From city slicker to guest rancher: The Majestic challenge
Colorado guest ranch Majestic Dude Ranch is no ordinary ranching operation. When LA movie theater owner Robert Bucksbaum recently aquired what was previously Mancos Lake Ranch and renamed it Majestic Dude Ranch, he knew it would be a challenge. So how has Robert fared in the dude ranch vacation industry? We spoke to the Colorado dude ranch owner on his journey from city slicker to guest rancher...
Robert - from Majestic Crest Theater to Majestic Dude Ranch!
So Robert, what made you decide to buy the ranch in the first place?
I plead temporary insanity, your honor… You have to be a little crazy to even consider buying a dude ranch these days! I’m actually working my way up from the bottom of the toughest industries - single screen movie theatres to dude ranches. My next business venture will probably involve a popsicle stand in Antarctica! Seriously, I was looking for an excuse to have the most fun one can possibly have and still call it work…
So far, what has been the biggest challenge of running a dude ranch?
I never had a clue about how difficult it would be to run a dude ranch. My first plan was to buy as many fun toys as possible - kayaks, high-end mountain bikes, fly-fishing rods, trucks, horses, a baseball field, etc - and just plan on having a blast with all the guests. Only I didn’t consider the amount of behind-the-scenes work it takes to enjoy all the things Majestic Dude Ranch has to offer. I remember going to my first dude ranch convention (more fun than you can imagine!), surrounded by second- and third-generation ranchers with tons of experience. They were having a Q&A and I was the first to raise my hand and asked the group, “How do you operate a dude ranch?” After about 10 minutes of laughter, I said I was serious but no one really believed me. I thought there would be a “How to Operate a Dude Ranch for Dummies” guidebook, but all I could find was this old '50s book called “Westward Ho”. It was based on a true story of a New York couple who left high society to operate a dude ranch in New Mexico. It was a terrific book but it scared me to death, describing all the problems that would occur in your first year of operation. Funny enough, just about everything in that book came to fruition in my first year – I guess nothing much has changed since the '50s!
How does life at Majestic Dude Ranch differ to life in LA, and what have been the biggest lifestyle adaptations you've had to make?
I can’t possibly imagine a bigger extreme going from LA to Colorado. LA is super fast-paced, crowded and everyone seems to be on a mission to go somewhere all the time. CO is laid back, wide open and people are so genuinely nice. I can honestly say there is no better place to live than southwest Colorado in the summertime – pristine air, crystal clean water, no traffic, terrific people, breathtaking scenery… LA has its good points as well, with so much to do and terrific weather in the winter, so I feel very lucky and fortunate to experience both worlds. When I first got to the ranch last year in January, there was about five feet of snow on the ground. It doesn’t snow much in LA, so my kids were running around the ranch in super-thin white socks - after about an hour they were reeling in pain from near frostbite! We had a few pipes freeze and burst because the water wasn’t properly shut down. So I had to think of some creative ways for my kids to be able to shower, use the bathroom and thaw out their feet and hands. If you ever need to melt snow in a hurry – I’m the guy to ask.
How has your experience of being a movie theater owner helped you in taking on a dude ranch?
I think my experience serving in the Army as a paratrooper helped the most, since I gained a tremendous amount of confidence and experience from training and "roughing it" in several different environments. Operating single-screen movie theatres involves putting out small fires and dealing with hundreds of customers at a time – so pretty similar to operating a ranch. I learned that it’s basically impossible to please everyone in a movie theatre business – you’re always going to encounter someone who had a bad day and will take it out on the staff. I remember one time I had a sold-out show with 450 customers. One of the rollers on our platter holding the film broke so I basically had to hold the film in place by hand for a 3-hour movie. Every hour or so, my arms would get tired and the film would skip a beat. Even though 99% of the audience had no idea what went on behind the scenes, I ended up giving everyone free popcorn and a free pass to come back another time. But I still had several customers that vehemently complained and acted as if I’d ruined their entire lives. Dealing with customers at the ranch is a pleasure, since most Majestic guests are so grateful and are even willing to give you a hand just to gain the experience of ranch life. It’s really an amazing transformation that take place each week when the guests arrive. At first, they are all amped up and stressed out from their daily life and workload. As soon as they see the ranch and experience some of the unique activities we offer, they quickly shed their anxieties, relax and have the time of their life.
Are there any similarities between the two lifestyles - how have they merged?
Well, I had no problem setting up an outdoor movie theatre at the ranch with fresh popcorn! It’s really special for guests to be able to experience an outdoor movie under more stars than they’ve probably seen in a lifetime and not have to worry about cold weather or mosquitoes. It’s quickly become one of our most popular nighttime activities and has really helped bring my two worlds together.
What do your family think of ranch life?
I'm recently divorced and the ranch has helped in my relationship with my ex-wife – specifically in the way we raise and interact with our children. I have three kids - identical 13-year-old twin boys and a seven-year-old girl. I can’t think of a better atmosphere to raise kids and it’s a terrific balance they share between life in LA and life on the ranch. My boys love baseball - so of course I had to be the only dude ranch in the world with its own baseball field and batting cage! My daughter loves horses and dancing, so line dancing is a big part of our nightly activities. I’ve met many adults and kids that grew up on ranches and they seem to be the most well-adjusted people on earth, so I think this experience can only bring my kids and I closer together.
What are hopes for Majestic Dude Ranch - where do you see it in five years' time?
Just about every dude ranch owner I spoke to gave me the same advice: “You’re probably going to want to spend a ton of money on the ranch first year – don’t! I guess I’m not very good at taking advice – I spent almost as much in upgrades in the first year than I did on the original purchase of the ranch. Every year I plan on making significant improvements so I can keep guests returning and hopefully get the word out that the Majestic is one place that creates special memories that last a lifetime. I’d love to be one of those ranches that don’t worry about marketing and just welcome back the same guests year after year.
Happy guests at Majestic
What's the best thing about life as a dude ranch owner?
By far, the best thing about dude ranch life is the guests you meet and the fact you’re establishing lifelong friends. Despite all the hard work, the lifestyle is extremely worthwhile – especially after seeing the true joy on guests’ faces after experiencing some of the unique activities we offer at the ranch. And that makes it pretty tough to say goodbye each week. But thanks to social media, we’re all able to remain pretty close during the off season.
And how are your cowboy skills coming along?!
I’ve become an expert at mucking stalls – it’s all in the wrist! Most of my experience is trial by error. I remember being awoken by a guest at 3:00 in the morning one night: “Excuse me Robert, but are the horses supposed to be outside?” Someone had left one of our gates open so I was walking around in complete darkness catching horses on the baseball field, playing volleyball, destroying our archery course, eating hundreds of bales of hay… It took me and my boys and their friends three days to pick up all the poop – we found some in the most interesting places. I’ve also developed a special bond with our horses, so I can help calm people's nerves when they are too timid to ride. It’s so important to match the horse with the right guest and vice versa – most of the time we get it right. Some guests even referred to me as a horse whisperer, which makes me really happy! Not bad for a one-time city slicker…
And finally...Describe a typical day on the ranch
I love spending time with the guests so in guest season I’m usually serving as an assistant mountain bike guide, riding horseback or taking guests to a special fly-fishing spot. Since activities start at breakfast and last until well past sunset, I spend the early morning hours preparing for the day, and the nighttime hours on marketing. Basically, I’m looking at 18-hour days during season. In the off season, I spend around ten hours a day marketing. And I wouldn’t have it any other way – it’s what I love to do.
For more information on dude ranch vacations at Majestic Dude Ranch, view their ranch profile at Top50Ranches.com