Maybe Go The Extra Mile - and Perhaps Take the Path Less Travelled? (On The Economy)

May 30, 2024

“How much fuel are you gonna burn driving that big truck all the way to Zion?” my buddy Jody asked when I described our planned anniversary camping road trip to him a couple weeks ago.  “I dunno” was my response - and then I did some quick math - “probably about 150 gallons.”  “Damn - diesel is like $4 a gallon! - are you sure you don’t want to just drive the Subaru and stay in hotels?”  

Yes, we were sure.  Tank, our freshly-wrapped and work-in-progress ambulance camper and mobile podcast studio, would carry Jill and I for 8 days and over 1,800 miles, and would tote along our BMW motorcycle on a rear carrier.  And we’d burn a bunch of fuel, and see many new roads and sites, and go for hikes and enjoy hot springs soaks, and hopefully uncover some business observations along the way. 

This month’s blog will read more like a travel log than most, but will feature places and roads many readers will not have yet traveled - but may wish to.  I’ll make some observations about three very different hot springs businesses whose services we partook along the journey, as well as sharing some notions on the economy ranging from the micro to the macro.  So - join me if you will, and explore an extra mile on a path less traveled.  

Our story rightly starts at noon on Thursday, when Alma gave me a ride over to Action Signs to pick up Tank.  We looked over the truck, and then went to lunch with our designer, Travis, and the owner of Action Signs, Randy - a many-year friend and LoCo member.  On Friday, Lacy Alma and I went to City Park to capture some pics and video footage, and in the afternoon, I got the driver and passenger windows tinted at SG Wndow Tint - owned by recent podcast guests Tim and Danielle Jordan.  Great experiences with both of these service providers - and the window tint was essential for heat protection, as we were going to the desert and the A/C on the Tank hadn’t been fixed yet!  

Friday night, I was able to install the Nomadic 270 Awning I’d ordered from Overland Vehicle Systems on recommendation from Van Cafe, and get the HaulMaster motorcycle carrier installed along with getting the motorcycle strapped onto it….seems pretty secure!  But - it blocked the tail lights, so we’d need some accessory lights for safety - which we secured on Saturday morning on the way out of town.  I often say we have a time machine at LoCo Think Tank - a just-in-time machine! - and our stretch from Thursday afternoon until mid-morning Saturday exemplified this principle!  

By 10:30 Saturday morning, though, we’d dropped off the dogger at Jill’s brother’s place, and we were on the road!  Travel day one took us on a return trip to our all-time favorite - Orvis Hot Springs in Ridgeway, Colorado.  We’d been there 20 years before, on our first anniversary road trip, and at least once more since then.  

What does it take to make a really great hot springs experience?  Well, for us, it means tranquility, a beautiful setting, no big crowds or rowdy teens, friendly staff and visitors - and Orvis is maximus at all of these things!  The Sneffels Range towers in the distance, the pools are set in a garden setting and shrouded from one another by beautiful trees and bushes and terraced landscaping, and there is soft yoga-style music drowning out any highway noise in the distance. Orvis is a clothing-optional resort, so there’s no children allowed on the property, and very few 20-somethings either.  They’ve got a 6-room hotel on site with shared kitchen and baths, a tent-camping area with a dozen spots or so, and a large parking lot for RV’s - no hookups - where another dozen or more RV’s can overnight.  There are perhaps 10 pools on the site, including two large pools that can hold well over a dozen soakers each, while the smaller pools are good for 4 - 8 comfortably.  There are also 3-4 yurts set up as massage rooms adjacent to the pools, and according to one massage therapist I chatted with, twelve of the twenty massage therapists in Ridgeway area book hours at Orvis.  

Overnight camping at Orvis is $60 per person, and includes 24 hours soaking access. We didn’t get it until about 7 PM, but we were in the pool before eight and until midnight, and then I was up early the next morning and got a couple hours in before Jill got up and got two more with me. That Sunday morning, I saw at least nine different species of bird in the gardens as I soaked, including a pair of nesting magpies. Not too much has changed at Orvis since our first visit, there’s a couple more pools and the gardens are more beautiful, but the property overall seems to be happy with where it’s at.  

