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Making it in Big Sky: Rainbow Ranch Lodge

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General Manager Scott Nelson and his staff at the Rainbow Ranch Lodge have seen business rebound of late after the COVID-19 pandemic presented the hospitality industry with many challenges. PHOTO COURTESY OF RAINBOW RANCH LODGE

By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – The Rainbow Ranch Lodge was constructed in 1919. Now, more than 100 years and several name changes later, the lodge continues operating strong. As with anyone in the hospitality industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented the lodge with various challenges, but business has rebounded over the last couple months, according to the lodge’s General Manager Scott Nelson.

Nelson is optimistic for Big Sky’s future as a growing community. Enlisting a new approach that involves consistent hours through the “shoulder season,” he and his staff were doing well until COVID-19 rocked the U.S. in March. 

“It’s exciting for any of us in Big Sky right now … to realize that this community is truly becoming a community,” he said. “The peaks and valleys of offseason are waning, we’re not to having to deal with that as much anymore.”

Nelson is originally from Spokane, Washington. As a child, he split his time between Washington and his family’s farm in North Dakota and during his travels between the two states, Bozeman was a frequent stopping point. Through the years, he recalls experiencing an interest in the area even in his adolescence.

After attending courses at Spokane Community College, Nelson worked in managerial roles for a number of years at golf clubs, restaurants and other private clubs. He was presented with the opportunity to take the reins at the Rainbow Ranch Lodge in May of 2019. After a convincing visit to the property, he returned to the area that intrigued him as a young boy, relocating from Wyoming and assuming his current role.

“And I only had to look at the property once to go, ‘it’s not going to suck coming to work every day in Big Sky when you get to work right on the river,’” he said.

Nelson recently spoke with EBS about the challenges of operating a hospitality industry business amidst a pandemic as well as his business strategies.

EBS: Have you ever faced a more challenging situation when holding a managerial position?

Scott Nelson: “No, I have not. I think virtually everybody in hospitality would agree with this, it has literally kind of turned our world upside down. Not only the way we have to manage it, but the way we have to live through it and to continue to execute guest services. I mean, it has tossed us

into a whole new realm.”

EBS: How long do you believe COVID-19 will continue to affect the hospitality industry?

S.N.: “My belief is that we’ll be dealing with it going into 2021. And my belief, is my belief, I’m just realistic in that that’s what we’re stuck with, is that there’s no current solution. We’re coming to the end of 2020 and we just all have to remain safe and still, we have to operate, somehow I still have to keep people employed and I still have to pay bills.”

EBS: How do you balance the excitement and anticipation that accompanies a couple’s wedding day while also factoring in COVID-19 safety precautions?

S.N.: “With staff education. And literally, honestly, just being concerned about it, I have had staff meetings. You know, one of the things that I’ve made clear to the staff [is], if anybody was to get sick on my watch, I couldn’t forgive myself.”

EBS: When there is a vaccine distributed for COVID-19, do you believe it will have an immediate effect on the economy?

S.N.: “Absolutely, I feel that it’s going to lift the cloud that’s above us right now. [The cloud] is because this virus has governed us for literally six to seven months, and you said it, it’s a pandemic, you know, and it’s worldwide.”

EBS: Business wise, have there been any silver linings that have accompanied the pandemic?

S.N.: “As I’ve already touched on, hotels—the hotel rooms have been staying busy and the restaurant has been staying busier than normal—and that’s with half the seating that I had before. It’s also prompted me to do research with the owner, that we’re going to do a deck—add a deck to this. Because of the pandemic, and we have deck seating, everybody obviously wanted to be out there, but you only have so many tables and so many chairs.”

EBS: What do you think it was about your business strategies that were so successful for the Ranch in roughly your first year as General Manager?

S.N.: “I think it was team first. [I think] that we were able to put a good team in place. I think secondary was my belief that you constantly work for your customers.”

EBS: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

S.N.: “I know it’s so simple, but I think you have to care about your customers, you have to care about your employees, you have to care about your operation of your business, and as long as you can adhere to caring, and I know that might sound corny, but you will achieve if you stay with that goal of trying to do it right and simply caring. That’s what I believe and that’s what I try to live every day that I’m here.”

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