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As luxury travelers quest to find the next new thing, companies are developing different types of products to meet the demand for novelty.
One that capitalizes on the desire for big, open spaces is Explore Ranches. The Austin, Texas-based company specializes in offering exclusive stays at private ranches, giving travelers access to pristine swaths of nature that have, until now, been inaccessible to the public.
The company started up at the end of 2018 and currently works with ranches in Texas, Colorado, and California. By the end of the summer, the collection will expand to about 15, including the addition of Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch in New Mexico.
Most of the ranches can accommodate eight to 12 people, although one outlier has room for 68. Prices range, but most charge between $2,000 and $3,000 per night, with a two-day minimum. Ranchers must agree to make their properties available for a minimum of 18 nights per year.
In terms of the financial structure, Explore Ranches charges members an annual marketing fee. It also takes a 20 percent commission rate from bookings.
Connection to the Land
There are several unusual aspects to Explore Ranches. The first is that it’s a company for landowners by landowners. Allison Ryan, Jesse Womack, and Jay Kleberg, all multigenerational Texas landowners, founded the business.
Kleberg originally had the idea of developing outfitting experiences on private land, but as the trio brainstormed, Explore Ranches “morphed into an online platform,” according to Ryan, connecting ranchers to those interested in renting out their properties.
The company’s mission is to allow more access to the wild, while giving landowners the opportunity to make extra money.
“We created the business with an altruistic purpose. The three of us are conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts, and we grew up with access to outside. Being part of land-owning families shaped us and our beliefs and thought processes, and we want to give that experience to other people,” Ryan said.
Additionally the West is currently experiencing a generational transfer of land, and developing alternative uses, beyond the usual grazing leases, hunting leases, or mineral rights leases, can help landowners keep it all in the family.
“Providing recreational opportunities on the land,” Ryan said, “will help create a new revenue stream that will appeal to the upcoming millennial landowners.”
Business Built on Trust
Initially, the trio hand-selected the first set of properties, based on their connections in the ranching world. But now that word is getting out, Ryan said landowners are coming to them, some from as far away as Scotland.
“This type of service is something landowners are in need of. But landowners are a funny group of people. Our family’s history as landowners and people who are interested in the land and have a vested interest in the land make us different than someone who doesn’t know the business,” Ryan said.
That trust level “is why they come to us.”
While their background as landowners is helpful in that regard, a lack of hospitality experience may cause a few hiccups. For example, right now, the company offers various levels of hosting to landowners. There are accommodation-only trips, fully staffed trips with planned activities, and one option that is somewhere in between.
The idea that city slickers can come and comfortably plunk themselves down on a 10,000-acre farm and fend for themselves may be a bit naive. While navigating this type of environment may be old hat for those who grew up on the land, it could prove difficult for newbies.
Need for Hospitality Expertise
That’s where people like David Marek come into the picture. Marek, a native Texan, is president and CEO of luxury adventure company Ker & Downey, which is based in the Lone Star state.
He is advising Explore Ranches on how to adapt its product to appeal to Ker & Downey’s clientele, while serving as an informal consultant at the same time. “Part of my thing,” said Marek, “is to teach them about the hospitality industry and to meld [their product] into it. We can deliver clients, but want to make sure the client experience is what it should be.”
“The Explore Ranches idea is something that really hasn’t been done yet, and I think there is a tremendous opportunity for people to see these amazing ranches that they don’t usually have access to.”
But, he said, the offering needs refinement, as the do-it-yourself aspect of the current offering may not appeal to a wide range of travelers.
“It’s currently set up for guests to rent a car and stay at the ranch. But international travelers, in particular, are going to want a different product. They need a guide to meet them at the airport, share the history of the area, and help them explore. After all, these can be harsh environments, and many guests are going to need ranch hands, who have familiarity with the land, to show them around and [do things like] go down Pecos River in a kayak or walk through caves areas.”