As a former wilderness guide and outfitter, my view on choosing an outfitter is one-sided. However, since my income no longer depends on booking hunters I can give some advice on what to do and what not to do.
Outfitters are more like doctors than used car salesmen. A used car salesman actually has something to sell. Outfitters and doctors usually have no stuff to sell. Outfitters sell "blue sky." Outfitters that have good hunting areas will have hunts that show a goose egg. Hunters with poor hunting areas will occasionally fill out all their tags. How does the elk hunting consumer see how blue the blue sky is? Unlike doctors, the money (an stakes) are so low that suing an outfitter isn't cost effective. And, official sanctions are tough to push through.
That is difficult.
Used car sales are somewhat moderated by laws designed to protect the consumer. Repeated bad car sales will cause the car lot to fold. There are very few laws protecting the elk hunter. Repeated bad hunts will not cause an outfitter to go belly up.
I depended on repeat customers and didn't understand a fellow outfitter who never had (or never seemed to have) ANY repeat hunters. I asked him about that and he replied, "There are a million hunters out there." (I know he had many bad hunts. His clients were pretty vocal in the local bars, and yet, he hunted some of the same area that I did. Go figure.)
I never did a scholarly study of what he did to get hunters, but I have seen him in action at sports shows. On one side of the aisle was my friend spouting off the majesty of his camp. He was surrounded by prospective hunters. On the other side of the aisle was another local outfitter who wasn't full of "tall stories." (It wasn't me.) His booth had crickets chirping.
As an outfitter I never had much luck at sports shows. I am not a salesman, marketer, advertiser or promoter. I would rather undersell and over produce than the reverse. Because of that, my advertising costs were very low compared to others, but the hunters I had, I kept.
With that in mind, my one "DO" for choosing an outfitter is to use word of mouth. If you have a friend who had a good hunt, check it out. That doesn't mean YOU will have a good hunt, but it is a great starting point.
Here are a few "DON'Ts" in selecting an outfitter: (This may cause outfitters to put out a contract on me.)
- Don't book a hunt at a sports show, unless you have researched the outfitter before hand.
- Don't be swayed by glossy brochures and slick videos. Those may not signal a bad outfitter, but good and bad outfitters have access to the same marketing companies.
- Don't believe everything that people on a client list say. Marketing an outfitting business is like a lawyer defending a client--accentuating the positive and ignoring the negative. Client lists can be tailored to the desire effect. *nudge, nudge, wink, wink*
- Don't make a deposit on a hunt unless you will be going. Most deposits are non-refundable. Sometimes they will transfer or can be used the following year, but rarely refunded.
Choosing an outfitter isn't much different that choosing a doctor. YOU need to be comfortable with them. Additionally, you don't want to shop for an outfitter at the last minute any more than you want to search for a doctor you trust at the last moment.