By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Craig Kenyon is living his dream. As the owner of the Absaroka Mountain Lodge near Cody, Kenyon usually spends his summers wrangling horses, greeting guests, and managing the business.
But staff shortages at the end of the season mean that Kenyon is also washing dishes, doing piles of laundry and other tasks that are normally done by hired hands.
“We’re having to do a little more and more ourselves,” Kenyon told Cowboy State Daily, while stripping beds in one of the cabins.
For Kenyon, that means rising at 5:15 every morning and feeding horses so they’re ready to go by the time guests show up for the morning trail ride. It also means that he is doing much of the cooking. The day before, Kenyon had to break away from doing laundry to go down to Cody, an hour drive away, to pick up a new washing machine to replace one that quit.
Kenyon is one of just three people running the guest ranch at the end of this summer season – that’s down from the eight people he started out with at the beginning of the season.
“Getting people hired in the first place has been a stretch,” Kenyon said. “We’ve lost some kids – they’d either go back to school, or (the job) just wasn’t what they thought it was going to be.”
Kenyon said that as the ranch owner, hiring the right sort of person is a challenge in itself.
“There’s things that have to be done a certain way, and you want them done a certain way,” he said. “So you have to convey that.”
But Kenyon said that when it comes to training staff, especially younger workers, he finds himself second-guessing his techniques.
“You can show them it seems like a hundred times,” he said, “and it’s almost like they work harder to get around what you’re asking them to do than if they would just do it.”
Kenyon said the ranch has faced other sorts of staff issues this year. While he was talking, his most senior staff member, Donna, joined him at the laundry folding table – but her ability to help was hampered early in the season, when she was injured in a car accident.
“Donna and I, we’ve been friends for a long time,” Kenyon said. “And you, she has done more with one arm than most of the kids could do with four, I think. She is really going after the newly coveted Absaroka Mountain Lodge One-Arm worker award.”
Kenyon pointed out, though, that he’s not alone in the struggle to find and keep good help.
“It’s something that the East Yellowstone Valley lodges are facing,” said Kenyon. “We’ve been facing it for quite a while.”
Amy Worster, manager of the Goosewing Ranch near Kelly, agreed, noting that the beginning and end of the seasons are often more challenging for guest ranches.
“Our early season and getting into this time of the year, we’re going to see less staff members than we are during our peak season,” said Worster.
Planning for Turnover
Worster, who has worked at the Goosewing Ranch since 2005, said that they do their best to plan around the natural ups and downs of staffing.
“Life happens, things change,” said Worster. “So I tend to hire more staff than I necessarily need to complete my season, so then if you do lose some, or if they don’t show, I’m not necessarily hurting.”
Worster said that the ranch employs between 25 and 35 staff members, depending on the time of year, helping guests with services such as utility vehicle rentals, guided fly fishing, horseback riding, maintaining their 15 accommodations, as well as servicing the lodge’s restaurant.
She pointed out that hiring the right sort of person is the key to a successful staffing year, knowing where to recruit the best workers for the jobs they do.
“We do have some college kids that come out,” said Worster, “and those are the ones that are coming mostly just for our peak season. Most of them they’re looking for the experience. Our chefs are typically more professional, they’ve been with us for a number of years. And then our department heads are also similar to that, where they’ve been with us for a while in a more professional setting.”
And she added that having a smaller staff makes for a more dedicated workforce.
“We know we can get this job done with fewer people, as long as everybody is dedicated and focused on doing a good job,” said Worster.
It’s not just staffing issues that have made this summer challenging. The disastrous flood that closed down Yellowstone National Park in June caused confusion for potential guests, resulting in cancellations.
“We did go through about 2-3 weeks of some heavy cancellations, people backing out,” said Kenyon. “There were some legitimate claims, they couldn’t get to us, we understand that.”
But he said that he, and other tourist-based business owners, felt the media was partly to blame for the rash of cancellations.
“A lot of mis-reporting hurt us,” he said. “We were getting phone calls wondering if Yellowstone was going to be open, whether they were going to be open next year.”
Friends and Family
Kenyon said what has made a difference for him and his small staff is the generosity of friends and family, who fill in the gaps to make sure that guests have a positive experience.
“It’s good to be local,” he said, referring to his years of residing in Park County. “It’s good to have great friends and family that have come to our call, to fill in the slots where we’re not able to hire folks, or get people to come up here.”
Living the Dream
Worster pointed out that overall, Goosewing Ranch experienced a decent tourist year.
“We’re kind of winding our season down,” she said. “I don’t think it would be anything that I would say was extremely abnormal.”
Although this summer provided some unique hurdles, Kenyon said Absaroka Mountain Lodge didn’t see a big drop in overall business. But when looking back at what he called an exceptionally challenging summer, Kenyon laughed a little.
“You know that Merle Haggard song, ‘If We Make It Through December?’” he said.
Despite the hardship, Kenyon confirmed that he is absolutely living his dream.
“You know, it’s still my dream, you just have to work a little harder at it.”