Cover Story

The Business of Pleasure

by Jeremy Alford

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From elite hunting camps to brokering deals over rods and reels, Louisiana's great outdoors mean big money.
By Jeremy Alford
Photos by Lisa Buser, from the book Wild Abundance

Some camps are simply soaked in lore, yielding memories and stories that survive long after the hunt. Just ask Richard Zuschlag, the CEO of Acadian Ambulance, who has been using hunting and lodging as a means of doing business for more than 40 years.

Wednesday,ovember 30, 2011

From elite hunting camps to brokering deals over rods and reels, Louisiana's great outdoors mean big money.
By Jeremy Alford
Photos by Lisa Buser, from the book Wild Abundance

Some camps are simply soaked in lore, yielding memories and stories that survive long after the hunt. Just ask Richard Zuschlag, the CEO of Acadian Ambulance, who has been using hunting and lodging as a means of doing business for more than 40 years.

For him, it all started at Camp Canard, as it was known prior to Hurricane Rita. The camp was not only a part of Acadian's original corporate structure, but was also more or less Zuschlag's introduction to the Louisiana way.

A transplant from Pennsylvania, Zuschlag said he soon learned that building relationships at the camp over beers and bourée could be just as effective - if not significantly better - than buying a lunch or playing an afternoon of golf. "There's something about that Cajun hospitality, about hunting and cooking together, telling stories and playing cards," he says. "People bond around those rituals."

As Camp Canard gained more notoriety, nearly $500,000 in improvements were made, with paramedics and other Acadian Ambulance employees pitching in to help. One time, Zuschlag helped match up leaders from BellSouth and AT&T with former Congressman Billy Tauzin and former U.S. Sen. John Breaux in the months leading up to a major telecommunications debate.
Another time, he hosted the boards of two different banks that merged not long after. "It's amazing the things that can happen at a duck camp," he says.

Zuschlag learned that all too well when Hurricane Rita sent a 16-foot storm surge through Camp Canard, carrying a 1,000-pound Viking stove some 10 miles into the marsh. "When I saw what had happened at the camp with my own eyes, I just stood there and cried like a baby," Zuschlag recalls.

He says he channeled his grief into community fundraising before finally settling on a new location in the Creole area - and a new name, Grande View Lodge. It may have seen its finest point in recent memory when former Vice President Dick Cheney came in for a hunt.

"When he arrived, the vice president told everyone, The reason I'm hunting with Richard Zuschlag is because he has ambulances standing by to take care of people when I shoot. And that's the last time we'll talk about my shooting,'" Zuschlag recalls, laughing
Just prior to his visit, Cheney had taken his lumps in the media for accidentally shooting a friend while on a quail hunt in Texas. During the Cheney visit, there was also a skeet shoot between Secret Service agents and a few Acadian paramedics, but that's a story for another day. (The locals won.)

Over time, Zuschlag says he learned a few lessons, like making sure the people he invites see eye to eye - "I've made that mistake before, but I'm not going to get into that right now" - and to make certain there's always an ATM on site.

The latter came courtesy of Lod Cook, LSU's famed alum. Zuschlag says Cook would often watch as bad card players hit up the host for money. "I would have mayors, city councilmen and congressmen playing cards and borrowing money from me. Some would tell me to put it toward their campaign accounts; others would say they'd get back with me, but it became too much trouble chasing all that down."

Zuschlag says the machine has always held about $2,500, and it was only emptied once - when a group of bank directors were at the camp. "Sometimes you get a bunch of 40- or 50-year-olds together and they start acting like they're in a fraternity," he says.

Every governor since Mike Foster has enjoyed Zuschlag's spread, and celebrity chefs like John Folse and John Besh have been hired to cook meals. During football season, it's not unusual to see up to six flatscreen TVs playing in the common area.

