Running a guest ranch: challenge and change
Running a guest ranch is about much more than playing host and offering excellent hospitality. Providing dude ranch vacations brings with it a whole set of challenges as well as constant change, to which luxury dude ranch resorts and working ranches alike much adapt to in order to keep their ranching businesses – and their livelihoods – alive.
Ranching and the recession
One of the biggest challenges even the best guest ranches have had to adapt to, just like the rest of the western world, is the recent economic downturn. Tracey O’Connell, owner of Canada guest ranch Tod Mountain, found herself in a particularly unfavorable position just as the recession hit. Having purchased the ranch just a few months prior, Tracey was forced to quickly adapt her plans to allow for the sudden economic instability. “Construction started on Tod Mountain Ranch just a few months before the recession hit – not a great time to start a business!” she recalls. “So from day one the business plan had to be redeveloped.” Along with financial implications, the recession has also significantly changed the demographic of Tod Mountain’s guests.
Tracey was forced to adapt Tod Mountain's marketing strategy when the recession hit
“In our first year of operation, the majority of our guests came from Europe, but over the past few years we’ve welcomed far more guests from within Canada – a significant proportion of them from our own province of British Columbia,” explains Tracey, who was forced to adapt Tod Mountain Ranch’s marketing strategy and budget accordingly. “Only for the 2012 season does the number of European travellers seem to be increasing – we are certainly looking forward to welcoming them back.”
Another Canada guest ranch which had to totally re-think its marketing strategy is Three Bars Ranch. Says the BC guest ranch’s owner Tyler Beckley: “Up until recently, we never considered the local market as a significant part of our business, but in the last few years people are traveling much closer to home, something which has made us totally re-think our marketing strategy.” Another challenge Tyler and the Three Bars team faced was a shift in the booking cycle, with guests who would normally book dude ranch vacations six or seven month in advance, instead signing on the dotted line as close to two or three weeks prior to their ranch vacation. “This has made planning and staffing very difficult,” admits Tyler.
Dean and Karen May of North Fork Ranch in Colorado, USA, also had to adapt their staffing principles in the face of the recession. “We have had to hire fewer staff, but rotate their schedules to keep them under 40 hours per week – while still ensuring guests get a full staff interaction,” explains Dean. And instead of discounting their ranch vacations, Dean and Karen have instead chosen to give guests more their money, adding value with extra activities included in the price. “We have added zip line, a jeep tour and mountain biking – all contracted through local companies, which helps all of us.”
North Fork Ranch offers guests more for their dollar
Further north in Wyoming at the Lazy L&B Ranch, Lee Naylon has faced similar challenges. “Over the last few years, those guests finding the money for a dude ranch vacation have tended to choose the same three weeks in summer. This focused demand means that we have to turn some guests away for those three weeks, while finding ourselves unable to fill other weeks in the season.” Lee has found the personal touch helpful in securing bookings, and regularly visits with potential guests to learn what could persuade them to take a dude ranch vacation at Lazy L&B. “It is wonderful to speak to potential guests and find out what it is they want,” says Lee. “One thing appears to be shorter ranch vacations, often just for a few days.” This has meant having to adjust staffing, meals, and horseback riding schedules, something Lee and her family are still brainstorming on how best to manage. “We have definitely had to change our mind set as to how to accommodate shorter stays, but we understand the way things are for guests, too, so we do as much as we can to accommodate their needs.”
Robert Bucksbaum agrees. “It’s tough out there these days,” admits the LA movie theater owner, who is relatively new to the ranching world, having acquired Majestic Dude Ranch in Colorado just one year ago. “It can be hard to convince someone to spend a significant chunk of change on a vacation. We appreciate that guests are spending their hard-earned money, especially in today’s tough economy, so we strive to make sure they get their money’s worth in return. I find that offering all-inclusive packages allows guests to forget about being 'nickel and dimed' with added costs for food, activities or tours for the week – they can just relax and have the time of their life.”
While the remote location of some guest ranches is a big attraction for many travelers looking to escape from the city or the hustle and bustle of everyday life, for the ranches themselves such a secluded environment can bring with it a real set of challenges. Says Lee: “We understand it can be hard for guests, especially families, to travel a long way to reach our ranch. To help fund the expense of travel we offer lower-priced ranch vacations – this not only makes getting to Lazy L&B that bit more affordable, but our ranch vacation packages just as attractive as more conveniently located ranches.”
