If you have property that can support a few DIY hunters without interfering with your outfitting business, look into offering a club. Do your due diligence though—interview potential members, figure out a checking—in procedure, and determine a reasonable cost. It could be a very good side hustle.
Outfitters are always looking for ways to harness costs, improve products and generate revenue. Last time I checked, other than enjoying the guide lifestyle and the culture, making money is what we really like to do.
When I first started guiding, it was all waterfowl. The operation was based on managing several duck clubs as opposed to just guided hunts. My boss had learned that a hunting club could be the cornerstone of his business. It was a consistent revenue stream from year to year. The clubs let him look at other opportunities and to expand his business because every year he knew his nut was covered.
Let’s explore the concept. Maybe adding clubs to your business plan might help you the same way it helped him and helps me.
Clubs in the West
In the West, bird and big-game hunt clubs were a foreign idea in the 1970s. We had some waterfowl clubs, but there was so much public land to hunt. At that time, a hunter also could access a lot of private land. But landowners, farmers, and ranchers eventually realized hunters were willing to pay for access to private hunting grounds. Private land became posted land and was fenced off to most of us. A lot of hunters went to public land, which became crowded or at least more popular. Nowadays, access to land is even more restricted. But clubs offer people a way to have access without having to pay guide fees, buy land, or lease land.
Most of the outfitters I know are after big game. Many also lease ground that also holds upland birds, turkeys, predators, waterfowl, and fishing on private impoundments or spring creeks. It is a small jump to consider, in addition to your outfitting business, setting up clubs on those grounds. With basic rules and restrictions, you can fashion a sustainable operation. You can utilize and manage the resource, the land, and the game. And you can provide access to the DIY public for quality hunting and an outdoor experience for a fee. You won’t have as much overhead compared to a typical guide–hunt operation.
Many of the hunters and anglers lead very busy lives, and a club can provide a safe, secure, and controlled environment that such outdoors folks can enjoy without having to knock on doors, cultivate hunting opportunities, and generally spend time and money they don’t have. You are providing all of their needs. And with the industry push to get young people and ladies into the outdoors, this is a great way to reach those markets and to develop your business base. You can network with other clubs, reach new markets, and attract prospective members and guided-hunt clients for your other business. Guaranteed, you’ll be getting in front of many new potential customers.
Evaluate your properties, your market of potential members, and determine their proximity. Not all of your properties will work with this concept, but starting on a small scale initially will help you gauge interest, control costs, and keep your operation under tight scrutiny to understand if it works for you financially.
You can look first at your existing base of clients. If utilizing them does not cannibalize your current business stream, but is incremental, they could be a good source of club members.
How do we market this concept? You can advertise via a webpage, Craig’s List, your Facebook page, or whatever platform works best for you. I have an inexpensive rack card that I distribute wherever I go. I do not, however, recommend changing your current advertising collateral until you know the concept will work for you.
Use email to make an offering to your client base. You can choose to use all of your properties for clubs, or perhaps just portions of them, with guided hunts available upon request.
Also, determine if your land supports other outdoor pursuits. If big-game hunting is your bread and butter but your land also supports predators or upland birds, then you can still sell them big-game hunts but make extra money by offering club access.
The prices you charge are difficult to establish because they are unique to each property. If there are any clubs in your area already, find out the details of their operation. What do they charge? What do they offer? Keep in mind there will be additional marketing time involved in this project, now and into the future. Plus there are increased operating costs. You’ll need to build more blinds, maintain roads, and monitor the property occasionally.
You will want to vet your members adequately by asking for references and then checking them out. If you develop a few who are interested in respecting the property and abiding by your regulations and the state or provincial regulations, then the “self-management” style I use will be helpful for you, too. It makes managing not, this will be a babysitting operation and make you a full-time guide without the guide revenue. Avoid that at all costs. If you cannot find the right hunters, a club plan will not work for you.
With research into competition, an automated system to check hunters in and out, such as self-check-ins via text reservations and email, and some vetting of your club members, you could start a club. You’ll broaden the base of your operation, develop new revenue streams at little additional cost, and provide a needed service to new and existing clients.
Some of you will say that it’s not worth your time. Maybe. But keep in mind these are new revenue dollars that are pretty much going to the bottom line. We all need that to happen, especially now. It’s how we grow and keep pushing forward.
And keep in mind the big picture: you’ll reach new clients at the entry-level and have an opportunity to expose them to your guided hunts. We need to recruit, teach and retain new clients in this industry, or we will not survive. All of this will spread fixed costs out across our financial worksheet, and its incremental income.
Clubs are the secret sauce of my success. It’s the same system I have seen others use, and I now utilize it for my company’s benefit. I had to fine-tune it, but now it fits the needs of the landowners I am working with and my clients.
In the end, I deliver an experience to clients who have a great time in the outdoors at a lower cost. They bring their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters into the sport. That makes me feel like I am also doing my part to assure this great hunting heritage continues for generations.
Jim Miller is the owner of Field N Marsh Outfitter and Kennels in Mount Hood, Oregon. He’s known for working with customers to deliver a variety of hunting and fishing opportunities.