An event brings together leaders in business, tourism, agriculture and more to help one another thrive

GENEVA — In a Finger “Laking” good mix of sharp minds and entrepreneurial passion, leaders of local tourism, agriculture, fine food and beverage, and the farm-to-table movement came together Monday to share stories and strategies for growth.

The occasion: the first ever “al fresco flx” event, hosted by the Canandaigua Chamber of Commerce and LNB Banking at the Ramada Plaza by Wyndham Geneva Lakefront Resort and Finger Lakes Welcome Center.

“Today was to bring together people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to get together,” said Canandaigua Chamber Executive Director Ethan Fogg. “The idea of small business or entrepreneurship is on the upswing. People are going out on their own, and I want them to be able to do that successfully.”

It was an event first sketched on the back of a napkin as Fogg mused about what would help tourism businesses and industries help one another.

“I know I’m more successful when I do what I do under advice of people who have done it before, or at least do it with friends who have my best interests at heart,” he said. “The difference between a good friend and a helpful friend is whether they’ll be honest. And I think today we had a room full of honest people, whether they be farmers or tourism professionals or bankers or members of the media. We need each other to be able to elevate this thing we call farm-to-table and agritourism.”

The event included two main panel discussions on creating a memorable guest experience and the demands of farm-to-table dining and agritourism, and sessions on creating an evergreen business plan and the importance of storytelling.

Keynote speakers Executive Chef Samantha Buyskes and General Manager Terry Sindt of the Geneva Ramada perfectly illustrated the farm-to-table movement by serving a meal that demonstrated the venue’s major shift to using primarily seasonal, regional and locally sourced ingredients in Ramada’s restaurant and bar.  

Pierre Heroux, owner of Simply Crepes in Canandaigua and Pittsford, also sources much of his ingredients from local producers.

“It’s a wonderful thing to do for our community, because they’re your neighbors and friends. It’s about creating a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of ‘hey, guess what, I did my part in making this place a better place to live in.”

Heroux doesn’t believe the farm-to-table trend is going away anytime soon.

“It’s only going to get better as people realize the value of community,” he said. “This is going to be a way of life for all of us.

“If I buy wines from my Finger Lakes neighbors and if I support their business and help them grow, they will appreciate that we are there for them,” said Heroux. “They will be proud of the fact that their wine is featured on my wine list, and they’ll come to my restaurant, enjoy their wine and my food. And it becomes this never-ending circle of support that we have for one another. It’s a great feeling.”

Brian Mastrosimone, owner of Lincoln Hill Farms, the Lobby Craft Eatery on East Lake Road, Vine and Villa vacation home rentals, and Lilly’s (boat) Rentals said collaboration may be the key to moving forward.

“I feel like the industries within the Finger Lakes need to work as a team — we can’t look at each other as competitors,” said Mastrosimone. “If we work together, we get more people here, and they’re going to automatically come to your place.”

This is not a culture, as some might think, where one business or destination is going to cannibalize the would-be patrons of the next, he said. People visiting the Finger Lakes want to build a variety of experiences — not just one.

“Today was about meeting other people who have small companies and industries and that we can feed each other,” said Mastrosimone of Monday’s event.

Lincoln Hill Farms sprawls across 85 acres of hops yards, sunflower and hemp fields, vegetables, fruit bushes, and “by next year we’ll have every type of fruit you can grow in upstate New York,” said Mastrosimone.

The working event farm is also a well-equipped concert venue for headline and up-and-coming musicians, a wedding and corporate venue, and by July 1 is expected to boast 24 new glamping sites in the woods. 

“By the end of 2019, phase one of that 85-acre farm will be done and will be one of the most unique places to come visit in the Finger Lakes,” said Mastrosimone. “We harvest fun on Lincoln Hill Farms.”

Michael Mills of DestinationFLX led a breakout session that helped entrepreneurs craft and communicate their company’s story, and pointed to one successful local business that’s already on the right track.

“F. Oliver’s is selling great spices and oils, but what they’re really doing is helping people explore and experience dining and food and that interaction,” said Mills. “So that’s someone who understands their story. Now they need to make sure they’re telling it consistently and compellingly.”

All the entrepreneurs present “need to be thoughtful and proactive about what they do,” he said. They have to be consistent and it will pay big dividends.”

DestinationFLX is an online and real-world platform that helps visitors learn about and visit the Finger Lakes. The service offers the latest regional tourism news and information on places to eat, stay, drink and things to do;  and hosts events like tastings, hikes, ski trips and water outings.

At the close of “al fresco flx,” Fogg said the single greatest takeaway was that every person had met at least one person they didn’t know before.

“We’re getting closer together, and it will be easier for us to work together when we’re more familiar,” he said. “I would not have been satisfied if this was a roomful of winemakers, because that’s not why we put this together.”

“We have young people who are three years into the farm-owning experience,” said Fogg. “Three years from now, it might be a memory because they didn’t have the proper support and advice. What I would not want to see lost is their excitement, and if they are to fail, the loss of their excitement will hurt the entire industry.”