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End of the Line for Dude Ranches?

Are dude ranch owners singing Happy Trails to their market niche?

Monday, August 24, 2009
David Wilkening
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The Old West’s dude ranches have been dwindling for years, but home on the range this summer is starting to look like an Indian massacre.

“Dude ranches in Colorado and elsewhere in the West are only at 60 to 70 percent capacity this summer, the Cody, Wyoming-based Dude Ranchers Association (DRA) admitted to the Associated Press,” said milehighonthecheap.com.

That has translated into much lower prices.

“With business down, some ranches are offering shorter stays, slashing already low children’s rates and including additional extras such as free massages,” the site said.

The AP said the current problem for dude ranches is that they are not attracting enough ‘dudes and dudettes.’”

Even before this summer, however, “the number of dude ranches is slowly decreasing,” wrote The Wall Street Journal more than two years ago.

If dude ranches go the way of the dinosaur, it’s the end of a long-standing American tradition. Dude ranches have a place in history in various ways, including the fact they were the first to offer all-inclusive rates.

Dude ranches got their start in the wild west in the 1880s, not long after the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Many well-off foreigners made hunting trips to the west (including President Teddy Roosevelt).

“After World War I, the popularity of dude ranches increased enormously; during the 20s and 30s they were the main tourist attraction in the Rocky Mountain area,” says the Bitterroot Dude Ranch site in ‘A History of Dude Ranches.’

Writers such as Zane Gray and painters such as Remington brought the romance of cowboy life on an open frontier to millions throughout the world.
Western ranchers began to take on paying guests to share their homes and their lives: riding horseback, herding cattle, hunting and fishing.

Many of these ranchers supplemented their incomes with these paying guests they called “dudes,” which meant nothing more than someone paying for services at a Western ranch.

“The great days for dude ranches were in the roaring 20s,” says the Bitterroot site. The depression hit the industry hard in the 30s. The Bitterroot site said dude ranches began to be eclipsed by motor homes and national parks, adding:

“Dude ranches began to resemble resorts with their heated swimming pools, tennis courts and saunas, more than the old style of dude ranch.”

There are several hundred places in the west that still call themselves dude ranches, but they often no longer have the classical definition which is said to be “hats and hospitality.” These ranches are more luxurious, Bitterroot says, and often don’t have such traditional elements as working ranches that involved a lot of activities revolving around horses.

Modern-day dude ranches have become more “sissified” by offering resort-style touches such as hot tubs and spas. Some even have golf courses for those who would rather swing a club than take a ride on a horse.

Today, groups such as the Dude Ranchers’ Association are losing members. The group last reported just over 100 members, which was down from previous years.

“For a century of summers, American travelers have headed to Western ranches, saddled up their horses and galloped away from the tedium of modern life,” wrote the Journal in 2006.

What brings visitors to dude ranches?

“It’s just flat-out fun,” Pat Saunders of Temple, Texas, told the AP. “I love the Old West thing and the idea of trying to be a cowboy.”

Now, however, the future of dude ranches is being threatened by rising land prices and new development, the paper said at the time. Some ranches at the time were being sold off to a new generation of wealthy investors who wanted private retreats. Modern-day chains such as McDonald’s were also squeezing out the dude ranches.

In today’s recessionary market, development prospects have dwindled for dude ranches but they continue to lose numbers.

Remaining dude ranches are almost entirely in the 11 western states including Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. There are also some dude ranches in Canada.

People from all walks of life have come to dude ranches, even conventioneers who try their management skills and team efforts in cattle drives. But family members have traditionally been a staple. This summer, that’s been one of their major problems, since families are among groups cutting back on expenses.

“We are all pretty much family operated, so the bad news is we really don’t make a lot of money,” says Russell True, president of the Dude Ranchers’ Association.

On the surface, dude ranches seem to charge a lot but owners point out they are all-inclusive.

“In America, we often hear that we’re losing our middle class and I think this is part of the decline of ranch business,” says Caroline Bach Wood, an independent travel consultant with Brownell Travel and a western travel specialist.

She breaks up ranches into three categories: working ranches, dude ranches and resort ranches.

“If the working ranches and authentic dude ranches are targeting the middle class, which tends to have lower expectations (clean and comfy rather than luxurious accommodations and satisfying meals rather than healthy and gourmet), this is the group of America that is feeling the pinch,” she says.

A typical stay for families costs $10,000 with tax and gratuities (up to 18 percent) added to the bill. “Flights for four would be a typical stay…it’s a lot to shell out,” she says.

The ranch industry will continue to suffer, she believes, until the economy rebounds and the middle class “isn’t afraid to part with their money.”

She also points out that some well-known dude ranches are doing well despite the ailing economy.

Dude ranches obviously have little money to spend on advertising, so word-of-mouth has been important for repeat business. Some ranches say repeat business accounts for up to 70 percent of their vacationers.

“At first blush, we look like a big ticket item, but most of those other vacations aren’t including meals, lodging and entertainment,” True says. Dude ranches traditionally include those perks.

Rates at dude ranches have not risen more than 10 percent in the past decade, according to the DRA. But a problem with maintaining the ranches is that fixed costs can’t be reduced.

Other numbers are also a problem. The average ranch only takes about 40 people at a time. That means with more than 100 ranches in the DRA, they have a total capacity of around 4,000 guests. That’s far less than the number of people who can get on the new super mega-cruise ships.

“We still have to gear up all of the rooms and horses to get ready, no matter if we have five or 10 guests,” says Kristen Swanson, president of the Montana Dude Ranchers Association.

As more ranches lose money, some of them are closing.

The DRA reported a 15 percent drop in average winter ranch income in 2008 compared to 2007.

More dude ranches may not make it through another touch economic year, predicts Scott Dugan, president of the Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Association.

At least one ranch. the Colorado Trails Ranch in Durango, attempted to stay in business by closing this summer to concentrate on more substantial bookings next year.

Will it still be around next year? And how many other dude ranches will still be home on the range? Happy trails ahead?

David Wilkening    David Wilkening
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: David Wilkening is a writer specializing in travel and business-real estate writing. His work has appeared in dozens of publications and dot coms. He never met a trip he didn't like. He is a former newspaperman who worked in Chicago, Detroit, Orlando and Washington, DC, where he was a writer and editor covering a wide variety of subjects ranging from politics to feature stories.
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