Amid Recession, Cowboy Experience a Harder Sell

By Beacon Staff

Click the image or use the arrows to see more photographs from square dancing at the Bar W Guest Ranch in Whitefish.

Linda Hill never in a million years thought she would find herself sorting cows in Montana. The Pennsylvania resident recently returned from the Bar W Guest Ranch in Whitefish with her husband and two grandsons, and cattle work was one of the many activities they enjoyed on their vacation.

“I don’t think I’ve been to a place where there’s more to do and people to do it,” Hill said. “How do you put a price tag on that?”

But during a recession, a price tag is often necessary when it comes to vacations. And owners of area guest ranches have been dealt a tough blow to their belt buckles as many people have recently opted out of saddling up and settling into these all-inclusive vacations.

Joe Bowland, operations manager at Laughing Water Ranch in Fortine, said the ranch usually sees about 500 guests per year. This year, they’ve had only 200, and they’re already well into the peak of the guest ranch season.

The 220-acre ranch offers accommodations, all meals and activities, including horseback riding, kids programs and whitewater rafting, in one price. For a family of four or more, a summer vacation at Laughing Water would set them back $1,850 for eight days and seven nights. Cattle drives in early summer and fall are an added cost of $250.

“It’s hard to compete against Vegas and Disneyland,” Bowland said. Hotels in Las Vegas are often advertised as cheap as $22 per night.

Even smaller, more affordable ranches in the valley are feeling the impacts of vacationers choosing to forego the cowboy experience this year.

“There are a lot of people putting money in coffee tins and putting it in their backyard,” Hal Butler, co-owner of Lonesome Dove Guest Ranch in Kalispell, said. “They’re not spending it.”

Lonesome Dove, which offers trail rides, has packages starting at $125 for two days and one night to $595 for a week.

At Haymoon Ranch Resort in Whitefish, manager Debbie Aldridge said they’re down 30 percent from last year. The ranch is not all-inclusive, but does offer a concierge service, and a family of four can stay for $179 a night during the peak summer season.

Dave Leishman at Bar W Guest Ranch on Spencer Lake in Whitefish said they are off 10 percent from where they were last year, but this isn’t necessarily proof of a decline in interest.

“Most of the ranches are saying they’re off 25 to 40 percent, and we don’t know what our peak is yet since we’re only 4 years old,” he said. Leishman, along with his brother, wife, and a friend from New Jersey, opened the year-round ranch in June 2005. A six-day, five-night package, double occupancy (not including kids) ranges from $1,605 to $2,250 per person during the peak season. Packages include accommodations, all meals and everything from guided trail rides, wagon rides and square dances to skeet shooting and archery.

While ranch owners weren’t necessarily blindsided by the decline in guests, in the past they’ve been somewhat protected by the economic status their vacations naturally attract.

“There’s been a huge decline in the dude ranch business, which for years has never been truly affected and catered to a rather well-heeled professional clientele – over the years they’ve weathered the ups and downs,” said Gene Kilgore, owner and operator of Ranchweb.com, a one-stop site for nationwide ranch information. “But this year I don’t think there’s anybody in the country or world that hasn’t been affected.”

Closing the sale is the big problem for Colleen Hodson, executive director of the Dude Ranchers’ Association, a national organization headquartered in Cody, Wyo. While their inquiries are up, Hodson said their numbers are down about 15 percent.

“I don’t really see less interest,” she said. “But it seems to be a little more difficult this year to get them to come off their wallets.”

Fortunately for the Flathead, Glacier National Park is a mainstay, and visitor numbers to the park January through June were up 14 percent from last year. If the trend continues, the Flathead Valley’s Crown of the Continent could be a key to roping in more interest in the ranch vacation.

Ranch owners are already ramping up their marketing efforts and offering discounts and shorter stays to bring their numbers back up.

Bowland said at Laughing Water, they’ve dropped their prices and added more activities, including taking guests to Friday-night rodeos. The ranch also cut down their labor force, which slashed operating costs by 38 percent.

“Instead of wearing one hat now we’re wearing many hats,” he said. “With good training and good people, I’ve found we can survive this. You’ve got to put your heart into it and do what you gotta do.”

With guests already booked for next year, Laughing Water Ranch is looking at a turnaround.

While Bar W doesn’t offer discounts, Leishman said they are advertising harder than ever in national magazines, newspapers and online.

“It’s very expensive, but it’s been driving our business,” he said.

No one really knows whether the efforts of ranch owners will be successful, and whether the economy will get worse before it gets better, but for Kilgore, a stay at a guest ranch is just the therapy people need to get through hard times.

“Everybody at this point now more than ever needs nature to soothe themselves and rekindle their spirit,” he said. “I think the ranch vacation is and will always be ‘the Real McCoy’ and offer those things that really celebrate old-fashioned values, goodness, and the outdoors and family and camaraderie. And in life, what more do you want?”

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