TUCSON – Joe Valdez has been with Tanque Verde Ranch since 1976, doing everything from training horses to leather saddle repair to helping tourists experience the style of living he grew up with in a family of southern Arizona ranchers.
“(Cowboys) haven’t completely vanished yet. They’re still very much alive,” he said.
As Arizona’s centennial approaches, Tanque Verde, which opened in 1868, is a family-owned business that has been in operation since before this was a state.
Other ranches have come and gone around the property over the years, and it has switched ownership, adapted to different times and found ways to survive in a changing industry.
“If your customers are not happy they’re not going to come back again, so our main objective is to try to find activities, interests, patterns, that will stimulate, encourage and excite our guests to come back again,” said Bob Cote, the ranch’s current owner.
Cote attributes much of Tanque Verde’s longevity to its protected location in the eastern reaches of the metropolitan area. Bordering Saguaro National Park and the Coronado National Forest, Tanque Verde isn’t as vulnerable to development.
Cote has overseen the property for about 40 years since taking over the reins from his father. In that time, the ranch has marketed to a different clientele and diversified its services, aiming to provide a resort atmosphere to its guests.
Guests today often come from Europe for a Western experience, part of an internationally geared business strategy Bob adopted in the 1970s after working, studying and traveling through Paris, New Zealand and Japan. This has filled a dip in visitors in the guest ranch’s slower summer season, he said.
Tanque Verde has also separated the original cattle operation from the tourist operation, essentially splitting the business into two segments. Riders today are less experienced than they were 40 years ago, and liability issues make it so guests can’t round up cattle or interact with them like they used to, Cote said.
Richard Nosky, a lecturer in the management department at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, said a key to business longevity is adapting.
“It’s a dynamic process,” he said. “As soon as products and services stay static, it’s a sure sign of you going out of business and somebody else meeting that need if you’re not aware of that.”
Originally purchased and settled as a cattle ranch by Rafael and Emilio Carillo, the land was sold to Jim Converse in the early 1900s. It was sold in 1957 to the Cote family, which has owned it ever since.
Tanque Verde became a guest ranch under Converse, who saw the move as an opportunity to get those interested in the cowboy life to work for him, Cote said. Visitors to the ranch wanted to be part of what was being shown in the Western movies of the day by characters like the Lone Ranger.
These days, the ranch has added hiking, tennis, mountain biking and nature programs, as well as a health spa, for its guests. It has also brought in televisions and wireless Internet.
“In the service industry you want to make sure your customers are happy and that they feel they’re getting their value for the money they’ve invested,” Cote said, adding that guests now look for a more pampered experience than a strictly cowboy lifestyle.
Some of the older buildings have been torn down, replaced by newer complexes, and others have been renovated. The original ranch house still stands.
Not all southern Arizona guest ranches have followed the same path of growth as Tanque Verde. The numbers of guest ranches have dropped since the 1950s from around 55 to seven or eight today, Cote said, as owners of small family operations had children who left the ranching industry. The city grew and ranchers were forced to sell off their land.
But Cote is positive about the next chapter in Tanque Verde’s story.
“As long as we maintain our integrity to our guest satisfaction, I think we will be here for a long time,” he said.
Victoria Pelham is a reporter for Cronkite News Service.