Wekiva Falls on Memorial Day 2014.

Wekiva Falls on Memorial Day 2014.

When Gary Ott first laid eyes on Wekiva Falls RV Resort in 2007, it was a wreck.

The man who developed the property 30 years before and ran it with his wife had passed away, leaving his widow to manage the 100-acre, 800-site park alone. It had fallen into grave disrepair and devolved from a popular camping destination into the worst trailer-park stereotype.

Ott decided it was perfect and bought it within a year.

It seemed to him a perfectly sound investment choice, even though the park had no modern amenities and its original 1970s-era electrical system was still in use; what it did have was a beautiful natural landscape at his precise desired location between Orlando and Daytona, and plenty of room to grow.

It was also irrelevant that he had no experience whatsoever in campground management, or any facet of the outdoor recreation industry. Ott’s 20 years of experience in self-storage business operations and ownership was, he felt, sufficiently applicable. “His very basic thought process was, ‘Instead of storing boxes, I’ll be storing people,’” explained his daughter, Heidi (Ott) Runels.

Heidi (Ott) Runels

Heidi (Ott) Runels

She and her brother, Gary Jr., moved to Florida in 2008 to join the family business — which turned out to be difficult and unpleasant at the start.

“It was extremely hard,” Runels said frankly. “Not only did we have a huge learning curve, but we underestimated the deplorable condition of the park and its horrible reputation amongst campers. We had to overcome both.”

Wekiva Falls required a “complete overhaul,” she said, starting with the immediate ejection of 100 of the park’s 200 residents. Then they got to work on the property by upgrading the electrical system, adding cable, paving the roads, pouring new concrete pads, cleaning up the marina, remodeling the store and laundry facilities and building new bathhouses, an office, a walk-in concession area and the park’s first clubhouse — a 9,000-square-foot facility with a stage and a large kitchen.

Symbiotic relationships with local RV dealerships were set in motion “from day one,” according to Runels. “We reached out to give them brochures on our park in hopes of getting our name in front of our target audience,” she related. “We offer a free night at our park for anyone who purchases an RV from a local dealership.”

Wekiva Falls also houses rallies for dealers such as Giant Recreation World in Winter Garden, Fla., which has its own RV club that visits twice a year; and when La Mesa RV opened its newest store just five miles away, they easily fell into a partnership.

“La Mesa often has transient employees who stay in RVs, and we offer them a discount on the monthly lot rent,” said Runels, and many times customers redeeming their free night’s stay after a purchase at La Mesa are new to camping and find the experience extremely helpful for them. “We have a very knowledgeable staff, since they are all campers too, to help them get their new RV all set up and situated in their site.”

In addition, La Mesa comes to the campground every Wednesday during the snowbird season with coffee and donuts. “They always bring the latest models of RVs and have sold a few over the years at our park,” she said. “We believe a dealership/campground relationship is wonderfully reciprocal, with the best part being that the customer benefits on both sides.”

WekivaFallsCanoeingBut after Ott’s general business acumen had run its course, Wekiva Falls suffered an identity crisis of sorts while the family tried to figure out where they’d find their niche. “With a park as large as ours, we were constantly looking for ‘the answer,’ that one thing that’s going to be the best fit for us,” Runels related. “We were hopeful that one idea would help fill our park.”

They toyed with presenting themselves as a rally mecca in 2008 and 2009, then dabbled with Passport America — the park hosted its 2011 National Rally and “tried to come up with a way to use Passport America as the ‘end-all, be-all’ of our park” — and when that trajectory dissolved, Wekiva Falls spent 14 months in 2012 and 2013 as a Kampgrounds of America (KOA) franchise after the elder Otts attended a convention and thought KOA might be their “knight in shining armor.”

And indeed, the KOA brand helped override locals’ bad opinions of the park as well as bring in new campers that had never encountered the previous owners’ version of it, and its systems filled the family’s void of campground-specific know-how. “KOA helped us add things to our park we didn’t even know were important, like adding picnic tables to all the sites and clearing out roots and overgrown trees. They had systems in place that helped us monitor what our guests were saying about us. The NPS (net-promoter score) reviews could singlehandedly be the greatest tool we took with us from KOA.”

In the end, said Runels, the KOA model “didn’t fit the uniqueness of our park for the long term, and it probably wouldn’t have been a good fit for KOA either; but that was the most productive path we ever followed. While our franchise ultimately didn’t work, we’d finally received the education we needed to go forward.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Ott family found themselves five years older and wiser, having learned enough about the campground business to run it themselves, learned more about what they already had in the park from a few key pre-buyout team members, and learned what a wide world of campers exists — and which ones they wanted as guests, as well as what those guests would want from them.

They also learned to be flexible and experiment, as with their search for the perfect campground management software. They’ve finally found happiness with their fourth. “We started with Digital Rez, then Campground Master, then KOA’s. After doing a lot of research, we selected RMS and we couldn’t be happier,” she said. “Of course, the system itself is very user-friendly; even our most ‘technologically challenged’ employees mastered it.”

All that learning led them to one simple truth: There IS no “one idea” that will singlehandedly fill an RV park — it’s a culmination of many successful ideas and initiatives that play to their strengths, both those of the park and the management.

Because the park is so big and has so many sites available at any given time, guests checking in are led by golf cart to not just one site; they’re led around the property so they can “shop” for the site they want.

