There is a certain measure of comfort in knowing when we visit a franchise hotel or restaurant that their standardized operations will give us a known and expected experience. When we drive by a Taco Bell, we all know just what to expect if we choose to dine there. The larger franchises do a pretty good job of enforcing conformation to the corporate standards and educating consumers of their product offerings. The product is delivered quickly, it is standardized in production, and the economy of scale enables a fairly inexpensive, albeit mostly impersonal service.
The risk to choosing an original vacation venue, like an owner operated dude ranch, is in not knowing exactly what the reality will be. Are you going to be booking a week-long stay that disappoints, or is it going to be a gloriously personal and original experience that exceeds your expectations?
My wife Heidi and I have some favorite “small venue” restaurants. As return clients we know the menu and the expected ambiance of the facility. We also know that we are likely to be served by one of the owners. We might also see the owners hustling about and hovering over various details of the business. That familiar smile and the warm greeting from a principle of the business gives us, the consumers, a sense of connection to the establishment. I like this proximity to the heart of the business. We develop a sense of belonging to the family of the business and a feeling of identity. We become more than just “customer number 102”. We have a known name.
The additional charm to single entity small venue hospitality is that you should expect to be exposed to quirky and often less commercialized aspects of the business. Our favorite burger joint is a spot called “Jaspers’ Burgers” in Central Point Oregon. The burgers are so fresh and juicy that they set each table with a full roll of paper towels placed in a central table dispenser. You go there knowing in advance that you will get a bit messy with the diner fare. The spot is also so small, that you usually share a picnic table with 2-4 other unknown Jasper’s guests. The tables are dispersed on a sliver of manicured lawn that is sandwiched between the kitchen facilities and the adjacent Hwy 99. There is no anonymity to your dining, as the passing highway traffic often honks at you to wipe the obvious residual burger dressing from the corner of your mouth. Jaspers’ is so unique and quirky, that we love it for it’s authentic originality as much as for the quality burgers. We choose not to bemoan the absent feng shui of a professionally designed dining room experience, instead we choose to celebrate the original and quirky underbelly of the Jaspers’ Burgers dining ambiance.
The dude ranch experience is originally based on a business model that connects ranch owners on an intimate basis with their guests. The owners were closely involved with the ranch operations as well as with the guest relations. Heidi and I have a strong opinion that this level of personal connection to guests should continue in our own ranch operations. We like being on the trail with our guests. We enjoy sharing the dinner table with our guests, and we enjoy every opportunity to raft, kayak, fish, and bond over the shared adventures and meals.
The larger dude ranches can serve guest populations that range from 50 to over 200 guests. Please don’t think I am disparaging these ranches, because they most definitely have their place. There is a firm market for the better capitalized operations that can sport the 2 million dollar lodge with cedar log siding, washed river rock fireplaces and caribou antler chandeliers.
If your taste draws you to the small venue experience, how can you ferret out the more intimate and personalized ranches? Here are some points to consider in your search:
- Read the tripadvisor reviews and pay close attention to the frequency of name mentions. Do the reviewers identify the owners, managers and staff by name? If they do this, the ranch likely has enough personalized service that a relationship has been established between visiting guests and the ranch management.
- Call the ranch and ask what the maximum occupancy is for combined guests and staff. If we can finish the week at Marble Mountain Ranch with staff knowing each guests name, if the guests know all of our staff by name, and if the guests know the names of all of the other resident guests, then we have done a satisfactory job of offering an intimate small venue ranch experience. In my opinion, this is difficult to do if the guest and staff population combined totals to more than 50 individuals.
- Check the Dude Ranch Association website and use the search options for ranches based on a capacity size that you deem attractive.
- Call the prospective ranch and ask if the ranch owners are on-site, and what role they play in the routine ranch operations. If you are like me, you hope to see smaller guest group sizes with the principles of the business in close proximity. The direct view of operations by owners tends to allow better service, consistent risk management, and a more authentic experience.
The point of personalized business for our family is important enough that we see a cap and upper limit to our operational size that is bounded by our ability to offer personal service. For us, that number fluctuates at about 25 – 30 guests in residence.
When I reflect back on our personal outfitting and ranching origins, the decision to pursue this lifestyle was based largely on the gratifications afforded by providing a personal service in a remote wilderness setting. The day that we become unable to operate a “hands-on” style of ranching, is the day we will likely shut the doors. Our vision was then, and still remains, to continue offering an authentic small venue wilderness ranch experience.