Steve Stafford has been general manager of the North Texas Jellystone Park in Burleson for just over a decade.
But while Stafford is widely known among Yogi Bear Jellystone Park Camp-Resort franchisees for his work managing one of the largest Yogi Bear-themed parks in the country, relatively few people know he was hired as general manager of the campground at the age of 52 with no prior experience in the campground business.
Granted, when Stafford was initially hired in July of 2009, the former Rustic Creek Ranch hadn’t yet joined the Jellystone Park franchise network. Like many independent campgrounds, it was a family business co-owned by Stafford’s wife’s cousin, Ronnie Bowyer and his wife, Ginger, and two of her aunts, Dorothy Wilcox and Annette Bowyer.
But even with close family connections, Stafford remembers feeling a little nervous when he left behind a 29-year career at a small private university. Stafford had held a variety of positions ranging from physical education instructor to college counselor and eventually vice president of enrollment before joining his wife’s family’s campground business, which was located 20 miles south of Fort Worth. Stafford also knew he was going to need some time to learn the ropes and “win respect,” as he put it. But he needed a change.
“I was in a rut,” Stafford recalled. “My wife called it a midlife crisis. I remember sitting in my vice president’s office. I had a shirt and tie on, and I said to myself, ‘Is this it? Is this all there is to my life and career?’ I knew I needed a change. I also knew that for me to advance financially, I had to take some risks.”
It was during a subsequent period of soul-searching that Stafford spoke with Bowyer and became inspired by his plans to grow their family campground business. “I saw Ronnie’s big heart and his big dreams,” Stafford said.
Stafford remembers his boss and some of his co-workers at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas, were shocked when he said he was leaving to work at a campground. “They said, ‘You’re going to work in an RV park?’ Some staff members were in disbelief and wanted to know the truth, thinking I got fired,” Stafford said with a laugh.
But Stafford’s career change was serious, and when he joined Rustic Creek Ranch, he quickly recognized how imperative it would be to join campground industry associations, network with other park operators and attend their educational seminars, not only to learn about the industry but to learn the basics of running a campground — a challenge faced by people across North America who enter the campground business as a midlife career change.
While Bowyer and other family members had already been running Rustic Creek Ranch for several years, when Stafford joined them in the summer of 2009, they were still trying to figure out exactly what their next steps would be as they worked to expand their business. Stafford, for his part, had no instruction book on how to do his job.
“There was no manual,” he said, adding that Bowyer’s family had not even thought about joining the Jellystone Park network as a way of growing their business. “Jellystone? It was not even on their radar,” Stafford recalled.
But things changed when Stafford joined Bowyer and other family members in a meeting with Brian Schaeffer, the executive vice president and CEO of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO), and his wife, Debra, who runs the association with him.
“Brian and Ronnie were sitting in there and Brian mentioned, ‘You might want to look into Jellystone,’” Stafford recalled.
Stafford and Bowyer were already planning to attend the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) next convention, which was going to be in Orlando, Fla., but even before they went to Florida, they started making research calls to several Jellystone Park operators around the country to see what they had to say about joining the Yogi Bear-themed campground network.
“Everyone of them called me back and said (joining Jellystone) was the best thing they’d ever done,” Stafford recalled, adding that he and Bowyer also visited the Jellystone Park in Waller, Texas, before traveling to Orlando.
When they went to Orlando, Stafford and Bowyer spent all of their time meeting with other Jellystone Park operators instead of going to the seminars they had originally planned to attend.
“The people were just so nice,” Stafford said of the Jellystone Park franchisees, adding that all of them expressed a willingness to mentor them if they decided to become Jellystone Park franchisees.
By January 2010, Bowyer and his family decided to join the Jellystone Park network and they spent the next three months scrambling to learn as much as they could about how to put together an activities program. In addition to studying Leisure System Inc.’s (LSI) park operations and training manual, Stafford, Bowyer and other staff members received their initial training through LSI’s weeklong Certification and Management Program (CAMP) and through LSI’s Caring About Recreation and Entertainment (CARE) conference, both of which take place during the winter months.
LSI is the franchisor of more than 75 Jellystone Parks throughout North America.
“We talked with (former Nashville Jellystone Park co-owner) Andy Eaton at CAMP. He met with us until midnight, answering our questions,” Stafford said, adding, “When you go to CARE, you make friends with the activities directors at other parks.”
These connections, of course, would provide fruitful as Stafford would later call these folks for assistance with various questions that came up as he tried to implement Jellystone’s activities program.
By April 2010, Rustic Creek Ranch officially became a Jellystone Park and Stafford and the Bowyer family worked to implement the activity program that other Jellystone Park operators found to be worthwhile. It was a mad rush at the beginning.
“We started Spring Break with Yogi. I think the costume still had the price tag on it,” Stafford said with a laugh, adding, “We were copying and pasting activity schedules.”
But Stafford and his staff quickly figured out what they needed to do, both on their own and by calling other franchisees for helpful tips. Stafford himself remembers calling another Jellystone Park operator for help figuring out how to make the chocolate mixture used in a chocolate pudding slide. These efforts paid off, however.
By 2011, revenue at the North Texas Jellystone Park had grown by double digits, echoing the experiences of other independent campground operators after they joined the Jellystone Park network. But the Bowyer family didn’t rest on their laurels. They continued to add new amenities and attractions and grow their business.
In 2012, they opened Pirate’s Cove, a four-acre play and entertainment area with a 26,000 square foot, 36-foot-high water play park with seven water slides right next door to the campground. Pirate’s Cove included interactive water features along with an activity pool, a floating lily pad and a rope walk.
