But that’s not how Susan and Ron Hart’s family have operated for the last 38 years, and not only has it kept them current with what their guests want — a move that certainly takes a lot of untiring effort in this day and age—it earned their park, a Kampgrounds of America (KOA) Holiday near Fredericksburg, Va., the “2014 Franchisee of the Year” designation from KOA.
When announcing the honor for the Fredericksburg, Va./Washington, D.C., South KOA at last year’s convention, KOA President Pat Hittmeier said, “The Harts are true believers in the KOA brand. They have always done a wonderful job of using the tools we offer to better develop their campground for their campers,” he said. “It’s a wonderful place, and absolutely deserving of being our 2014 KOA Franchisee of the Year.”
While it is, of course, the biggest honor on the shelf at the Harts’ 114-acre, 117-site KOA, it’s certainly not the only one. Heck, the 2014 Founder’s Award and President’s Award from Billings, Mont.-based KOA joined others on the shelf.
“KOA has always had some sort of award program, the Award of Excellence, we were rated an A+, we’ve been pretty much fortunate to always get whatever the award is that year,” Susan Hart said — though not to brag.
Indeed, she and Ron were amazed to earn the top honor for this year, and pushed them to raise the bar.
“That was quite a shock for us,” Susan said. “We were quite honored. It spurred us on to want to be even better, to make more improvements, and to be worthy of it,” she said.
“It’s quite an honor to be recognized by your peers. We look up to KOA, we would not be the campground that we are if it wasn’t for them,” she continued. “We attend convention every year and always come away with an abundance of new ideas and just valuable information that helps us to run our business and to stay competitive. It’s crazy to think of doing it all ourselves, how alone we would be without what we get from them,” she said. “All we know is we have never been so proud to have been recognized for doing a great job at what we love.”
Making The Most of History and a Unique Setting
There’s no question that the park has an impressive location, with Fredericksburg being a great jumping-off point for trips to Washington, D.C. Staying at the KOA, you’re only 45 minutes from the Washington, D.C. Metro’s Franconia-Springfield stop, the southernmost point on one of the country’s nicest public-transit systems.
It’s also less than a day’s drive from Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, West Virginia and North Carolina.
And it’s a mere couple of miles off Interstate 95, the Eastern Seaboard traffic artery that runs from Miami to Canada.
There’s also a lot of history in the area, from four nearby Civil War battlefields to George Washington’s boyhood home (his adult home, Mount Vernon, is only 45 minutes away). In fact, in downtown Fredericksburg campers can visit Washington’s mother’s home as well as his sister’s home.
But it may be the campground’s unique setting that is its biggest draw, Susan said. While the location makes the park special, she said, she said the park’s greatest attribute is “certainly the feeling, the peaceful calm feeling that you get when you’re here, just our atmosphere.
“Our campground is very wooded and quiet,” she explained. “We sit down in a little valley. It’s kind of our own little world here. You come out of the hustle and bustle of driving around Washington and going down 95. Although we’re just about two miles from civilization, it’s just like our own little world. It’s quiet and peaceful. I think that’s what people enjoy about our campground,” she said.
In that valley runs a little stream that feeds a fishing pond.
“We have 114 acres and we’re not using all of it for the campground, so we have lots of room for people to walk, lots of undeveloped area. We’re probably using 45, 50 acres,” she said.
The campground’s 117 sites are a mix of tent sites, water-and-electric sites and full-hookup sites, plus 13 rental accommodations — four park model RV deluxe cabins and nine camping cabins.
New this year, and very popular, were the four patio sites. They provide guests with their own flat patio site with a table and chairs, a bench and a fire ring. Those were so well received that the Harts will add more, likely starting next year.
Tip: Don’t Stand Still, Keep Upgrading
Those patio sites are just the latest in a string of upgrades that have been a part of the last 38 years at the campground, Susan said.
That started with her parents, Gene and Liz DiRusso.
“My dad bought it in 1976. It was already a KOA, it was in pretty bad shape and so he developed a lot of it,” she explained. “My husband and I bought it from my dad in 2000. We have done a lot since we’ve been here.
“We have a heated pool, a pond for fishing, a gem mine, a club room and a group area that we can accommodate church groups and Boy Scouts.
“We do activities during the summer on the weekends,” she added. “Our main building was brand new about six years ago, so we have brand-new restrooms and showers and our store is brand-new. We have a dog pet park. It’s pretty good size,” she said.
“We’ve renovated two huge sections to make them all 50 amp. We probably have redone most of the infrastructure over the past 10 years,” she said.
In fact, the Harts roll out upgrades every year in order to stay on top of things and plan for improvements, she explained, “just to keep the campground fresh and in good shape and up to speed with the times.
“The industry is coming out with new things. In 1976 there was no 50 amp. We’re always taking out trees to make the sites larger and accommodate slideouts. Everything has slides now,” she continued. “Back in the ‘70s they came out with the 30-foot-travel trailer and that was huge. Now we’re accommodating 40-foot motorhomes hauling trailers with cars inside. You have to keep changing.”