Quick math on the business model - 6 rooms at ~$150 = $900 daily, plus 12 x 2 = 24 tent campers at $60 = $1,440, plus 24 RV campers at $60 = $1,440, plus a cut of the massage treatments and hot stones and whatnot - maybe another $1,000 daily.  $4,780 potential daily revenue from staying guests, plus whatever day soaking traffic they have at $24 each, and T-shirt sales and whatnot - we’ll just call it $5,500.  Two staff daily plus a gardener, call it $700 daily, plus supplies and property taxes and insurance and all that, but overall this is a pretty nice business, with potential revenue up around $2,000,000 annually, and my guess is they generate around $1.2M - $1.4M in annual revenues, with 20 - 25% net profitability.  I imagine that if you asked the owners about selling this business - you’d get a cold shoulder unless you had a REALLY big checkbook - and even then it’s clear this is a labor of love more than pure pursuit of profit.  

Sunday found us taking the scenic route from Ridgeway to Mystic Hot Springs in Monroe, Utah, through Canyonlands NP and Capitol Reef NP en route.  We had a late dinner on the way, and rolled into town just before the check-in deadline of 9:00 PM - and we had two-hour soaking reservations from 10-12 PM!  Long day.  But we had enough time for a nice walk around the property, and luckily got one of the private cast-iron tubs to soak in.  The views of the valley and the stars were pretty amazing.  

Mystic Hot Springs is a trip compared to Orvis, kinda expensive and quite rudimentary.  $25 per person, per night for camping there, and $25 per person for a two-hour soak!  As a result - there were very few people staying there, which seemed strange, as it’s the only commercial hot springs operation in the Southern ⅔ of Utah, and not far from three National Parks and many more attractions.  

To describe the property and the business, there are two large pools, each good for about a dozen soakers, and perhaps 7 or so cast iron bathtubs set into the hillside behind the main pools - each good for two occupants if they like each other enough.  The tubs are literally fed by spring water dripping off the rocks above, and most of them have been molded into the hillside by time and mineral deposits.  Regularly, an attendant comes around to see if the water is too hot or too cool, and depending on your answer he fiddles with pebbles and stones from the source stream above until he’s got the right flow for your tastes.  Fancy.  

Mystic has about 8 old school buses parked on the property, along with a “cabin” (a fixed up Tuff Shed), and perhaps 20 tent camping spots and another 20 RV spaces, with water and power - on some.  Our electric outlet gave me shocks when I tried to plug my phone in, so I used the empty one next door, or could have moved to one of the other 16 empty spots.  

Theoretically, Mystic has a higher revenue ceiling than Orvis, with 2 x $25 for camping x 20 tent sites = $1,000/day, 2 x $25 x 20 for RV sites = $1,000, 9 x $100 for the busses and “cabin” = $900 daily, plus we’ll say 7 two-hour time slots available campers or the general public to get their soak on - for perhaps 25 soakers at a time.  $25 x 30 = $750 x 7 batches daily = $5,250, so the total potential revenue is over $8,000 daily.  They also had two full time staff during most hours, one to staff the front desk, and the other to fiddle with temps and make sure you were on the registry for the timeslot when you showed up, so I think a similar labor expense to Orvis.  

But - I doubt if they did over $2,000 daily revenue any day last year!  It’s kind of a dump, the staff are clearly poorly trained and/or the best quality they can get and keep, and if I had to put a banker’s eye guess at it - I’d say the business did $415,000 in total revenue last year and broke dead even - and increased the deferred maintenance unfunded liability by another $20,000.  Hear tell from one of our few fellow campers, Mystic used to host notable music acts on site “back in the day” and has a major place in the pop culture of the region going back to the 70’s and 80’s.  

When I see a business underperforming its potential to this level, I’m torn between many feelings.  It makes me sad to see so much revenue being left on the table, and so many employees probably not making the wages they’d like, or getting enough hours, and so many presumably willing hot springs enthusiasts choosing to forego the opportunity!  To be honest, I also have some scorn, some frustration, and also empathy - I too have operated businesses far below their potential - and have had to shut some down to put a conclusion to the suffering!  More than anything though, it makes me feel like I want to move to Monroe, Utah and buy that business and fix it! - turn it into the $2MM per year business ithat t could be, and make a 25% profit margin while re-investing in the property and the pools.  Buy it for $500K as a favor to the owner, make it worth $5MM within a few years, sell it and then boom - I’m a philanthropist - or at least I can retire some day!  

But - Jill made it clear that I will not have a 22nd Anniversary to celebrate if I ask her to move to Monroe, Utah to buy a dilapidated hot springs resort, and so for now the Mystic Hot Springs acquisition will have to be an opportunity for someone else.  

