Editor’s Note: Ocean City, Md.-based Blue Water Development began making waves in the RV resort sector in 2009 when a planned shopping center investment property turned into Castaways RV Resort and Campground in Berlin, Md. Owned by Jack and Todd Burbage, Blue Water was originally started to build housing, shopping centers and hotels, something they still do, but due to the Great Recession Blue Water began to look at managing, developing, redeveloping and building RV resorts.
Since then the company has opened 5 resorts, while selling Castaways to Mich.-based Sun RV Resorts. Currently, Blue Water owns Flat Rock Bridge Family Campground in Lebanon, Maine; Hampton Lodge Campground in Coinjock, N.C.; Chincoteague Island Kampgrounds of America (KOA) in Chincoteague Island, Va.; The Resort at Massey’s Landing in Millsboro, Del.; and the Chesapeake Bay KOA Resort & Beach Club in Cape Charles, Va.
Woodall’s Campground Management spoke with Rafael Correa, Blue Water’s CFO, about the company’s growth over the last nine years and the ways they try to stay ahead of the curve and keep campers coming back.
Below is our edited conversation.
WCM: How does Blue Water stand out from the crowd?
Correa: We have what we call the ‘Blue Water Standard.’ It really starts with an intimate understanding of what our responsibility is to our customers. We realize that people save their money and their vacation time. They’re saving things that are of value to them in order to break away from the day-to-day activity, get a brief respite and reconnect with family. And because of what they’re investing, whether be that time, money or both, we view ourselves as having an incredible responsibility to deliver on the promise of their hopes and dreams.
Think about all the time we spend planning and dreaming about our next vacation. And because of that, really what the Blue Water Standard encompasses are all the tools that we use to deliver on that dream. It starts with amenities and all the core components of a campground that make it accessible, functional and fun. Full hook-up sites, activities in the arcade, water features, water slides, beaches, tiki bars, restaurants, coffee shops, ice-cream shops and full-service camp stores. So, you really want for nothing when you’re on one of our properties. And that really happens in the design and development stage of any project that we go after.
Then, ultimately when it comes to delivery there is a service element. So, we want everybody to know they’re an absolute priority. And again we impress upon our employees the importance of delivering on that promise of a great vacation.
WCM: How do you get buy-in from your employees? That buy-in that makes them enthusiastic about delivering the ‘Blue Water Standard?’
Correa: As any organization grows it becomes more and more challenging for the original inherent mission and values of an organization to permeate all levels. So, we’ve had a concerted effort recently as our portfolios have grown rapidly to define exactly what it is we are here to do and how we do it. So that it can be communicated effectively across all levels of the organization. Our mission, just to put it in words specifically is ‘to provide memorable experiences, appreciating the value of the time our guests have entrusted to us in places as unique as they are.’
WCM: How do you select a site for a resort or go about selecting a resort to purchase? Are there key things officials at Blue Water are looking for?
Correa: Site selection is critical and probably the first step in the process is ensuring the property has a water feature or water element. That is essential. The Blue Water name really ties itself to that and it’s not to say it has to be a naturally occurring feature, our Chincoteague Island KOA just completed a $7 million water park. That includes a lazy river, tower slides, racer slides and more. So, where the water isn’t immediately accessible, because at the Chincoteague Island KOA we’re on the bay but don’t necessarily have swimming access, we create the water feature in-house.
WCM: Why is the water feature so important to Blue Water?
Correa: We’re headquartered in Ocean City, Md., and we’re blessed here with some of the best beaches and bays. I started my career in the city of Baltimore and grew up down here. So, the call of the ocean is just very strong and in general people all over this country, all over the world, when they look for time to break away and spend time away it’s usually close to water. Whether that be a lake or an ocean or a river. Water just has an innate draw for people and we like to start with that premise, because that’s the one thing you really can’t re-create.
WCM: You guys have also formed partnerships to offer other types of active recreation at your resorts, right?
Correa: Correct, so we offer an abundance of in-house activities, but what we like to do is really focus on our core business of delivering a world class camping experience for the family. When it comes to other more adventure, life-style specialties, jet ski rentals, zip lining or anything of that nature, we really like to hand them over to people that are as passionate about those businesses as we are about ours. So, you can come to our resort and we’ll connect you with the right people to deliver that experience. Whether it’s a hunting outfitter, a zip lining course or a jet ski rental, we can connect you. We have built those relationships and are ready to share those with our guests.
