Willie Dvorak (left) guides clients nearly 250 days annually, but during the offseason, he is often a paying client.
Even if I do say so myself, I’m an excellent client in a hunting camp. Oh, I run hunting camps pretty much year-round, but I take a guided hunting trip every year too. As a professional guide, it’s fun to actually hire a guide—and it’s an essential exercise. There is no easier way to gain a client’s perspective than to become one.
Many outfitters, strangely enough, have never paid for a guided hunt. If you’ve never paid to have somebody take you hunting, do it. It will add insight to your value as an outfitter and increase your effectiveness as a guide.
It is important to make the distinction between paying for a guided trip compared to trading for a guided trip. Trading hunts might be a cheap way to go hunting somewhere else, but it does not give you a client’s perspective and is not a true representation of a fellow guide’s operation. In fact, such a trade might even become a little bit of a competition on both ends. If that’s what you want, fine, but on every guided trip I’ve taken, I either learned something to do or something not to do as an outfitter. And what I learn, I apply to my outfit.
For example, a pal of mine and I were on a gator hunt in Florida in the early 2000s. That was in the age of the flip phone, and the guide was on his phone each time we got into his pickup. He’d shout prices and cut deals with the person on the other end. It felt like we were an inconvenience to him. That trip taught me that a little bit of phone talk goes a long way toward turning customers off.
With more than 50 guided trips as a customer under my belt, I’ve learned several practices that help me make my guide’s job easier, which in turn has helped me improve my skill as a guide and helps me coach my clients better. Below are the 12 lessons that I have learned and found to be most important.
- As a client, I have reasonable expectations. And as a guide, I make sure all my clients have reasonable expectations when they arrive at my outfit. I tell them upfront what to expect and what I can deliver. I’ve had guides and outfitters overpromise and underdeliver. It’s a costly mistake.
- Mother Nature is a wild card and cares neither about my desires, expectations, schedule, nor how much money I’ve spent. As a client, I understand that the weather can blow out the whole thing. When booking my services to guide, I try to make sure my clients understand the whims of the weather.
- As a guide and client, I use my ears more than my mouth. As a client, I won’t bore my guide with stories about my kids, dog, and hunting prowess, and I never tell a story that makes me look like a braggart. In my camp, I try to curb the droning stories. I tell my clients “I’ll listen to one story about your kid and one story about your dog per day and pretend that I’m interested. After that, I’m not pretending.” It’s not that I am trying to bully someone into submission, but if one client offers up one boast after another, it negatively affects everyone else’s good time.
- As a client, I avoid big-fish stories. I don’t exaggerate stories about my hunting because the stories are sacred to me. I don’t tell stories of great success to my guide, because I don’t want my guide to feel he has to deliver overly great results. In my estimation, some clients exaggerate their in-the-field accomplishments in order to manipulate their guide to deliver on fantasy. I also don’t feed into my clients' temptation to tell me exaggerated stories. If I sense the client is stretching the truth to put pressure on me, I encourage them to tap the brakes. I ask them “Who were you hunting with? Who was with you?” That runs the risk of offending them, but I do it in such a way that they are encouraged to keep their stories truthful. My hunts are done in realityland, not fantasyland, and I try I keep my camp chatter within the realm of reality.
- When I’m the client, I don’t text. I impress the hell out of my guide by announcing that I’m going to leave my phone in his glovebox during the hunt or while we drive from spot to spot. He’s immediately pumped. As a guide, it’s a pet peeve of mine when a client spends too much time on the phone-—and it happens a lot. I give my client a single freebie, but after a second time, I politely say “ Let’s take a pause so you can finish that important text, and then we’ll get going.” I acknowledge to a degree the importance of a text but let him know the hunt is going to suffer if he is distracted and not ready to react if our chance arrives. And frankly, they appreciate permission to unchain themselves.
- As a client, I do what my mom and dad taught me: I never show up empty-handed. At the outset, I give my guide a locally made item or meat from an animal they likely don’t often get. Likewise, when my clients give me housewarming presents, I thank them graciously, mention their generosity on social-media pages, and always mail them a thank-you note. People are people and treating them nicely never backfires—-and takes so little effort.
- As a client, I am very cognizant of proper and safe gun handling. Many of my guide friends say that most clients accidentally point at them during a hunt. When I hunt with a guide, I prove to them that not every client does, and I keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction at all times. Also, I never take offense to a guide who reminds me to be careful with a gun. As a guide, my pre-hunt briefing includes a talk about gun safety. Then I tell them in my calmest voice that if they point their weapons at me at any time for any reason, the hunt is over for the day. That is a straightforward, no-room-for-misunderstanding explanation of how it will be. The clients enjoy knowing I am safety conscious and enjoy the reminder that they should be too. It is simple, heightens gun-safety awareness, and prevents an uncomfortable event and heated discussion during the hunt.
- As a client, I let my guide play to his strengths. That’s what I paid him to do, and why I picked him in the first place. I do everything I can to help keep him in his comfort zone. In short, I let him guide. And when I’m the guide, leading guys into the kill zone of a brown bear in Alaska or a super-trophy bull bison in South Dakota, I want my guides to trust me and let me do what I know best. I’m sure you’re the same. My business benefits when I play to my strengths. Yours does too. If a would-be customer wants something that I don’t offer, I turn that business away. I can’t afford unhappy customers, and trying to be all things to everybody is a foolish way to lose profits.
There is no substitute for experience. Gaining experience from being a customer improves your game as a service provider. Dig into your pocket and invest in some on-the-job training. You’ll likely have an awesome experience and learn something to apply in your operation. Paying clients will see value in booking with an outdoorsman that is willing to put his money where his mouth is by hiring a guide.
Willie Dvorak operates Jim River Guide Service (www.jimriverguideservice.com) out of Mellette, South Dakota.