The Bowyers also complemented the water play park with the Pirate’s Cove Fun Zone, a 13,500-square-foot entertainment center with a 28-foot climbing structure, mini bowling, laser tag, a froghopper ride and more than 40 interactive and arcade games.
“The waterpark brought in more campers,” Stafford said, adding that the attractions were especially appealing to families with young children.
The Bowyers later expanded the water play park, adding two 60-foot-tall waterslides, which appealed to families with teenagers. Other improvements included the addition of a lazy river, and, in 2019, the opening of two, 65-foot-tall, 350-feet long tubular waterslides.
“As the water park got bigger, the length of stays increased,” Stafford said, adding that the addition of new attractions has helped transform the campground into a vacation destination for families with children of all ages.
The Bowyer family added other attractions, too, including an escape room, along with more RV sites and park model cabins as their business levels increased.
By 2016, with barely seven years under their belts as a Jellystone Park franchisee, the North Texas Jellystone Park won LSI’s Camp Resort of the Year, the highest award in the Jellystone Park franchise network. They also picked up LSI’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award, which is presented to parks with the highest year-over-year growth in business, with Stafford himself winning the Jim Webb Spirit Award, which is presented to an individual who has played a major role in the success of the Jellystone Park franchise network.
The Bowyer family, meanwhile, has continued to invest in more improvements, amenities and attractions, the latest being construction of a 260-foot-long pirate ship with 10 two-bedroom cabin suites in early 2020. At the time of this writing, the Bowyers were planning to commence yet another round of improvements this year, including the construction of a 350,000-gallon swimming pool that will be roughly 190-feet-long and 90-feet-wide and no more than four feet deep. They are also building a new 25,000-square-foot activity center. “People have asked us if we’re putting in a Walmart,” Stafford said, noting how surprised people are by the size of the facility.
Other improvements include the addition of 48 RV sites, which will boost the park to 206 sites. Several unique rental accommodations will also be added to the park later this year, including 14 tipis from Nomadic Tipi Makers in Bend, Ore. and a dozen furnished Conestoga Wagons and big safari tents from the Conestoga Wagon Company in Bloomington, Idaho. Another unique rental accommodation, produced by a Texas company, will be announced and installed later this year.
As one might expect, Stafford and the Bowyer family have learned many lessons over the past decade, which can benefit both new and existing park operators. LSI, in fact, sometimes recruits Stafford to speak at seminars and other special events designed to recruit new and aspiring park operators to the Yogi Bear-themed franchise network.
Stafford, for his part, goes out of his way to help mentor new Jellystone Park operators, just like they helped him when he and Bowyer were rookies learning the ropes. Stafford also has words of wisdom that can benefit any new and existing park operator.
Hire consultants to guide you with strategic decisions: While Stafford and Bowyer have learned plenty through their own hands-on experience, they have hired consultants to guide them with critical decisions along the way. “We had a consultant before we joined Jellystone,” Stafford said. “We had somebody advise us about LSI and about the franchise fees.” It was also an outside consultant who told Bowyer and Stafford they should consider developing a waterpark as a way of generating increased revenue for their campground business.
They hired another consultant to advise them on how to implement dynamic pricing. Stafford said consultants are helpful to park operators who want to increase their knowledge about ways to further develop their businesses. This is particularly important for park operators who want more advanced training than they can receive at campground industry seminars, which are often geared to accommodate newcomers to the industry.
Don’t be afraid to go out of your network to do research: While North Texas Jellystone has training and manuals from LSI, Bowyer and Stafford continually do their own research, visiting not just other parks, including parks outside the Jellystone Park network, but other types of businesses.
“Ronnie has geared us to reach out and do our own research. We don’t have to wait on LSI or anyone else to find out what is the latest and greatest. Let’s find out ourselves. Each owner should be doing this on their own anyway,” Stafford said.
Their research over the years has included a visit to a waterpark in Brazil and attending the World Waterpark Association convention. They even visit Chick-Fil-A.
“We can learn new things from other companies about the things they do to be successful. It doesn’t have to be a waterpark or a campground. There are things that carry over to any business, whether it’s marketing or customer service,” Stafford said.
Get involved with your community: North Texas Jellystone is involved in a variety of activities, from Meals on Wheels to supporting an annual event called the World’s Largest Swim Lesson, which the park provides as part of a community drowning prevention coalition that includes Cooks Children’s Hospital, the Burleson Fire Department, the city of Burleson, the Aqua-Tots Swim School and the Sigma Swim School.
Stafford said it’s important for park owners to be involved to raise their visibility and to be dialed in to what’s happening locally. While it may be difficult for top managers to attend these meetings, Stafford said it behooves park operators to figure out who among their staff members they should groom for community outreach efforts.
Be open to changing some of your activities and attractions: “Guests like to have new experiences and to keep them coming back each year, you need to provide new activities and experiences for them,” Stafford said, adding, “In our industry, the return guest is what you want because that’s where you start making some money. Maybe you add a different cabin type or a new hiking trail.” One attraction the North Texas Jellystone recently eliminated was its escape room, which proved to be too hard to staff and supervise and wasn’t generating the kind of interest the park wanted to see. “You’re going to cannibalize some things,” Stafford said.
Look for ways to increase revenue: The North Texas Jellystone analyzes guest spending on everything from its attractions to its camp store. “At the waterpark, I know most people will spend a little over $6 a day. How do I get them to spend $6.50? Do I add something different? Open up earlier?” These are important things to think about.
North Texas Jellystone, for its part, finished off 2020 with a 14% increase in revenue over 2019 figures, despite having to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, Stafford said, adding that the park has consistently had year-over-year revenue gains of at least 7% over the past decade by consistently investing in park improvements, activities and marketing.