A maze in maize can amaze you with its profit potential

by Allan Nation

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah: Want to make some real money on a few acres of corn? Consider a corn maze.

Brett "Corn Maze" Herbst is the man to talk to. He is considered the guru of corn mazes. Starting with his first maze in 1996 in tiny American Fork, Utah, he has since designed 205 mazes across the United States and Canada. His company, Maize LLC, currently has over 100 maze sites under five-year contracts for annual design and installation.

Herbst said his father thought he was insane when he quit his job to build his first maze.

"I grossed $63,000 in six weeks. After that my father never criticized my decision to quit my job again."

Herbst said most mazes are three to six acres in size. The largest corn maze ever built in the world (which he designed) was 12 acres.

He said some of his maze clients gross over $200,000 in a few weeks and most net between $30,000 and $50,000 during their six week runs. However, some have lost money.

He said some people just don't get "show business" and its demands to be personable and welcoming.

He said a good maze operator is someone who is well-organized, a people person and who can talk to the media with enthusiasm.

Other than operator personality, he said a corn maze is a game of "location, location, location."

He said the best location was near an Interstate highway exit or near a well-known local landmark that can be given as being near your location.

He said maze locations can actually be quite remote as long as they are on frequently traveled roads.

"Fifteen miles on a road you travel everyday is a lot shorter than 15 miles on road you have never been on," he said.

Herbst is a partner in three mazes in Utah and owns one outright. These mazes have attracted 650,000 visitors over a period of four years.

His personal maze is located 40 miles north of Salt Lake City near an Interstate exit. In 2001, this maze attracted 25,000 regular visitors and 3,000 school kids on tour.

The maze is priced at six dollars for adults, $3.50 for four to 11 year olds, and free for those under four.

The haunted barnyard and hayride are nine dollars.

The cow train is a dollar.

Field trips for school kids go for two dollars for the maze. The wagon ride is three dollars and the train ride is free.

He said due to E coli concerns, the petting zoo can only be viewed by small children from the train.

FALL HARVEST SEASON IS BEST

He said the fall "harvest season" was the best time for a maze.

"No one wants to go into a corn field when it is hot," he said.

He said in Utah, Labor Day weekend was a good time to open and the season ends at Halloween.

His maze includes a hay ride to a "haunted barnyard," and "cow train" ride and a petting zoo. The hayride goes through a tunnel made of black plastic draped over a hogwire frame. Rubber snakes dangle from its ceiling.

Labor is the biggest cost of a maze. At the seasonal peak before Halloween, Herbst's maze employs 30 employees as ticket takers, popcorn sellers, "spooks" and "corn cops." These employees are mostly retired people and college students.

The corn cops ensure order and give a helping hand to those hopelessly lost in the maze. The spooks are there to surprise visitors on their journey through the corn maze.

He said the maze opens in the late afternoon and continues until the early evening. The maze is not lighted and visitors are encouraged to bring flashlights after dark. After dark visitors are mostly high school and college students who like being scared.

DESIGN IS KEY TO MEDIA ATTENTION

Herbst said the design of the maze is critical because it is how you attract media attention and make your attraction unique.

"No one is going to pay money to just walk through a corn field."

He said good designs are religious symbols, patriotic motifs, star navigation charts and designs that tie in with local events. For example, his personal maze in 2001 celebrated the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

He said a good maze design should take the average person an hour to navigate. None of Herbst's maze designs have dead ends. All designs lead the customer in a circular fashion which helps with crowd flow.

He said the corn field is planted solid to corn and then the design is sprayed into the corn with a herbicide. He has an organic herbicide made from citric acid that works well and which some clients insist upon.

Mazes no-tilled into pastures are best because they are less muddy. He said in a tilled field the maze must be closed if it rains due to excessive mud. He said irrigation is absolutely essential because the corn is normally planted during the driest part of the summer.

The design is sprayed on when the corn is one to two feet tall. Sunflowers and other flowers are then planted to add color.

Herbst has two teams that travel the country in late summer spraying in Herbst's maze designs. He has more than 100 clients under contract for design and installation. Herbst receives an annual fee plus six percent of the maze's gross.

Once the corn is well up and still green, a plane is hired to fly over and take a picture of the design. This picture then becomes the focal point of the maze's publicity campaign.

"Media coverage and marketing are the key to a successful maze," he said. "A quality press kit is a huge factor."

He provides his clients with a manual on marketing and operations. This kit includes sample radio spots.

"The best maze in the world is no good if no one knows about it."

Typically the first two to three years are an educational process for the operator. However, the crowds grow each year. He said good crowds attract even bigger crowds.

"People like to be around people having fun. No one comes alone to a maze. People always go with family and friends."

He said it was critical that the maze design change every year as this was what made a long-running maze news. He admitted that free media coverage becomes more difficult for long-running mazes and that they must rely more on paid advertising.

Some high-traffic sites spend as much as $60,000 a year on advertising.

Herbst said many of his clients were direct-marketing-oriented farmers who used the corn maze to attract people to their farms and that they will become long-term customers.

HOW TO CONQUER A MAZE

1. No path should be used more than twice.

2. If you arrive at a choice of ways you have never visited before, it does not matter which path you take.

3. When a new path leads you to a junction of ways you have visited before, or into a blind alley, retrace your steps to where you entered it.

4. When an old path leads you to a junction of ways you have visited before, take a new path if possible; if not take any of the others.

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