Bookings Boom at Dude Ranches

LITTLE wonder that the movie "City Slickers" - in which comedian Billy Crystal and his East Coast friends head off to a dude ranch - was such a huge hit last year, earning over $100 million in the United States alone. Dude ranching, fellow-wranglers, is suddenly fashionable and big business.

"Dude ranching is doing very well," says Amey Grubbs, who, along with her husband Mark, runs the Dude Ranchers Association in LaPorte, Colo. "Our membership [of dude ranches] is now up to 102, the first time since the 1930s that it has been over 100. In 1981 we had just 56 members."

Throughout the US, Europe, parts of South America, and even Asia, individuals, families, professionals, and some businesses are establishing dude ranches. Occupancy rates are running at higher levels than for the hotel industry in general, which has been in the doldrums because of the economic slump. The Dude Ranchers Association estimates that the industry's occupancy rate is about 75 percent; for the older, established ranches the rates are running between 85 percent and "filled-to-capacity," says Ms. Grubbs.

While dude ranching is only recently being discovered by many urbanites, travel guides have been promoting such vacations for decades. Pat Dickerman's well-known travel guide "Farm, Ranch & Country Vacations," first came out over 40 years ago. "Everybody loves the country" says Ms. Dickerman.

"The dude ranch experience" - whether owning a ranch or visiting one - represents entering "into a time and way-of-life that is now largely gone in America," says Eugene Kilgore, who runs the Kilgore Ranch Company, an advisory/consulting concern in Tahoe City, Calif. His firm helps individuals buy and develop guest ranches. Kilgore estimates that there are at least 230 working dude ranches around the US, from huge 600,000-acre spreads (Vermejo Park Ranch, a fly-fishing ranch in New Mexico, owned by Pennz oil Co.), to smaller family-owned ventures such as the White Tail Ranch, east of Missoula, Mont. "There is definitely a resurgence of interest in dude ranches," Kilgore says.

Ranch vacations, Kilgore notes, trace their origins back to the days of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. The first dude ranch was supposedly a horse ranch set up near Medora, N.D., in 1879. Today guest ranches can even be found here in New York state. Overseas visitors, Kilgore says, come from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Japan.

Major US hotel chains, located in and around key metropolitan areas, have been having a tough time lately, given the economic downturn. Mark Manson, who follows the lodging industry for Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc., an investment house, says that hotel lodging is unlikely to provide much growth in the foreseeable future. He rates the lodging sector "unfavorable" in terms of investment potential.

Meanwhile, back at the dude ranch, telephones are ringing off the hook. "Bookings are very strong," says a spokesman at Mackay Bar Corporation, in Boise, Idaho, which owns or handles bookings for six guest ranches. Average costs run about $120 a day per person.

"We've been getting so many calls from people on how to go about setting up a dude ranch that that we decided to hold a seminar," says Grubbs, of the Dude Ranchers Association. The seminar, held last weekend, was completely sold out. Running a dude ranch requires lots of work and capital, usually $1 million and up, Grubbs says.

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