It’s hard to believe that February marks my second year of writing my blog. It has been fun and I thank all of you for your comments and continuous support reading my stories and sharing the site. It is now in 97 countries and almost 1200 cities. I recently added over 250 photos of animals and scenery and some from upcoming stories in the “other photo” category. You might want to check them out.
I know for some of you diehard hunters, stories about the business itself doesn’t interest you but please hang in there because I have many more hunting stories. I just want people to get a better understanding of the outfitting business.
Hunting Shows and Conventions
Every year at this time outfitters and hunters alike are heading to their favorite sports/hunting shows. This is where most outfitters book the majority of their clients. These shows give the hunter/client a chance to meet guides face to face before they spend their hard earned money for their hunt of a lifetime.
We were no different. Before Brent and I formed AAA we were both members of Safari Club International (SCI), Foundation For North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS) and the National Rifle Association (NRA). We knew most of our hunters would come from these organizations and had to decide where we would get the most out of our marketing dollars. Both of us were really diehard sheep hunters and enjoyed being around other sheep hunting fanatics so we decided to start by both of us attending the FNAWS Convention. Brent also went to the SCI Convention.
1985 was our first year at FNAWS and we set up in the outfitter’s room, which was free. Brent got a floor pass at the SCI Convention. We booked a few hunters but decided then and there it would behoove us to get a booth in the convention hall at FNAWS. It was a wise decision and we did this for the next twelve years. We booked three or four hunters the first few shows then it dropped down to one or two. We felt that as long as we booked one hunter it paid us to be there and if nothing else, it kept our name out there.
In 1987 we expanded our operation by obtaining two new areas, the Dog Salmon River camp and the Western Alaska camp. We went from needing twelve hunters a year to needing between sixty and seventy hunters a year. We had to up our game. We knew if we couldn’t book enough hunters we would have to use booking agents. We didn’t have a problem with that but felt that paying a 10% booking fee to someone else when we could do the same thing ourselves was misusing our money. We had already found a few good booking agents including Cabela’s who started their service in 1985. We thought that if we attended enough shows we could book most of our hunters ourselves. That was our goal.
We got a of couple letters a week from booking agents telling us how they could keep our hunting slots filled if we would let them come on a free hunt to each of our areas so they could familiarize themselves and be able to tell clients firsthand about our areas. That sounded good but they wanted us to allow them to come on $30,000.00 worth of hunts and then give them a 10% booking commission on each booking and also pay them for any future hunts that the client may come on. You had to be a fool to do that. I don’t know what they were thinking but we never did it. If we knew the agent was good and had a good reputation we gave them 10% off on a hunt for themselves, but that was it. We did that with Jim Cabela and another good agent. However, we ended up booking over 90% of our hunters the first two years and after that close to a 100%. We only used booking agents for short notice or cancellation hunts.
The way we accomplished this initially was going to as many different shows as we could. AAA paid each of us a 10% booking fee for each hunter that we personally booked. Dan came on board in ’86 and started the show circuit in ’87. Brent by far was the most successful. At one time he was attending seven different shows. We also made the decision that we had to reimburse the company for all expenses we incurred before we would be paid a 10% commission on any booking. Any hunts booked from our home we made a straight 10%.
Another thing that made this possible was our high rate of repeat clients. Since we had four different areas where you could hunt most of the different species in Alaska, close to 50% of our clients hunted at least two of the areas and another 15% hunted three of the areas. At one point we were booking five years out on brown bear hunts with a bow. Most of the time we were around three years out for the Alaska Peninsula brown bear hunts with a gun. Many people commented, “I might be dead by then.” Many hunters were looking for a cancellation hunt which was discounted or cheaper. All we required for future hunts was a $1,000 deposit, which gave them a choice to move up if we had a cancellation hunt. Initially that worked pretty well. Other outfitters/guides required a one-half or one-third deposit. We told clients we didn’t want to work with their money, we just needed their commitment.
The shows were a lot of work, getting set up, long days and then tearing down but overall a lot fun. I met many wonderful people and enjoyed seeing previous clients and meeting our new clients in person.
Most hunters at these shows were like kids in a candy store. There were booths with hunts from around the world, custom made guns, knives, beautiful taxidermy mounts, and so much more. The shows were full of excitement for the hunters and their feeling of excitement rubbed off on me.
The highest number of shows I attended in a one-year period was three and I only did that one year. Karen always went to the shows with me and personally I didn’t want it any other way. We dropped it down to two, the FNAWS Convention and the West Virginia Hunting & Fishing Show. The last eight years in the business we only attended the WV show which was only fifty-six miles from our hometown of Beckley. Not only was it a good show but we got to visit our relatives on an annual basis.
The WV show was small compared to some of the other shows with only around 5,000 to 6,000 attending the three day event. Initially the organizers were the WV Chapter of the SCI. They separated and changed their name to The West Virginia Trophy Hunters Association. They annually donated close to $20,000 to various wildlife conservation efforts in WV. Being raised in WV made this show a good fit for me. I could relate with many of the attendees. The problem though was most of the crowd couldn’t afford the price of our hunts. I would always tell them our $3,000 caribou hunt was the only one that I could afford. However, I did sell many of our hunting videos. One year I sold 120 and the company paid each of us $10 per video. I was usually able to pay the show expense with video sales. My best year at this show I booked six hunters which made a great vacation. Most of the time we only booked one or two hunters which made it well worth the trip.
Brent’s best show was the Eastern Sport & Outdoors Show in Harrisburg, PA. That was the largest hunting show in the US with an annual attendance of around 400,000. It was unbelievable to see that many people in the aisles. I only went one year and Brent and I booked eleven hunters. I never went back because it was Brent’s show and I didn’t want to interfere with his bookings. It was a grueling eight days but well worth it.
As far as the hunting organizations go they do a lot for the conservation of wildlife and to protect our rights as hunters. The majority of the money brought in comes from the donated hunts from guides/outfitters. For twelve years we donated a hunt to FNAWS and a few to some other chapters of SCI. The problem for outfitters is having to be very selective because of the numerous requests received for hunt donations. You could go broke donating hunts.