Curt Leonberg says he can't quite remember when he decided to do business with Banfe Products rather than one of Banfe's competitors. "I think I was on the beach drinking a margarita," says Leonberg, who owns a nursery. "Or maybe it was a pina colada."
Dan Banfe, CEO of the soil and mulch seller based in Westville, N.J., loves this victory tale, of course. He considers it proof that his company's unusual travel incentive program is working. For seven years Banfe has been treating its sales staff and a handful of loyal customers to free weeklong getaways in tropical locales like Cancun and Curacao. And along with the sheer glee of being able to flee the frigid Northeast each January with fellow gardeners and mulch sellers, the program has helped the Banfes boost sales and build loyalty. And in case you were imagining that a vacation sponsored by a dirt company sounded like a good way to get buried in a sales pitch, there is a strict policy prohibiting shoptalk. Banfe staffers, says company founder Jerry Banfe, who is Dan's father and who created the travel plan, are expressly forbidden to talk business on the beach--unless the customer brings it up. The only questions staffers are supposed to ask, says Jerry, are along the lines of "What size T-shirt do you wear?" and "Are you afraid of sailing?"
Generally speaking, there aren't many freebies in the dirt biz. Curt Leonberg, who owns Leonberg Nursery in Moorestown, N.J., says that in 23 years in the business he'd never gotten more than a business card or a cheap gift from his suppliers--until Jerry Banfe stopped in on a sales call one day in the late '90s, to talk up a Cancun trip and explain the Banfe "point" system. At first, Leonberg was suspicious: "Is this a junk vacation?" he wondered. "Is it gonna be a dump?" But he went and it turned out the time-shares Banfe rented were in high-class resorts and there really wasn't any hard sell. And Leonberg liked the planned activities (usually sailing or scuba diving) and mingling with other East Coast garden center owners. He's been on every trip for the last five years.
But while the trip is on Banfe's tab, the chance to go isn't easily gotten. Customers have to earn 1,250 points for a free trip, which means buying, literally, tons of dirt, mulch, and manure. A trailer full of Banfe's best-selling product, Icbin, a dark, aged bark mulch gardeners use around trees and shrubs, can weigh up to 40,000 pounds and cost more than $1,300--but it only earns 25 points toward a trip. For a small gardening shop doing a mostly seasonal business, selling that much mulch can be quite a feat.
And, as the program grows in popularity, the competition for points has gotten fierce. In fact, the tallying of points has even been disputed, especially when Banfe was tabulating them by hand from invoices. Eventually, Dan Banfe switched to a computerized system, and he even hired outside consultants to cook up a more precise point-counting system. He also holds a raffle each year for smaller customers who have no hope of hitting the 1,250 mark.
After seven years, Dan says, they've worked out almost all of the kinks. Sure, a handful of Banfe's customers still pass on the trip, even when they rack up enough points to go. "Some of them see it as inappropriate," says Jerry Banfe. "It's like a carrot dangled in front of them, and they'll have none of it." But the majority, he says, have a ball--even though the trip puts the burgeoning crew (88 this year) of mostly strangers in close quarters with one another for a week.
"We get to know them so well and it's wonderful," says Jerry. "Clients have told me, 'I hate talking to salespeople, but I love talking to you."