Clayoquot Wilderness Resort's remote location poses logistical challenges
For Canada guest ranch Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, its remote location on the west coast of Vancouver island poses very real logistical challenges. “The remoteness of the lodge always brings a good twist to the conversation,” says Kathy MacRae, social media and marketing manager at the tented safari camp, whose guest’s kick-start their wilderness adventure with a jaw-dropping float plane ride from Vancouver straight to the ranch’s dock. What might be a novelty for guests is a real logistical challenge for Clayoquot, however, which had to find a practical yet cost-effective way of shipping supplies. “We boat all supplies in and out all year long, from food orders to construction equipment,” explains Kathy. “Out of season, the small crew that stays behind to maintain the resort and feed the 30-plus horses relies on boats to get them in and out of the lodge.” That means a 40-minute boat ride from Tofino, which can sometimes take much longer “– or at least it can feel much longer, what with our wild west coast weather that we get from October to March!” laughs Kathy. While daily items like food are brought in by the nine boats used for the guest ranch’s water activities, shipping in heavy materials requires a much larger boat – an 80-foot landing craft tank carrier, to be exact. Says Kathy: “It’s a real ‘Saving Private Ryan’-style US navy boat!”
For Tyler, the rural location of Three Bars Ranch poses a very different challenge: the divide between the urban and rural population. “Some people just don’t know anything about nature or agriculture,” he explains. “They might have every new gadget and are constantly connected via social media, but they don’t know how to have our kind of fun.” With this type of market proving notoriously difficult for guest ranches to reach, Tyler took the controversial decision to provide satellite TV, Wi-Fi and cell phone reception on-site. “But if I and my staff do our job right,” insists Tyler, “the TV stays off; the cell phones come out less and less, and, maybe by the end of the week, actually stay in the room. We have a goal here at the ranch – if half of our guests are not crying on checkout because they are sad to leave, we have not done our job.”
It is the physical geography and climate that poses a very real threat to Tod Mountain’s existence – something Tracey knows through bitter experience. “Our ranch is in prime forest fire territory and, every year since opening, we have experienced fires within 50 kilometers of the ranch,” she explains. Although a constant worry for Tracey to have not only her home, but her whole source of income under threat, she still manages to find positives in the face of danger. “Although we have lost the use of a number of our trails to the west of our property, the construction of a new fireguard has opened up a whole new trail for us.”
With people of all backgrounds and personalities taking dude ranch vacations, another challenge faced by every ranch is the many different ages, tastes and expectations of their guests. How do ranches adapt to providing each guest with what is their idea of the perfect ranch vacation? “Our team is as diverse as the guests we welcome,” explains Tracey. “Tod Mountain Ranch employees are truly international with a broad age range – from 20 to, well, much older! And all with diverse backgrounds and lifestyles.”
“We hand-pick each and every one of North Fork Ranch’s staff,” adds Dean, whose small, family-owned and operated ranch focuses on attention to detail when it comes to guest hospitality. “Personalities are what makes people special, so we meet our guests needs with a ‘can do, will do’ attitude.”
Lee, also, believes enthusiasm is the key. “I hire staff with a mutual enthusiasm, and a desire to work hard and enjoy where they are. Our guests are always impressed not only with our staff’s attentiveness, but by how well they all get along together.”
Needless to say it takes a special team of staff to offer the uncompromising hospitality required on guest ranches, which is why Robert goes to great lengths to ensure Majestic’s employees are the best of the best. “We typically evaluate between 5,000 and 10,000 resumes every year,” he explains. “We conduct intense interviews and extensive background checks to make sure our staff are qualified and prepared for the challenges of helping run the ranch.”
Tyler wholly embraces so-called ‘difficult’ guests “– the kind of people who go through life getting what they need by complaining,” he says. “What we do is treat these guests like normal people. It might take a day or two, but most actually change while they are here. Time and time again, it is the most demanding guests who come to us at the end of the week, thank us for the time of their lives, and re-book for next year.”
Tyler's dedicated staff at Three Bars Ranch make every guest's ranch vacation special
“But you just never know what type of stressful job or situation someone goes through before arriving at the ranch,” adds Robert. “And it pays to give people the benefit of the doubt.” This was never truer than the time one of his guests complained about everything as soon as she stepped foot on Majestic soil, with nothing Robert or his staff could do seeming to please her. “But, as we do with all our ‘tough’ guests, we tried to personalize her vacation, finding out her interests doing everything we could to make sure she had a terrific time,” he explains. “At the end of the trip she cried, gave me a long hug and said she didn’t want to leave. She later explained that she had recently lost a family member, and was so grateful to us for ‘putting up’ with her that she wrote individual notes to all the staff, personally thanking them for their hospitality.”
And it is this uncompromising spirit of perseverance that keeps the guest ranching world alive. Whether the challenge comes from one guest, a shift in the economy or a force of nature, guest ranch owners are constantly adapting and changing to keep their livelihoods - well, alive. And that’s something a lot of businesses could learn from.
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