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Opinion column: Riding for the Brand

Posted: Wednesday, Feb 13th, 2013

All the talk this week about the tourism board bringing in some big hitters to help Goshen County develop its “brand” caused me to recall some past branding’s in which I was involved.

I was 22 years old when I actually participated in my first branding. Yes, I know, I’ve always been a late starter. It had been my impression that branding cattle was about work; however, I was pleasantly surprised when in actuality, I discovered that it was more like a working frat party.

I had not been warned about the liquid refreshments that were served throughout the work period. Needless to say, I remember more about the first half-day than about the following two days.

It seems we finished branding calves on day one and spent days two and three in town trying to rope and brand any loose livestock that wandered in front of our table at the Cowboy Bar. Fortunately, our aim wasn’t very good, and I do not remember any of us taking a dally. I was really living the dream in those days.

Surprisingly, I was actually invited back the next spring to again help with branding; evidently I brought a heightened level of entertainment to the event that was appreciated by the cattle owners.

Liquid refreshments aside, over the years I learned how to work a branding pretty well. Though I would have to work really hard just to get to the level of a poor roper, I can handle an iron, a vaccination needle or a catch chute like someone born to the work. And honestly, 30-some years later, I still look forward to the opportunity to go to a branding.

Over the years, there have been brandings that really stick out in my mind, some with great memories and some with painful ones. As most people who have helped with brandings know, there are those you look forward to and those you pray the invitation to participate never comes.

Memorable brandings enjoy great camaraderie and even better customer service; there is plenty of coffee, water and, when the work’s all done, other refreshments. You look forward to the food because you know it is going to be good and there is going to be plenty to go around.

And if you had to travel any distance, there will be a soft place to throw your bedroll. I have a friend that has such a great branding every year I am almost tempted to pay him for the privilege. Almost.

The opposite is true of those brandings I would just as soon forget, the ones where I had to dig a shallow hole to dip enough water to drink, where lunch consisted of two bags of jerky split between 15 volunteers and the warmest, softest place to throw a bedroll was the manure pile in the calving barn.

I love the idea of living the cowboy dream as much as anybody, but I see no reason to deny volunteer help the benefits of 21st-century amenities while maintaining a 19th-century flavor.

Branding a community is much like helping out at a branding; you want tourists that can’t wait to come back next year. Slogans, taglines, logos and merchandise are all important, but they will not make up for a mediocre or forgettable experience.

Most people think of Disneyland as an amusement park, but if you take a closer look, you will see that it is a community, much like ours. There are shops, restaurants and housing. I love Disneyland, but not as much as my wife.

And it is not because of the rides, characters, Mickey Mouse ears or picture opportunities. It is because at Disneyland you feel pampered. Customer service is second to none; the food is outstanding, the entertainment keeps the kids occupied, it is spotless (even the bathrooms) and the rooms are clean, quiet and comfortable.

Of course it is expensive. That is the only reason my wife hasn’t made it our permanent residence, but when we have the cash, a Disneyland vacation is at the top of the list.

As Goshen County goes through this branding process, we should keep in mind that it will be very similar to a successful calf branding; we can have the catchiest phrase, an award-winning logo and top-of-the-line merchandise, but if we don’t keep ‘em well fed, with a comfortable place to throw their bedroll and warm, friendly people to help meet their immediate needs, we will wind up with is a letterhead on a lot of stationary and branded merchandise collecting dust on store shelves.

Attracting more tourist dollars to Goshen County will take hard work, just like a branding. The effort will have to be coordinated and well defined and, undoubtedly, cost more than revenues generated for the first few years. But the long-term benefits of a complete branding effort will ultimately benefit everyone in the community. Even those of us trying to live the dream.

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