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French/West/Vaughan’s campaign for Dude Ranchers’ Association ropes in new brand fans and Bulldog Gold

Few things evoke feelings of All-American nostalgia like the Wild West—cowboys roaming the open plains, cattle grazing as the sunsets across the wide open sky, a campfire crackling at night. While many people dream of being a cowboy or cowgirl, an authentic dude ranch vacation isn’t in the consideration set for most people. Dude ranches provide guests with authentic, one-of-a-kind Western adventures. Many have also expanded their offerings to cater to a diverse crowd of travelers—from families to couples to singles of all ages—with activities, attractions and services that extend far beyond the trail.

On the heels of a hugely successful 2014 campaign aimed at combatting misconceptions about dude ranches, the Dude Ranchers’ Association (DRA), a nonprofit organization representing more than 100 dude ranches across North America, asked French/West/Vaughan (FWV) to continue efforts to increase awareness of the DRA and its member ranches. Through an earned media campaign, FWV engaged with mainstream consumer audiences and encouraged consideration of the Western U.S. as a vacation option. Read on to find out how FWV strategized and executed an exemplary campaign to achieve its client’s goals—and won a Gold Award in the “Best Travel, Hospitality & Destinations” category in Bulldog Reporter’s 2016 Media Relations Awards.

The Objectives: “We’ve been working with the Dude Ranchers’ Association for several years now and have secured consistent, strong results—so we set the bar high for ourselves,” says David Gwyn, FWV President. “The challenge for this year’s campaign was to continue that momentum and generate an even higher return-on-investment for the client.”

The FWV campaign term outlined the following objectives:

  • Increase overall brand awareness of the DRA and its member ranches
  • Secure measurable earned media coverage, including 3-5 marquee placements in the following mainstream media categories: Consumer and travel magazines; Consumer online and broadcast outlets; and Family travel outlets
  • Generate first-time guest visits/inquires/website traffic via a successful earned media campaign
  • Generate an ROI of 10:1 and an earned media value of $480,000
  • Identify unique partnership opportunities to extend reach to target audiences outside of traditional media relations

They determined the following groups as target audiences:

  • Primary (Families): Multi-generational families; Families with kids under 18; Families with older children; Adventurous/RV-ing families; Health/wellness-minded families;
  • Families who cruise; Families planning a boys/girls getaway; Family reunions
    Secondary (Niche Audiences): Women interested in girlfriend getaways; Men interested in ‘bro-cations;’ Outdoor enthusiasts; Couples planning a romantic getaway; Meeting planners and corporate CEOs
FWV - home ranch lodge

Research and Strategy: Combatting media fatigue in 2015 was a priority due to the overwhelming momentum from FWV’s 2014 campaign. As such, FWV held in-person meetings and conference calls with the DRA’s Marketing Committee to get a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges. Based on feedback, the agency incorporated outreach to niche audiences as a new plan element in order to tap influencers who could highlight DRA member ranches as ideal locations for girlfriend getaways, “bro-cations” and Western lifestyle enthusiasts.

The campaign team brainstormed a variety of outreach approaches, including:

  • Traditional Media Outreach—The team developed creative storylines, as well as key brand messages, that distinguished the DRA’s ranches from other guest ranches. FWV worked to secure earned media placements in target outlets including national consumer magazines, travel magazines, in-flight publications, top daily newspapers, consumer family and parenting publications, Meeting & Convention trades, top-tier travel and lifestyle blogs, and national broadcast shows.
  • Travel Trends—They crafted pitches and press releases relevant to target publications and writers. FWV regularly monitored travel trends and behaviors to ensure outreach was newsworthy and timely.
  • Press Trips—FWV worked with individual ranches to host select members of the media for press trips. Itineraries were customized for each individual writer, as well as their families (when applicable). Bringing targeted media members to the ranches increased the opportunity for thorough reporting, inclusion of key messages and more robust feature- type profiles.
  • Educational Travel Programs—They facilitated an opportunity with The Family Travel Association (FTA), which had created an event that brought together students, parents, educators, travel industry experts, thought leaders and the media to explore how and why travel should be an essential component of a well- rounded education in the 21st century.
  • Partnerships—The team partnered with Pendleton Whisky to be included as part of the fulfillment prize pack for the brand’s Round the World photo contest that was hosted online and shared through the brand’s social media platforms. The grand prizewinner received a getaway to a DRA-accredited ranch.

“Many people, journalists included, have the pre-conceived notion that dude ranches are hokey. One of our objectives was to combat that misperception and increase awareness of dude ranches as a vacation option among cosmopolitan audiences,” Gwyn offers. “We overcame this challenge by emphasizing the variety of dude ranch options—ranging from working cattle ranches to high-end luxury resorts—along with the wide variety of activities and amenities available. We were also able to coordinate press trips for top tier writers and bloggers so they could experience the ranches for themselves, which helps with being able to convey an authentic, firsthand perspective of everything dude ranchers have to offer.”

The Pitch: By leveraging the variety of attributes found at each DRA-accredited ranch, as well as the benefits of an all-inclusive dude ranch vacation, FWV used traditional media relations to develop creative storylines, as well as key brand messages that distinguished the DRA’s ranches from other guest ranches. FWV highlighted the various dude ranch amenities and specialties from more luxury-style ranches complete with gourmet food and spas to working ranches focusing on the cowboy lifestyle, and family-friendly ranches with traditional ranch activities.

Additionally, FWV targeted writers and influencers with large social footprints to secure press trips and encouraged them to share their dude ranch experience in real-time to extend the reach of each story and experience.

FWV also focused on identifying and securing partnerships that would not only promote the DRA to its target audiences, but would expose them to new audiences as well. Through an opportunity to be involved in an educational travel program and a partnership with a prominent western brand, FWV was able to inform potential guests about the DRA and its original all-inclusive vacations.

The Results: The FWV team met and exceeded all its goals. “One thing that worked really well for us was word of mouth promotion among the blogger community,” Gwyn explains. “We are fortunate that many of our member ranches are happy to host media for press trips. There have been several instances where bloggers, in particular, have had such a positive experience working with us, the DRA and the ranch they visited, that they tell their blogger friends and colleagues. This has resulted in subsequent “referral” press trips (individual and groups), along with the resulting coverage.”

Here’s a look at the campaign objectives, followed by the effort’s results:

  • Increase overall brand awareness of the DRA and its member ranches—The DRA’s Executive Director has received phone calls from ranch owners/operators stating, “their phones have been ringing off the hook” as a result of FWV-generated media placements (note: media impressions detailed below). She also saw an increase in overall bookings in 2015.
  • Secure measurable earned media coverage, including 3-5 marquee placements—The team generated more than 20 marquee placements, including USA TODAY, Scholastic Parent & Child, Fox News, MSN Traveler, Country Weekly, Yahoo!, Parenting Magazine, Redbook Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.
  • Create first-time guest visits/inquires/website traffic—DRA website visits were up 4% in 2015; the site also experienced a spike to the session duration with an average of 4 minutes and 20 seconds.
  • Generate a ROI of 10:1, including an earned media value of $550,000—In 2015, FWV achieved 333 million+ media impressions, an estimated PR value of more than $810,000 and 17:1 return on investment on total project budget – ultimately surpassing all of our original goals.
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