With hunting lodges, responsibility for the overall quality of an operation typically falls on the manager. He or she—or they—oversees the day-to-day details of providing the guest experience and making sure things run smoothly. So what happens when a world-class lodge’s longtime managers decide to step aside? How do the lodge owners ensure that the new managers will have the same dedication and uphold the same exacting standards? After all, it’s not like the former managers can be cloned . . . .
Or can they?
Take the case of Rio Piedra Plantation, about 25 miles south of Albany, Georgia. Purchased in 2000 by the husband-and-wife team of Bill and Annie Atchison, the once-quaint quail hunting operation was built over 20 years into one of today’s premier wingshooting destinations. Through tireless effort as well as substantial investments of time, money and sweat equity, the Atchisons fulfilled their dream of offering a traditional Southern quail hunt in a five-star setting. In fact, Rio Piedra not only has been lauded as the “gold standard” of hunting lodges but also has won the title of Orvis Wingshooting Lodge of the Year an unprecedented three times.
So it is understandable that several years ago, after nearly two decades at the helm, the Atchisons decided to step back from the day-to-day responsibilities of running the lodge. But where would they find a management team with the commitment and skills to fill their shoes?
Turns out they didn’t exactly clone themselves, but they did the next best thing: passed the torch to their son, Sam, and his wife, Beth. And what a smart decision it was. Since taking over management of Rio Piedra in 2018, the next-generation Atchisons have received nothing but accolades.
Part of this may be because Sam and Beth followed the same path as father Bill: spending time in the corporate world before realizing that there is more to life than hectic travel schedules and the daily grind. The transition from corporate America to plantation life has given them perspective and appreciation.
According to Sam, “We couldn’t be happier with the decision. It’s been great for us and for our family and from a career standpoint. The thing that’s been really great is that in the corporate world it’s more about transactional relationships with customers; here it’s anything but transactional. We meet wonderful people from all over the world who in many cases we become friends with. It has also checked the box of us being able to spend more quality time with our kids.”
Another rewarding aspect has been working with a great group of people. “We just have a phenomenal team,” Sam said. “Seeing how they bring everything to life—whether it be our guides, who spend hours upon hours with our guests and do it consistently in a great way every day, or our servers or our housekeeping staff—everyone does an amazing job.” That there are many longtime employees, including Chef Dirk Flachsmeier, who has been at Rio Piedra for 20 years, also has been a huge help. “Every year it’s like the family shows back up around October 1 and prepares for another season.”
Of course, there have been challenges as well. “Between hurricanes and Covid, it’s been a pretty steep learning curve,” Sam laughed. In fact, the year Sam and Beth took over, the Southeast was slammed by Hurricane Michael, which passed right over the plantation and toppled a number of longleaf pines on the property. It took a couple of years to clean up and replant, but today the quail habitat is as good as it’s ever been.
And then there was Covid—a situation the Atchisons tried to make the best of. “What we did was lean into the challenges that Covid brought,” Sam said. “It gave Beth and me opportunities to do some of the things we’d talked about doing but hadn’t had a chance to. For example, instead of serve-yourself beverages, we brought on a bartender who does that for you. It made the guest experience better. We also tweaked and upgraded things like food items, linens and alcohol selection.” This ability to adapt and improve has been a boon to the overall operation and certainly the guests who have come to expect the best.
So what does the future hold? No wholesale changes, according to Sam. “The biggest thing,” he said, “regardless of how much we grow, is ensuring that the experience that my parents built is the same experience, if not slightly better, that it has been. But really for us it is about consistency.
“My parents started building a legacy 20 years ago, and Beth and I want to help continue that.”
There’s no doubt that Rio Piedra Plantation remains in good hands.
Rio Piedra Plantation is a full-service Shooting Sportsman Endorsed Lodge. To contact Rio Piedra Plantation directly, call 229-336-1677 or email [email protected].