With the success of its wolf tour programs in Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris has flirted for years with the idea of setting up shop in Bozeman, Montana.
Last week that idea became reality as the Jackson company acquired Yellowstone Safari Company, a well-established business with a variety of programs, including hiking, backpacking and wildlife viewing.
“It’s fun, it’s exciting,” Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris owner Jason Williams said. “It’s a little bit of good news in a really tough year.”
The two tour businesses are no strangers.
“We’ve partnered for years and referred business to them in Bozeman if our guests were going north and vice versa,” he said.
Given Yellowstone Safaris’ reputation, the owners’ experience, the guiding staff, and the synergy between the two companies, an acquisition was a good fit, Williams said.
“It just made a lot of sense versus us coming up and setting up a separate shop and creating a new business.”
Ash Tallmadge, one of the naturalist guides in Wildlife Safaris’ Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole program, will head the Yellowstone Safari Company operation.
“She was ready for a career move,” Williams said last week while in Bozeman working on the transition. “She moved up here full time and will take over the general manager position for us. … She’s hugely talented and has a lot to offer guests and the business.”
Ken Sinay, longtime owner of Yellowstone Safari Company, and his partner, Susi Sinay, will stay on, he as a guide and she in the office, Williams said.
“We’re thrilled about that,” he said.
Williams said Ken Sinay reached out to him last March about selling the business and then touched base again in May.
It was a tumultuous time. Due to the pandemic, Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris’ Four Seasons program and international offerings “just blew apart instantly” early on.
“With COVID we decided to pivot our attention to Bozeman,” Williams said.
“We were all in high fear mode,” he said. “We had lost all our summer bookings by that point, were underwater to the tune of a lot of money, so we went under a nondisclosure agreement. We looked at the financials and did our homework.”
For a time after the pandemic arrived “we were hemorrhaging cash,” Williams said. “All of a sudden in the third week of June, Jackson Hole turns, on and we were off to the races.”
In July he took another look at the Bozeman operation. In August they went under contract, and the deal closed Nov. 30.
Williams said he plans to strengthen cross-promotion between the operations.
“We’ll be able to use our resources on both sides of the park to serve guests from every [Yellowstone] gateway except Cody,” he said.
Williams blocked off two weeks for him and staff to be in Bozeman so everyone could get to know their new co-workers and understand the culture of each other’s business.
“Their expertise is building individualized custom safaris,” Williams said. It’s “all private only.”
Staff will work on a “simplified framework” of tours but also add some new things, like new Gallatin National Forest outings.
The acquisition is one of the bright spots in what Williams described as the “harshest year in business I’ve ever experienced.”
Federal and state loan and grant programs ended up providing “just the right [amount] to make us whole and get us through,” he said. And that included helping to “over-invest” in health and safety precautions.
Eliminating larger corporate groups and strict adherence to protocols for guarding against transmission of the novel coronavirus paid off.
“We haven’t had a single, knock on wood, staff member get sick or even quarantined,” Williams said. “Even with the cases ripping we’re still not having a problem.”
Also, he said, “we fought hard to not just stay afloat but to thrive and increase our margins. ... We were down 30% in sales but made up a lot with operational efficiencies and margins to come out of the season looking a lot better than we would have anticipated.”