The following Campsite Vistas column by Sue Bray, consultant and former executive director of the Good Sam Club, appears in the January edition of Woodall’s Campground Management.

Sue Bray

It’s not often, but every now and again I find myself infused with someone else’s infectious energy. This happened a couple of times on our RV trip last summer at two Washington RV parks — and it all seemed to stem from the energetic attitudes of two very different park owners. I recently contacted them again in preparation for this column, and found that the contagious drive and vitality were still there — more than ever, in fact.

Elwha Dam RV Park is located in Port Angeles, Wash. — right at the top of the Olympic peninsula and at the gateway to Olympic National Park. Chris and David Delano and their five children ranging in age from 9 to 21 bought the park in the spring of 2015. Originally from eastern Washington, they wanted a new business where their family could work together and each member would have a role. They looked at several different endeavors — motels, self-storage, apartment buildings, but a campground seemed to be the best fit where everyone would have something to do.

The kids are helping out. While the three oldest are in college, they work at the park in the summer, doing groundskeeping, caring for their horses, greeting guests and leading them to their sites. The family has been busy — adding 16 additional sites and a rental house and finishing up their first cabin. Chris said, “We wanted to create a base camp for them, where they could come home to. It’s hard to predict whether they’ll stay here, or perhaps do their own startup business — maybe even another campground.”

Chris and her husband have been busy as well. Their first goal was to increase revenue so they could reimburse an investor in the park, a goal originally set for five years. They accomplished it in the first two — almost doubling the business. Their next step is to start fine tuning their operation — initially by improving the campsites and adopting a reservation system. “The former owner handled all the reservations with paper and pencil,” said Chris. “I’ve upgraded it to Excel, which has worked quite well, but I wanted to get a feel of exactly what we need from a reservation system before implementing one, which is our next step.

“We’ve learned this is not necessarily a business, but more of a lifestyle,” she continued. “You need to have a family who can blend with strangers and have those strangers blend back. The park is called a ‘drama free zone.’ Sometimes, it’s a challenge to also be drama free at home. It has surprised me that I can really be myself and our guests are genuinely grateful for that. I’ve learned to be more flexible.”

Also during 2015, further down the road which circles the Olympic Peninsula, Katherine Wilhelm and her husband Miles Flewitt purchased Andersen’s RV Park in Long Beach. Originally from southern California, both had successful careers — Katharine managed a fleet of mega yachts in Newport Beach and Miles worked as a stunt coordinator in the movie and television industry. Fed up with career demands and the rat race, they took to the road with their 7-year-old daughter, traveling for a year by RV looking at hundreds of potential campground purchases throughout Washington, Oregon and California.

Back in college, Katharine had bought a 40-foot motorhome which she kept parked on the beach. Miles had been a precision driver in films, and both were well-traveled throughout the United States and other parts of the world. The RV lifestyle fit them perfectly.

“When we were looking at potential parks to buy, we realized that many were either so far in debt or so in need of major repairs and maintenance that there was no way we would ever catch up financially,” said Katharine. “And finding financing is difficult, because banks don’t understand this market — they can’t decide whether it’s a business or real estate and it generally doesn’t add up to what they think it should be.”

Andersen’s RV Park turned out to be the right place for them. They persevered, and have recorded the two highest occupancies in the park’s history, generating more revenue than the business has ever seen. “The park had a very static website which we completely revised. There was no answering machine, no call waiting, no email communication,” said Katharine. “We are currently installing a reservation system, and in the meantime I post availability updates on the website. We’ve upgraded, updated and changed our policies so everyone here is held to a respectable level of behavior. This is our personal property, we live here and we want to share our lives with others.” And in the meantime, they’ve nearly doubled the park’s previous revenue levels.

They’ve also added some fun events — bonfires on certain celestial evenings, a Thanksgiving dinner for their guests. They are pet-friendly, but charge $1 per dog, which is happily donated to the local animal shelter. They offer no discounts, and do not accept permanent residents.

“Our daughter loves this lifestyle,” Katharine continued. “She is flourishing here, with an insatiable curiosity activated by nature. We used to have to take her places where she could play — now she just goes outdoors. Often, when our guests call to make reservations, they ask if she’s going to be here.”

Each in their 40s, Chris, David, Katharine and Miles bring a contagious enthusiasm and commitment to their roles of developing a family business in this industry and contributing to the RV lifestyle. When asked where they thought they would be in the next 10 years, both couples indicated a keen interest in expanding to additional campgrounds. All stressed their beliefs that this experience is helping their children become more interested in owning or starting a business, perhaps in the world of campgrounds.

“I think the campground industry is growing, somewhat paralleling the lodging and hotel industry,” said Chris. “But we need to catch up to modern times, not necessarily because people in the industry aren’t modern, but we’re off grid. It’s challenging and more expensive to provide the services our guests want.”

“We want to share our lives with others and we’re thrilled other people can come here and enjoy it,” said Katharine. “We’re happy other people can come here and enjoy this beautiful area with us.”

And I for one will be back.