The phrase “selling out” has a negative connotation when it comes to integrity or morality. But if you’re a guide or outfitter and “selling out” pertains to filling the days on your calendar with paying clients, it is fantastic.
All guides would like to look at their calendars and see no open dates. For many, though, it never happens. But just imagine your business reaching the point that you sell out year after year. For the most part, your financial worries will decrease—a lot—and you can pay your help what they’re worth. You also will have the freedom to turn away clients who give you a bad vibe and fire customers who weren’t great to have in camp. Perhaps the best thing about selling out hunts is that it is an attainable goal. It starts with being blunt, which will help you bring in the kind of clients you want, which will help you get repeat clients. Let me explain.
I’ve been in business since 1999. In my fourth year, I was trying to expand my prairie-dog hunting from a few days a year into something much bigger. I had guided a magazine writer on a prairie-dog hunt that was spectacular—far better than an average hunt. The article he wrote flattered me a great deal and got me a crazy number of calls. I took as many customers as I could from the slew of hunters motivated by the article. I expected to dazzle them with my operation once they got here. That’s the good part.
That article added momentum to my developing success, but it brought with it consequences that I didn’t foresee. For example, when he wrote “We shot prairie dogs from six yards out to six hundred fifty yards and everything in between. I shot over five hundred rounds a day,” he gave a lot of readers an exaggerated sense of expectation.
The article was a fairly accurate retelling of his hunt, but it was not and is not the usual experience. People who read that article wound up thinking, Willie can get me 500 shots a day at prairie dogs at whatever range I want. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Little did I expect many of the guys who came to South Dakota to experience the unequaled Willie Dvorak experience were wanting to shoot 500 rounds (or more) a day at from 5 to 600 yards. As a result, that year turned into a train wreck. I assumed hunters would arrive with realistic expectations, but they came in expecting the greatest prairie dog hunt of all time. As a result, many of the clients accused me of misleading them. While not true, I was to blame for taking their money before asking each prospect what his expectations were and failing to explain in vivid detail exactly what I could deliver.
After that stressful year, I committed to never taking money from a prospective client without first explaining my promise. I’ve always tried to be honest, but that experience compelled me to be blunt to a fault—and there have been some golden results. I began to drive away hunters who had fantastical expectations and began to bring in the kind of clients who arrived with expectations that I could meet and even exceed on occasion.
Today, my client list is filled with feverishly loyal customers who trust every word I say. The business I lose is offset by the business I gain. It’s an acceptable trade. After 20-plus years of compiling devoted customers, there isn’t much room in my schedule for anyone new. That’s an excellent problem to have.
In the Long Run
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your calendar be full right off the bat. Getting there requires sticking to your plan—and building on the results. From my perspective, giving a hunter an honest assessment of what to expect and then delivering it leads to a two-fold opportunity for more business. First, if you’ve talked someone into doing business with you once, it only stands to reason that, once you give them what they paid for, you should be able to talk them into coming back. Selling a hunt to a happy customer is easier than selling to a new customer.
Second, a happy customer is an all-star salesman for you. Compared to all other methods of bringing in potential clients-—magazine ads, social media posting, donating hunts to TV stars and starlets, magazine articles, and designer wraps on your pickup—-word of- mouth advertising is the safest and most productive. Better yet, if an excellent client recommends you to someone who eventually comes to you, chances are that customer will be excellent too.
Further, if you offer more than one kind of hunt, a repeat customer is likely to explore your other services. It’s been my experience that hunters often begin their working relationship with me by booking a lower-cost hunt, such as shooting prairie dogs or coyotes. If they like my camp and enjoy the experience, and if I deliver on my promise, they are apt to book a more-expensive hunt, such as a hunt for bison or muleys or whitetails. Or they might decide to hunt the Alaska arm of my business for big brown bears or moose along the Jim River.
For a hunter just starting to dabble in sport hunting or thinking about investing in a big trip with a guide, booking an outfitter for a low-cost prairie-dog hunt is a low-risk investment for checking out an outfitter. And if they like my personality and how I run things, it’s very easy for them to put me at the top of the list when they decide they want a bigger adventure.
I’ve been selling out for the last 15 years. Last year, I spent 255 days guiding a hunt of some sort. I start my fiscal year in April with prairie dogs, which I hunt through summer. August and September find me in southwestern Alaska more than 200 miles from the road system in an area that holds an incredible number of brown bears and some of the largest moose in the world. I return to South Dakota the first part of October where I finish up with prairie dogs and begin guiding bow and rifle hunts for antelope. Archery mule deer and whitetail hunts run from mid-October through mid-November when we switch to rifles. Right after that, my schedule is loaded with bison hunters. We hunt American bison until February when we switch to coyotes, which are a year-round option, until we get into the prairie dogs again in April.
March is my time for refueling mentally and taking my family to warm places in foreign lands where we are the clients enjoying guided hunts and catered relaxation.
That’s a lot of hunting. It takes hustle, extraordinary commitment, and the willingness to be gone from home a lot. But the rewards are exceptional.
Selling out, how do you get there? There are a hundred reasons why you can’t. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that I couldn’t run a full-time guide business. But I do. It’s possible. I’m living proof.
Pillars for Building Your Guiding Business
I’ve guided more 1,500 hunters in my career, and I’ve built my business on honesty, integrity, an aggressive work ethic, ruthless optimism, and a bit of luck. I have enough hunters looking for what I provide so that I sell out every year. Below are some guidelines that should help you improve your business and perhaps sell out too.
Be blunt. Tell them exactly what you can deliver and deliver it. They will respect and trust you—and they will find it easy to do business with you again.
This specifically has to do with how fast I walk, work, eat, et cetera. Your customers want to know you are one step ahead of the game all of the time. Lollygagging isn’t going to impress anybody, no matter how easy the chore.
If you don’t have enthusiasm in your work, it’s pretty hard to sell your program to a customer. If you’re not enthusiastic, they won’t become repeat customers.
Try to offer hunts year-round and make one of those hunts a low-cost affair. Something such as prairie dogs, coyotes, or, in some parts of the country, wild hogs. Give hunters a low-risk introduction to you and your operation. Many of the customers who hunt big game with me started with prairie dogs.
If you deliver on your promise to a first-time customer who paid a low-cost hunt, they are likely to become a repeat customer and will perhaps hire you for more-expensive adventures.
Fire Bad Customers
Similar to problems with employees, 80 percent of your issues with clients come from only 20 percent of your customers. Think of the time you waste every year on bad customers—those who complain, don’t tip, have unreasonable expectations, got most of their experience watching hunting shows, hang out on fantasy forums, always want a discount or a freebie, etc. These guys overwhelm your time, suck the life out of your crew, and keep you from giving your best service to other customers. My advice is to do the best you can while they’re in camp, but don’t leave the welcome mat out for them
Willie Dvorak is the owner Jim River Guide Service. He built his business from the ground up developing a unique list of clients who enjoy the experience of being guided by the owner of the business instead of a hired hand.
From the Winter 2021 issue of Guidefitter Journal.