Monday we took the BMW for a 300 mile loop, back through Capitol Reef NP on the way to and through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  It was a cool and windy day, most memorable for a portion of the ride along the spine of a ridge, with 1,000 foot (plus) drop offs on both sides with no guardrail - and basically no shoulder on the road.  We had a 40+ MPH cross wind while we were up there, which kept my pucker factor high, and one gust moved me right up to the centerline of the road without my consent - but I’d rather hit a car than get blown off a cliff!  

We had a great dinner at the Cowboy’s Smokehouse Cafe in Panguitch, Utah on the way back to Mystic Hot Springs, and then rode mostly in the rain for 90 minutes after dinner, arriving soaked, shivering, and 20 minutes before our 9:00 PM soaking timeslot.  40 minutes later - we were done shivering - and we slept well after a long day in the saddle - but woke up sore from the long ride.  I snuck in for a 90 minute soak shortly after sunrise the next morning, but snuck back out when I saw the groundsman wrapping up his cleaning and tending to the cast iron tubs and headed on my way.  I’m a libertarian, but I still don’t like to get caught breaking the rules - even when I’m not hurting nobody.  

The next morning, it was time to head out to the next stop - this time Springdale, Utah, just outside the entrance to Zion National Park.  We stayed in the Zion Canyon Campground and RV Park, and it was a great place to stay - albeit spendy at $100/night for RV camping.  They had maybe 250 sites in there, mostly booked months out, and so had a nice revenue base of $25,000 daily, plus the convenience store and rentable cabins, and more - but I bet the property taxes are really high on the parcel!  

Before Zion though, was our luckiest experience of the trip - where we ran out of fuel coming off the I-15 exit, but coasted up to the gas pump.  “Thank you Jesus!” was Jill’s response when she realized what had happened, and she was right - a few miles back would have changed our whole day!  Unfortunately, it wasn’t a diesel pump, so I had to buy an overpriced gas can from the truck stop and get some diesel across the lot - but Tank started right back up and ran like a top from there and for the rest of the trip.  

In my defense, the fuel gauge on the tank hasn’t worked since I’ve owned it, so I’ve been filling up every ~200 miles and putting in about 18 gallons.  We were eager to get to Mystic though, so I pushed it to around 250 miles - believing I must have either the 33 gallon or the 51 gallon tank that the 1989 Ford E-350 came equipped with from stock.  So, 10 miles to the gallon x 33 gallons = 330 mile theoretical range.  But - the next morning we found no diesel fuel pumps in Monroe, nor between there and I-15, and once to the Interstate, our options were to backtrack 12 miles for fuel - or go 30 miles in the right direction.  But - once empty we filled up to full with only 28.5 gallons, so I realized the ambulance must have a custom fuel tank - and so now I fill up every 200 miles again, or push it to 250 maybe, knowing that 321 miles is at least one too many!  And maybe someday I’ll have my mechanic look at the fuel gauge!  

I could fill two pages with Zion highlights, but we’ve got more days to go and I’m up to near 5 pages already - so I’ll just say - hike The Narrows, and apply early for a permit to hike Angel’s Landing, and plan at least 3 days to explore Zion, 5 if you can.  We applied at 12:01 AM both days, but didn’t get selected for the limited available short-notice permits.  We had wonderful food each day though, highlighted by Camp Outpost, Zion Canyon Brew Pub, and our favorite - Oscar’s Cafe.  Angel’s Landing remains on the bucket list, so we’ll have to go back to the Utah desert again some day before we get too old or scared of heights.  

The next night, we stayed at Kolab Campground, just off the Northern border of Zion NP.  We were out of the desert and back in the mountains - in the trees and up around 8,000 ft. elevation!  The property bordered a beautiful reservoir and had great views in every direction, and about 25 or so campsites at $38/night.  We had booked the site for 2 days, but ended up staying only one night - as Jill wasn’t keen on the 10 hour drive I’d planned to the next stop for our anniversary day activity.  John, the camp host, whose great-grandad settled the property 100+ years before, was sorry it was past the cancellation deadline - but it’s two nights minimum anyway - and loaded us up with free firewood as comp for our unused night of stay.  Very kind, and generous - and we needed it, as we only had one bundle and the mountains are way colder than the desert at night.  Jill whooped me in Uno that night, I didn’t win a hand.  

We left Kolab Friday morning, headed North on a low-maintenance road toward Cedar City, Utah.  I don’t like to go back the way we came in - and it saved us 10 minutes according to Google - but the deeply rutted and little travelled road leading up to the ROAD CLOSED sign about half-way there discouraged us - and the alternate route led us into a pasture or a private drive - and so we decided to backtrack 45 minutes to take the 90 minute drive to Cedar City.  Luckily, it was a short road but slow, and we had a full tank of fuel!  

