Talking shop: Bob Fanch, Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort
Bob Fanch, co-owner, Devil’s Thumb Ranch, Tabernash; Vasquez Creek Inn and Volario’s in Winter Park
How long have you been in business? 13 years (Devils Thumb Ranch); Opening Vasquez Creek Inn and Volario’s in June.
How did you get started in this business? Purchased the business after selling my other business, and Suzanne and I were looking to do something different than we had done before.
Business mission statement: Our Mission at Devil’s Thumb Ranch is to create a unique, true Colorado experience for our guests. In essence, one that honors the great outdoors, our beautiful natural resources and the rugged individualism attributed to the West. We are committed to creating a memorable experience where restoration is highlighted: of resources, of body and of spirit. We strive to provide a friendly environment in an environmentally friendly setting where sustainability is the byword, from our food and spa products to our energy sources. We are thankful for the snow-capped mountain views, the flowing creeks, and flowered mountain meadows provided to us, for these are things we cannot improve upon, but can appreciate and build upon.
Success in the mission: I think we have a team that accomplishes the mission every day, judging by the satisfaction level of our guests, which we track, and our increased business levels.
Challenges to the mission: The pine beetle has certainly changed the face of the Colorado landscape, and our property is no exception. Also, the expanding diversion of stream runoff has created challenges in providing the natural flow that historically ran through our property, impacting our fishing quality as well.
How do you cope with Grand County’s seasonal surges? We have been fortunate in being able to smooth out the severity of the past seasonality in our business through diversifying our product offerings throughout the year as well as effective targeted marketing and sales efforts year-round.
What do you think is the biggest business barrier in Grand County? For us it is in finding trained and experienced hospitality and recreational staff to fill the 250-plus jobs we have at the Ranch and anticipated staffing levels needed for Vasquez Creek Inn and Volario’s. We have very good paying jobs that are full-time, part-time or “on call”— but have had trouble finding enough new staff given our growth year-in and year-out. We have had to hire out of market to fill the high number of positions at both the hourly and supervisory levels. In addition, the slight seasonality of some positions does create some challenges in terms of employee retention, given the cost of living in the county.
What do you think is your biggest business barrier on a state and/or national level? To build awareness of the Ranch in a cost effective manner is the largest challenge. If we can get guests to the Ranch, they get the “why”. Also, given the high level of exposure/marketing in other Mountain communities with larger advertising budgets, it is difficult to “stand out” in a rather crowded “mountain recreation town” marketplace in Colorado. In particular the summer makes a more competitive marketplace for the summer tourist.
What can government here do to help? Grand County has everything to offer — Alpine and Nordic skiing, beautiful and plentiful hiking and biking trails, fishing, the largest natural lake in the state, and two other great adjoining lakes, great stargazing, rafting, sailing, boating, four great golf courses, hot air ballooning, zip lining, etc. However, it is expensive to get these unique attributes communicated to potential travelers relative to other mountain travel destinations.
So, providing more funds for a comprehensive marketing and brand development strategy to more uniquely position the county against other tourist-based economies in the state would be impactful. In addition, development of more coordinated and interesting events targeted at tourists with vacation dollars to spend would be helpful.
How does your business give back to the community? Devil’s Thumb Ranch hosts two big fundraisers for the Grand Foundation and donates many nights, dinners, and other activities at the Ranch to many charities and schools throughout the county and the state. Our staff held a competition between departments the past two winters to raise dollars for the county food banks. In addition, our family foundation, the Sprout Foundation, has donated more than $2 million over the past few years to nonprofits in Grand County to help in their child- and environmental-related initiatives.
Give examples of how you are environmentally responsible. The Ranch utilizes ground source heat to heat its cabins, main lodge, activities center, and restaurants. Recently we installed the largest private solar installation in the state. We utilize beetle-kill lumber whenever possible in our construction, and are employing sustainable approaches to our food supply and recycling in our lodge rooms and other guest outlets. Our goal is to be energy independent in the near future. We were active in the recent Fraser River diversion issues, hopefully part of the solution.
How do you support other local businesses? Whenever feasible, we hire local staff, use competitive local suppliers, and refer business to other local locations for our guests.
