Money and Love


   Senate Bill #208 brings up big questions for the river business in Grand Canyon....

(Or was that love and money?)

   Fast motor trip full of great people, up early on Havasu morning, everybody really humping it to help load the boats. “What else ya need, dude?” asks Russell, a used car buyer from New Jersey, as he slings me the last dutch oven. “Money and love,” I tell him. “Not necessarily in that order.”

   Russell laughs. “You know what they say, Lew.”
   “What?”
   “Love can’t buy you money.”
   I laugh back. We’ve got this thing going: cynical banter about American values. Before he started buying cars for dealers, Russell owned a repair shop that kept eight mechanics busy full time. “It’s your muffler bearing, ma’am,” Russell said earlier, mocking excesses in that business. “I’m afraid it’ll run you about $350.00. Could you wait a half an hour? We can get right on that for you.”

   I winced when he said that. And I wince again when I think about it now. “Welcome to the Ultimate Grand Canyon Experience” says the brochure on this one. (A five day, balls to the wall race against time?) “Everybody in the boats, please. We gotta go.”

   The truth is, I’m in this one for the money. All the way. But love keeps tripping me up.

Money

   GCRG got a pretty strong letter this spring from an old 20-year vet who chided us for screwing around with the Glen Canyon Dam EIS so long and not confronting our outfitters to get a bigger piece of the pie for boatmen. We need health care, better wages, pensions, etc. The guy who wrote the letter is a good boatman and a sharp customer too, so it made us think about all that stuff in earnest. Somebody said, finally, “The outfitters have enough to worry about right now as it is. They can’t very well take care of boatmen if they’re fighting for survival themselves.”

   The comment referred to S. 208: a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers. S.

   208’s concern is concession reform in the National Parks. What it mainly seeks to address is the fact that some bigtime concessioners are realizing huge profits thanks to advantageous positions in the Parks, but are paying back little in the way of concession fees, or taxes, or good deals to the public.

   To alleviate this, Bumpers wants to open up a more competitive bidding process for all concessioners, big and small. Grand Canyon outfitters aren’t the major focus here and the bill has understandably made outfitters, (and some of us at GCRG), concerned.

   The outfitters, through their national organization, America Outdoors, have taken the stand that language reading something like “... all other criteria for the permit being met, the Secretary may give preferential consideration to the existing outfitters...” be altered to read “the Secretary shall give preferential...” etc.

   For us at GCRG, a couple of points seem clear: without healthy, stable outfitters, there can’t be healthy guides. And without a solid, well established river business that thinks long term, the public will never get good river trips.

   Opening up a highly competitive bidding war, it seems, would only foster a short term, cutthroat mentality, which would eventually hurt both guides and our customers, not to mention our bosses.

   Making the size of the concession fee returned to the government a primary focus of commercial permit evaluations is counterproductive too. It buys into America’s worst disease: myopic worship of the bottom line. And adopting it in Grand Canyon will only pass higher trip prices on to our customers.

   Those points notwithstanding, though, the question remains: In our industry, is there a problem? Have we, (or our outfitters), gotten too greedy?

   If so, what is the cure?

   So far, the rate control in this business has been compellingly simple: “Whatever the traffic will bear.” about sums it up. And right now that translates to about $200.00 a day.

   Why have we done so well in the past? Hard work and diligence, yeah. But mainly it’s the Canyon. We lucked out and stumbled into a magical place that happens to sell itself. And does the most important part of our work for us. The greatest value our trips offer comes from the place, not us.

Love

   Most of us got into this thing for some kind of love: the Canyon, the river, the boats... maybe just the attention, the pleasure of controlling (more or less) a captive audience.

   Whatever the case, we loved it. And we’d have paid them to let us go.

   The icing on the cake was that our people loved it too. They came back more than happy, feeling like they’d gotten a screaming deal. And that was how it should be.

   The love problem I have now is complicated. (Aren’t they all?)

   This trip I’m doing is with a great company. Excellent management and crew, very dialed in. Terrific boats and system. Good pay and benefits.

   But the problem is threefold. One: The guys who count the money and sell the trips don’t live here anymore. (And some of them never did.) In the place where they count the money they charge the going rate and never bat an eye. They’ve shaved the schedule down to the bone and they will sell you that all-American trip and never think twice about, or even understand, the pleasures they’ve gutted out of it. For the lack of one or two extra days on the schedule we’ve cheated thousands of customers out of some of Grand Canyon’s best: Saddle Canyon all to yourself; Nankoweap in the evening; a half day at the Little C when it’s clear; sleeping in at 114; going all the way up at Elves; the long, glorious afternoon at Deer Creek; Matkat; Beaver Falls... the list is endless.

   The argument for running the fast trip is always the same: “America wants it.” “That’s the trip that sells.” And the answer to it remains the same too: People buy what we sell them. If we told them the longer trip was a better deal, and why, they’d believe us. They’d understand instantly.

   Part two of my personal problem is a little credit card situation. Great winter, but things did get a little out of hand and now here I am, doing some money counting of my own.

   But part three is Russell and everybody else on this trip. They’re all totally cool, is the thing, and it breaks my heart to have to beat them up so bad just to get them down the river on time... to smile and tell everybody we’re doin great, even though we just had to blow off Elves, Stone, and Deer Creek because of congestion or dwindling options on the schedule... impending darkness.

   Russell’s in the used car business now, but he’s gearing up to make a change: counseling for couples. I laugh at this one. “Dude,” I do my Russell imitation. “You’re going to have to hustle up a lot more green stuff if you want to hang on to this action. Catch my drift?”

   Russell howls. He means it, though. He really doesn’t keep score that way anymore, and everything he does on this trip is a testimony to that. He helps the stragglers up the trail; sits in front of the boat when no one else wants to; stays up late to help me fix a malfunctioned spare motor. In short, he constantly exhibits the exact opposite of your basic “What’s in it for me?” mentality.

   Did Grand Canyon bring about this spiritual shifting of gears? Nope. Just reinforced it.

   My theory is Grand Canyon was put here to remind us of one salient fact: life is short and we’d better spend our time wisely. Part of which means doing good work, not being greedy, giving back to life as good as we get.

   How am I going to reconcile that with mercenary boating? I don’t know. Maybe write an article about it and try to get it printed, whether it gets me run out of the river business or not. Get out of bed a little earlier, quit futzing around so much, pick up the pace.

   S. 208? Not perfect, but maybe we’d better take a hard look at the issues it purports to address: excessive profits made at the expense of our National Parks. In GC it’s not just the fast ones, either. It’s the expensive ones too. (Is $900 a head for a three day Whitmore reprieve a good deal?).

   Our job in this instance is essentially the same: the U.S. Government, the NPS, and the Grand Canyon river business all have the responsibility- dictated by the old laws and the proposed new one as well- to facilitate the best visitor experience possible, at a reasonable cost.

   The burden on us today is that we are headed toward a Grand Canyon river experience that is pared down and sanitized; accessible only to the world’s richest people. And nobody in their right mind should want to see that. It’s a situation that runs directly counter to some of the most basic lessons the place has taught us.

   The fact is, however S. 208 shakes out, if we can’t keep our trips good and their price affordable and in line with the services provided, then we don’t deserve to be there- outfitters or boatmen either.

   We’ll keep an eye on S.208 and keep you posted.