While Zuschlag refers to it all as a "hobby," he's also the first person to admit that the setup has benefited his company. "By catering to Republicans and Democrats alike, I've been able to ride on the doctors' Medicare bills and be lumped in with them," he says, referring to federal legislation. "That's why we've never had to hire an official lobbyist. You never know when you might need help somewhere down the line. That's why I always try to accommodate people who make requests."

And to hear Zuschlag tell it, the story of Grande View Lodge is far from over. "One day I'm going to write a book about how a hunting camp helped take a two-ambulance company to a $400-million-a-year business," he says.

Why we're better than Iowa
Zuschlag's ode to the outdoors and business points to one of the many reasons recreational hunting and fishing have a total economic impact of more than $4 billion in Louisiana, based on the latest data provided by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The tally includes recreational hunting, fishing and boating, which collectively support in excess of 46,000 jobs and generate $257 million annually in state and local tax revenues.

Wildlife and Fisheries secretary Robert Barham says activity this year is back at a pre-Katrina pace, though a large majority of the activity comes from Louisiana residents. For example, the total economic impact of deer hunting alone is $507 million, of which $457 million is attributed to Louisiana residents. The divide is a bit closer for saltwater fishing, for which residents create an impact of $446 million to nonresidents' $197 million.

These figures took a hit at the hands of the 2010 BP oil spill, but Barham says "smart marketing" is beginning to bring Louisiana back in line. "I think we'll see that number start to creep up as more people learn about our safe seafood campaign. But even now interest is strong. There's not a day that goes by you can't find a national outlet talking about fishing or hunting in Louisiana. I mean, how often do you hear about people talking about fishing in Iowa?"

There are many reasons why South Louisiana stands out as the natural resources jewel of the nation. At least that's the take proffered by Chris Macaluso, a spokesman for the Louisiana Wildlife Federation.

Macaluso says there are places within a few hours drive of the Lafayette region where you can conceivably hunt for ducks at daybreak and catch freshwater fish like largemouth bass, then move on to saltwater coastal species like speckled trout and redfish, and finally cap it all off with deepwater species like snapper, amberjack and tuna - all in one day, just by putting in at a single marina. "I can't think of too many other places in the world where that's possible," he says.

Places like Venice, Buras, Empire, Cocodrie, Grand Isle, Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Cataouatche, Lafitte, Delacroix, Lake Verret and the entire lower Atchafalaya Basin are all nationally recognized as having world-class sporting opportunities. "Then, move west past the Atchafalaya Basin into the Cajun Prairie region along I-10 and you find some of the best duck and goose hunting in the world in places like Kaplan, Gueydan, Lake Arthur, Creole, Hackberry," Macaluso says.

When it comes to the duck hunting, Macaluso isn't exaggerating. Waterfowl hunters harvested more than 2.7 million ducks in Louisiana during the 2010-2011 season, more than any other state. Louisiana's harvest accounts for 18 percent of the national harvest. Arkansas had the second highest harvest in the Mississippi Flyway with 1.4 million ducks. Factoring in hunter numbers, Louisiana's harvest equated to 30.6 ducks harvested per hunter for the season. "If that doesn't convey the continental importance of Louisiana as a wintering waterfowl habitat, I don't know what does," says Bob Dew, Ducks Unlimited's manager of conservation.

Try the Pop Ice Cream
From a business perspective, the effectiveness of combining the outdoors and business has as much to do with the hunt as it does with the lodging, if you believe Angèle Davis, former commissioner of administration for Gov. Bobby Jindal and vice president of strategic programs at Arkel International.

"Traditional business development strategies such as taking clients out to dinner, playing a round of golf or two, or hosting a dinner at a private residence are limited in terms of the amount of time and use of that time to advance business, versus hosting clients and prospective clients at a hunting or fishing lodge for the weekend or even the week. The latter, of course, offers significantly more quality time for business development or deal-closings."

