[K]urt Legner never planned to be an innkeeper. He started growing Arabica coffee in the mountains of Puerto Rico in 1993, handpicking the beans, roasting them in small batches on the farm, and packaging them under the Café Pomarrosa label. “We love growing coffee,” he says, but a passion for coffee farming was not enough to produce a bountiful harvest and keep the farm profitable. When the harvests started to dwindle, which Kurt blames on the effects of climate change, Café Pomarrosa struggled. In 2002, in an effort to boost on-farm revenues, Kurt started offering tours and overnight accommodations at his farm.
To prepare the farm for guests, Kurt transformed their weekend home into a casita, added accommodations in the main house, and transformed an unused tool shed into a quaint cottage. To his surprise, the lodging option was a huge hit, turning Café Pomarrosa into Hacienda Pomarrosa, a popular agritourism destination in Puerto Rico.
“Visitors like coming to the farm to see how coffee grows,” says Kurt. “It’s a new experience for them.”
As the farm-to-table movement gains momentum and more travelers seek connections to the sources of their food and drinks, coffee growers have started adding on-farm accommodations and hosting tours, inviting travelers to spend their vacation getting closer to coffee’s roots.
“People see it as a chance to see the ‘real’ [destination] without being at a resort with a Starbucks,” explains Michael Martinage, co-owner of Ka’awa Loa Plantation, a combination coffee farm and guesthouse in Kealakekua, Hawaii. “It’s a quintessential experience in a coffee growing region.”
The accommodations are as diverse as the farms, ranging from rustic to luxe. Regardless of the size of the plantation or the thread count of the linens, growers hosting overnight guests have similar goals: to educate visitors about coffee and boost the bottom line.
[M]any of the guests who visit Hacienda Pomarrosa are coffee lovers who have never witnessed its cultivation. During tours, visitors express disbelief over what it takes to grow, harvest, roast, and package up to four tons of coffee per year on the six-acre farm. “Most people have no idea it’s such a complex and [labor intensive] venture,” Kurt says.
The same can be said for operating a coffee farm that doubles as a bed-and-breakfast. In addition to all of the duties associated with running a farm, growers take on the role of innkeepers tasked with marketing farm lodgings, cleaning rooms, and hosting a pleasant stay for guests. For Kurt, mastering the dual role had its challenges. “We were coffee growers. We’re not hotel people, and we had a lot to learn,” he says.
At Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation and Resort in central Costa Rica, Glenn Jampol had the opposite problem: he opened a thirteen-room boutique hotel in 1989 and earned accolades for the high-end accommodations, unique architecture, and superior service (in 2013, the inn was named the best hotel in Central America in the Condé Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards). While the inn was a success, things got complicated when Glenn purchased a twenty-acre coffee plantation adjacent to the inn in 2002 and began growing shade-grown organic coffee. “We are in one of the premier coffee-growing regions in the world but we didn’t know anything about agricultural production,” he says.
After more than a decade of arranging tours through roaster and coffee tour company Café Britt and encouraging guests to explore plantations in the central highlands near the inn, Finca Rosa Blanca had its own farm—and no idea how to use it to their advantage. As innkeepers “we were immersed in the coffee culture of the region and we promoted it to our guests,” says Glenn. “We knew it was a great addition to what we were doing but the learning curve was steep.”
“People loved it,” Glenn says. “It became an overnight success.”
At first, guests were allowed to explore the farm solo; after several guests got lost in the fields, the inn sent a chaperone along, but Glenn felt unprepared to respond to detailed questions about growing coffee. In 2007, Finca Rosa Blanca hired an experienced guide and began offering formal tours of the plantation that include cuppings. “People loved it,” Glenn says. “It became an overnight success.”
As the agritourism experience became more popular, the behind-the-scenes realities of operating two distinct businesses got more complex. After much consideration, Finca Rosa Blanca separated into two businesses: the farm and the inn. All of the finances are kept separate, which means the inn purchases coffee to serve in its restaurant and sell in the gift shop, and the farm receives a commission from the cost of each plantation tour. Though it’s a bit convoluted, the approach works.
[A]lthough growing coffee and operating an inn are distinct businesses, Michael at Ka’awa Loa Plantation believes it’s a combination that works well. “The inn provides the revenue to operate the farm and the farm is an added attraction for the inn,” he says. Bringing guests to the farm also provides an important avenue to sell coffee. At Ka’awa Loa Plantation, all of the coffee produced on the six-acre farm is brewed and served to guests on the premises or sold through the onsite gift shop, and most guests leave with a bag or two of coffee.
It’s not just coffee sales that benefit the farm. Most growers host farm tours for visitors as well as guests, charging a small fee for a guided exploration of the plantation. For example, Hacienda Pomarrosa charges $15 for a two-hour guided tour that includes a tasting while at Finca Rosa Blanca the two-and-a-half-hour tours cost $35 per person.
Glenn believes the tours at Finca Rosa Blanca serve as an important tool to develop brand awareness for the inn. In fact, some travelers who sign up for the tour make reservations to return to the inn for the latter part of their vacation.
Turning a burgeoning interest into stable revenue is top-of-mind for growers adding on-farm accommodations. In assessing the likelihood that Ka’awa Loa Plantation would be successful, Gregg Nunn and Michael, a former real estate agent and tour organizer, focused on properties with the right combination of location and infrastructure. The plantation is located on the Big Island near a volcano, snorkeling, and multiple shops and restaurants, making it an ideal vacation spot with lots of options for offsite activities. “We are in a destination location,” he says. “I don’t know if we’d be as successful if we had a small coffee farm in the middle of nowhere.”
Despite their prime location, Michael and Gregg devote considerable effort to promoting the six-room inn. In addition to building a website that features testimonials from previous guests, the pair relies on positive reviews posted on sites like TripAdvisor.com to build their reputation.
“We need to make ourselves more visible to people who are looking for this kind of experience. I know there is interest but unless we let people know we are here, no one will come.”
Although Hacienda Pomarrosa is pleased with the increased interest in their overnight accommodations and positive reviews on social media and travel review sites, Kurt admits that marketing has been a struggle. Part of the challenge, Kurt believes, is the remote location of the farm. It takes extra effort to entice guests to leave the pristine beaches and travel into the mountainous region in the center of Puerto Rico. “We need to make ourselves more visible to people who are looking for this kind of experience,” he says. “I know there is interest but unless we let people know we are here, no one will come.” The guests who do discover Hacienda Pomarrosa are rewarded with stunning landscapes and an unforgettable experience on the plantation.
[W]hile guests are focused on creating vacation memories, growers experience several tangible benefits when they open their farms to guests: the fees for overnight lodgings and coffee sales provide an important revenue source for the plantation. And as the demand for authentic agritourism experiences grows so does the popularity of farm stays.
“Coffee is a huge part of the culture in Costa Rica and people want to experience that when they visit,” Glenn says. “We offer an opportunity that meets that need and supports the farm at the same time. I can’t believe we waited so long to take this leap forward.”
But offering on-farm accommodations is often about more than dollars and cents. Kurt has grown to love the hospitality aspect of operating Hacienda Pomarrosa. In fact, the pleasure he gets from welcoming guests to the farm has kept him from retiring. “It wasn’t something we planned but I’m glad we got involved. It’s worked very well for us,” he says. “We have such interesting people coming to the farm [and] the interaction between us and the visitors is very rewarding.”
—Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer who covers small business and agriculture.