Running a Remote Guest Ranch in Arizona
“There is a tarantula in my room!”
Thus began a three year adventure and a unique hospitality repositioning assignment in the Chihuahuan Desert of the American southwest. More specifically, my wife Susan and I went to live in the remote southeast corner of Arizona an hour’s drive from the historic town of Tombstone. There in Cochise County, a single county the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, the west remains as wild as the cowboy TV images of our childhood.
The Arizona border with New Mexico was a just a few miles to the east beyond the 9,800 foot peak of the Chiricahua Mountains. The more active border with old Mexico was just 25 miles to the south. Sunglow Ranch lies at an elevation of 5,340 feet, well above the worst of Arizona’s summer’s heat and just below the winter snows that come to the peaks above.
Adventurous American and European visitors still arrive here in search of the iconic Wild West. Germans in particular visit in large numbers to explore the land once made famous by beloved author Karl Friedrich May and the legendary characters of his novels such as Winnetou and Old Shatterhand.
This is a geographical location that rarely elicits a knowing response from world travelers. Old street signs there still reflect its remote location: signs like High Lonesome Road, Far Away Ranch and Double Buzzard Gulch. Cochise County is a corner of the United States few ever venture into except for avid birders and naturalists in search of the vast diversity of species there. Hikers, herpetologists and geologists also wander here for obvious reasons.
More recently, the area is emerging as an exceptional viticultural area. Perhaps one day you will recognize “Chiricahua Bench” as a new growing area on an Arizona wine label. It has been one of my life’s joys to get to know local winemaker friends there at the vineyards of Lawrence Dunham, Keeling-Schaefer, Pillsbury, Sand Reckoner, Aridus, Zarpara, Flying Leap, Kief Joshua and others. A remarkable development of Tasting Rooms is occurring today in Willcox, Arizona especially around Railroad Street. If you have yet to taste wine from southern Arizona, I am certain you will enjoy this distinct pleasure one day soon.
A dusty old airport that once welcomed Amelia Earhart to the area was just to our south toward the border towns of Douglas and Agua Prieta. We enjoyed visiting the old Hotel Gadsden in Douglas where Pancho Villa himself once charged in on his horse and rode right up the hotel’s main staircase. Bisbee to the west of Douglas is another fascinating Arizona border town in its own right with a rich copper mining history. We love exploring Bisbee’s picturesque streets and discovering its very special local shops.
As I arrived at the ranch a few months prior to Susan, there were moments when I felt exactly like Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) must have felt in his assignment to that remote wilderness outpost in ‘Dances with Wolves’. In spite of feeling marooned, we both came to love the Chiricahua Mountains as a rough and untamed home for a while. (That’s “cheer-ih-cow’-a.”) We learned a whole lot about cowboy poetry and music, barbed wire fences and water rights, cattle brands and ourselves in the process.
We left our picture perfect Blue Ridge cabin atop the ridge itself in southern Virginia after opening the luxury Lodge and Spa at Primland in Meadows of Dan, Virginia for the late Didier Primat of Geneva, Switzerland. Mr. Primat sadly died before the project was completed and all too soon at the age of 64. After Primland opened and was well on its way to being named to Condé Nast Traveler’s “World’s Top 100 Hotels,” Susan exclaimed, “I’m ready for an adventure!” No sooner than the words been spoken than it seemed we were on a plane to Tucson.
From there we picked up our rental car and drove two hours into the high desert, deep into the Chiricahua Mountains. Turning off I-10 eastbound we took a few back roads that eventually turned onto long dirt roads as we ventured further into unknown territory. We continued for about 6 miles beyond the pavement on primitive dirt roads when Susan was famously quoted as saying, “There better be a miracle at the end of this road.”
It was the end of July in 2011 and in the next morning’s soft light we beheld the beautiful 400 acre ranch for the first time. We were pretty sure the ranch had never encountered the likes of us before. It wasn’t exactly a miracle. It was more of a very special new adventure.
The Horseshoe II forest fire that had raged for months in the mountains above the ranch was just about contained by then having burned over 200,000 acres of mountain ridge above us from the Chiricahua National Monument (a not-to-be-missed national park to our north) all the way south to Rucker Canyon. The fire destroyed houses on our nearby Turkey Creek road as flames advanced to within one-half mile of the ranch. Thanks to amazing firefighters and Mother Nature the ranch narrowly averted a complete evacuation.