Her favorite venue is Cherry Ridge Hunting Club near Lake Arthur, another family-owned outfit, which functions as a private club but sells unused hunting days to the public. Davis says it's difficult to pinpoint what makes Cherry Ridge unique. "The facilities, guides, cooks and, especially, their marshes are all special to me," she says.
The "Pop Ice Cream" at Cherry Ridge isn't too shabby, either, she adds. (The secret ingredient is Barq's Red Creme Soda.)

Most of Louisiana's better-known clubs and camps are unique in their own way. Members of the Coastal Club, for example, find out where they're hunting and with whom by lottery every morning. Guests arrive at Little Pecan Island Preserve by private plane, and guides stand waiting in their boats at daybreak for each.
Other hunting camps are just as plush but even more "private." For sheer exclusivity, look no further than the Oak Grove Hunting Club on Grand Chenier in Cameron Parish.

The enviable accommodations include a full-time staff that wears tuxedos and serves hors d'oeuvres at 5 p.m. sharp. The bow ties are still on in the morning as hunters are awakened with hot coffee, juice and in-person weather reports. Sitting on 9,600 acres that are canvass-ready from any vantage point, Oak Grove was founded in the 1930s by Lafayette oilman Win Hawkins. It's a place that makes you believe that fine dining, fellowship and duck hunting should never transpire without each other.

But what makes it most exclusive is its membership, which numbers only nine. To put luxury into context, a workforce of 30 sees to those members' needs.

Baton Rouge businessman Richard Lipsey, who serves as club chairman, says membership slots are highly coveted. The freshwater marsh is leased from the Miami Corp., which also owns a membership slot. If a member wants to sell his slot, it has to be agreed upon by the entire bunch. "It's a rarity that you'll see someone get out of the club," Lipsey says. "But we still get calls all the time."

As for the extremes some have gone through in the past to get the attention of members, Lipsey only laughs when prodded. "Let's just say there are a lot of people who would love to become members."

Chefs Donald Link (from left) and John Folse join Blair Zuschlag in the kitchen at Grande
View Lodge.

Publishing paradise
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first issue of Louisiana Sportsman magazine. Publisher Tony Taylor said it was originally created to fill what was then an obvious need for avid outdoorsmen.

What started out as basically a newsletter for a group of hunters and fishermen in the Houma area is now a full-fledged publishing powerhouse with a paid circulation of 24,000 subscribers and newsstand sales that regularly exceed 16,000 copies.
And even after more than 300 pages each month, the content matter never gets stale for those behind the wheel. "The only reason I work is so I can hunt and fish," Taylor says with a laugh.

The fun, however, isn't just confined to print and Louisiana audiences. The site is nearing 1 million visitors, and Sportsman spinoffs are being published by Taylor's outfit in Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina. The sister magazines offer the same kind of content - the most current and accurate fishing and hunting information; "how-to" and "where-to" articles; maps; and nonfiction by respected writers.

Then there are the covers, which are sometimes adorned with beautiful women holding their captured prize. Taylor is again brought to laughter. "I actually ran an experiment about 10 years ago where I put a good looking woman on the July cover with a massive trout. The next July I duplicated the cover, only with a man," Taylor said. "Believe it or not, it didn't really make a difference. Actually, the cover with the man sold better."

The hottest thing going these days at Taylor's shop, though, is the official Louisiana Sportsman's logo. You've probably seen it emblazoned on everything from hats to license plates by now. It's a play on the fleur-de-lis, with the heads of a duck, fish and deer standing in. While Taylor finds himself enforcing his trademark - sometimes in court - on a regular basis, it has become a real money-maker for the company. "That logo has really taken on a life of its own," he says.

On the horizon, the Louisiana Sportsman television show will continue to entertain local and national audiences, but the publishing side will begin to focus on products that highlight photo classifieds. There are already two on the shelves - Boats, Bikes & RVs; and Trucks, Tractors & Equipment. Taylor is also about to publish his 11th full-length book, Whitetail Strategies, by Dave Moreland.

