In 2008, the Ott family purchased Wekiva Falls Resort in Central Florida. It was 100 acres with 800 full hook-up sites, said Gary Ott Jr. His father, Gary Sr., and his mother, Kathy, as well as their daughter, Heidi, make up the family business partnership.
“It was our first experience in the outdoor hospitality industry,” Gary noted to WOODALLSCM.com. “The property we purchased was developed in the 1970s and had been neglected for decades. If you accidentally stumbled upon it to go camping, as soon as you pulled in you would pull right back out as it did not appear to be a safe, clean environment to say the least.”
But Gary Sr. who discovered the property for his family business envisioned it had a lot of potential. He purchased it and Gary Jr. and his daughter, Heidi, moved down from their family home in Penn. to help with the project. By 2018 the Ott family had built Wekiva Falls Resort into one of the highest-rated campgrounds in that market with 800 full hook-up sites available year round. With this accomplishment in hand, the Ott family decided to sell the property, take the wealth of knowledge they had gathered over that 10 years and move back home to Pennsylvania to begin again as campground entrepreneurs on a much larger scale.
The ambitious Ott family illustrates that in this booming real estate market, coupled with the cash flow from record bookings for campgrounds all across North America, there may never be a time like this again for a major expansion in the campground industry.
Four Campground Acquisitions in Four Years
“Our plan was to strategically search for value-added opportunities in destination markets,” said Gary Jr. about his family’s ambitious plan upon the return to the Quaker state. “The first property we purchased was Hershey Road Campground, formerly known as Conewago Campground. This was an older campground with a great location only 15-minutes from Hershey Park and Chocolate World and 30 minutes from downtown Lancaster.”
He shared that all aspects of this property needed to be completely redeveloped with a brand new campground on top of the existing location. All phases were completed in 2020 and it is now the highest-rated campground in the market with a perfect 5/5 Trip Advisor score.
“Gettysburg was the next market that we targeted,” he continued. “We found Artillery Ridge Campground which is located right in the middle of the battlefield less than a mile down the street from the National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.”
Gary Jr. shared that this campground is also across the street from the horse trail entrance to the battlefield, and over the years the previous owner developed a section of the 50-acre property for campers who want to bring their equine friends with them.
“On any weekend we can have close to 40 horses staying at the horse park section of the campground,” he explained. “There’s also a third-party company that rents our barn and does guided horseback tours of the battlefield. We are completing a brand new pool, splash pad, pavilion, mini golf and restroom facilities here this spring.”
“After two successful seasons in the Gettysburg market we were ready to purchase another location,” Gary Jr. continued. “We knew the owner of the Gettysburg Campground was at some point in the near future getting ready to sell his campground. We had asked him to please allow us an opportunity first to make an offer before going to market. He provided us that opportunity and we offered full asking and closed on this property at the start of 2021.”
The family was off and running again with the third campground in as many years. The other two campgrounds proved to provide some financial momentum for this next acquisition.
“This campground was the first one we purchased that was an established location in the market with great amenities and facilities,” Gary Jr. said. “The campground had great reviews and was rated very high in the market. We introduced online reservations in the first season, raised the rates and cross-promoted with Artillery Ridge Campground which is just 10 minutes away. We exceeded our first-year projections and are planning on having an even stronger 2022 season.”
It’s of note that all the campgrounds with the exception of Gettysburg Campground the Ott family acquired were not listed for sale. They actively sought out the campgrounds they wished to purchase.
With these three successes behind them, the Ott family turned their heads to the Jersey Shore.
“The next market we targeted was the New Jersey Shore,” said Ott Jr. “We wanted to be south of Atlantic City and near the beach. We found just what we were looking for a great opportunity that is 10 minutes from Ocean City. We purchased Ocean City Campground (formerly known as Frontier Campground) at the start of this year. It is a beautiful campground but needs all new amenities and facilities. We are in the construction process now and plan to have the majority of the new additions online by mid-season this year (2022).
