Alaska may be one of the hardest places to own and operate a campground.
It not only has one of the shortest camping seasons in North America — too short for most park operators to survive on campground income alone — but its remote location requires RVers and other camping enthusiasts to drive literally thousands of miles across the Lower 48 and Canada to even get there unless they arrive by boat or plane and rent a car or RV after that.
But Alaska also remains “The Final Frontier,” a place so beautiful that many visitors who thought they would only make a single trip as a bucket list adventure wind up coming back again and again. It is also a place that bekons the most entrepreneurial of campground operators, not only from the Lower 48 but from around the world.
WOODALLSCM.com recently caught up with several park operators from the U.S. and Switzerland who shared their stories about how they wound up owning and operating campgrounds from Valdez to Fairbanks to the edge of the Nenana River, which forms the southern boundary of Denali National Park & Preserve.
Their stories are not only a testament to the challenges of owning and operating a park in one of the most beautiful locations in the world, but document their efforts to continue to expand and improve the camping experience for RV and camping enthusiasts from the U.S., Canada and around the world.
Jason and Kristin Britt
Even before they acquired the Valdez KOA Journey in Valdez, Alaska, Jason and Kristin Britt lived lives many people can only fantasize about.
Both were commercial airline pilots, crisscrossing North America and visiting places many of us will never see. Jason especially liked flying to into popular destinations in the Caribbean and South America, including Aruba, Barbados, Santo Domingo and Lima.
But as satisfying as their work was, being commercial airline pilots also took its toll.
“The airline lifestyle was very fatiguing,” Kristin said. “It was being away from home every week or half the week and flipping from days to nights and nights to days and dealing with time zone changes, eating out on the road constantly, and watching one’s health degrade from all of this.”
Even days off weren’t really days off.
“Time off wasn’t time off because it was spent mostly preparing to go again, and attempting to foresee and mitigate every possible failure,” Kristin said. “So much work went into memorizing regulations, visualizing difficult maneuvers over and over, pouring over regulations and mentally practicing emergency situations, examining weather versus safe flying routes on days off for upcoming days on. There are constant underlying threats to life and license that made me study and mentally practice constantly.”
But after working as pilots for two decades, the Britts eventually came to the conclusion they both wanted to live healthier lifestyles and do something more connected to nature and the outdoors. So when Jason’s mother told them in 2018 that she was ready to sell the Valdez KOA and retire, the Britts seriously began to evaluate whether the time had come for them to quit their airline jobs, purchase a campground and start a new chapter of their lives as campground owners.
“The idea did take some time to cook,” Kristin said, adding that it took a while for them to embrace the idea of giving up the security of their biweekly airline paychecks. “The paycheck is a little like a drug, I think. We are all pretty addicted to that steady stream of money you can count on coming in. Like an addict, you can’t imagine going without it because we all set up our lifestyles now on making payments and having debt that hangs over us. So, deciding to stop the paycheck does not wipe out the payments and debt, which is scary.”
Another issue was giving up the careers they both fought so hard to get into. Kristin, in particular, had climbed a tall mountain to become a pilot. Growing up poor as the daughter of a single mom, she enlisted in the Air Force right after high school to pay for college, earning a degree in entrepreneurship from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. She also earned a commercial pilot’s license on the side, and met her husband, Jason, another pilot, at the wedding of two of her flight instructors.
Then again, the Britts also had the example of Kristin’s brother, Eric, and his wife, Heather, who left secure jobs in Chicago in 2014 for the opportunity to own and operate Bettles Lodge, a remote, 73-year-old outpost just north of the Arctic Circle that can only be reached by plane. While they certainly faced challenges learning how to operate a remote Alaskan lodge, they also get to enjoy living and working in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
“After seeing Valdez and then touring Alaska in an RV for two weeks (in 2010), they were hooked,” Kristin said, adding that when they later learned of the chance to purchase Bettles Lodge, they took it.
But could Kristin and Jason survive on income from the Valdez KOA, an 85-site campground with five cabins?
“We really had to go through our finances and the campground finances and comb through and see if it looked like it could support us. It looked like it could,” Kristin said. “We expected to live frugally, but we were happy to do that in exchange for time freedom. We thought that while the campground was closed we’d be able to write and explore our hobbies.”
Eventually, the Britts took the plunge. Their timing couldn’t have been worse, however. They closed escrow on the Valdez KOA on April 3, 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading around the world at breakneck speed. Literally less than two weeks before the Britts closed escrow, Canada closed its borders, cutting off RVers from the U.S. and Canada who could no longer drive to Alaska.
The nightmare of not having enough income had suddenly become the Britts’ new reality. Fortunately for the Britts, they had another financial leg to stand on, as many Alaskan park operators do.