These days, it's already a mini-empire unto itself, with books, television, magazines, a web presence and 50 people employed in four different states. All of it, though, is based in Taylor's beloved Louisiana. "I really enjoy what I do. All of us do. There are days when we just can't wait to get to work," Taylor says. "I count my blessings every day."

Big Pasture Road, and beyond
It's late September in lower Cameron Parish, that time of year when the tentacles of fall begin to break up the humidity of summer, and the lovebugs have created a seemingly unnatural black fog along the Creole Nature Trail, one of the original scenic routes designated by the Federal Highway Administration. There are already stretches along here where you don't want to be stranded alone, where the gnats and mosquitoes are the least of your worries. As breathtaking as coastal Louisiana is, it's no place to play man versus nature.

Others have trodden this path before - Native American tribes, swashbuckling privateers like Jean Lafitte and even Civil War soldiers - and if they could speak to you today, they might tell you the same.

Still, other warriors, many of the weekend variety, take this route regularly to a stretch known as Big Pasture Road. That's where a dazzling white plantation-style lodge breaks the monotony of the landscape, barren fields of green and gold giving way to a recreational palace where guests do anything but rough it. While pirates and Indians may have scrounged around for freshwater and a safe place to sleep in their respective times on this land, an overnight visit these days to Grosse Savanne Waterfowl and Wildlife Lodge comes complete with your own bartender and night host.

For those who have to store their boat under a tarp or who pine to hunt on a relative's plot with accommodations in a tricked-out doublewide trailer, Grosse Savanne may as well be Disney World. While it has all the bells and whistles of a private hunting club or fishing camp, Grosse Savanne is among the few luxury sportsman's lodges open to the public. Its visitor roster remains a secret, but owner Claude Leach says you can count military generals, musicians, movie stars and politicians among its many patrons.

Leach, the son of state Democratic Party chairman Buddy Leach, represents the sixth generation from his family to oversee the land. "Until the late 1980s, it was just the family using the land," Claude Leach says. "But as we took more people out there, we realized that it was a place that could become a destination. It could become a business."

Hunters cut up over a game of bourée.

That's when the lodge was erected, though it has also been subsequently rebuilt and remodeled three times following hurricanes. Today, Grosse Savanne sits more than 8 feet above the ground, and its 10,000 square feet can comfortably sleep 18 in nine bedrooms, half of which have private porches overlooking Calcasieu Lake.

Its 50,000 contiguous acres include a 70-acre trophy bass pond, a 480-acre pond with other freshwater species and 5,000 acres of saltwater marsh. Experienced guides are always on call, its duck blinds will put you right under a well-established fly zone, and there are more than a few choice locales for baiting gator.

There's a fully equipped boardroom in the lodge as well, along with a business center and a French country dining hall that features a panoramic mural depicting everything Grosse Savanne has to offer. Throughout the lodge you'll find elaborate displays behind glass that have been meticulously arranged by Steve German Taxidermy Art in Westlake. There's also an amazing bird tower that can only be accessed near the dining hall via a three-story spiral staircase.

The game room is where you'll find that full-time bartender and night host, plus billiards, a poker table, a massive alligator above the bar and a door that leads out to a wraparound porch. It's an ideal spot to sip a beverage, rock a bit and watch the egrets poke around in the bass bond. "We spared no expense on Grosse Savanne," says Leach. "From our pro shop to the chef to the liquor, we've strived to go one step above."

It's no wonder why many a business turn to Grosse Savanne to hold corporate retreats or board meetings. It makes sense that power players would entertain their clients at the lodge or move negotiations onto the water. It's also another example of why our Sportsman's Paradise may be among Louisiana's finest business assets.

"If you really want to get to know a person, take them hunting or fishing. When you get out of the office or get out of the city, you almost instantly create a bond with the people you're with," Leach says. "You can't help but relax and look at things differently."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at [email protected]