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Ten years in and the ‘secret’ is out about unique tour

What do you have when you combine a myriad of small businesses, an effort that consistently benefits charity, and events and opportunities to explore and enjoy the East Coast country side? Why, Best Kept Secrets, of course.

This marks the 10th year of the Best Kept Secrets Tours (BKST), a unique Pennsylvania experience highlighting small, independent businesses, including antique and collectible shops. However, don’t let the name fool you, the BKST is far from a secret anymore, and that suits the founder, participating businesses, and tour attendees just fine.

We caught up with BKST founder, Melissa Nordhoff, recently, to learn more about this industrious venture.

Expecting Great Things

Antique Trader: Please explain how the Best Kept Secrets Tours work. What can people expect when participating in a tour?

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Best Kept Secrets Tours: Folks will purchase a ticket for $10 ($1 per ticket is always donated to a local charity) and admission for children 12 and under is free. The ticket is a 12-page booklet which contains descriptions of the 35 featured businesses, addresses, a map to guide their travels, coupons from every business which are valid during the tour, a calendar of free events happening during the tour and entry forms to enter drawings with over $1,000 in gift cards. Tour goers travel in their own vehicles, going where they want when they want. Their ticket is valid every day during the tour. They may use it as many days as they like. Every business also has something special (demos, refreshments, drawings, games, tours, etc.) planned for the tour goers.

AT: How did you come up with this business model? How long have you been in business?

BKST: I began my advertising career directly after graduating from William & Mary, working for several newspapers and magazines in Maryland. When my daughter was born, in 1993, I moved back to Pennsylvania and became the manager of my mother’s small business, Carson’s in the Cornfields. In 2008 I wanted to raise funds for a local non-profit and was searching for a way to generate more traffic through our doors. I combined these two goals and created the tour.

Secrets Include A Myriad of Small Businesses

AT: What types of businesses are featured on the tours?

BKST: I look for a wide diversity of small, independently owned businesses. Everything from home, garden and gift stores housed in historic homes, restored barns, warehouses and unusual buildings, farms where you can interact with the animals, art and artisan galleries, tucked away nurseries and garden centers, historic sites, Amish farms with local products, potter’s studios, glass blowers shops, creameries and dairy farms, bakeries, gourmet foods shops, clothing and jewelry boutiques, favorite restaurants and cafés, furniture, antiques, vintage, upcycled and consignment shops, wineries, and more specialty shops. Every tour is different. I have repeat customers who have taken every tour and they always find new tucked-away treasures.

AT: How has your business evolved since you started the first tour? (Numbers of participating counties then and now, number of participating businesses, number of tour participants in the past year versus the year before)

Ten Years of Progress

BKST: The first tour ran in October of 2008 and featured 26 businesses. My goal was to sell 250 tickets. We sold 886. The participating businesses were so pleased with the results they asked me to also offer a spring tour. We sold 1,621 tickets for the April 2009 tour. The Lancaster tour now features a maximum of 35 shops, one non-profit business and four restaurants/cafés.

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I normally receive 60-70 applications for those spots and have to make some tough decisions. We now consistently sell 2,200-2,700 tour tickets for each Lancaster County tour. As word of the power of the tour spread, other counties started contacting me requesting I bring the program to their area. In 2011, I began devoting all my energy to the Best Kept Secrets Tour. I brought the tour to Berks and Chester Counties in 2012. With help from three wonderfully talented organizers, in 2018 we will offer tours in 14 counties (including two in Maryland) and more importantly, we will reach over $100,000 donated to local charities.

AT: What has this endeavor taught you?

Finding What Works For You

BKST: Throughout college and my first few years in the working world, I was a person who always colored inside the lines. I never deviated too far from the prescribed path. As I gained experience, knowledge and wisdom I realized that the accepted way is not always the best way. I had gained enough confidence to question the status quo. Thinking outside of the box can generate better ways of doing things and innovation is necessary to continued growth and success. As William Pollard so eloquently put it, “The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”

AT: Can you share with us a couple of the most memorable stories you’ve heard come out of a Best Kept Secrets tour?

BKST: 1) One year a married couple had to cancel their anniversary trip because the husband had lost his job. They decided to take the tour as an inexpensive stay-cation. They loved it so much it is now their annual anniversary celebration!

2) Every business on the tour has special things planned for tour goers like drawings, demonstrations, refreshments and games. One business was playing a Nerf gun shooting game. If you hit the target you received a lovely gift. If you missed you received a bad egg “consolation” prize. One octogenarian woman missed the target and received a bad egg. Do you remember those little green plastic soldiers? That’s what she received in her egg. When she opened it up she exclaimed in delight, “Just what I wanted to go home with . . . a man!”

Feed Your Passion In Business

Melissa Nordhoff

Melissa Nordhoff, founder and owner of Best Kept Secrets Tours. (All photos courtesy BKST)

AT: What kind of opportunities do you see in today’s marketplace for younger generations of entrepreneurs?

BKST: Business opportunities stem from unmet needs. These are in every field so find what you love. As a business owner you’ll live and breathe your business so your passion for what you’re doing needs to be equal to the task.

AT: What are your five best practices for business and life?

BKST: My mantra for life and business is Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When I see something in the world that I do not like it is my responsibility to do what I can to change it. I did not like watching small, brick and mortar stores going out of business and charming downtowns becoming vacant so I created the Best Kept Secrets Tour to hopefully give them a much needed boost in traffic and sales. I did not like hearing about the financial struggles of vital non-profits in my community so I pledged that $1 per every tour ticket sold will be given back, to try and make a difference in my small corner of the world.

Sound Advice

Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s not. I apply this to even the smallest decisions like which way to turn when looking for new tucked away secrets and it has served me well.

Integrity above all else. In business dealings and in life, I try to err on the side of fairness. If you haven’t played the game fairly your win has no value.

Never procrastinate. You never know what is around the next corner so staying ahead of the workload is key in accomplishing your goals.

We have more power together. Be collaborators rather than competitors. By pooling our varied skills and talents we can effect real change and success, in business and in life.

For more information, visit, email or call 717-721-9409.