Friday, March 29, 2013

Letter to the Board of Outfitters

It seems that I've ruffled a couple feathers from at least one person from FOAM. I received an email from Robin Cunningham as he said he wanted to respond to my last post. I encouraged him to do so because I think it's important to get that perspective and if I'm wrong than tell me why. Unfortunately, Robin had second thoughts about responding so he didn't. He did, however, let me know that because I no longer belong to FOAM that I don't have any representation out there. If I did belong to FOAM, Pete Schanafelt would be the 'guide-at-large' representative. Nothing against Pete because I do think he's a good guy but...he is an outfitter and a shop owner.

The thing is, is that I don't want to create this situation where it's the guides against the outfitters but there are some issues that both entities sit on opposing sides of a fence built by rules and regulations that protect one more than the other. If we don't have someone from our side representing us, than where is our voice in all of this? Who protects our best interests? We are professionals that hold professional licenses and are independent contractors much like carpenters or brick layers who work for general contractors. Shouldn't we have representation and standards like they have?

So here's the deal. Since I don't have a voice from FOAM anymore, I wrote a letter to the board myself. Here it goes:

Dear Board,

Recent developments in proposed legislation and rules changes for guides have compelled me to write to you this morning. I can’t say I have all the information pertaining to these changes or interpretations of rules so I’m kind of shooting from the hip based on the information I have. The information I do have certainly causes a great deal of concern for me and for my livelihood.

The first issue I’d like to tackle is that of the “Outfitter Assistant.” In the proposed legislation, it’s my understanding that an outfitter can hire as many assistants as he wants and he can employ as assistant to guide clients if it’s an emergency for up to 15 days per year per assistant. This brings up some obvious questions for me. What constitutes an emergency? Is there a standard of pay? Is there an age limit?

Here’s the problem; if a client calls a shop/outfitter at 6pm for a trip the next day, is that considered an emergency? What about 6am for that same day? If it is, than a shop could employ as many assistants as he/she wants and instead of doing the work to contact a PROFESSIONAL guide, he can farm it out to one of his assistants at a rate that he makes more money and the guides lose out on the days. If an outfitter hires ten assistants, that could be up to 150 days a year. And with the nature of the industry, what 17 year-old kid wouldn’t want to spend the day on the water making minimum wage instead of washing dishes or even running shuttles or working in the shop? This legislation would create a situation where the guides are going to be out competed by less competent, less professional assistants that don’t have to pay the fees, maintain their own gear, pay the taxes or be responsible for their client’s safety.

What this issue brings to light is that guides really don’t have any representation out there. Now I know and I’ve heard that the Board and FOAM has been set up for guides to have a representative but really, who is it; an outfitter? The representative for FOAM is an outfitter. Who is it for the Board? I, personally, don’t want an outfitter speaking on my behalf because they are inherently going to support what benefits them and what benefits them doesn’t necessarily benefit the guide—not on this issue and not as it pertains to the issue of what is being interpreted as acceptable guide advertisement.

Let me first say that I heard about this second hand from someone that was at the last FOAM meeting so the facts may or may not be accurate. What I was told is that the interpretation of the rules on guide advertisement from the board would not allow for guides to have business cards or web sites so as to protect the outfitters from having clients stolen from them. My understanding is that a guide could have a business card and a web site as long as it had the endorsing outfitter’s license number and web site on it.

Here’s the problem with that. Let’s say my endorsing outfitter was the owner of a shop. I get booked from a near-by lodge and have a great day on the river. My clients want to fish with me again and express that so I give them a card and tell them that they should call the outfitter the next time they come out and tell him that they want to request me. However, my card has the shop info on it so they look up that outfitter and what they have to offer. Now I’ve just inadvertently, stole these clients from the originating outfitter and because that outfitter knows this could happen, if he sees that my card has another outfitter’s information on it, he will never hire me again. The other problem with these rules is that again, they were set up by outfitters that don’t have to follow the same standards of loyalty and they often don’t.

Let’s say I take a trip for an outfitter and the client says they want to fish with me the next year or even the next day. There is nothing in the rules that say that outfitter has to hire me. So if that client isn’t allowed to contact me or if I can get in trouble by them contacting me directly, there is no protection for me that I would be hired for that day.

And here’s the real shitty thing about all this. As I was told by the director of the Board of Outfitters; even if I introduce either a friend or family member or just someone I meet at the bar to an outfitter and take them fishing, those clients are technically the outfitter’s clients and I can’t contact them directly in the future to solicit business. Even if I become an outfitter and even if those clients had never met the outfitter the original trip went through, if I contact those clients I can be brought to the board on charges of stealing clients. However, that outfitter can send those clients emails or other publications directing them to their web site or even offer them deals in order to steal them from me. This is not right.

In the end, the client should have the right to fish with whomever they want. I never steal clients from outfitters. If they contact me, I always direct them to the originating outfitter because I still have a sense ethics and I know I benefit from maintaining that relationship. I don’t always get that from the outfitters and I don’t see anyone addressing that. What gets lost in all of this is that the guide is a commodity too and could be the most important link in that chain between the client and outfitter or shop and the outfitter should not only respect that, but should also encourage the relationships to form. In fact, the outfitters that do understand that encourage their guides to email the clients and continue that contact with them because they know that in the end, it’s because of the relationship with the guide that those clients continue to come back.

I realize the board is an entirely different entity than FOAM but I bring this up because it’s indicative of the culture of the guiding industry and illustrates the problem we have as guides and the lack of representation. Like I mentioned, the representative that was chosen for us by FOAM is an outfitter and a shop owner. I don’t know who that person is on the board but FOAM recently sent out a survey asking questions about what the outfitters think about advertising and whether or not they allow their guides to have business cards. None of the questions were directed towards the guide and that’s a huge problem. It’s also why I decided not to continue my membership with FOAM. What kind of representation do we have in the board?