WCM: What are some key things you guys do to market your resorts? Do you have a marketing team?
Correa: We have a whole full-service management team here and that includes our own marketing team. We really are fine-tuning and using the most modern day marketing techniques to make sure that we’re sending relevant messaging out to our customer base. I am not trying to market RV sites to a cottage-type customer. So, we are everyday trying our best to evolve our marketing so that it is customized to our guests, so they’re receiving information that they want to see and will ultimately engage with.
We are big believers in social media. We love it. One of the things that I always talk about with respect to camping, and we’re also in the hotel business, is hotels are a means to an end. You stay in hotels because you need somewhere to lay your head down while you are traveling, be that business or pleasure.
Camping is a life-style. Camping is a choice. It’s something that people do because they love it, and because of that campers have a passion for it. And social media, if nothing else, is a place where people with common passions come together to share it. So, we very much enjoy being part of that culture, being part of that community online and sharing the experiences that we create at our properties.
WCM: What are some of the improvements you have made over the last year at your properties?
Correa: So, for us the major investments we did this year were innovating two things. One, was creating gathering spaces. At a couple properties we built these really cool pavilions with hanging hammock chairs and hammocks that people can congregate in and enjoy the beautiful views that our properties offer. We also did group fire pit areas that allow people to come together for ghost stories, for s’mores parties, etc. I mean we think that’s a growing trend in the hospitality industry, that people don’t just necessarily want to be in their room when their at a campsite. They want places where they can interact with other people and especially in a campground where there’s a very high likelihood that the person you’re camping next to will end up being a friend, sometimes for life.
And then the other side there, where we’ve seen a lot of trend and innovation is alternative accommodations. So, we are featuring brand new safari tents at some of our properties this year. These tents are fully equipped, can sleep up to six, and have electric and water. They don’t have bathrooms, so it’s more of a rustic experience, but we do have world-class bath houses that they can enjoy nearby.
We also introduced this year at our Chincoteague Island KOA what we call an island bungalow. And they are brightly colored two-room bungalows that sleep six. And they’re always located next to one of our great bathhouses. But they offer an affordable price-point for someone who’s looking for a cottage type experience.
But we also have in there our mainstay deluxe cottages that are fully equipped with living areas, bathrooms, kitchen and it’s basically a turnkey rental home right there in the campground, and you get to enjoy all the amenities of the campground.
WCM: How is the glamping trend impacting Blue Water’s resorts?
Correa: We saw it coming a year ago and to be honest with you, we’ve been in the deluxe cottage business since we started back in 2009. So, we were ahead of the tiny house trend back then and we’ve believed strongly in the rise of the people that are looking for experiential travel. So, we embrace that and introduced these two other accommodation types this year specifically because we believe that people really want more than just a place to go. They want an experience and these types of accommodations can give them just that.
WCM: Is Blue Water exploring more developments right now?
Correa: So, we have a variety of other projects in our pipeline. Since our portfolio grew from one campground to the five that we are at we had to basically invest in the infrastructure of a management company. So, we have our hospitality specialist and all the respective fields helping to grow and manage the existing portfolio. But now that we have the vehicle to manage and support these properties we’re actively seeking out new opportunities. And we do greenfield developments and properties that we have purchased to redevelop or re-position, which is what we did with the Chincoteague Island KOA and Chesapeake Bay KOA.
The difference really comes down to the approval process. Greenfields take a lot longer to get submitted, approved and go through the whole process. Massey’s Landing took three years, just as an example. Versus getting something that’s already an approved use and just reinvigorating it.
WCM: How do you work to stay on top of trends and keep campers coming back?
Correa: Staying relevant is important for any business and for us we do that by always trying to reinvent service, but also reinventing the assets themselves. So, we always take a hard look at ourselves, we monitor customer reviews and we monitor customer feedback feverishly. It’s literally the first thing we talk about in our monthly meeting were we go over each property’s performance. We are always looking for opportunities to reinvest in and reinvent our campgrounds. And the promise that we make to our folks is that when you come back next year there’s gonna be something new, fun or exciting that will only evolve and improve your experience with us.