Wander into South Dakota’s The Signature Lodge on any given Saturday during pheasant season, and you likely will be greeted by a sea of blue and red. Not being the Blaze Orange you’d expect, you might wonder, What’s going on here? And then, Who are all these young people?
If this was your first visit to The Signature Lodge, your questions would be understandable. But those who have hunted here in the past dozen years would easily recognize “college game day” and that the young people are interns wearing their school colors.
This year is the 13th that The Signature Lodge has employed 12 to 15 interns to work alongside the lodge’s permanent staff during both the summer fishing and fall pheasant seasons. A large part of the credit for the program goes to Operations Manager and Executive Chef Sean Finley, who holds a master’s degree in Hospitality Management from Texas Tech University. Finley is part of John Burrell’s High Adventure Company, in Atlanta, which manages The Signature Lodge day to day, and years ago he realized that if a lodge wants to provide the best service, it has to hire individuals who make pleasing others a priority. And who better than students who are planning a career in the hospitality industry? That’s why for the past dozen years Finley has been traveling to Texas Tech to recruit staff and for the past four years to Auburn University, where High Adventure Company was instrumental in getting the school to institute a Wildlife Enterprise Management degree—equipping students to work at or manage hunting and fishing properties.
“The benefit of it is that [the interns] are in programs that promote what they want to do later,” Finley said. “So they want to learn. They want to be here.”
Not surprisingly, all of the interns have to go through an in-person interview process. “I spend a lot of time getting to know personalities,” Finley said. “We live on-site. We work seven days a week. There are no days off during the season. It’s a submarine-crew mentality. Everyone has to get along, and everything has to function so that it works from the whole-experience standpoint. It's kind of a unique setting.”
Despite what you may think—that spending an entire season in a hunting lodge would be a dream job—the work can be a grind and far from glamorous. “The lodge is sold out for the entire season," Finley said, "so we work long days. [The interns] are putting in about 18-hour days across the board.
“I do try to match them up with what their forte is. If you’re kitchen, you’re strictly in the kitchen. If you’re outside, you’re pretty much strictly outside. If you’re an inside specialist, you’re doing everything from food service as far as breakfast, lunch and dinner, bar service, customer service, airport runs, housekeeping and just general cleaning and maintenance around the lodge.”
The interns also have to be sociable. “I look for people who have good customer-interaction skills,” Finley said, “because they do associate with the clients. We’re not a stand-offish crew. They interact with clients at mealtime and at bar time and at various times throughout the day.”
As you might imagine, having so many young people at the lodge lends a youthful enthusiasm to the experience. According to Finley: “Some of the best comments we get from our clients are: ‘I can’t believe you get college guys and gals to work that way and to be that good.’ The clients talk about their politeness, how respectful they are, how they handle themselves. It absolutely changes the atmosphere. When clients re-book during the off-season, they ask if the students are going to be here again. Of course, I have alumni from schools like Auburn as clients. That really makes those types of folks happy, that their kids are here. Anyone from that conference—we have a lot of SEC clients in general—it makes them happy that they’re here. And, of course, on Saturdays it makes it fun, because everyone’s wearing their game-day jerseys to celebrate college football.”
So why the overall emphasis on hospitality? “I always say that we are a hospitality company that happens to hunt,” Finley said. “We’re not a hunting lodge that tries to give you hospitality. I can control what you eat, what you drink, where you sleep, what you sleep on, how clean the restroom is, how clean the floor is, how well the bar is stocked, how great the food is. I can control that every day. I can’t control the weather, I can’t control how you shoot, I can’t control how a bird flies. But I can handle the hospitality side of it. The hunting takes care of itself.
“We’re dealing with clients who stay at a Ritz-Carlton or a Four Seasons when they travel for business or for family purposes. They don’t really expect anything less when they go somewhere else. I think what surprises them when they come here in the middle of nowhere is that they get the same service. That’s what makes us different.”
Oh, and one last thing: You probably want to leave your ’Bama jersey at home . . . .
The Signature Lodge by Cheyenne Ridge Outfitters is a full-service, Shooting Sportsman Endorsed Lodge. To learn more or to make a reservation, call 877-850-5144 or email [email protected].
Photographs courtesy of The Signature Lodge.