Russell Dobrzynski #12124

Again, I don't want to pit the guides against the outfitters but I'm sure some will see it that way and consequently won't hire me again. However, the outfitters that do know me also understand and trust the integrity I've shown in the past and will continue through these professional relationships. I don't steal clients but I also understand the outfitter perspective and respect the fact that they want to protect their businesses. I hope they understand that I want to protect my business as well, which is why I think guides should have a voice too.

The bottom line here is that both the guide and the outfitter benefit from mutually respectful and reciprocating relationships. There are a lot of guys out there that have felt like they've been screwed too often so they become outfitters. I, personally, haven't reached that point yet and I feel like I've benefited from the relationships I've been able to maintain. There are also a lot of outfitters out there that feel like they've been screwed by guides who have stolen clients from them when they become outfitters. The reality is, is that a client should be able to fish with whomever they want and if the outfitter wants to retain them, they should accommodate. There's really no amount of legislation that will force one or the other to respect that relationship or to play fair. It's a personal choice and it's a risk every time you go into a business relationship with someone. Hopefully the guys that do, do it right become even more valuable and benefit from choosing to play fair on their own.

Keep 'em where they live...


  1. Russell: I'm surprised you didn't note that Pete Shanafelt, the guide representative on the FOAM board, is a licensed guide, not an outfitter. I corrected you in a recent email. As you say elsewhere in your post, "the facts may or may not be accurate." Given the chance to get the fact straight, why didn't you? Facts should be the enemy of rumor and assumption.

  2. The cool thing about a blog is that people can post on it and it can be used as dialog. Pete Shanafelt is the co-owner of a shop who partners with another outfitter that stands to gain from these rules changes. He's even described as an outfitter in the Billings Gazette.

    Given the fact that the board is so animate about guides not marketing themselves as outfitters, one would think a person so close to the fire wouldn't allow himself to be advertised as such. I was going by what the Billings paper wrote about him. I'm assuming he has some kind of say in that since they were being promoted by the paper.

    The bottom line is; Pete doesn't represent the guide's best interest because of his situation. This is nothing personal. He is, however, co-owner of a shop and if he isn't an outfitter, he still stands to gain because of his partnership.

    Thanks for replying.

  3. So, the Gazette article mislabeled Pete as an outfitter; I don't see that as "allowing advertising." Few publications understand Montana's semantic and licensing difference between "outfitter" and "guide". Next, if you've ever talked to Pete, you'd understand that he represents guides very well. Don't confuse business situations with representation.

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  5. I feel like you're missing the point Robin. Once Pete entered the partnership, he doesn't represent the guides. I can't trust that he can have my best interest in mind because what ultimately is best for the guides on some of these issues isn't best for the shop owners/outfitters. And I've had conversations with Pete and again, it's nothing personal but he wants his business to be as successful as possible and nobody would blame him for that. He's in the business to make money. I have to make money and pay bills too and I can't afford to have someone represent me that isn't in a similar situation.

    I'm also not niave to this type of arrangement. He's essentially acting as an outfitter but he's running his trips through his partner. And it would make sense to assume he would eventually become an outfitter. Don't get me wrong, I personally don't see anything wrong with that legally but again, his best interests are not mine.

    As for the Gazette calling him an outfitter, I think that is an important distinction that needs to be recognized; especially if he's going to represent guides. If he wants to have the trust from those he represents, I believe he should be more sensative to those things so that those people that actually care about this don't get the wrong idea

  6. So, if a guide moves on to co-own a flyshop, he's somehow 'tainted' and can't represent his fellow guides. Sounds kinda reverse elitist: If you work for several outfitters, that's OK, but if you concentrate your efforts on improving your income by investing in a shop and partnering with a single outfitter, you're suddenly . . . what? An outcast? I don't buy it.

    As for 'advertising', a guide who owns an outfitting business (or, as in this case, co-owns) may advertise outfitting services so long as they ID the outfitter. Check 24.171.2401(3)(n)ARM.

    Since FOAM's survey has inspired this and other conversations, I hope when Pete's term is up, other guides stand up and get nominated for the FOAM guide director position. Clearly, there are some firm ideas about exactly what a guide rep should be and do. All the better for everyone, from my POV.

  7. Please don’t put words in my mouth, Robin. I’ve never said Pete is “tainted” and I’ve never criticized him or anyone else for trying to improve their situation. You’ve affectively talked us into a circle here and the last thing I will say on it is that again, by entering into the partnership, Pete has put himself on the other side of the fence and on some issues that would mean compromising his own business relationships by standing up for the guides.

    I’ve read FOAM’s blog entries on MHB: 187 and although I appreciate the stance FOAM has taken, I still can’t help but believe that with a stronger guide representation, amendments would have been made to the bill that would protect us. As it sits, it sounds like there’s still no real definition of what constitutes an emergency or how many OA’s an outfitter/shop can employ. There are also no wage standards so it’s conceivable that this creates a situation where a shop would greatly benefit from hiring OA’s instead of professional guides and there is plenty of room for interpretation to make that happen.

    There are a lot of things that should be done to protect the guides. We don’t even have a representative on the Board of Outfitters. They interpret the rules that directly affect our livelihood but the only way we can have that voice would be a legislative act to change the composition of the Board of Outfitters. Anyone could propose that or write the bill but obviously, an organization with a higher level of membership with more resources would carry more weight; as in MHB: 187. So we’re kind of left hanging and having to trust a system that we don’t really have much of a voice in and don’t control any of the process.