Fun Business: Raft companies bring fun to the market

raft co
Richard Lewis, a guide for Wild River Raft Co. in West Glacier, stacks rafts Tuesday night at the company's headquarters. Dave Reese photo

A flotilla of bright yellow rafts snaked around a bend in the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, the rafts' occupants hooting and hollering in the whitewater.

Later, on a quiet stretch of the river, the rafters gingerly dipped their paddles in the water, their necks craned at the surrounding scenery of Glacier National Park.

Those rafts full of paying clients represented not just a pile of happy people enjoying the outdoors - they are a significant boost to the Glacier National Park tourist economy.

Four raft companies do business on the Middle Fork, North Fork and South Fork of the Flathead River, as well as the main Flathead River.

Combined, those four companies - Glacier Raft, Great Northern Raft, Montana Raft and Wild River - carry about 50,000 people a year down the local rivers. More than 150 people, from guides to office staff, are employed locally by the raft companies, Wild River Adventures owner Bob Jordan estimates.

The money poured into the local economy from rafting runs "easily into the millions," says Onno Wieringa, co-owner of Glacier Raft Co.

Raft companies make about 60 percent of their revenue between July 1 and Aug. 15, Jordan says. With such a small window of opportunity, it's crucial to have a well-trained group of river guides, a strong support staff - and pay attention to costs.

While raft companies haven't increased their prices to reflect inflation, the cost of doing business steadily increases. Fuel and insurance are taking a bigger bite out of profits, Jordan says.

The cost for a 3 1/2-hour river trip with one of the local companies averages about $42. "We're spending a lot more money just getting people UP the river, than taking them down the river," Jordan says, citing the costs of shuttle vehicles and insurance. "We're not rolling in gravy, but we all enjoy what we do."

After 29 years as a raft company owner, Reno Baldwin of Great Northern Raft Co. says it's the people he works with that make his business so rewarding.

"I just enjoy the people who work for us, more than anything," Baldwin says. "A lot of the satisfaction has a lot to do with people going out and having a great time, and knowing that you're part of making that happen for them."

Helping people - even if it's just for three hours on the river - learn something about nature and wildness also is important, Baldwin says.

Most of the local raft companies have diversified their services to balance their business. Baldwin added lodging, a kayak school, a fly-fishing school, even a pizza operation that delivers to local hotels and campgrounds.

Glacier Raft Co. built cabins and a large retail shop loaded with outdoor equipment to help supplement its income.

Montana Raft Co. and its sister operation, Glacier Wilderness Guides, combine the lure of the river with hiking in Glacier Park.

The latter two companies are owned by Cris Coughlin, Denny Gignoux and Randy Gayner. They're the only companies licensed to take trips to Sperry and Granite Park backcountry chalets and since 1983 the only company licensed to guide hikes in the park.

They guide hiking trips for out-of-state companies such as Backroads, Classic Journeys, Country Walkers, World Outdoors, Smithsonian Study Tours and Austin Lehman.

Montana Raft and Glacier Wilderness Guides have two different market segments: extended hiking and rafting trips, and the half-day rafting customer.

Former Montana State Auditor Mark O'Keefe started the business in 1983 with Gayner and Dave Ames. Coughlin bought into the business in 1987.

With 20 vans and buses "going in every direction" each day, her job is in crisis management, she says. "The most challenging thing is getting people to trailheads and river put-ins. That's where my crisis management mode comes in." That's sometimes difficult when radios don't always have reception in the backcountry and cell-phone coverage is rare.

The raft companies are recovering from the effects of wildfires that ripped through Glacier National Park two years ago, shutting them down for much of the season. Last year was a rebound season, and this year, with good river levels buoyed by ample spring rains, the companies are reporting a solid year of financial growth.

"It's not overly exceptional, but it's a good summer," says Baldwin of Great Northern. "We're happy with the way things are going."

Wieringa agrees. "We're in pretty good shape, we're happy with the season," Wieringa says. "Water levels were a concern, but those June rains just topped off the water as good as any snowmelt could do."

WITH FOUR raft companies competing for market share, how do you grow your business? The same way any other business grows theirs: marketing.

It all gets down to who your contacts are, and resort referrals, Baldwin says. "That's what grows your market share."

Baldwin lauds competitor Wild River Adventure for increasing its market share over the last several years.

In winter, Baldwin goes back over his books and tries to see where he could improve.

"It's a full-time business, year-round," he says.

One of the biggest challenges he faces is finding help. A summer spent guiding rafts down the river always has held an appeal for college students, but Baldwin says that's changing.

"We're dealing with a totally different generation of kids," he says. "I would think we'd get tons of applications. Kids nowadays are totally different." He recruits at colleges, and any time he sees a person who he

thinks would make a great employee, "I always approach them."

Raft company owners have to be "super, super careful" with keeping costs in line, he added. "You always have to be looking at how you do business," Baldwin says. "Hopefully you'll do enough business that it will justify those costs … but it's never easy."

Wieringa, who spends his winters working at Alta ski area in Utah, says that staying focused on the core business is key to the ongoing success of Glacier Raft Co. "We just don't want to take our eye off the ball," he says. "We have to focus on rafting, which is what we do."

Like a ski area or other company that relies on good weather conditions for its well-being, raft companies rely on good water years that will carry their clients down the river right through August. "So much is beyond our control," Jordan says. "If it's a slow year, Mother Nature usually makes up for it the next year."

Surprises for these companies can come in a variety of forms: fires, floods, even wildlife.

Recently a river guide for Montana Raft Co. who was alone on a support boat encountered a mountain lion while setting up camp on the Middle Fork near Nyack Creek.

Coughlin says the guide sprayed the lion "with a face full of bear spray" and the lion fled. The guide was not injured, but Coughlin says she "got a taste of the spray herself."

Last year was a record year for Wild River, and this year is slightly up from 2004, says Jordan, who has owned Wild River for 20 years. However, raft companies are not back to seeing the dramatic growth that they enjoyed in the late 1990s, Jordan says. "Overall, the trend is positive for us."

Raft companies report that most of the growth has been in short, family-oriented trips.

In the late 1990s, when river use was exploding, the Forest Service was looking at revamping its policy on river use for the four licensed river outfitters. But since overall user numbers have leveled off, "There's not this pressing demand to change policy," Jordan says. "We're not anticipating any major changes."

The four local raft companies all operate as an extended family - but with a healthy sense of competition.

"There is a lot of respect among all of us," Jordan says. "We all work together to promote whitewater and floating in the park."

The companies help each other with guides and share equipment, if needed.

"We're all stewards of the river and we need to help out with each other and watch out for the guests," Jordan says. "I like this kind of business."

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