By Deborah R. Huso
Progressive Farmer Contributing Editor
The first thing I notice about Steve Kuhlman when he is adjusting my stirrups on a Paint known as "Scout" is his accent. It's slightly laced with the brogue I grew up hearing among my Scandinavian grandparents in Minnesota. When I tell him this, he gives me a crooked grin, adjusts his cowboy hat and says, "Well, I lived in Minnesota, but I've been here since I was 13. I can't imagine I have an accent anymore."
He is standing in dusty cowboy boots in a corral, checking the saddles of patrons who have come to his 7,000-acre ranch. Kuhlman may own the ranch (which was started by his Irish immigrant uncle in the 1940s), but he doesn't own this business -- Bitter Creek Outfitters, as it is called in honor of a stream that wends its way through the property.
PATH TO YELLOWSTONE
It is Steve's daughter Theresa who started the trail-riding component of the ranch. She was intent on finding a way to come back home to the Yellowstone River Valley she loves, where the Pryor and Beartooth Mountains stand solemnly in the distance. This land of rim rocks and scrubby Ponderosa pines borders the Crow Indian Reservation.
Kuhlman earns his living from the ranch. He has run the cow/calf operation with about 230 head since 1987, when he sold his construction business to ranch full time. He says he often considered adding a tourism component to the ranch. "I always thought it could be a good thing because of our proximity to town," he says. "But it was Theresa who finally did it. We turned her loose."
Theresa is one of Kuhlman's five children. After graduating from Montana State University and working four years at a fishing lodge, she began to toy with the idea of starting her own outfitting operation.
BIRTH OF AN IDEA
"I knew people with outfitting companies who do guided hunting on their ranches," she explains. "I saw how successful these businesses were."
At the age of 28, Theresa came home and pitched the idea to her parents. "We had the horses already," she says. "It was a matter of doing that initial marketing."
Theresa started small, working with the local chamber of commerce to print brochures for her new business and distributing them around Billings. One of her brothers developed a website for the business (www.bittercreekoutfitters.com).
"That first year was pretty meager," Theresa admits. But she got a lucky break when the Travel Channel came to Billings to feature the Dude Rancher Lodge in one of its "Hotel Impossible" episodes. The producers got wind of Bitter Creek Outfitters and filmed a trail ride.
After the show aired, Theresa says her tourist traffic doubled. It has steadily increased ever since. Theresa relies on the Internet for most of her marketing, with TripAdvisor.com generating the most business.
Her primary trail-riding season runs from June through September. She will run trail rides through October if cold and snow don't interfere.
In the busiest season, Theresa runs two to three two-hour rides a day with up to six riders at a time, charging $60 per person.
Theresa brings in enough income from Bitter Creek Outfitters to live off the business full time for about half the year. She works the rest of the year for a realtor in Billings, Mont.
Her biggest business expense isn't horse care. It's insurance. But she has benefited from an "outfitter's" package that even covers liability for a bunkhouse she rents out on the ranch.
It's an expense Patty and Zack Wirth, owners of the Rocking Z Guest Ranch, in Wolf Creek, Mont., understand. Ten years ago, the couple decided to turn their small (by Montana standards) 1,000-acre ranch into a tourism operation. It offers overnight accommodations, meals, trail rides and cattle roundups to guests who often stay for up to a week.
KNOW YOUR COSTS
"It takes 5 to 7% of our gross income to cover insurance," Patty remarks, "and you can't just go out and get insurance." The Wirth family found a provider through the Dude Ranchers' Association but had to demonstrate it had a solid business before qualifying for liability coverage.
After taking out a $650,000 loan to start the guest ranch and selling some of Zack's excavation business equipment to cover operating expenses, the dude ranch is now the family's sole source of income. That includes a livelihood for two daughters and a son-in-law.
The Wirths say dude ranching isn't for the faint of heart. "The first four years we were in business, we couldn't make the payments on our loan," Patty says. The couple had to apply for loans to cover the payments and also used money from Patty's parents' estate.
"A lot of people in this business have deep pockets," Zack says. The Wirths didn't have that. They also didn't have a whole lot of choices except to make a transition if they wanted to keep the Rocking Z in the family.
"In western Montana, 1,000 acres is a drop in the bucket," Zack remarks. "Plus, we were landlocked, so we couldn't buy more land. We would have had to drive 30 to 40 miles to find land to buy. We were perplexed as to how to make money."
KNOW YOUR EXPERTISE
The Wirths' horsemanship saved the day. "What we excelled at was the horse operation," Zack says. The couple cater to riders with enough experience to help with cattle roundups, and they also teach beginners.
Today, half of their traffic comes from Europe, thanks to marketing through a British travel company. The Wirths pay 20% of their income from bookings made through European tour operators to the agents bringing in the business. But they have built that commission into their pricing structure, which can run up to $2,100 per week per person.
"It still blows me away that people fly here from Europe when it's cheaper to go to Colorado," Zack marvels. "People come here because it's small and intimate."
Bitter Creek Outfitters gets the occasional international tourist, but most of its traffic comes from people whose main destination is Yellowstone National Park.
Theresa hopes to keep growing the business, perhaps adding meals to the trail ride experience. "It's nice to see the next generation come up," her dad notes. "We've made a long-term plan for transition to ownership for the kids, so we can keep it as a working ranch."
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