Ranch vacations offer clients a chance to live out cowboy fantasies, bond with family members, escape the stresses of everyday life and experience a unique corner of America, according to those who sell them.
In the off season, ranch vacations are great for couples who like cross-country skiing or just want a romantic getaway.
For travel agents, pricey ranch vacations yield high commissions, coupled with strong potential for high rates of repeat business.
For an overview of this commissionable niche product and advice on selling, it Travel Market Report spoke with suppliers and agents who specialize in ranch vacations.
Reconnect & disconnect
“A ranch vacation is reconnecting with your family and disconnecting from all the mobile devices,’ said Natasha Melendez of the Wyoming Dude Ranchers Association.
“It’s just like coming into a family reunion at grandma’s house. It’s a home away from home for a lot of our guests.”
Ranch vacations tend to appeal to city slickers.
Who are likely candidates? “First and foremost they should have an interest in the West. They may have been to the West, but never had a true western experience,” said Cory Lawrence, CEO of Off the Beaten Path, a firm in Bozeman, Mont., that offers ranch vacations and other outdoor adventures.
Most of his clients are from the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest, especially around Chicago. Although his typical ranch client is a nuclear family, he’s seeing a growing interest in mutigenerational groups and “grandma and grandpa stealing the kids away to go on a trip.”
Ranch vacations also garner repeat business.
“Some people have been going to ranches for 40 years,” said Colleen Hodson, executive director of the Dude Ranchers Association, which was established in 1926 and is located in Cody, Wyo. “Between 40% and 60% of guests are repeat guests.”
3 types of ranch vacations
Although dude ranch is the popular term for this type of experience, there are actually three kinds of ranches that host guests – dude, working and resort ranches.
• The classic dude ranch centers on horses, with activities including riding, as well as such thing as fly fishing, hiking and campfires.
• A working ranch, by definition, has to make some of its money from actual ranching. This means that guests can become real cowboys for a week, participating in cattle drives and other ranch work.
• A resort ranch is upscale and may include facilities like a spa or golf course, along with gourmet meals. Ranches can accommodate from 10 to 100 or more guests. The average is 40.
More than horseback riding
The range of activities is large.
“They’re usually on streams or rivers, so fishing is big. One ranch even has a hot air balloon ride. Clients can try trap shooting or archery. Some ranches will teach you how to shoot a hand gun,” said Hodson.
“Skiing and sleigh riding is a big thing in the winter on ranches that stay open year-round, and some are on lakes and have water skis and jet skis. You can find anything you’re looking for.”
Bill Gearhart of Classic Travel & Tours, an Ensemble agency in Metuchen, N.J., worked dude ranches and rode rodeos when he was younger. He knows exactly what type of client a ranch vacation appeals to.
“It’s for people who like the outdoors and who want to see the country, sit around a campfire at night listening to someone playing a guitar and the kids singing. If you look at someone and think he won’t be comfortable without a computer in front of him, then he’s not your client.”
Gearhart often recommends that clients spend a week at a ranch and then add on another three days or so at one of the national parks that are located close to many of the ranches.
Lawrence of Off the Beaten Path has customers fill out a 20-question questionnaire that gauges their interest in different types of ranch experiences.
It covers type of location and landscape, activities, cuisine and size and includes questions such as, “Do you want to be with 60-plus people or just 20?”
The Dude Ranchers Association also has a questionnaire that agents can use to find suitable choices for their clients. Dodson invites agents with questions or who want to discuss options to call her anytime.
“The biggest challenge is when you’re dealing with a larger family to coordinate everyone’s varied interests,” said Lawrence.
“If you have a multigenerational group, you have to make sure each part of the family gets their concerns answered. There’s a fair amount of logistics involved. That makes it more difficult to decide which ranch is right for them.”
In terms of product knowledge, the Dude Ranchers Association is a good resource for agents, according to Gerheart of Classic Travel & Tours.
“Most travel agents are not going to go visit all the ranches, but you need to use the resources of the Dude Ranchers Association. They’ve never steered me wrong. They always come up with a good idea.”
Ranches pay commissions
Some agents may have hesitated to sell ranch vacations out of fear they don’t pay commissions. Hodson said that although many did not pay travel agent commissions in the past, now 98% of her association’s members do so.
Considering the fact that the average price of a week at a ranch for a family of four can be $8,000 to $10,000, the commissions can be quite substantial.