To say that Dave Leishman has embraced Montana is an understatement. Dave Leishman an East Coast native first came to Montana over 15 years ago on vacation to a dude ranch similar to what the Bar W is now. Dave, a former world-class skier and outdoorsman decided that a yearly excursion to Montana was not enough. He purchased the Bar W in the fall of 2004 and hosted the first guests in the spring of 2005. Dave is happily married to Janet and has three terrific daughters Meghan, Emily, and Haley. Janet visits a couple times a year with Dave on his monthly trip, and the entire family spends all summer at the ranch enjoying the Montana lifestyle. Bar W has developed in the past six years under Dave’s leadership. The ranch has grown and is now open year-round for guests to enjoy the beautiful Montana summers or the playful winters. Dave is a entrepreneur that found himself in the mountains of Montana.
How do the experiences you offer the Bar W give guests a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of Montana?
I came to Montana years ago with my two young daughters, when my daughters Meghan and Emily were only 9 and 7 years old. The girls had a few riding lessons and I had even less. I came to Montana to try to balance my work life with my relationships with my two oldest daughters – my work life was winning and I needed to correct that situation. In the spirit of true Montana hospitality, the ranch’s wranglers worked with us on our horsemanship skills. In no time, we were riding to the tops of ridges, where you could see the Big Sky countryside for 130 miles in every direction.
We were exposed to the western way of life, the horses, the rodeos, the culture, the people, the country, and it turned out to be a vacation for the ages – one of those life-changing, priority-altering experiences many people wait a lifetime for. Now, having had the ranch for 11 years, having had the kids literally grow up on a ranch and having rode some of the toughest rides there are, we understand the needs of a first time rider to an advanced rider and everyone in between. We blend the riding with the total western experience – the same experience that changed our lives we recreate for all of our guests.
How have the activities that you offer evolved since the opening of the dude ranch?
When the ranch first began, our challenge was to determine what kind of ranch we wanted to be. We had a vision and we needed to fill in the blanks. We wanted to create an all around western experience that singles, couples, and families would enjoy – an experience for all ages and abilities. So over the years we added activities that met criteria and now have a product that is tried and proven. Guests can now ride, take lessons, cut cows, rope, shoot, fish, square dance, hike, mountain bike, swim, boat, whitewater raft, sing along with country singers at our campfires or just kick back – sit back and let Montana surround them. There is something for everyone here.
What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?
Many guests don’t understand the care and training that our staff commits to our horses year round. Each Bar W horse is carefully selected and trained before becoming a guest horse. We have a wide variety of horses for all experiences levels to provide each guest with a customized experience. At the Bar W, we take pride in our herd management and devote a lot of time in the off season to routine care, training, and buying horses for the upcoming season.
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider a dude ranch vacation at the Bar W?
I wish that more guests who are not necessarily “horse” people would consider a ranch vacation. Dude ranch vacations are so much more than what they used to be. Ranch vacations are no longer what people think of from the movies. They are still a wonderful western experience but there is so much more to the ranches than what people think. Even if you are not interested in horseback riding or are not able to ride, ranch vacations are still a fantastic vacation for singles, couples, and families.
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
The upcoming travel trend that is exciting to the Bar W and dude ranching is multi-generational trips. The Bar W brings the entire family together for an unforgettable adventure. Ranch vacations bring siblings, parents, and grandparents together with a variety of activities for any age. A week at a guest ranch is the perfect place for families to experience western hospitality, bond, and create lasting memories. What is exciting from our end is that these families are out to create memories by participating in everything the ranch has to offer – no activity is passed over and when that happens something magical occurs – the smiles are ear to ear!
What sets the Bar W apart from other dude ranches?
Our customer service. At the ranch, we strive to make each and every guest’s vacation remarkable. If you need something, our staff is here to help them. From something as simple as grabbing a drink or jacket for a guest so they don’t have to go back to the corrals to taking them on breathtaking horseback rides, our staff is here for our guests. Guests come to the Bar W as strangers and leave as family.
What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?
We encourage all of our guests to be open to new experiences. We have a wide variety of activities from wagon rides to trail rides to scenic hikes and fishing. You may think you are not a fisherman or horseback rider, but we encourage our guests to try it all. You may really like it. If a guest is a little nervous or hesitant, we suggest a riding lesson to learn horsemanship skills and build confidence. Our ranch is a playground, experience it all during your stay. We encourage our guests to pretend it is like going to summer camp – everything is in bounds.
What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow?
One strategy that has helped the ranch grow is to always think outside of the box. How can we provide guests with a better experience? How can we market to a group that is not thinking about dude ranch vacations? By always trying to reach farther, we’ve been able to grow and provide incredible experiences to guests that would have never thought of visiting a dude ranch. With the internet, it is even easier to reach a new market. We find a strong online presence as well as marketing to all generations has given us the opportunity to welcome more and more guests to the ranch each year.
Additionally, a lot of facilities spend an inordinate amount of time and energy getting guests to their ranch but then only provide them with basics when they are there. The Bar W on the other hand believes that the very best marketing we can do is with the guests while they are here at the ranch. We prefer to invest our marketing dollars on the guests to make their experience the very best it can be.
What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?
One thing I continue to try to impart on my staff is to have a third ear and a third eye. Really process what you are hearing and what you are seeing. See and hear beyond the obvious. For example, one of our wrangler staff overheard a little boy at dinner say “man I would pay anything to ride that horse out there in that paddock.” This wrangler went to the owner of that horse (the Head Wrangler) and told her what the boy said. The next morning they both surprised that boy and put him on that horse for the day. That is both hearing beyond the obvious and going the extra mile.
Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.
At the ranch, we tend to see more emotions when guests are leaving. It is not uncommon for guests, especially kids, to cry when leaving the ranch. Goodbyes are never easy, but they are even harder when you are leaving a lifestyle that adults and kids love. Every time a kids or adult sheds a tear when leaving, I know that we have changed that person’s life forever. They have experienced something they never thought they could do and will have the memory of our ranch vacation for a lifetime. We’ve had multiple guests visit for a few years then buy property in Montana just like my family did. There is nothing better than seeing someone’s face light up on the top of a horse knowing that they are living a moment that they will remember for the rest of their life.