Building a Forest Therapy Guiding business is no easy task. It takes determination, grit, patience, and some humor. It also requires an investment of time and money. In the United States, the federal government statistics indicate that a new business typically does not become profitable until it has been in operation for three years, so it is good to start with realistic expectations.
Most importantly, starting a new business of any size requires a good support network. Guides should find a way to lean on their support network when things get rough and ask for help when they need it; this will make a big difference. When starting any business, there will be challenges. But on the other side of those challenges is the opportunity to make some money doing something you love. Many free business development resources already exist and it is beyond the scope of this manual to give a full training in business development. However, there is some accumulated knowledge in this chapter that guides can use as a good jumping off point and a source of inspiration. More resources are available in the Member Guide Gateway.
What’s Your Vision? Define Your Niche
Before starting, craft a vision. This process will begin during practicum, but a good question to begin with is, “Who do I want to be guiding?” Instead of casting a wide net, looking for clients anywhere and everywhere, guides should think about who they specifically want to be guiding. Who are these people, what do they do, where do they live? Define your niche and describe your target market and then customize an approach to serve that community. If you target “everyone” the messaging will be too general and will not appeal to anyone.
B2B or B2C
There are two main forms of setting up a business model for a guiding practice. A combination of both models is possible as well. Each model has its advantages and disadvantages.
- B2C, which stands for business-to-consumer, is a model where you are marketing and selling directly to the consumers who will come on walks. With this model the guide has more control and receives all the money; however, the guide is doing and paying for everything like marketing and registration.
- B2B, which stands for business-to-business, is a model where you work with other organizations who market the walks to their customers. With this model the guide has less control, is often only getting part of the revenue from the walk, but the partner organization is typically managing all or most of the marketing and registration.
Networking and Partners
Another good question to ask is, “Who can help me succeed?” Think about forming a network of partners, either among guides or in your local community or both. The first important partners to seek out are land managers. The best land managers are those who are passionate about connecting people and nature, can grant access to spaces to guide in, and have established marketing processes. These places might include botanical gardens, arboreta, permaculture farms, retreat centers, libraries, local recreation departments, conservation organizations, community education networks, wellness centers, and spas. When approaching these potential partners, refer them to the successful Forest Therapy programs that are already established at places like the Morton Arboretum outside Chicago or the Los Angeles Arboretum. The thing that often convinces these land managers is explaining that Forest Therapy helps people fall in love with a place so they want to visit that place again and again. This encourage people to buy memberships, which is how these land-managing institutions cultivate financial stability.
The second important set of partners to consider are practitioners who serve clients who might also be interested in Forest Therapy such as yoga teachers, herbalists, foragers, sound bath facilitators, meditation instructors, forest school teachers, massage therapists, etc. Go and take one of their classes and introduce yourself afterward. See if they want to have coffee sometime or invite them to one of your walks. If it feels like there is a good connection, consider partnering to cross-promote each others’ services or even combine forces to offer day long programs or weekend retreats.
The third set of partners to consider are online platforms to create and market experiences. Airbnb Experiences is one that many guides have had success with. Another is Meetup.
The last, and perhaps most important set of partners to consider are other Forest Therapy guides in your area. Instead of competing for clients, consider banding together to form a collective where you may each do individual work but also work together when approaching bigger clients. Oftentimes, you will appear more professional when working as a team than by yourself, and you will be able to offer larger programs for larger audiences.
Even if guides don’t work together as a collective, it is still highly beneficial to meet with other local guides to share ideas and plans. The first reaction may initially be one of competition, but it is wonderful to move beyond that and step into embracing neighboring guides. Get together as a group for coffee or a potluck; it can be fun!
If guides in the same region are each following their own calling in identifying their niche and target clients, they will very likely all be serving slightly different populations. This is often what has happened in areas where guides have come together in openness and set those competitive feelings aside.
The wonderful thing about partnership is guides don’t have to start their own individual businesses and do all the work themselves. Having assistance with ticketing, marketing, insurance, and permits can reduce a lot of stress.. Plus, once an audience is built up through a mailing list or social media, guides may be able to more easily strike out on their own and build their own business later if they wish.
Guides might also consider a mixed approach where they do some work through partnerships and some work privately. Private work is sometimes more effective when created as package deals instead of trying to sell individual tickets for walks. These packages might include:
- A walk or walk series for a group. Consider approaching professional associations, corporate wellness, faith groups, afterschool children’s programs, etc.
- One-time walks for events like birthday parties, bridal showers, reunions, and other events.
An important part of any business is marketing. How much guides need to market will vary with the business model they select. One of the major benefits of partnering with land managers is that they often will do most of the marketing. The most important thing about marketing is that the language must target the niche audience; guides need to speak directly to the clients they want to work with in language that makes sense to them and satisfies their needs. It takes time to select and design marketing tools. Think of beginning this process toward the end of the practicum and continuing over the next year. Plan a timeframe that feels supportive and not stressful. Here are some marketing strategies to consider:
- Logo and Business Name: A logo expresses your brand. Guides should create one that feels true to who they are.