“We keep in the office, rotating on a weekly basis, what we call the Fantastic Five — the top five sites currently available — and we show these to the new guest. The process can take a little bit longer, but it’s easier for me to give someone a 15-minute tour so they can see everything and let them say, ‘Hey, I really like that row with lots of trees,’ or ‘I like this area further away from the pool,’ than for us to pick a site for them and then find out later they didn’t enjoy their stay,” she described. “We believe it’s important to guests to feel they have control over their visit, and us taking the extra time to set up the guest experience helps to cut down on a lot of questions or confusion during a stay.”

Giving guests control over their visit is reflected in the family’s a-la-carte mindset; for example, cable isn’t included in monthly rates because not everyone needs or uses it, explained Runels. “We strive to keep our camping rates as low as we can and let the guest add on what they need from there.”

WekivaFalls_Gary Jr & GuestsOther initiatives release control to vendors that help lighten their administrative load, which became particularly valuable after Runels moved to Indiana and then Michigan and the other three returned to their native Ohio, leaving day-to-day operations in non-Ott hands. (Runels helps out at major events and holidays and Gary Jr. spends one week there every month, but the family mostly runs the park remotely through weekly conference calls and nightly reports sent out by the couple that heads the on-site staff.) Rental company My RV Hotel independently sets up and rents an “Ambassador Suite” unit on the property; and CampLink, a third-party Internet provider, installed and maintains the system and directly handles service and payment.

“While there was no up-front cost to us, a 100-acre park is a large area to service, so CampLink does charge for Wi-Fi at the individual sites,” Runels explained. “Since Internet has become such a commonplace thing, we asked CampLink to provide two free hotspot areas. Being able to offer the free hotspots makes some guests more accepting of the fact that it’s not free everywhere, which can be a sore subject; people are increasingly expecting it, and in some cases it is just too expensive to offer for free.”

Another major Wekiva Falls growth initiative is the RV Getaway program, which lets guests reserve monthly sites with 15 nights for camping and 15 for storage. It’s a popular option for locals who can’t park an RV at home due to neighborhood restrictions; this allows them to store it in a safe place, plus use it without the hassle of packing and unpacking it.

The Getaway program has produced the quickest and highest yield of business expansion at Wekiva Falls; in 2010, it brought in about 15 such campers every month. In 2013, they reserved 111 guests for a total of 8,008 camping nights; in 2014, guest reservations totaled 166 over 9,769 nights, “and the trend is continuing upward,” she said. “It’s made such an impact on our sales and occupancy. It’s huge.”

But Runels appreciates the intangibles most of all. “Because we have the space and because it’s Florida, where it’s still 70 degrees in January, we turned it into a year-round program. Half of the people that set up like this in the summer just leave it there year-round, and then they think of it as a vacation home,” Runels said. “It’s key in building relationships with them. You see our Getaway people come through all the time now feeling like Wekiva Falls is their home, too. You create that with your snowbirds because they’re there three months out of the year like clockwork, but to create that with local guests really puts your name out there in such a different way.”

That’s the holy grail of this business, she said. “I need to build relationships because this is a relationship-based industry. I believe that keeps us one step ahead of the game,” she related. “There may be a place down the road with a better rate, but my camper relationship and customer service will often outweigh the extra $50 a month he has to pay. I may not have concrete pads and firepits and outdoor patios and landscaping at every single site, but if I provide good, level sites, amenities that work, fun activities, and customer service like you can’t believe, I’m gonna win that customer back every time.”

Relationships aren’t the only thing being built at Wekiva Falls. Upcoming property improvements include adding a dog wash near the dog park, a new bathhouse with updated and larger showers and restrooms, a second laundry facility, a new secondary clubhouse, an exercise room and a small meeting room, continued site upgrades, opening the clubhouse for summer activities, weekend family activities and outdoor movie nights, and the addition of a second, larger pool behind the existing clubhouse featuring an area with an outdoor bar, firepit, waterfall and shuffleboard court. “Constant change and improvement is always our goal,” Runels said.

At the end of the day, though, the Ott family prioritizes one thing: Each other. Although working with family has its ups and downs, “you have to remember that your family is first. You do go through some rough moments, but we came through ours better for it,” she said. “You can unravel over technical things like what colors you should use in your logo. This person wants to go this direction, another wants to go that direction. But four brains are better than one, although you have to have just one head honcho. You need that team effort.

“I think one of the most interesting things about our story is the fact that none of us had any knowledge of the RV industry prior to taking on one of the largest parks in Central Florida. We have faced so much adversity with this park, and done so as a family.”

Name: Wekiva Falls RV Resort

Address: 30700 Wekiva River Road, Sorrento FL, 32776

Accommodations: 817 full hook-up RV sites , most with picnic tables and cement pads; about 400 Standard (40 ft. by 30 ft.) and 400 Premium (100 ft. by 40 ft., cable included). 100 tent sites, some with W/E.

Physical description: 106 acres with wooded areas bordering Wekiva River and a marina on a river tributary running through the park and into a natural warm sulfur spring swimming lagoon at the center; surrounded by 9,000 acres of state conservation land.

Season: All year

Rates: All RV sites with W/E/S: $39-$49/day, $234-$294/wk., $399-$624/mo. Tent sites: $25-$30 primitive; $32-$37, W/E. Rental unit: $149/day, $750/wk., $1,000/mo. Dry RV storage: $69/mo. On-site storage: $100-$150/mo.; seasonal, $399-$499. RV Getaway (15 nights camping, 15 nights storage on site): $299/mo. Day passes: Ages 2-11, $6; ages 12 and up, $8; carload (max 6), $25. Pavilion rental: $30/day. Clubhouse rental: $500/day. Kayaks and 2-3 seat canoes, $7.50-$22.50 for 2 hrs.

Website: www.WekivaFalls.com