BOISE — Halfway through an interview with a reporter, Brad Ford mentioned why he’s a little distracted. He is riding one horse and leading another, trying to calm the animals’ nerves during an expo in Lewiston.
That’s Ford’s job. He trains and sells horses — at least, that’s what he does in the offseason. From May to October, he plays host to vacationers and the occasional reality-show cast of characters at 4D Longhorn Guest Ranch.
Like other guest ranches in Idaho, 4D relies on tourism to survive. But a tired driver on the interstate wouldn’t see a sign for 4D and pull off for a night’s stay; it’s a dude ranch tucked away in Cascade, 60 miles north of Boise.
A couple driving an RV may not realize their voyage through northern or central Idaho takes them near the Western Pleasure Guest Ranch in Sandpoint or the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch in Stanley. Instead, guest ranches are destinations.
Dozens of guest ranches, or dude ranches, are operating around the state. They offer Western vacations in picturesque small towns — from the quiet cabin stay with scenic day hikes, to the mud-and-sweat ranch-hand experience.
“I do a lot of lesson-type things, or what you would call cowboy schooling,” Ford said. “I like the colored part of cowboy life … that singing, fun-loving cowboy style.”
For these businesses, the economic downturn provided a chance to reinvent themselves, adding services or gussying up the place — and the recovery has been a boon. Loyal customers are back, wedding parties and family-vacation bookings are on the upswing. Some of Idaho’s many newcomers are exploring the state with the eyes of tourists and discovering guest ranches close to home, owners and managers said.
Ford started his ranch 10 years ago. His crew is small: a cook, one or two assistants and a part-time employee who cleans the place.
Business was slower during the downturn, he said. “When I first started out, people came to stay the night,” he said. “So when the economy went bad, I thought, ‘I gotta start doing something different.’ “
That’s when he added day rides on horseback to the ranch’s offerings. And he’s serious about teaching people to ride a horse, not just sit on top of it while it clip-clops along a trail, he said. The other activities at 4D include cattle drives and three meals a day.
Customers who need a place for a wedding or reunion are booking the ranch again, he said. So are European travelers, sent 4D’s way by companies that sell ranch vacations to people in countries like Germany in exchange for a commission.
The ranch even functioned as a set for a German reality show, “Abenteuer Wilder Westen” - Adventure Wild West - that ran for 20 episodes.
“I would say 90 percent of my business (comes from) outside of Idaho. I hear of people in Boise going to Montana - going all over. People don’t even know I’m just … north of Boise,” he said.
And whose fault is that? Ford admits it’s partly his; the horse rancher doesn’t do a lot of marketing. “That’s been my problem - is not having enough knowledge of how to (advertise),” he said.
Western Pleasure Guest Ranch has lodged, fed and entertained more Canadians in recent years, according to Janice Schoonover, who owns the ranch with her husband and lives there year-round. It helps that Sandpoint is less than 70 miles from the Canadian border.
The ranch has been in the family since 1940. Schoonover opened it to guests with her parents’ help in the early 1990s.
Last year “was definitely our best year ever,” eclipsing the revenue peak of 2008, she said.
She notices more often that grandparents, parents and children are vacationing together at the ranch.
“And, of course, we love that,” she said.
But she thinks Idaho’s tourism marketing has fallen short of “pushing the guest ranch experience.” The website visitidaho.org lumps guest ranches together with guest farms and fishing retreats, which is confusing, she said.
“If Idaho is serious about promoting guest ranches, the first step is the website,” she said.
Idaho Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer said his agency’s tourism staff is looking at ways to use technology - including a mobile-friendly website - and targeted marketing in ways that would better guide tourists to the Idaho attractions they’ll enjoy.
Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch’s lodge manager Sandra Beckwith said business is strong at the 84-year-old, 900-acre ranch.
She seconds Ford’s assessment, that it’s “a little bit harder” for Idaho to attract ranch-bound tourists away from the other Rocky Mountain states.
“We didn’t really take the big hit that some businesses did (from the recession),” said Beckwith, who has worked at the ranch for two decades.
The ranch benefited from regulars who “if they were taking multiple vacations a year, this may have been the last one they would cut,” she said.
Guests usually come from neighboring states. There are some East Coasters, she said. But over the past decade, “the number of people who live in Idaho and are visiting the ranch for the first time is going up,” she said. “Boise is a growing area, and when people move to a new place from elsewhere … they’re interested in exploring.”
The ranch has played host to a Boise company for a staff retreat, though Beckwith declined to identify it. It also hosted two or three weddings a year in recent years.
The ranch’s 23 seasonal employees and core staff are in for a busy summer when the cabins and lodge open in June, according to Beckwith.
“We’re ahead of where we have been most years at this time,” she said.