Over the last 10 years, we have been offering pond tours during the summer months. Our calling to start organizing these tours was clear. Raised on a dairy farm in southern Chester County, Pennsylvania, my brother Chad and I learned a lot about the land and the value of hard work. Always comfortable with the outdoors, Chad and I went from cutting lawns in our teenage years to installing beautiful outdoor living spaces in the Chester County area.
Once the business was in place and we had started families of our own, we decided we wanted to start thinking about giving back. Although there are many worthy causes that could use a helping hand, we decided to stay close to our roots. With 300 or so ponds installed, we decided to start hosting pond tours. They started as most things do — small, with about 20 to 30 attendees. Equipped with individual maps, our attendees would spend an idyllic day in Chester County, visiting a series of homes with ponds. At the end of the day, we would host a big barbecue.
Memories of growing up on a farm and needing to feed three hungry boys made the choice to partner with the Chester County Food Bank an easy decision. Today, all our proceeds from ticket and barbecue sales go toward this organization.
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If you’re considering starting or participating in a pond or water garden tour in your community, there are quite a few things to take into consideration.
Planning for these tours usually starts in early February, but it’s best to keep the tours in mind all year long. We take into consideration how busy the summer and fall months are for many people, so we keep the tours on the same weekends every year, allowing our employees, families and guests to easily plan around these events well in advance.
These tours are held rain or shine, and we can say confidently that every tour has been a success, even when the weather didn’t cooperate. We had a few tours that should have been washouts, but we heard after the fact that they were some of the most memorable and fun-filled tours to date!
Our garden tour is a guided bus tour held on the last Saturday of June. The bus runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and includes a catered lunch at one of the residential stops. This is a truly unique adventure that takes visitors to some of the most beautiful and creative residential gardens around the county. We always start the morning meeting with coffee and a light morning snack. Then, Becky Turpin shares her personal knowledge and true passion for plants, walking the attendees through the process of creating a garden, including what specifically was planted and how to care for the plants. She also shares some of her favorites varieties. We wrap up the day with cocktails and appetizers at the end of the tour. These tours generally accommodate about 80 people.
Water Garden Tour
Our weekend water garden tour is held on the last full weekend in July. Saturday goes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and concludes with a country barbecue with a D.J., raffle and silent auction. Then, we host visitors Sunday evening at our office from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
We offer self-guided tickets and a guided bus tour; each ticket gives you access to the barbecue and allows you to tour more than 40 residential locations in and around Chester County. This two-day tour is our biggest event, with more than 400 attendees every year.
Evening Pond Tour
My favorite tour is our evening water garden tour, which is held on the last Saturday of September. It runs from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. and includes bus transportation, a progressive dinner and dessert. This tour is growing steadily and has about 100 attendees each year.
On all tours, we provide snacks, water and a knowledgeable host who shares interesting information about properties, like specific pond sizes and the year they were built.
As the tours grow, so do the duties involved. Traffic control is needed on some properties for safety reasons. Speaking of safety, make sure you have a first-aid kit and access to an alternate vehicle in case you have to make special accommodations for guests who need extra assistance.
We have found that selling tickets online is the easiest and most accessible way to provide guests with all the information that will need; however, when we started these tours, we sold them at our local garden stores.
Also keep in mind that sponsors can help offset costs. Working with local restaurants and caterers to donate food and drink items for the tour can save a lot of money. Having a committee to help with the tour is a wonderful way to get pond owners involved and can take some of the workload off the organizer.
Provide folders with information on sponsorship opportunities at varying levels, and include tax deduction information. Consider including an info-graphic with pertinent information about the charity being sponsored. This gives potential donors a sense of the project’s worthiness and intentions. The folders can be dropped off at local restaurants and businesses throughout the year, especially entities that your company supports. Keeping sponsorship folders in company vehicles helps to remind your employees to ask about donations while purchasing at a vendor’s store.
Donated items can be packaged into beautiful baskets, especially when you combine a restaurant gift certificate with a bottle of wine. Raffles are always popular and can even be done on the bus as you travel from property to property.
Pay it Forward
When we began this journey of building fun and successful pond tours, word spread quickly throughout the area. This led to a partnership with the Brandywine Valley Water Garden Association, which is managed and operated by a committee of dedicated volunteers from Chester County who organize, schedule and help run the pond tours. We are humbled by all the pond and garden owners who join us to give back to the community. To date, we have raised more than $122,000 for the Chester County Food Bank. But it didn’t happen overnight; it took a lot of hard work and outreach by the area’s pond and garden devotees.
So much effort goes into our tours, but the enthusiasm from the attendees and the ability to give back to our community help encourage us to continue planning them year after year. A welcome side effect of these tours is how great they have impacted our business. We typically land five to seven new water feature clients from the tours every year. So, we definitely feel that dedicating three weekends a year to pond tours has created a win-win situation for everyone involved.