Editor’s Note: Erin and Dan Thiem are the owners of the Inn Town Campground in Nevada City, Calif. Inn Town Campground was recently named the nation’s “Best RV Campground” by USA Today 10 Best.
Our inspiration for the Inn Town Campground started generations ago. Erin’s grandparents have countless tales from their overseas travels; her mom and dad spent two and a half years gallivanting around the world for their honeymoon and Dan’s mom was a flight attendant for many years. Their stories imbued a sense of exploration in us that continues to this day.
Our early adventures as a couple and then as a young family, along with the sense of wonder gleaned from our families are all part of Inn Town Campground’s origin story. We built a campground to make it easy for people to get outside and connect with nature, to relax, to hang out with friends and family and to experience true small-town life with a sense of adventure that we’ve come to love. Now that we’re a decade into running our campground we sometimes have to stop and ask ourselves, “Are we actually living the life we sell?”
The answer is yes, but not always in ways we expect. One of the challenges of owning and operating a small business, especially one so focused on lifestyle, is finding the time to experience that lifestyle ourselves. Many campgrounds are seasonal; some like ours reduce operations in the off-season, but others close altogether for months. This is traditionally a good time to travel and get away. Or so one would think.
Weather, school calendars, staffing and many other things often interfere with our grand adventure plans. Our challenge is to overcome those always-present obstacles and find ways to experience what we provide our guests. For us, that often means planning small, more localized experiences that can be easily booked, changed or canceled if something goes awry at camp. We’ve found over the years that we get a lot of benefits from even a staycation or a quick night away, and it reminds us that camping isn’t just about cleaning bathrooms and fixing water spigots.
So, do we live what we sell? Yes, but we have to be flexible.
In fact, this year one of our regular campers gave us the nudge we needed. They were camping with us in April as a last-minute anniversary trip. Erin was talking with them and mentioned that we hadn’t planned anything for our anniversary, which was only ten days away. They had a great recommendation for a quick getaway spot (“go to this place but only if you can get one of these four sites” sort of conversation).
Sure enough, Erin was able to get a last-minute reservation at Skyline Wilderness Park in Napa, Calif., for our anniversary. It was a great way to escape since the timing was so soon and we had enough staff for us to take a quick trip. It was less than two hours away, easy to get to and right in Napa. It was somewhere new, had plenty of hiking and a spectacular view of the valley. New adventure? Check! Camp covered for a couple of days? Check! Not only did we get a couple of nights away, but we also actually remembered that camping is fun. Small getaways like this provide a great injection of fresh energy into our busy lives.
There is some irony in our campers giving us a push to actually go camping, but it’s indicative of the community that campers and campground owners build. Our businesses aren’t simply transactional, they’re built on relationships and a common love of the outdoors and adventure. A lot of our conversations at camp are about other people’s trips and experiences. Many of those stories don’t involve camping, but all of them are about the excitement and wonder that accompanies going someplace new or different.
For us, we often talk about our time living in New Zealand, but also more recent adventures like winter camping in Mammoth during a blizzard or breaking down in Battle Mountain on our way to Salt Lake City for a ski vacation. Adventures, good and bad, are the genesis of a good story and our customers like to hear a good tale — especially one with a bit of drama.
When we experience new things, they add to the mosaic of life that informs how we approach our business. We learn new ways of operating, find different things that guests might want and most importantly, we get a new spark for life that can dull with too much time working.
There was one moment at the end of the day while living in our van in New Zealand when we wondered if our children aged 2 and 5 at the time, would really remember the trip. “No,” Dan said. “But they will have a spirit of adventure and the ability to adapt to new places and the curiosity to explore.”
How true that is, even now. We can’t know how those early experiences shaped our children, but both of them love camping and getting outside now. We hope that our campground will provide a similar sense of wonder for children that visit. But we need to be able to see and discern what that wonder is, to be able to instill a flash of curiosity in what we provide to make it worth remembering. To do that, we have to get out of our campground cocoon and experience life the way we want to sell it.
If you’re struggling to remember why you got into the campground business (especially after the Memorial Day kick-off to camping season), try taking a quick step away from your operations. A nearby hike, a meal out at a local restaurant or, if you’re lucky, a couple days away camping, can make all the difference in how you view your campground.
Try to be a tourist for a minute, not just to view your camp through the lens of a customer, but to view your region through the eye of an adventurer. So, put something on the calendar to help you get reconnected with the business you love. We always like to have something on the schedule to look forward to. Sometimes it’s a vacation, but a lot of times it’s just a day away to do something with the kids or each other.
We hope you all continue to have that original sense of wonder and excitement for your campground that you had on day one, but if not, let us know what great ways you find to reignite the fire. Send us a note on Instagram @inntowncampground to share the inspiration. We’re always looking for a new and different adventure.