Price may be an important consideration, especially during these recessionary times, but there are really just two things that separate businesses: Their niche (if they have one), and the experience they offer their customers. As a hunting outfitter, Star Mountain Ranch in Nephi, Utah found its niche in offering trophy elk hunts while providing the kind of personal service that makes the experience unforgettable, a business model that has kept this small business working in spite of the downturn.
At 5,200 feet, the elevation is not so high as to be a problem for most people unused to the high country, and the mountains, rolling forest-clad hills, deep canyons and open fields offer a stunning backdrop for the pursuit of the elk, bison and sheep that roam the land. Guests, however, have no need to worry that they will simply be turned loose on the 2,500 acre property, much of which is as wild today as it was a century ago. Each hunter is provided with a guide who will help them find and take that trophy bull elk. Moreover, they will tailor the hunt to the needs and abilities of the hunter so that virtually anyone can participate. That means hunting by spot-and-stalk techniques, from a ground blind, an ATV or a 4x4 truck with the focus always on the needs of the hunter. This care can be seen in a letter from one grateful hunter:
“I still can’t believe I had the chance to shoot such a monster bull. I want to thank you for taking the care and patience required for an old man of 83 years. You somehow managed to get it done with my limited walking ability and still make it the hunt of my lifetime. I will be back next year, God willing to try for a 500-inch...ha ha.”
The hunting price, which cover admission to the ranch, the guide and the animal, and ranges from $4,800 for a bull elk that scores up to 340 to well over $15,000 for one in the 420 and higher range; also includes lodging at the ranch, meals, and the hunting license. There is also an on-site taxidermist and meat processor that will, for an additional charge, prepare your trophy and the meat for shipment home. This means that with the weight of all of the other things taken off their shoulders, all the hunter has to worry about is taking that once-in-a-lifetime shot—and for many, that is plenty stressful enough.
Recently, we had a chance to sit down with ranch owner Lance VanAusdel—a hunting guide for 15 years and as owner of the Star Mountain Ranch, a small businessman employing 12 people, for the last five—to discuss his business and the effect that the recession has had on it. As it turns out, his niche market has served him well.
“The recession really hasn’t effected me,” VanAusdel said. “In fact, my business is growing. People who have money to go hunting on a ranch like mine really aren’t going to be slowed down by the economy. My business, in fact, has increased 40% over last year. I can’t say that the recession didn’t cost me some clients, without it I might be up 50%, but that’s neither here nor there.”
Lance’s marketing includes a website and advertising in magazines, and he does get some business from those, but the key to his success, he tells me, is really old-fashioned word-of-mouth. “Someone has a great hunt with me, they tell their friends and then they are calling to set up their own hunts,” he said. On top of that, he also offers a kind of two-for-one special to make the deal more appealing. If you book a bull elk hunt, you will get a cow elk hunt for free. “It gets more people to call,” he said, “but most know that they have to book a bull elk to get the free one.” This might bother some people, but the truth is that with few, if any, natural predators around, the population of prey animals such as elk and deer, simply explode. That is not a good situation for the animals, which are subject to disease and starvation as they consume the food in their area or are likely to come into conflict with people. Maintaining a healthy population of these animals—a function once performed by wolves, bears and mountain lions—keeps the overall species healthy and puts good food on the tables of the hunters.
Marketing, word-of-mouth and great customer service help build the business, but keeping it running and profitable requires handling the money right. Asked if he had any advice for novice entrepreneurs in addition to great customer service, he said, “Spend smart. You have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I do that by taking the money I expect to get and cut that amount in half. That’s what I expect, and I spend accordingly, while hoping to see the other half.”
Lance’s business, based as it is in sound money management, solid customer service and great word-of-mouth, fills its niche market and thrives there regardless of the economy, brings income to this rural community, maintains a natural balance and feeds lucky hunters. For more information about the Star Mountain Ranch, visit www.utahtrophyelk.com. —Charles Cooper