Palter and Wert conducted their own market research, financial analysis and marketing plan and sunk their own money into the fun guide.

It’s a results-oriented business, they said.

“It has to drive the business for advertisers,” Wert explained.

Opening the website allowed potential customers to see how their ads looked and, along with their track record of more than 17 years, they built a level of credibility for the product.

So far, advertisers are comfortable with the product and they’ve managed an 80 per cent retention rate, Palter said.

“Most people renew because our intention is to make it work. You always have to keep the end-user in mind. So far, the feedback has been positive,” Wert said.

In the first months of operation, the website generated 15,000 visits a month, and that number has climbed to 40,000 monthly hits.

The partners won’t reveal their revenues, but Palter and Wert acknowledge it’s in the six figures. Revenue is based on fees for boxed and display ads.

Printing the booklet and setting up the business are the biggest costs. “Margins in the directory business are very high,” Palter said, “more than 50 per cent.”

“If you do everything right and make it work, and advertisers and readers are happy, then it can be an annuity” business, Palter said.

And, there’s room for growth. Unlike Help? We’ve Got Kids, which was aimed at something of a niche market, the fun guide appeals to people at all stages of life. They plan to expand it from 80 pages to 120 next year.

“One of the things we learned was to broaden our target market,” in terms of both demographic and region, Wert said.

An important consideration today, as it was 18 year ago, was to find a way to use their business skills while raising a family.

“We were looking for balance,” Wert said.

“Our goal was to be in business and to have balance in our lives,” Palter said. “But we’re not dabbling.”

“We’re working our Jewish butts off,” Wert added.

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