While working as commercial airline pilots, the Britts also gained experience in the real estate business, buying, fixing up, renting and selling a variety of properties for the past two decades.
“We’ve invested in real estate since 2003, getting an education in it since then every year (through) boot camps and seminars,” Kristin said. “We both have our real estate licenses in two states. (So) when we realized our new (campground) business would not be providing income for a few years, it was a natural option to slide into.”
Being able to generate income from their real estate business enabled the Britts to make improvements to the Valdez KOA even during the pandemic when Alaska’s park operators had to rely on business almost exclusively from campers within Alaska itself.
“Over the past three years, we’ve invested in entirely upgraded Wi-Fi that’s good enough to stream, upgraded and modernized the cabins, (and) upgraded and modernized our store,” Kristin said, adding, “Our multi-year master plan and future will include a large central clubhouse with fireplaces for events, large pavilions with outdoor fireplaces for events, an expanded playground, an expanded dog park, covered storage for boats and RVs, (as well as) food service, vending (and) a new guest laundry.”
The Britts are also keeping busy making improvements this year.
“We have hired a septic engineer and contractor, as well as a master planner to develop the campground to our long-term vision, and to get a plan together for full hookups on all RV sites,” Kristin said. “We hope to get the plan finished and get some of the sites on full hookups this year.”
The Britts have also set up two “easy camping” sites that feature 12-person tents with cots so guests can sleep off the ground. These sites, which are designed for guests who don’t have their own camping equipment or want to try tent camping, also include a picnic table under a canopy, firepits and wood.
The Britts also plan to erect two furnished glamping tents this year.
“Over the next few years,” Kristin said, “we plan to slowly remake the campground and build our vision with an incredible clubhouse full of windows to the mountains and roaring fireplaces attached to a huge two-story outdoor pavilion with fireplaces.”
Despite all of the challenges, the Britts feel lucky they have been able to do what they’ve done, owning and operating the Valdez KOA these past three years.
“Campground ownership in Alaska has given us the opportunity to own a wholesome business building memories and experiences for our guests while providing a place to be outside in nature in one of the most incredibly beautiful places on Earth,” Kristin said.
“I was attracted to it because this specific business is challenging and awesome all at the same time,” she added. “All business ownership is an opportunity to test your ability and take on more than you know how to do, and you’ve got to learn fast. Becoming an owner forces you to grow your skillsets or fail. It’s challenging. It’s rewarding. It’s exhausting. It’s depressing at times, and you feel like giving up, and it’s fun, exhilarating and exciting at other times. It’s everything life is, but you experience it in a more condensed way. Your shortcomings are very in your face and obvious and is not fun to have to look at. But you also get to mold something into your own vision, which is supremely rewarding. That’s the siren call for all entrepreneurs.”
The frosting on the cake, she said, is being able to do this in Alaska.
“Valdez is one of the most incredibly beautiful places on Earth,” Kristin said.
Markus and Daniela Heimgartner
Alaska’s newest park operators include Markus Heimgartner and his wife, Daniela, both entrepreneurs from Switzerland who purchased the 150-site Riverview RV Park in North Pole, outside Fairbanks, in May 2022, which they have since converted to the Fairbanks/Chena River KOA, the northernmost KOA campground in the world.
But like other private park operators in Alaska, the Heimgartners only live and work at their campground during the summer months. The rest of the year they live in Florida, where their daughters, Vivian, 16, and Noemi, 14, attend school, and where Markus works as a swimming pool contractor.
“It is a good match as we wanted our children to be able to attend one of the best schools in the state of Florida and with the two businesses we would have a (year-round) income,” Markus said.
The Heimgartners decided to go into the campground business in Alaska after owning and operating a campground and a motel in Utah. But they had one other issue to take care of first: Securing their green cards.
The Heimgartners immigrated to the U.S. from Switzerland in 2008 using E2-business owner work visas. They initially owned and operated a motel in Moab, Utah, before transitioning into the campground business by purchasing and operating the Vernal/Dinosaurland KOA Holiday in Vernal, Utah.
But in the process of trying to obtain their green cards, which would enable the Heimgartners to live and work in the U.S. as permanent residents, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing delays in green card applications. As a result, the Heimgartners were forced to sell their campground in Utah and temporarily return to Switzerland. But once their green card situation was resolved, they moved back to Florida and later purchased the campground they have converted into the Fairbanks/Chena River KOA.
Markus told WOODALLSCM.com that, generally speaking, he sees more potential for growth in the campground business than in the motel business.
“The upside potential is pretty big,” he said, adding, “There is more room for improvements and development in the campground business.”