How do you feel about direct competition? We believe that it’s healthy for our business to have a high level of competition, and believe a rising tide raises all ships. By that I mean that more visitors will come to Grand County and more families will live in Grand County if there are good quality choices available to them. People like to have choices, and they appreciate quality. The greater variety there is to keep customers interested, the more tourists will come and as a result, more jobs will be created and a more vibrant community.
What business products or services do you get outside of Grand County? We have limited to no selection for many of our ongoing needs, such as commercial food staples, laundry services, furniture, linens and the like. In addition, we have had to hire individuals from outside of Grand County to fill our needs.
How do you market yourself (and track results)? We market primarily to the Front Range through a mix of social media, email blasts to our database accumulated over the past handful of years, targeted print advertising to travel-minded demographics, some radio ads, billboards, word of mouth, and of course our website. We track results by asking guests where they heard of us when they call in to make a reservation. We also track our growth in various customer segments year-to-year as well as in our various product categories. As most marketing tactics as a stand alone aren’t necessarily “trackable” as results come from layered efforts, a lot of “is it working” is more intuitive based on growth.
What’s the main thing you have you learned in your years in business? We have learned in our business that our staff and the service they provide is the biggest differentiator that any resort can have. You can have the most beautiful location in the world, but if the service is bad, the experience of the guest will be bad.
Where do you go for help when you need it? Our “go to” is our staff at the Ranch. They possess an incredible level of professionalism and dedication that pulls us through when the going gets tough.
Who is your biggest business influence/mentor? My wife, Suzanne, is my biggest influence. In terms of mentors, I have a group of long-term business associates that mentor me in specific disciplines.
What do you think is the most significant economic driver in Grand County? No doubt it’s tourism.
If you could go back in time and start up your business venture all over again, what would you do differently? We would probably have shut down the business until we had built out a majority of what we built over the last 13 years. The years of juggling construction around business levels/customer expectations were challenging.
What’s the best compliment you received from a guest? It’s when a guest says he/she really appreciate the changes we made at the Ranch. That’s the ultimate compliment.
What do you consider to be your biggest mistake in business? I was involved in a business that was a result of regulatory creativity, and it became sticky and very time and energy intensive. Lesson learned — stick to business that is market driven.
How much of a role does technology play in your business? Technology in the form of high speed internet is a must in our business if we are to be competitive in the meeting/retreat business. In addition, we use it for our reservation systems, etc. Though oftentimes, it does not play a big role as most of our leisure guests like to “unplug.”
What are the technology challenges in your business? Getting high speed internet was a challenge and took a while to figure out, but we have it now. An efficient, reasonably priced Customer Management System is also elusive.
What’s the general key to making a guest happy? Excellent service that comes from happy, well trained employees and a quality facility.
Is their any certain trend you’ve noticed in consumer habits lately? Given our downloadable, find-an-answer-to-any-question-at-a-push-of-a-button society, customers have become very impatient in terms of waiting for anything. Yet, typically food made from scratch, getting personalized service or driving to our property take time.
What are some tricks such as signs or window displays that you’ve noticed work in attracting customers to your front door? We are three miles from highway 40, so our biggest factor is our monument signage along route 40 that conveys the feeling of the Ranch.
What are some ways to keep up staff morale? We have a huge Christmas party every year in the Broad Axe Barn with a band and dancing. We also have employee team building events, Ranch specific discounts/perks and other lifestyle benefits to encourage living the life we preach to our guests. Giving respect and recognition to superior job a person does is something we do on an ongoing basis, and have a monthly “thumbs up” award to recognize achievements.
What are some ways you train your staff on an ongoing basis? We have been on a rather steep growth curve the past three to four years, and our management team in particular this year is really focusing on maintaining an environment whereby the staff can grow and achieve. This requires a commitment to developing consistent training programs, dedication to taking the time to implement them and a realization that a manager’s growth Is very dependent on the abilities and growth of their staff. And vice versa.
If you could give advice to a novice entrepreneur, what would it be? Don’t be afraid to make, admit and learn from your mistakes. Keep refining your business plan as the world is changing quickly. Love what you are doing. Hang around the hoop — success takes time and effort. Have fun in the process.
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Winter Park has started processing property owners’ applications for the new Short Term Fix program with the hope of moving employees into housing as quickly as possible.