Melissa Nordhoff's Best Kept Secrets Tours started with a problem: She managed her mother's Earl Township décor store, Carson's in the Cornfields, and advertising wasn't working.
"We needed a new way to draw in traffic," Nordhoff said.
She also had been mulling the idea of how to raise funds for a favorite charity.
Her solution was to set up a fall shopping tour of Carson's and 25 other small, unique Lancaster County businesses, sell tickets and donate a portion of the proceeds.
"I kind of was thinking about home and garden tours," Nordhoff said. "I just thought, 'Why don't we make this for shopping?' I know that there are a lot of people out there who want to support the local economy."
The tour was a hit. She sold 886 tickets, and both the shops and the shoppers were delighted with the concept.
In the 18 years she had been at Carson's, Nordhoff said, nothing they had ever done brought in that much traffic. Feedback from other participants was also positive.
"They report seeing between 400 and 1,500 people come through, and I get sales reports between $2,500 and $18,000" that shopkeepers think is attributable to the tour, Nordhoff said.
"I can honestly say this is by far the best advertisement we have ever done, and the most fun," said Barbara Petricoin, who with her husband, Barry, has owned Barbarry's country gift shop in Reading for 20 years. "It brings a lot of new people into the shops, and it brings a lot of repeat business."
Four years later, the tours have become a full-time job for Nordhoff. She creates the Lancaster and Berks county tours herself, has enlisted other organizers for Chester and Northampton counties, and is thinking about expanding to Dauphin, Lebanon and York counties.
A typical tour runs about 16 days and features up to 36 shops. In Lancaster, the tours are so popular that Nordhoff offers a new one each spring and fall, plus a smaller Christmas tour. She spends four to six weeks per tour visiting prospective participants.
"I just go and drive and take the smallest back roads imaginable," Nordhoff said. "I stop everywhere."
She usually ends up with twice as many applicants as she has slots. Participants pay a fee and agree to be open during the hours of the tour, in addition to offering coupons and some kind of special attraction for tour-goers.
Tickets are $7, from which Nordhoff donates $1 to charity in that county. Each tourgoer receives a map and coupons.
Petricoin said Barbarry's tour specials typically include a free gift to every participant, a 10-percent-off offer and door prizes.
"They just love collecting their trinkets at each shop," she said. "They try to do the entire tour just to see what each shop is offering."
Sue Zurin and her husband, Kevin, own Eastland Alpacas in Mount Joy, where they sell yarn, woven rugs and other alpaca products. They have participated in several tours.
"It's fun seeing the people have fun," Sue Zurin said. Eastland offers a tour within the tour, allowing visitors who come at set times to visit and pet their alpacas. Baby alpacas are fan favorites, she said.
Clare Makibbin is manager of Susquehanna Glass, a company that began in 1910 and is based in Columbia. The store is "off the beaten path," she said, so it doesn't typically get a lot of walk-in visitors — except during Secrets tours.
"Most people come as a group, and generally you get five or six women and they're all having a hilariously happy time," Makibbin said. "They end up hooking up with other groups that have gone where they did, then meet up for lunch."
Nordhoff said tour-goers are typically between the ages of 40 and 70, and about 70 to 80 percent of them live in Lancaster, Berks and Chester counties. However, some come from other states, and bus companies have coordinated trips with the tours on occasion.
In Lancaster County alone, Nordhoff said, the tours have generated nearly $20,000 for charities.
"I absolutely love everything about my job," she said.