As is our nature, we set out to bring service excellence and quality to a place that had some pretty well-worn ruts of mediocrity. We also commenced an all out effort to polish the so called “Jewel of the Chiricahuas.”
The oil in the old ranch truck had been unchanged for years and the landscape was thoroughly neglected. We faced failed septic fields overflowing with raw sewage, a grease trap long ago rusted through and a general malaise that had been oozing through the ranch for at least a decade. While still in business, the kitchen’s walk-in coolers were filled with more garbage than fresh produce.
Many changes were still ahead. In spite of plenty of issues, the property presented extremely well (and still does) as a peaceful destination nestled in the hollow of an ancient caldera, the ancestral home of the Chiricahua Apaches. It was the first time in our lives here that we experienced a place of truly profound silence. I mean there were nights when ALL we could hear was our own quiet breathing. The area’s dark skies provided a remarkable nighttime panorama of stars and constellations, most of which are completely invisible elsewhere. Meteor showers were uniquely spectacular, each like a scene from Star Wars.
An incredible diversity of wildlife exists in the mountains of southeast Arizona in what are known as ‘Sky Islands’—high mountain peaks separated by broad open ranges that contribute to isolated individual species. Even Jaguars still roam the ancient mountains of Cochise County, the northern extent of this large cat’s habitat. The Elegant Trogon and the Olive Warbler are two of the avian prizes to be glimpsed in the Chiricahuas especially if one is adventurous enough to drive over the mountain to the even more remote towns of Portal and Paradise, and the remote scenic beauty of Cave Creek along the New Mexico border.
The best we can really say about the ranch staff that we inherited was that they meant well. They hadn’t a clue about service levels or hospitality standards and we gathered there wasn’t much interest in learning. It was to their disadvantage that the new management team had previously learned from and trained some of the world’s finest hospitality employees. We had little tolerance for chronic whining and we insisted everyone move a whole lot faster and follow our lead on elements of precise guest service or prepare to get out of the way. Training commenced even though most of this original staff moved on within the first year when they realized we were still there and that we had no intention of running the ranch the old way.
There were plenty of perplexed looks as to why there were copies of “Who Moved My Cheese” in the kitchen and a new carved wooden sign placed over the employee entrance door that read, “Nils Satis Nisi Optimum.” It was quite a moment too when undermining (now former) key staff reacted to another sign: “We’ll take 50% efficiency for 100% loyalty” on the back door. We drove excellence and quality always insisting that every guest was properly welcomed, greeted and well served.
There in that lovely arid high desert we also encountered dangerous mojave and diamondback rattlesnakes, javelinas, mountain lions, scorpions and beautiful (yet huge and terrifying) cinnamon colored black bears. Free range longhorn cattle from the open range grazed on into our guest areas making for some interesting moments. We faced drought conditions there and a few hungry and thirsty illegal aliens passing through occasionally from Mexico. Toward the end of our tenure, the drought grew worse, forcing the ranch to purchase truck loads of potable water—we hoped just a temporary condition until summer Monsoon Rains arrived.
Occasionally circling overhead were official helicopters, an indication of the intense battle between Border Patrol and syndicated Mexican “coyote” drug smugglers in the area. Southern Arizona’s omnipresent U.S. Border Patrol provided us with real comfort and peace of mind knowing they would be at the ranch in seconds if we needed help.
Taking over a ranch or even a country against its will has some parallels. Machiavelli (and Dr. Judith Best my college political theory professor) would agree that some of the tactics are by necessity similar. There were times we needed to be very heavy handed and times to be gentle and nurturing. We bit our tongues way more often than we were comfortable with and we chose to take on additional workload ourselves rather than put up with the indolent “I only do it my way or I quit so I can collect unemployment” type of employee. We strove to maintain a balance somewhere between these well-worn hospitality gems: “never cut off the branch when you’re sitting on it” and “never give in to terrorism.”
Running any kind of luxury business in a rural setting means that only a few people in the local community can or will afford your goods and services. In spite of this, it was always a pleasure to welcome our local guests especially those from Pearce and Sunsites and Willcox who came for dinner often and supported the ranch in so many ways. We will always be grateful for their friendship and encouragement. When the chips were down it was our regular guests who made us feel that our efforts were well appreciated.
To be honest, there were among our ranch team several diamond-in-the-rough heroes who stayed true to us and the ranch, working incredibly hard long days from beginning to end and making a real difference. Thank you to Mike, and Xiaoyan and Dan and others who helped Sunglow Ranch to achieve so much against all odds during our tenure. We will always be grateful to each of you.