- Website: Consider setting up a website. Many guides build their own, but if that is not your strength, then consider hiring a web developer/designer. Having a website is like a personal brochure and enables guides to direct potential clients to their work.It can serve as a central hub of information for all upcoming events, media, and contact information. There is an “ANFT Certified Guide” logo for download off the guide portal that will help clients recognize ANFT certification. There are also example guide websites available in the guide portal.
- Social Media: Social Media marketing is a reality of today’s business culture. However, it’s not a requirement. Part of a guide’s niche might be customers who are not on social media that they connect with locally. Only use the platforms that feel like a good fit. Consider using the following platforms:
- Instagram: The best thing about Instagram is that it can link to other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, so that a guide can post to multiple accounts with only one post. This saves a lot of time. Also, images of Forest Therapy often communicate the experience better than words do.
- Facebook: Facebook is, for better or worse, a digital marketplace. It is a good place to build an online following and requires little effort to maintain.
- LinkedIn: LinkedIn can be a helpful place to network and form connections when looking for potential partnerships for your business.
- Business Cards and Printed Materials: Having a business card is old fashioned but still works. After a walk, consider offering business cards to anyone who would like one. This can encourage customers to return and to refer others. Having cards or other materials also enables guides to leave them at places like yoga studios or alternative medicine clinics where potential clients may go.
- Photos and Video Content: Photo and videos not only communicate the experience better than words, but they also capture more attention online. If guides receive press attention, the press will also often ask for high resolution photos, so having a small set of professional photos and a short video can go a long way. In addition to hiring someone, consider bartering or networking with friends.
- Testimonials and Recommendations: Testimonials sell more tickets that anything guides can say about themselves. Use a feedback form to solicit testimonials. Collect a few good ones and use them in marketing. The ANFT guide directory has a place where clients can post online recommendations. Direct clients to go to the Find a Guide page, enter your name in the search field, then click on About -> Recommend. Yelp is also a highly used app that allows clients to leave ratings and feedback about their experience. Having a profile on Yelp may expand your marketing reach.
- Blogging: For those who have the time and desire, blogging can be a great way to connect with an audience. Blogging allows a more intimate and personal expression of a guide’s vision than many traditional marketing strategies.
- Press: Local press is a wonderful resource. Press outlets are always looking for new stories and Forest Therapy is often thought to be a generally interesting topic to report on. Invite your local journalists to attend a walk for free. Guides can also submit their own stories to newspapers via Editorials or online platforms like Patch.com.
- Online Calendars: Most communities have online calendars or free publications that list events. Patch.com offers this service in the US. These calendars may be managed by the city, county, tourism bureau, or other nonprofit.
Business Structures and Other Considerations
Operating a business requires a fair amount of research into what kinds of supporting structures must be developed. These structures vary greatly from state to state and especially country to country. Due to this variance, we will not go deeply into specifics on these topics, but here is a list of things that guides may want to begin thinking about as they develop a business plan. The ANFT also has many professional development call recordings on these topics and is adding to them all the time.
- Businesses entities. Many guides opt to create a Limited Liability Company (LLC) which has the benefit of protecting personal assets. Owners of LLCs are not held personally liable for business debts and liabilities in the same way owners of other corporate structures are. Consult an accountant and/or lawyer.
- Insurance. It is strongly recommended that guides carry liability insurance. Sometimes partnership organizations will cover guides under their policy, but guides should have a personal plan as well. The Association tracks possible insurance carriers for Forest Therapy guides as guides discover them. Information on this can be found at https://goo.gl/xPbqeZ
- Permits. Many public lands require some form of permitting. Please consult with local land managers for more information on acquiring appropriate permits. This process often takes several months, so don’t get discouraged. Ask about the possibility of a yearly permit or Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) rather than getting one for each walk. Using language that demonstrates how forest therapy supports their mission/goals, is low impact, and promotes land tending may convince the land manager that you do not require a permit. Also, be clear on the size and scope of your programs. Perhaps invite them on a walk. Networking like this takes time, but it goes a long way and builds sustaining business relationships.
- Ticketing, booking, and collecting money. If guides organize their own events, it is strongly recommended that they create an online platform to process payments and ticketing. Sometimes, partnership organizations will do this and send a check in the mail. Having an online system, coupled with a cancellation policy that is clearly stated will help avoid planning walks and then having a lot of participants who RSVP’d not show up. There are many online resources that can be integrated into a website or linked to.
- Banking and accounting. Guides should have a strategy for accurately tracking business revenues and expenses to properly file taxes and for their own personal records. Consult an accountant.
