Private park operators and developers seek Bud Styer’s advice because he’s spent four decades learning countless lessons from personal experience and the school of hard knocks.
“I can tell you in those 40 years everything you could do wrong I’ve done. But that’s how you become a professional in every field,” Styer explains. “People trust what I have to say. I’ve spent my own money to find out what works and what doesn’t. I didn’t lose somebody else’s money. I come from the real world of experience.”
That experience includes owning and operating several family campgrounds throughout the course of his career and sharing his accumulated wisdom with current and aspiring park operators through his consulting firm, Lodi, Wis.-based Bud Styer & Associates.
He’s given back his knowledge to the industry as well. A member of the Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners (WACO) for 44 years, Styer has also given numerous educational seminars and served on the association’s board for at least 20 years, while also serving nine years on the board of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC). Last year, he partnered with WACO Executive Director Lori Severson to launch the Campground Owners Expo, a new campground industry tradeshow that will take place every year in late November or early December.
Initially working as a self-employed building contractor who remodeled homes, Styer purchased his first campground at age 25. It was a campground in Wisconsin that had a lake where he could water ski, and it was only about 2.5 hours from his home in Chicago.
“Like many campgrounds, it was mismanaged,” Styer recalled. “When you’re 25, you think you are invincible. I thought I would just work another 50 hours (a week). I thought, ‘This was a great opportunity. I could still maintain my contracting business and build out the campground.’”
But in the 1980s, he said, it was tough finding people with expertise in the campground business to guide him. “I made a million mistakes,” Styer said. “Back in the 1980s, there were no consultants and the campground industry associations didn’t have the skillsets that they have today.”
Lenders were also unfamiliar with the campground business and largely unwilling to provide funding for park purchases and expansions. “Back in the ‘80s, you had to borrow your money from your family,” Styer said with a laugh. “Fortunately, my contracting business was good enough that I could borrow money from hard money lenders and venture capitalists.”
Interest rates were sky high in the 80s, however. “Back then, interest rates were 22%. House mortgages were 17%. I struggled with that interest for 10 years.”
But Styer eventually learned a valuable lesson about investing in a private park: “It’s not about the interest rates. It’s the opportunity,” he said.
Today’s lenders increasingly understand there is money to be made in the campground business, an industry that has repeatedly proven itself to be virtually recession-proof. “Now, the lending institutions understand our industry. You can borrow money based on cash flow. Now you can lay out a business plan and get a normal business loan.”
Lenders’ increasing willingness to provide loans for private park purchases, expansions and improvements has led to more investment in the private park business.
“There’s a lot of movement right now in the campground business,” Styer said. “The cost of money has never been more affordable than it is now. Many (existing park operators) are selling to new people. Now corporate buyers are getting in because they see opportunity. Our business is nearly recession-proof. Those smaller parks that have been in it for 20 or 30 years are looking for an exit strategy. You see owners doing 10-31 exchanges. But the learning curve (for first-time park buyers) is pretty much straight up.”
Styer said his clients are seeking all kinds of advice about the campground business. “I have some customers that want to go to the next level. ‘How can I add 25%, 40% or 50% more revenue?’ “What am I doing wrong?’ Others need help buying a campground. I look at all the permitting requirements, the wells and the water. Sometimes banks want me to look at the numbers and they ask me, ‘Are these numbers for real? Are these projections doable?’”
Styer has advice both for newcomers to the private park business as well as longtime park operators thinking of exiting the business.
His tips include the following:
— It’s cheaper to buy an existing campground than to build a new one: “Existing parks are great opportunities,” he said.
— When you buy a campground, you are an entrepreneur. But your success is not based on what you want. It’s what the customer wants: “If you deliver what the customer wants, or close to it, you will be successful,” Styer said. “The business isn’t that complicated. But you have to understand who your customer is.”
— Take the time to get educated on what works and what doesn’t: “Spend all of your time figuring out what makes your customers happy. There’s no room for you to be lazy. Go for excellence.”
— Park demographics determine what your investments will be: “Every campground has an eco-system,” Styer said. “Some cater to families. Others want retired people and no children. Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) has evolved from being a campground on the side of the road into three different segments (Journey, Holiday and Resort).”
— Invest as much time as your business requires: “You’ve got to put in the time to deliver the best product possible. Today’s customer is looking for the best experience possible.”
— If you are thinking of leaving the industry, develop an exit strategy: “Be sure your paperwork is in order and properly reflects the financial condition of your park for at least the past three years,” Styer said. “Be sure to have good record-keeping and document your P and L. You have to verify everything. If you say you made a million dollars, the buyers are going to make you prove it. Your financials have to be accurate and they need to be tidy, whether it’s the laundry or boat rentals. When you sell a business, you have disclosure documents. They have to be accurate and without any ambiguity.”
Although owning and operating a campground requires more investment than ever, it also provides more opportunities for entrepreneurship.
“If you can think it up, you can do it,” Styer said. “You wear 50 hats in this business. You’re an advertiser, a swimming pool operator, a pond builder. You get to buy toys and golf carts. If you work for somebody, you have to convince them to do things. But when you own it, you make 100% of all of the decisions.”
While he has experience in every aspect of campground management, Styer has led many seminars regarding the importance of having water and water toys in a campground. But rather than simply talk about the benefits of Wibits, aqua parks and other floating attractions, he delves into the details of lake and pond management and the importance of using aerating fountains, ultraviolet light and other algae control technologies.
Styer also has first-hand experience operating campgrounds that provide summer day camps and can advise park operators on the challenges, including permits, staffing and activities requirements, that day camps entail.
“I’m a ‘go-to’ guy for a lot of information,” Styer said, adding, “People use me to navigate the industry. I truly love my job helping to inspire others and guiding them to ‘their’ success.”