After purchasing the Riverview RV Park last year, the Heimgartners moved quickly to make improvements.
“We made a lot of infrastructure improvements last year,” Markus said, adding, “There is so much to do to get the park where we want it to be.”
The Heimgartners’ latest park improvements include adding a playground, a dog park and a patio experience by the Chena River, which runs alongside the campground.
“We are upgrading some sites to patio/paw pen sites later this year and plan on adding a couple of riverfront cabins in the near future,” Markus said, noting that the park would reopen May 15 as part of the KOA franchise network, and the 4th KOA in Alaska.
“It looks like we are up 15% to 20% in advance reservations this year compared to last year,” Markus said, adding that he has big plans for park improvements long term. “It’s both a challenge and an opportunity,” he added.
At some point in the future, Markus said, he would like to upgrade about 10 sites with more space/privacy, making them into KOA patio sites and paw pen sites, where each site has its own little fenced-in area for the pets. He would also like to add a couple of riverfront deluxe cabins.
“The challenge here (in Alaska) is we need to build them on site as shipping them from manufacturers from the Lower 48 would almost double the upfront costs,” he said.
Other future projects include adding four to six sites with water and electric hookups and changing the layout of some of the smaller RV sites to make them into larger and nicer sites. The Heimgartners would also like to give a facelift to their office and registration building to make it look more like a log cabin.
In the meantime, Markus and Daniela are enjoying giving their daughters extraordinary experiences, spending the school year in Florida and working at the family’s KOA campground in Alaska.
The Reisland Family
Even longtime Alaska campground operators have spent many years working side jobs while slowly building their campground businesses.
One interesting case in point is Denali Grizzly Bear Resort & Campground in Fairbanks, a multigeneration family-owned business which is located on the Nenana River, which forms the southern boundary of Denali National Park. The resort is only six miles from the Denali National Park Visitors Center.
Denali Grizzly Bear Resort & Campground is the oldest family-owned and operated business in the Denali area, having been established in 1968.
The campground was established by Jack and Ede Reisland, who left Ohio in 1958 to pursue teaching jobs in Alaska. That same year, the Reislands also secured 40 acres of land on the boundary of Denali National Park through the Homestead Act, which they later used as the site of their campground and hotel resort.
The Reislands opened the campground first, in 1968, and gradually built cabins, which they initially rented out to rangers working at Denali National Park. In 2006, the Reislands transitioned into the hotel business and gradually started removing campsites to make room for hotel units, which generated more income than campsites. Denali Grizzly Bear Resort & Campground currently has 20 RV sites and 12 tent sites.
But even though the campground is small, the Reisland family continues to improve the park, according to Scott Reisland, a second-generation co-owner and general manager of the resort.
“Last summer,” he said, “we had a lot of highway construction going on in our area of Denali. I took advantage of all the highway, heavy equipment, rock crusher and pavement machines. We brought in a lot of nice new gravel and really leveled all our RV sites. I also had the remainder of our interior roadways paved. (There are) not many campgrounds in Alaska with pavement to the campsites. We are one of the few.”
But while Denali Grizzly Bear Resort & Campground continues to make improvements, members of the Reisland family have also had to work other jobs for many years because of the highly seasonal nature of Alaska’s campground business.
“Everyone in our family had second jobs during the winter months,” Reisland said. “Like my parents, my sister and I were full-time school teachers. My second sister worked part-time for the school district for a few years, but now mostly paints art and tries to sell it. It really wasn’t until 2006 when we started into the hotel business that there was enough work for me all winter and my wife that we started working year-round.”
Reisland said the family’s resort business has grown enough for him to be able to retire from teaching.
“We now have seven separate hotel units with 119 hotel rooms and 29 cabins. It’s been a work in progress with the hotel development spanning about 15 years. My sister is now retired under teacher’s retirement and just works summer seasonal. During the off-season, I have enough work for three to four full-time employees. The revenue from the campground never was enough to keep someone working year-round,” he explained.
Reisland added that second jobs are critical for family campground owners in Alaska.
“I think it would be pretty hard for a mom-and-pop campground to sustain a family full-time park, unless rental cabins are built,” he said.
Looking to future, Reisland looks forward to training his own children and nephews to run the business.
“I am focused on efforts to have the third generation of the family learn all aspects of the business and essentially take over,” he said, adding that he expects this process to unfold over the next decade.
In the meantime, Reisland continues to work as general manager of Denali Grizzly Bear Resort & Campground and even has the benefit of having his mother continue to help run the business.
“My mother, Ede, is 90 years old and still doing great,” he said. “She will be busy helping the family operate our business in Denali this summer.”