- Communications. It is important to develop some system to communicate with participants before and after the walk. This is especially pertinent for:
o Giving specific directions to the trailhead.
o Latecomers. Cleary stating that walks will start promptly at the given time and that latecomers will either lose their reservation, be refunded, or have the option to transfer the reservation to a later date.
o Reminding participants of appropriate clothing, to bring water, and any other items to make their walk comfortable.
o Soliciting feedback and testimonials.
- Waivers. Although not a substitute for insurance, liability waivers are a good layer of protection. Photo and video waivers are also essential if you plan on using images of people in your marketing. A sample waiver is in the guide portal, but you should also consult professionals to see what is needed for the local geographic area and country. Some land managers may require you to use their waivers.
To avoid what is known as “price fixing,” the Association cannot make recommendations as to how much guides should charge for their walks. For any questions related to pricing, it is recommended that guides seek the advice of their fellow guides -- but not guides that are immediately in their same area. It would also be price fixing for several guides to arrange to all charge the same price in the same region.
Things to consider:
- Don’t let your own edges around money prevent you from valuing your work as a guide.
- Consider all the time you are putting into planning and marketing when pricing. Let those you are contracting with know about all the prep and planning that goes into preparing for a walk in a new location so they understand the value of your work.
- Pricing too low can send a message that what you are offering is not worth paying more for.
- If you are donating your time or being sponsored by an organization so the participants can attend for free, make a big deal about this. Let people know so they can properly appreciate your work.
- Just because an organization is a nonprofit, don’t assume they don’t have funds to spend and need a low price.
- When negotiating pricing, develop a few phrases to use that leave the door open for further negotiation. Some examples are:
o “If you have any concerns about the proposal let me know.”
o “I want to do this project more than I need to get my top fee.”
o Name a range but also share that you are trying to make a living and hope to receive the higher amount.
Working with the Press
It is important to understand that many editors are hoping for sensational stories, and this can often lead to a negativity bias toward any new experience. Guides working with an important press outlet might consider inviting former clients that they know will appreciate the experience to a private walk, instead of having a public walk. This will enhance the likelihood that the press will walk away with a positive view of the experience. It is also very important to have the press person participate fully in the experience. Be flexible and make accommodations so there is time for questions and interviews later, in order to have them participate.
Be prepared with talking points.. There are three main areas to have prepared talking points for:
- First, personal background and the Forest Therapy practice or business. You’ll write this during your practicum.
- Second, about forest therapy and the ANFT.
(See Appendix E A Guide’s Press Kit in this handbook)
- Lastly, the health benefits of forest therapy.
(See Appendix E A Guide’s Press Kit in this handbook)
Guides already have much of the information they’ll need. Some of these facts are in the Forest Therapy walk introduction as well as the introduction to this manual: The History, Mission, and Vision of the Association. Guides should also use the Health Impacts of Nature Connection section of this manual as another resource. A guide’s personal bio and business description will be the final elements.
ANFT is not a business school, but there are some intra-organizational support systems that include:
- The professional development call series includes some calls on business development led by ANFT trainers and guides who have successfully started their own businesses and guides with specialized knowledge in specific areas of business.
- The ANFT Facebook group connects all ANFT trained guides and is a wealth of knowledge and experience. Asking a business-related question on this forum often returns solid leads.
- ANFT members will receive a special 43% discount for Julie Wolk’s "Roots of Business" course. A $350 value, the course is available to ANFT members for $200, a 43% discount off the full price. This information can be found in the guide portal under Business and Marketing.
Some useful online resources:
Many of these online resources come with free account options when starting out with the option to upgrade later:
- Canva (marketing materials design)
- Mailchimp (mailing)
- Eventbrite (event hosting)
- Meetup (event hosting)
- 1800 Accountant (accounting)
- LegalZoom (legal and business support)
- Pixabay (online images)
- Quickbooks (accounting)
- Unsplash (online images)
- Everlance (mileage tracking)
- Facebook (marketing and community building)
- Instagram (marketing and community building)
- LinkedIn (marketing and community building)
- Twitter (marketing and community building)
- Wix (website builder)
- Weebly (website builder)
- Inaturalist (plant identification)
- Squarespace (website builder)
- Survey Monkey (data collection)
- Latergram (social media)
- Smart Waiver (waivers)
- Google Form (Forms and data collection)
- Vistaprint (marketing materials)
- Weather Bug (weather tracking)
- Splice (video editing)
- Gekko (accounting and invoicing)
- Inboxify (email marketing)
- Wordswag (photo text design)
- Acuity (scheduling)
- Calendly (scheduling)
- Hootsuite (social media coordination)
- Prezi (presentations)
- Mappiness (mapping)
- Merlin bird ID (bird identification)
- Topo Map (mapping)
- Adobe Spark (videos)
- Wave (Accounting)
- MOO (business cards)
- Ninja forms (online forms)
- SCORE (online and in-person classes and network of volunteer business mentors)
- US Small Business Administration (online courses to help you start and run your business