Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2024

Karen Lancaster Creates A Career Out Of Vacation

In this occasional series on equine careers, the president and founder of Cross Country International
built her business—and an industry—by refusing to settle for anything but the best.


Karen Lancaster might have every worldly equestrian’s dream job. As the founder and president of Cross Country International, she spends her days traveling around the world evaluating riding facilities and designing equestrian vacations.
PUBLISHED

ADVERTISEMENT

In this occasional series on equine careers, the president and founder of Cross Country International
built her business—and an industry—by refusing to settle for anything but the best.

Karen Lancaster might have every worldly equestrian’s dream job. As the founder and president of Cross Country International, she spends her days traveling around the world evaluating riding facilities and designing equestrian vacations.

“Sometimes I wonder how I got here,” said Lancaster smiling. “I went from being an ad rep in New York to my ideal career.”

Back in the mid-1980s, Lancaster’s professional career as a sales representative for CBS was soaring, but her riding career had reached a plateau. Her job provided her with the means to foxhunt and event but a schedule that relegated her riding to the weekends. She felt her progress stagnating, so when the time came for her to take a week off, Lancaster knew she wanted to spend it in the saddle.

She’d heard that British eventer Christopher Bartle, who won the Badminton CCI**** [England] in 1998, accepted amateur students, so she tracked him down and arranged to spend a week training at his Yorkshire Riding Center.

“I improved so much in my time there; it was really amazing,” recalled Lancaster. “Chris put me on great horses—but horses you really had to ride—and he’s an outstanding instructor. All my friends were impressed at the improvement in my riding when I got home.”

Her friends and acquaintances then began trickling across the pond to train with Bartle, and before long his calendar was booked with Lancaster’s recruits. “The third year I sent over 30 or so friends and acquaintances, and Chris called me and asked me to represent him,” she said. “I was in a point in my career when I was ready for a change, so I figured, ‘Why not?’ ”

Tending To Details

Now, 18 years later, Lancaster’s pet project has blossomed into an entire industry. Lancaster envisioned a string of extraordinary rides worth a trip around the world, and today Cross Country International offers a variety of one-of-a-kind excursions that cater to accomplished competitors, weekend trail riders and everyone in between.

ADVERTISEMENT

They offer weeklong training programs with the likes of Capt. Mark Phillips, the U.S. team coach for eventing, Olympic show jumper Jessica Kürten of Ireland and U.S. dressage Olympian Debbie McDonald. In addition, there are rides through Peru to Machu Picchu; a mounted safari in Kenya; luxurious inn-to-inn treks across the most beautiful areas of Europe; and exclusive rights to ride at Seabiscuit’s Ridgeway Ranch in California.

When Lancaster began the company she didn’t have a good plan for how to evaluate the facilities.

“I started in England, and at the beginning it was hard to tell who was good and who was great,” said Lancaster. “As I started visiting more and more stables, I fell in love with the BHS [British Horse Society] system. Getting certified by the BHS is a very rigorous process, so you know that approved instructors know what they’re talking about and approved centers have great standards of care.”

But most BHS-certified facilities are in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Western Europe, which doesn’t give her much help in the other dozen or so countries in which she works. And though certification indicates a quality facility, Lancaster still visits and assesses each program to be sure it will meet her clients’ needs. After almost two decades of practice, Lancaster has learned to quickly distinguish cultural differences from bad horse care.

“You’re in another country and culture, so there will be some differences,” she said. “For example, in France they have a lot of flies and they use lavender to deter them, but it really doesn’t work. The French see the flies as natural; they’re just not bothered by them. So we tell clients going on the trip to bring fly spray.”

Perseverance

Which isn’t to say that Lancaster doesn’t maintain strict specific standards when it comes to approving programs. For example, out of the 60 facilities in Ireland and Northern Ireland she visited, she only  represents eight. Lancaster holds barns around the world to the same criteria, and she’s managed to sniff out amazing programs in countries not traditionally known for their quality horse care. Lancaster caters to a mostly high-end clientele, and facilities approved by Cross Country International must provide an extraordinary experience in and out of the saddle.

“When I’m visiting I try to see every single thing from the customer’s standpoint,” she said. “Nothing can be too much trouble, and everything has to be cheerfully taken care of for you. Something like 75 percent of the clients are referrals or repeat customers—we stay in business by keeping people happy.”

ADVERTISEMENT

But Lancaster’s life isn’t one long holiday. She maintains a hefty workload, and she travels two weeks a month during the busy season.

“At one point I tried to keep three horses trained, run a business and travel overseas constantly,” she said. “I was jetlagged and exhausted all the time, and it became impossible. So I had to take a step back and move my horses to an equestrian center and rearrange my schedule. I learned that you have to take good care of yourself.”

For Lancaster that means finding the time to go out with Millbrook Hunt (N.Y.) on one of her two Irish hunters as often as she can when she’s in town.

She also found that surviving in her corner of the business world required creativity and flexibility as well as a never-say-die attitude.

“You have to have a tremendous amount of energy,” she said. “After [Sept. 11] the phones didn’t ring for months. Then we had the Iraq war, then we had hoof-and-mouth disease in Europe when none of the horses could leave the property. We had to adapt to survive that and say, ‘OK, we’re going to pick up more facilities here in the United States.’ ”

Lancaster doubts that there’s any one path to success for aspiring equestrian travel agents. She majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina and first worked as a reporter at CBS before transferring to sales. Though she does draw on her journalism background while marketing the company, her keen business sense, knack for sales, obsession with customer service and good horse sense proved more important than any specific career preparation.

Mollie Bailey

Categories:

ADVERTISEMENT

EXPLORE MORE

Follow us on

Sections

Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse