The Big One
For six decades, Gaston’s has kept rolling on the river
By Dwain Hebda
Photography: Novo Studio
Driving into the welcoming confines of Gaston’s White River Resort transforms whatever rig you’re driving into a time machine.
Gaston’s is nostalgia come to life, a summer camp for all ages, set to the ancient soundtrack of the gurgling White River. From the neat rows of riverside cottages to the general store-like feel of the Welcome Center lodge to the decades’ worth of antique fishing paraphernalia in the restaurant, they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
“We are a family-owned business; I’m fourth generation. My goal is to make it a fifth, sixth, seventh generation business and just try to keep it going,” said Clint Gaston, owner. “It’s very unique that you come across a fourth-generation business. Most of them don’t make it that long. That’s truly special to me.”
Judging from the number of families that have themselves been coming here for multiple generations, it’s obvious Gaston’s is special to its clientele, too, something not lost on the current ownership.
“I see so many fourth-generation families that continue to come year after year,” Gaston said. “They talk about how great this place is, how it’s their favorite place to go and that means a lot to me. It makes it totally worthwhile.”
“When you have a kid that’s never been fishing before and he goes out and catches a bunch of fish and he comes up and he’s just so excited... I mean, he’s going to love fishing for the rest of his life because of that moment.”
Gaston’s has been witness to these moments for 60 years. Some things have remained constant over that time—the river, the fishing and the level of service, mainly. Other things are dramatically different, such as the corporate groups booking the on-site conference center or the number of families who come out here more interested in the scenery and quiet than actually dropping a line.
The original cottages are still tiny and pink, but there have been plenty more accommodations added over the years, including those geared toward the groups and family get-togethers that have become commonplace. The resort even hosts a dozen or so weddings annually and holiday traffic continues to grow. Four years ago, 400 guests enjoyed their family Thanksgiving gathering at Gaston’s; last year it was nearly 1,000.
“I think everybody’s getting away from the traditional, hey it’s a holiday, let’s do something at home. They don’t want to deal with the hassle of cooking, preparing and hosting a large family get-together,” Gaston said. “If you make it a tradition to go somewhere else, you don’t have to cook, you don’t have to clean, you just get to enjoy your time with your family. And I think that’s very valuable.”
“We’ve really put an emphasis on what can we do to build that and seat more guests and entertain more people and we’ve been able to grow it. And feedback’s been great, I mean, it’s been awesome.”
Recognizing such trends and capitalizing on them are what Gaston sees as vital for the business to remain relevant in a society dominated by video games and mile-a-minute entertainment. Half of the resort’s marketing budget goes to social media and digital advertising, something that was almost non-existent a couple of years ago.
“We were always pretty much 100 percent traditional media like radio and print ads; that was really about the extent of it,” he said. “My grandfather actually did a little bit with Facebook and was always a big believer in the internet, but there wasn’t much emphasis on the digital side.”
“That’s the future, that’s where we’re going. Everybody’s got a phone on them; especially my generation,” says Gaston, who is 29 with a spouse and children. “So if I can market to those devices it’s going to be very beneficial. But with that in mind, I still have older customers who prefer print ads, reading magazines, hearing something on the radio. It takes all of it in conjunction to make it work. You’ve got to scatter those eggs all over.”
The strategy has paid off, with more people coming to the resort after seeing it on Instagram and Facebook as compared to, say, in Field and Stream. And that growth, combined with the long-timers, is adding up to 2018 being something special.
“To be honest with you, this year probably is going to turn out to be one of our best years in, I’d say, at least a decade,” Gaston said. “The weather’s been good and the economy’s looking good. Corporate business has been up; a lot of companies are bringing their employees and treating them to a fishing trip and nice little getaway.”
It’s likely Al Gaston, owner of a Kansas-based construction company and Clint’s great-grandfather, couldn’t have imagined what would eventually spring from the 20-acre side business he launched in 1958, complete with six boats and a clutch of six small cabins—and those cabins are still in operation, by the way.
“It was small,” Clint said. “There wasn’t really even a boat dock. There just wasn’t much here.”
Clint’s grandfather, Jim Gaston, was tapped by Al to manage the property, and it was under Jim’s visionary leadership that Gaston’s became the institution it is today. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s, land and amenities were added to broaden the resort’s appeal, improve access and lengthen stays from a day’s fishing to weeklong vacations and retreats.
At last count, Gaston’s encompasses 400 acres, 79 different accommodations and 70 boats at a state-of-the-art dock. A 3,200-foot airstrip allows anglers from all over the country to fly in to fish and dine in the 300-seat, award-winning restaurant. Tennis courts, a playground and game room, nature trails, a swimming pool, along with a wildlife refuge and fly-fishing school round out the attractions and continue to broaden the resort’s clientele.
“We get the families, we get the hardcore fishermen, we get the corporate groups, family reunions, weddings,” Gaston said. “We get so many customers that want to come up and watch the river; they want to watch a bald eagle fly by, they want to watch the blue herons. We have deer all the time. Wildlife is a huge deal.”
“It’s really neat because while we’re always looking for new customers, we also get to take care of the ones that we’ve had. They come year after year and we remember their faces. It’s great. They’ve kind of become family, in a sense.”