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The family wagon
Fayette County horse farm, at the end of the trail, finds new legs hosting corporate events
By David Williams
April 10, 2005
"I did everything I could (in the horse business)," said owner and founder Drew Canale, 47, who grew up in Midtown and became a lawyer, though you'd never guess it from his cowboy hat and folksy way.
"We went to the top of the heap in horses. We did horse sales, horse shows. ... We did everything we could to try to make a living. The market's just not there."
But Canale said a friend, Davy Johnson, suggested corporate-event hosting as a way to stay down on the farm. From one event in 1995, it has grown into into a full-time business.
The farm, which cost about $200,000 to convert, is around capacity this year with 80 events. That's up 15 from 2004 and nearly doubles the post-9/11 slump of 2002.
The corporate-event business is competitive -- think the Redbirds and AutoZone Park, the Memphis Zoo, the Putt-Putt Fun Center -- but Canale Farms touts an away-from-it-all experience that's only about 22 miles east of Wolfchase Galleria.
The grounds include an air-conditioned dining hall, covered pavilion, eight-acre lake with a fishing pier,
basketball and volleyball courts, horseshoe pits, inflatable slides and numerous other activities.
"It was real good for families, because a lot of times you have Christmas parties and it's more geared toward adults," said James Mooneyham, human resources director for UT Cancer Institute, a two-time visitor to the farm. "You could go out and spend time with your family."
Other clients have included FedEx, Smith & Nephew and First Tennessee.
Canale credits the Redbirds, who opened AutoZone Park Downtown in 2000, with putting companies in a mindset of family-oriented employee outings.
"When you start focusing on retaining good employees and things like that, I think it's important for companies to commit to their employees -- not just within the company structure, but also socially," said Kerry Sewell, Redbirds vice president of marketing.
Sewell said group sales can account for up to 35 percent of a nightly crowd. The team won the minor league attendance crown last season, averaging 10,437 for the season.
What: A horse farm converted into a site for corporate, church, school and other group outings
Where: 620 Canale Way, Oakland, about 22 miles east of Wolfchase Galleria (see Web site below for map)
Prices: Per-head costs range from $20.50 to $26.50, depending on the number of attendees and the package chosen
Top person: Drew Canale is founder and owner of the family operation, which also includes his wife, Allison, and daughters Valarie and Leslie
Employees: Six full time, 18 "full part time" working every event
Web site: canalefarms.com
Canale Farms -- which has a 150-person minimum and has accommodated 3,500 -- has a lower profile than AutoZone Park, and an out-of-the-way location.
But Canale said his farm is unique in that it's not open to the public. It's a private facility, open to one group per day, operated by a staff that oversees everything from food to rides.
"At first we would rent the facility and provide the food," Canale said. "Then we would rent the facility, provide the food and do a little entertainment.
"As time has gone on, we've done everything.
"We've found the customer we're seeking is a human resource manager for at least 100 employees. That means they don't have time to do hardly anything. They're very, very busy people."
Mooneyham concurred: "I didn't have to do a whole lot of anything. ... I pretty much turned it over to them and they did the whole works."
These days, as the family hosts 2005 events and books for 2006, Canale is thinking about expanding the business.
"I'm running out of room on the calendar," he said. "That's my problem, because I only do one event per day.
"Do we do two events a day and ruin the privacy aspect of it? Do we take the show on the road and go to different companies? Do we get another farm?"
It's a good problem to have for Canale, who lives with his family on the farm and has no desire to return to city life.
"This business was made for me," he said. "It's got horses, which I love. It's got food, which I love. I love fixing this place up and getting it ready to show people."
-- David Williams: 529-2310