Our next stop was Goblin Valley State Park, about 30 miles North of Hanksville.  This region is full of strange rock formations - many of the Goblin-shaped variety - and is full of dry slot canyons and formidable terrain.  We came in late due to our late departure, and wandered the park for a good hour before finding a great camp spot on BLM land just adjacent to the state park.  We saw bats, and strange bugs, and heard many strange noises throughout the evening - and I whooped Jill at Uno by the fire - I only lost one hand!  

Finally, on to our last stop - Iron Mountain Hot Springs in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.  One thing that I think we can all agree on - when you get back into Colorado - it’s prettier!  It doesn’t matter if you’re coming from Nebraska, or Wyoming, or Kansas, or New Mexico, or Utah - it’s just a little bit nicer when you get back to Colorado. 

Iron Mountain is a business person’s hot spring enterprise!  We first came to this hot spring about 8 years ago, at which time it was still a newish endeavor - having opened in 2015.  The ownership group purchased a long-neglected hot springs site with historic significance, and created a bath house with about 9 soaking pools. Over time, they’ve expanded to a total of 16 pools in the original segment.  This year, a new area of the hot springs park was opened, with an additional 11 mineral pools, a freshwater pool, and a cold plunge - all adults only!  They’ve got great soft yoga-style music, amazing shoreline views of the Colorado River, solid food and drink offerings, and great technology.  With your entry you get a RadioID bracelet that lets you access any open locker, and the pool zones that you’ve paid for entry to.  The lockers are clean and organized, the operation is fully staffed with well-trained employees, and the operation looks to me to be a money printing machine!  

~$52 is the cost of an adult 3-hour soaking pass, or ~$65 for the Global Tour - adults-only section access and somewhat seasonally priced - and on average each pool can hold 15 people.  We’ll call it 5 3-hour blocks daily, although they start new guests on the half-hour, and announce when it’s time to go for what color wristband…it’s all so professional!  16 pools x 15 people x $52 each x 5 blocks of time daily = $62,400 daily revenue on the original side, and 11 x 15 x $65 x 5 blocks of time on the new side = $53,625 on the new side.  So, $115K daily revenue potential, not to mention all the robes and towels and T-shirts and such.  Revenue potential of this operation is closer to $20 Million annually, and I would guess it’s actualizing something near 50% of that - maybe a $10MM business in 2024.  About 10 staff on hand on the average, so maybe $2,000 or $3,000 / day, which is about $1 Million per year in salaries, plus property taxes, maintenance, and insurance - all the stuff - but I bet the profit is close to 50% of revenues.  You better have a REALLY big checkbook for this one, because they make millions of net profit every year, and they’re great with technology, market position, location - all of it - and right on the I-70 corridor.  

Saturday night - our anniversary - we stayed in Tank, in the La Quinta Inn parking lot - just down the street from Iron Mountain.  Their signage indicated there was NO overnight parking, and Jill didn’t want to chance it, but we managed to get some zzz’s despite the highway noise, and had another soak on Sunday morning, and found our way home in the early evening on Sunday.  Monday was a day of rest, and remembrance, and back to work on Tuesday.  1,846 miles, 10.67 miles per gallon - and 158 gallons of diesel fuel in total.  And lots of snacks and restaurant bills, and a few trips to the state-owned liquor stores - all that Colorado money, being pumped into the Utah economy!  

The root words for Economics are “Eco” and “Nomos” - Greek words meaning roughly “household” and “accounts”.  When we think about such a thing as “the economy” - it seems so vast, and so beyond our control. But truly - economics is simply the summation of all of us - all our household accounts, and our business accounts - and I hope by sharing my observations of these three hot springs businesses that my readers will gain a sense of that notion.  If every business was managed like Mystic Hot Springs - we’d have few jobs, little growth, and great limitations to our activities.  If all were managed like Iron Mountain, we’d all get our stuff from Amazon and our news from MSNBC, and we’d be efficient - but less free or happy probably - and our experiences less special.  My favorite remains Orvis Hot Springs - pursued for passion, but stewarded to maximize sustainability and a great experience for guests.  

Regardless - we should all think about “The Economy” first from the micro or household level, and realize that the summation of all those micros becomes the macro - it’s not magic that we fall victim to, it’s math!  So manage your accounts wisely, go the extra mile when you can - and perhaps take a path less travelled!  

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