There were long days and long nights to be sure in the running of the ranch and we were determined to prevent a lack of training and bad attitudes from undermining our guest service goals and our reputation. In the end we take a sense of accomplishment that we had actually led our team to reposition the ranch in anticipation of the real estate sale while achieving 6 TripAdvisor awards including two of the more coveted Traveler’s Choice awards in the process. We owe our thanks to amazingly loyal guests and the core of rock-solid employees who were as committed as we were.
We inherited a ranch that had undervalued itself for years—presenting itself in the marketplace as a deeply discounted venue to guests who really wanted to pay even less. For instance we heard a lot of, “What if we opt out of meals and housekeeping, can we get the room at half price?” Or, “We’d like to use the ranch for our wedding but we have our own catering.” Then there was the horde of discounted stays from the likes of misguided marketing initiatives like “Groupon.” There were those who tried to bring their own alcohol into the dining room in spite of the ranch’s liquor license. It felt good to move away from all of this.
We were as pleasant as we could be to this discount strata there when we arrived, and we worked to steadily increase the quality of our guest experience while pushing the average daily rate higher. Happily, the ranch came to provide needed sanctuary and real civility to discerning travelers who helped us to achieve new standards at the ranch. This in turn helped us to attract a new clientele better able and willing to support the emerging new Sunglow Ranch.
In spite of the forbearance required of us and some of the challenges outlined above, we were proud of the ranch we left behind. All along, we were well supported by the ranch’s owners and we enjoyed seeing a part of the country few others ever do. With grateful appreciation, we had the privilege of working for these two very special people who were always committed to making the ranch even better. Thank you Mitch and Chrissy for the opportunity to be a part of your team–for believing in us and for your patience and support. We will always be honored to know you and hope that our paths cross again one day. We wish you much success.
In the face of ownership’s renewed efforts to sell the ranch it was time at last for us to begin giving serious consideration to new opportunities. Early in 2014, an agreement was reached with a Chicago area real estate firm that was given the task of orchestrating the dispossession process. In the end, an auction was planned. This resulted in plenty of rumors by the uninformed who rumored that the ranch’s demise was caused by foreclosure and bankruptcy.
In fact, the time had been long overdue time for the owners to sell their ranch and a public auction was their last step in trying to move on. To their amazing credit, generous bonuses were paid to the loyal employees who stayed true to the end. No checks bounced, and no ranch debts were left unpaid.
After turning down four written offers to run unique hotel properties around the country, I accepted a position at a very special luxury inn in western North Carolina. I packed up a rental truck and left Sunglow Ranch behind for good at the end of February 2014. Susan decided the best thing for her was to manage the ranch a few more months on her own knowing my days would be immersed in a new post. She always knows better!
For me, it was disconcerting to imagine that Susan might have to face the wild west on her own. I took some measure of relief knowing she kept her .38 caliber, laser-sighted Ruger handy. She had already demonstrated that her aim was quite good. Out there, you quickly learn who is working for you and who is working against you and it’s always better to be prepared.
This time apart proved to be a great opportunity for Susan to shine on her own. On her first day as the ranch general manager she fired her first employee for performance reasons thereby setting the tone for the rest of her tenure. Thanks to Susan and the team’s continued efforts even more positive TripAdvisor reviews were posted.
Actually there may have been no person better suited than Susan to help the ranch through this period. She presented the ranch in the most professional manner as she met with the real estate company agents, prospective buyers and eventually surveyors and appraisers. A new buyer had indeed come forward, and a contract was signed by the end of Susan’s term. We’ve kept our fingers crossed hoping the new buyer would come along and build on our efforts, keep a vital presence in the Sunglow community for our neighbors and help the ranch’s owners to move on.
Special thanks to Baxter Black, famous cowboy poet and Western personality extraordinaire–and our wrangler the one and only Miles “Bucky” Buckley for teaching us the true ways of the west. Thank you too to our very own cowboy singer Joel Eliot for his great performances and for helping us to know what cowboy music really means. We have a great new appreciation for the lives and work of Ian Tyson, Dave Stamey, Rex Allen, Stan Jones and poet Charles Badger Clark among so many others. “Navajo Rug”, “Ghost Riders in The Sky” and “I Love You Arizona” will resonate in our hearts forever.
© Copyright 2014 Brooks Bradbury ׀ Brooks Looks