Indeed, the Fredericksburg KOA’s largest sites today can handle a total of 95 feet of length for rigs and vehicles, thanks to growing demand for those sizes.
“We figure if you’re not moving forward you’re moving backward,” Susan said.
Just as 50-amp service was unimaginable in 1976, she noted, Wi-Fi and television service are standard at all sites now, she said, even in their tranquil setting.
“We are back in the woods and we have to provide our own everything. There’s no cable TV running past our entrance, no fiber-optic, nothing like that. We bring it in on satellite. Wi-Fi, we have a little bit to choose from, but we’re constantly fighting to have some new choices,” Susan explained. “We have our own wells, we have our own septic, we do everything ourselves,” she said.
Tip: It Helps To Become A Customer
When you own and operate your own campground, it’s easy to see things from one’s own business perspective, Susan said. That’s why she thinks all RV park operators need to become customers.
Part of Susan Hart’s recipe for success, she said, is “I strongly believe in working my front desk enough to be really aware of what my customers are saying.” Never one to settle for the status quo, she said, “I also strongly believe in being the customer. We recently purchased a motorhome so that we could be the customer and see what’s important from that side of the counter. You see things differently, things that maybe you feel differently depending on what side of the counter you’re on,” she said.
When a guest arrives at the Harts’ KOA, “they want a nice site and they want to be convenient to whatever they’re looking for, whether it be shopping or history, restaurants,” Susan said. “We keep all of the brochures on hand, maps of everything, we post on our bulletin board about whatever events might be going on in the area, we’ll make handouts for them.
Their guests also get a rather unique resource: Ron Hart. While he and Susan met at the campground in junior high when he worked for Susan’s dad, after the couple married Ron and Susan didn’t come straight back to the campground.
“My husband was a licensed tour guide in Washington D.C.,” Susan explained. “We had that business for almost 20 years.” After two decades, though, “we were ready to make a change. Driving up and down the road was getting difficult. Driving in that traffic every day was taking its toll. My dad was ready to retire, so we jumped at the chance,” Susan said.
Obviously they love what they do and the guests they serve.
Their focus on the guest shows in their camp store, too.
“We keep as much as we can fit in here. We have a pretty-good-sized room. We carry a very good selection of RV supplies, what they would need while they’re here, any kind of camping gadget. We keep food and your bread and milk, but we go above and beyond in every department. We have a very nice gift store,” she said.
“We make a fair amount of money on our store, so we take it seriously. It’s part of our business, but it’s also for our customers. It’s a win-win.”
Tip: Keep Things Fun And Be Sure to Stay Engaged
In addition to the setting and the location, there’s one other thing Susan Hart said makes the Fredericksburg/Washington, D.C., South KOA Holiday special: The staff of 10. “Our staff is excellent. They really take care of our guests, helping them with whatever they need — mechanic, directions, a good restaurant, we’re here for them. Everyone in my staff bends over backward,” she said. “They’re really great.”
Work campers aren’t part of the mix, Susan said. “Because we stay open year ‘round we find it beneficial to hire local people. It takes a long time to train people on our park and train them the way we want them,” she explained.
They’re more than employees to the Hart family. “We operate as a family business, so we treat our staff as family as well. People once they start here, our staff stays for years and years,” Susan said. “I have one that’s here about 25 years. I have several that started here when they were in high school and would come back when they were in college and work summers here. Some come back and still work as a second job, one’s a teacher who works here during the summer. It’s a fun place. We try to make it an enjoyable, you can tell that everybody enjoys what they do here,” Susan said.
That, in turn, helps keep guests coming back year after year.
Reaching out to peers is a huge resource that every campground owner should use, Susan Hart said. “We are members of the Virginia Campground Association and the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds and the Virginia KOA Owners Association and the National KOA Owners Association,” she said.
“There’s a lot that you learn from the organizations that you belong to, your fellow campgrounds,” she said. She’s a huge fan of KOA, in particular. “What’s nice bout KOA is you get all the education, we have somebody we can call for anything. It can be a bookkeeping question, a question about where to get an electrical pedestal, how to build a site, insurance, whatever,” she said.
“As campground owners we’re united,” the second-generation park owner said. “There’s a dozen other KOAs in Virginia, and technically we’re competing against each other, but we don’t feel that way. We still look out for each other. We still share our information with each other. I’m not sure that you have that in non-franchise systems. I’ve never been apart, so I don’t really know, but that’s just really valuable,” Susan said.
Another valuable advantage she sees is the KOA Owners Association’s heartfelt support of KOA Care Camps. “There are other things we support, but that’s the big one,” Susan said.
The charity provides funds for children with cancer to attend specialized oncology camps, and Susan said it’s a valuable service. “It’s amazing. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the kids. KOA does an auction every year at the convention. You get to see first hand what we’re doing,” she said.
And, of course, there’s family engagement. Both of the Harts’ sons spent most of their childhoods at the campground.
“Our kids grew up in this business as well working for us and went off to college,” Susan said. They still pitch in when they come home to visit, though. “They’re both still involved, probably always will be. It’s one of those businesses you get sucked into. It gets in your blood.”