Campground owners understand that getting family members to work together as one cohesive business is literally a labor of love. When it works out, as exampled by the Ott family, the results can be pure gold.
Division of Labor Important In the Family Run Campground
“We are a family-owned business,” said Gary Jr. as he detailed out the division of labor the family follows for its successful acquisition of four campgrounds in four years. “I am responsible for all the daily operations. Heidi is responsible for all marketing and social media, and is also the activities director. My mom, Kathy, is our bookkeeper and our accountant who manages all financials. My dad, Gary Sr., is in charge of all acquisitions and development. We have experienced a lot of success working together as a family.”
He stated that since each family member has an area in which they specialize, they can expedite decisions and move forward faster than forming a committee on every issue.
“Of course, like working with any family things can heat up quickly,” he added. “We like to call it ‘passion’ he added with a chuckle. But at the end of the day as long as we continue to allow each other the ability to express their feelings and opinions, and to be heard, we continue to strengthen as a business and as a family.”
Dynamic Pricing Adds to the Bottom Line
The Ott family has instituted a dynamic pricing strategy to maximize the rates charged for the current and historical occupancy levels.
“This will be our first season with dynamic pricing at all (four) of our locations,” Gary Jr. shared. “Occupancy dictates rates. Last season we sold out all our weekends and picked up more Sunday and especially Thursday campers. After we attended the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds’ Outdoor Hospitality Conference and Expo in the fall, we came away with the full confidence to roll it out this season.”
He stated that through their software provider, CampLife, they were able to set it all up smoothly and are already seeing the benefits through advanced bookings.
Consider a Destination Campground When Expanding
“When you own a destination campground your customer can come from anywhere in North America,” said Gary Jr. “When you own a regional campground you normally attract people from around a 200-mile radius. Our campgrounds, especially Gettysburg and Hershey, attract people from as far away as California. It basically allows us a bigger net to cast.”
Mixed in with this broader attraction is the formula of increasing the campground amenities to truly make it a vacation destination. “Having great pool areas and splash parks is important,” he said. “We are investing in more cabins because they perform better with occupancy rates. Don’t forget there is an estimated 89% of families that do not own an RV that want a great place to stay. That is especially true in these destination markets. So, we are investing heavily in our rental accommodations.”
He added that these accommodations generate nearly three times the revenue when compared to an RV site.
Cutting Back on Seasonal Campers
One of the strategies that the Ott family instituted was to limit long-term seasonal campers in an effort to attract more traffic and increase day rates.
“This past season we told all our seasonal guests at all our locations, many of which have been staying with the campgrounds for over 30 years, that we will not be renewing them for this season. It’s one of the hardest and easiest decisions to make. This upcoming season, all of these sites are now open on a transient basis, Gary Jr. explained. “It’s very hard on the one hand because we have developed personal relationships with the majority of them and they really have enjoyed staying over the years. But on the other hand, it’s one of the easiest business decisions to make especially coming off last season when we were full every weekend and turning away many campers.
He said the industry has changed in recent years and he found that committing a large number of spaces to the seasonal rate is an outdated business decision that holds back the properties’ performance.
“We did this because there is such a demand for short-term camping right now and there is not enough that I can charge a seasonal camper that would equal what a short-term site would produce,” noted Gary Jr.
Gary Jr. addressed the issue of staffing which has become a challenge in the industry.
“It is one thing to have been able to find good opportunities in strong markets as a big part of our success,” he said. “The other part which you could argue is equally or even more important has come from our wonderful group of employees. They are the ones who bring everything together to create that great memorable guest experience. The experience that has the guest rebooking again and telling their friends they have to come and stay next time.”
Gary Jr. encourages new owners to develop and promote staff that stay on after the transition of new ownership.
“We also have been fortunate to find really great work campers who enjoy working with us as much as they do staying with us at these destination resorts,” He explained.