Ranch Life – Dude Ranches Offer a Uniquely American Escape

Ranch Life – Dude Ranches Offer a Uniquely American Escape, and give Meeting-goers a Taste of the Old West
Meetings West Magazine, August 2001

by Christine Brenneman

The need to breathe fresh air and get away from it all at a rustic, Old West-style dude ranch is nothing new. In fact, the legacy of these ever-popular ranch vacations started more than a hundred years ago, when East Coast city folk sought peaceful escapes from the harried urban grind. Back then, anyone from east of the Mississippi was called a “dude”, and these dudes would travel west to get a taste of ranch life, paying to board on various ranches. Thus, a niche of western travel was born.

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Today, many dude ranches still exist as a beloved holdover from a bygone era. Americans seem to be fascinated by myths of the Old West – cowboys, rustlers and a simpler life – so it seems dude ranches are here to stay. Plus, these days, it’s more and more possible to take a corporate group out into the pastoral environs of a ranch to meet – and have the modern approximation of the dude ranch experience. Just what is a ranch vacation, and how do meetings at dude ranches work?

In the world of the dude ranch, change comes slowly. Indeed, these properties often eschew trendiness in favor of tried and true ranch activities such as trail riding and horsemanship. But recently, ranches as travel destinations have enjoyed a slow but steady increase in popularity. Blame it on the ubiquitous cell phone or our cubicle-bound existence. People are simply aching to get back to a slower daily pace in more scenic, technology-free environments. Of course, a dude ranch fits these specifications; and in the current, more competitive market, each ranch has had to carve out its own niche – and even diversify a bit – to differentiate itself from others.

But just how many niches can there be in the seemingly limited dude ranch world? According to Dan Morin, owner of Sundance Trail Dude Ranch in Red Feather Lakes, Colo., who has been in the business for years, even some traditional ranches have expanded beyond mere horse rides.

“Over the last few years, I’ve seen much more diversification,” Morin explains. “Twenty years ago, a dude ranch was a dude ranch. Now you’re finding that ranches tend to find niches that fit with the personalities of the guests and owners. Some are involved with trout fishing, for example. Our ranch is very involved in family, and supporting that. That fits our philosophy. And each different ranch specializes in enhancing the guests’ skills in certain areas.”

“This is a place to get into jeans and tennis shoes,” explains Morin of his ranch in Colorado. “I’ve never seen anyone here wear a tie. The meetings we host are very informal; this is our home after all – you’re meeting in the barn or the lodge dining room. And on breaks, people can go sit outside and watch the horses or hummingbirds.”

At Morin’s Sundance Trail Guest Ranch, a local group of teachers, who meet at the property for a seminar each year, decided to bring families along for the first time last summer. Morin describes it as an unexpected, but overwhelming success.

“We were packed in, with teachers and professors in the meeting rooms strategizing, and the kids and spouses out riding horses, hiking and doing activities with our staff,” he says. “They took their breaks together and it was marvelous. We made it fun by turning one guest room into a kids-only room. And one night, our chef took the kids to make pizzas, which they ate around a campfire. The whole time, though, the spouses stayed away from the meeting rooms, and kids were warned off – so the meeting attendees got their business done.”