Staying at a dude ranch in the West is a rite of passage for many vacationers. So beloved is the experience that for decades, the same families have booked the same weeks at the same guest ranches in Colorado. Some of these destinations are more luxurious than others, but all of them offer a taste of the iconic, gritty Old West (horseback riding! chuckwagon feasts!) intertwined with the gourmet meals and guided adventures.
Because of COVID-19, however, the way guest ranches operate has necessarily had to change. Early on, the pandemic took an economic toll on many ranches, where communal traditions like family-style dinners and campfire jam sessions became a little too close for comfort in a virus-y world. While early closures, capacity restrictions, and staff cuts dealt catastrophic blows to some, almost every ranch owner had to make difficult decisions about how to survive—and hopefully thrive—in the new normal. But change wasn’t easy.
These high-end, all-inclusive vacations have traditionally come in the form of seven-night stays that require ranch staff to be on call around the clock. Guestroom cleaning and turnover, animal care, activity logistics and guiding, culinary demands and schedules, barn and equipment maintenance, and general luxury standards have, over the years, created a “live-to-work” employee culture where staffers, including seasonal hires, put in 70-hour workweeks during the summertime high season.
“It used to be that going to work at a dude ranch for the summer meant five million hours a week,” says Stephanie Wilson, director of sales and marketing for Vista Verde Guest Ranch outside Steamboat Springs. “You’d eat, breathe, and sleep the ranch, then ‘poof!’ go back to your life at the end of the summer.”
During the first two summers of the pandemic, some ranches reduced their standard stays from seven to six nights. The adjustment was a way to meet new public health guidelines and air out rooms between occupants. While a seemingly small change, it was disappointing for families who’ve been booking the same week for half a century.
Coming into this third pandemic summer, owners have had to accommodate at least one other big change: a shift in values in their workforces, or what Creede-based 4UR Ranch owner Lindsey Leavell calls “values that got reignited” when Americans were forced to hit pause and re-examine their priorities. In other words: People want to slow down, enjoy downtime, and be mindful. All of which fall under the category of finding a better work-life balance.
And that means the 70-hour workweek seems to be a thing of the past. “We as a society have changed our expectations,” Vista Verde’s Wilson says, “and it’s almost counterintuitive to what dude ranching was originally.”
Although full-time employees aren’t necessarily vocal about needing more vacation time or benefits, Wilson says the interest in time off and schedule flexibility has been noticeable during seasonal hiring—and that makes the hiring process more competitive. For instance, Vista Verde has started to make concessions for late start dates to secure hires, which wouldn’t have happened in the past. “We have also found that staff aren’t as interested in clocking hours to make more pay,” Wilson says. “In fact, many will decline extra work shifts in order to go do something fun.”
What does this mean for guests who might be paying between $4,000 and $6,000 per person for a six-night vacation? Mostly good things, according to ranch owners and staffers. Here, three Colorado’s luxury guest ranches that are leaning into a new era.
With more than a 1:1 staff-to-guest ratio during peak times, Vista Verde has always taken pride in stewarding the next generation of young professionals while they’re working and living on the ranch, according to general manager Ben Martin. And that goes for on and off the clock—a line that has recently become more distinct. “Historically, I would say dude ranchers and their staffs have had no boundaries between work and life,” Wilson says. “And now we hear more and more from our staff, including our key leaders, that they need to be able to turn off work when they are done. It’s not a lack of work ethic or care about the job, but a desire to create more boundaries and not have work consume their lives.”
Wilson says that has translated to staff turning down more hours and overtime pay in favor of the time off. Despite the fact that guest expectations have continued to rise, with “people putting a little more weight on their vacations after missing out for two years,” ranch leadership is supporting the shift in its staff’s mentality and all the challenges—from competitive hiring to scheduling headaches—it presents.
Not only is Vista Verde finding ways to limit work hours, but it’s also supporting its employees in more personal ways. That means helping staff access health resources when needed, picking up on who needs a confidence boost, and hosting fun staff events on Saturday nights between guests. The ranch has also added roles such as “community liaison” to encourage off-site volunteer opportunities for staff and is looking into larger service trips for employees in the off-season.
“I would say that we have elevated the importance of communicating and listening to our staff,” Martin says. “We all want to make a difference with our staff, and see our staff make a difference with our guests.”
As much as the pandemic slowdown could have been devastating, 4UR Ranch—a fly-fishing and equestrian paradise in southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains—managed to turn it into an opportunity. When the world stood still and travel was scary, the staff at 4UR Ranch stepped back—owner Lindsey Leavell calls it a “breather that was forced upon us”—and took a hard look at all of its operations. Under the same family ownership for 50 years, the ranch had, understandably, been doing things the same way for, well, a very long time.
Once they took time to analyze operations, they realized that even seemingly small changes could have a big impact on the overall efficiency of the ranch and the satisfaction of both guests and employees. From behind-the-scenes upgrades (investing in new laundry machines that would cut down on manual labor time and conserve water) to direct guest-facing changes (eliminating daily room cleanings saved potential COVID-19 exposures and aligned, unexpectedly, with guest preferences), the staff and owners came together to tweak operations in all corners of the ranch. For example, the decision to move from one dinner service to a two-wave seating, while perplexing for families who’d been coming to the ranch for 40 years for camaraderie and tradition, took significant pressure off the kitchen staff to finish, plate, and serve everything at once. Leavell likens these small changes to tossing a stone in a pond and watching the ripple effect.
Under new ownership since fall 2021, this bespoke ranch on the Western Slope is building a new business model: full-ranch bookings only. Instead of a multitude of families and small groups who reserve the same week and intermingle, the all-inclusive private experience is available only on a buyout basis (with a four-night minimum) for family retreats, corporate stays, or other larger groups up to 30-plus people. The concept is derived from a changing definition of desirable travel, says Mallory Cunningham, Smith Fork’s director of sales and experience. “It’s in part a result of the times. For a while, you couldn’t really go anywhere unless you had privacy and space,” she says, not to mention “the draw of being able to have everything exactly how you want it. We full-on are making this about you—the guest—from the chef we hire to the entertainment you want.”
The idea is this: A group books the ranch for five nights. As the experience manager, Cunningham, who began selling the model this spring, works directly with the booking party to contract out the chef, entertainment, and activities for the group. With only a handful of full-time permanent staff, that would mean having to hire five extra ranch hands, plus a culinary team and activity guides. That’s not as difficult as it might sound, Cunningham says, because the ranch has a roster of qualified contractors, some of whom were employed by Smith Fork under the previous business model, and others who’ve landed in the pool via an expanding community network. “We’ll just knock it out for two weeks,” says Cunningham, pointing out the benefit of not having excess staffers with no clear role milling around.
She acknowledges that the challenge lies in shifting people’s mindsets to this manner of booking, which is different than the templated menu of riding and fishing guests might expect from a typical dude ranch experience. “If you can name it, we’ll bring it to you. I have no doubt we will fill up. Right now, we’re just building out the baseline. The people who have experienced it really love this model. It [provides] exactly what you want.”