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It is important to have the right people doing the right tasks to keep your park running efficiently. Credit: Shutterstock

Many people dream of owning and operating a campground or RV park, but first-time park operators are often astounded by the variety of unforeseen challenges they have to confront.

“There are a lot of pieces to running a campground, and there is always something you don’t know how to do,” said Cathy Reinard, an associate broker at Danielle Windus Cook Properties, LLC, who has owned and operated four campgrounds over the past three decades.

But while the first year of operating a park poses its own set of challenges, Reinard has identified several strategies and tactics that first-time park operators can use to not only help them survive their first year but to lay a solid foundation for many years of successful park management. 

Create a marketing plan that brings the type of customer to your park that you want to attract, which may not necessarily be the type of customer you already have: Effectively marketing a park isn’t simply a matter of filling spaces, but filling campsites with the kinds of guests that you want your park to attract, whether they’re transient or long-term guests, budget conscious or affluent, or somewhere in between. Your marketing plan should clearly describe the type of customer you want to attract, their income level, whether they’re families, empty nesters or retirees and identify the specific amenities, activities or other attractions that you plan to promote that will attract the ideal customer to your park. 

Reinard said she spent a lot of time last year simply trying to entice transient RVers to the recently converted Catskill Mountains/Gilboa KOA Holiday in Gilboa, N.Y.,
but later discovered she wasn’t able to attract as many of the transient RVers as she’d hoped because too many of her campsites with 50-amp connections were occupied by seasonal campers. 

“(Not having 50-amp connections) is a dealbreaker for a lot of people,” Reinard said, adding that she eventually realized she needed to free up more of her 50-amp campsites so that they could be used by her ideal customer — transient RVers who were willing to pay higher rates for their campsites. 

She did this by significantly raising her rates for seasonal campers with 50-amp sites, which prompted them either to leave or to pay the higher rate, which was more in sync with the actual market value of seasonal RV sites with 50-amp hookups.

While first-time park operators may not have all of the amenities they need to attract their ideal customers, Reinard said they can whet people’s appetite by surveying their guests and asking them to specify the types of improvements they would like to see. 

“All you can do is showcase what you currently have for amenities, but you can always do surveys and say ‘What would you like to have?’” Reinard said.

Cathy Reinard

Cathy Reinard

Reinard added that park operators should look at all of the parks in their immediate area to see what they offer. 

“Ultimately,” she noted, “your goal should be to be the best park in the area. What kind of clientele do (your competitors) have? What kinds of rigs are showing up in their parks?”

Enforce your park rules, always and with everyone, with no exceptions: In many ways, the Achille’s heel of the North American campground industry is park operators’ failure to enforce their own rules. 

Far beyond giving park operators written authority to eject guests who fail to pay for their campsites or rental units, rules are designed to give park operators specific reasons for ejecting guests who violate quiet hours, clutter their campsites, fail to control their pets or otherwise disrupt or degrade the camping experience for others in the park.

Unfortunately, Reinard says, park operators often shrink from the task of enforcing their own rules because they don’t want to endure the discomfort that comes with verbal confrontations with guests. But enforcing park rules is a task that is critically important because the extent to which rules are enforced ultimately affects the ambiance and camping experience a park provides. 

Park operators can invest in new amenities, landscaping and other improvements, but guests can easily degrade a park’s ambiance and visual appeal by violating quiet hours, cluttering their campsites or by engaging in other behavior that’s disruptive to other campers.
“You have to have rules and you have to stick to your guns. You can’t be a pushover and you can’t change your mind,” Reinard asserts, adding that enforcing park rules is one of the most effective things park operators can do — aside from raising their rates — to improve the ambiance and visual appeal of their parks. 

“You won’t get good seasonal or transient campers coming back when you are afraid to enforce your rules,” Reinard warns.

Of course, enforcing rules isn’t easy. Some guests, particularly seasonal campers, will sometimes verbally attack or even insult park operators who enforce rules, in person and online, particularly if the same rules were not enforced in the past. 

“Brace for blowback from enforcing the rules,” Reinard said. “It can be hurtful, but don’t respond emotionally. In some cases, you don’t need to respond at all.”

Enduring the attacks, in person and online, is worth it in the long run, Reinard asserts, because this is precisely how you get rid of troublesome campers and create the conditions you need to attract better campers to your park. Enforcing park rules can make a huge difference, even for things as simple as enforcing quiet hours.

“If you let somebody misbehave and are afraid of their reaction (if you confront them about the noise they are making after hours), you could lose other customers who (won’t say anything, but) will never come back because they didn’t get a good night’s sleep at your park,” Reinard said.

Campers

Enforcement of rules is key to ensuring all campers have a great time at your park. Credit: Shutterstock

Keep your relationship professional with your guests: “These people are not your friends,” Reinard said. “They may be very nice people. But do not confuse customers with friendships because many will leave you for a $100 price increase.”

Join every association you can find that makes sense for you to join: Join your state and national campground industry associations. 

“If you are part of a franchise,” Reinard said, “be active with them. Join a 20 Group. Never stop learning. 20 Groups, in particular, will help you learn what is realistic for your park, budget-wise.”

Recognize your limits and hire experts to handle tasks outside your area of expertise: It’s impossible for one person to adequately handle every task a park requires. 

“You need to have a good attorney in your back pocket as well as a good accountant,” said Reinard, who co-owns and operates the Catskill Mountains/Gilboa KOA Holiday with her daughter, Christine Taylor, an attorney with the Towne Law Firm, P.C. in Albany, N.Y. Having experts handle certain tasks also helps park owners to target their own efforts and to think more strategically about ways to improve their businesses. 

“We spend so much time working in our businesses that we don’t spend enough time working on (or improving it),” Reinard said. “Revisit your budget and business plan frequently (to see what you can improve).”

Raise your rates as needed to keep your business profitable: “If your park can’t support you and your family, that’s a problem,” Reinard said, adding that it’s important for park operators to charge enough to cover their expenses and still have a profit. “If you want to donate money to charity, donate, but don’t do it by not charging enough for your campsites.”

Have a contingency fund: One unbudgeted surprise that threw a wrench into Reinard’s calculations for her first year co-owning and operating the Catskill Mountains/Gilboa KOA Holiday was the urgent need to drill a new water well.

“I spent a ton of money on water last year,” she said. “I never anticipated having to drill a new well or pay for a water study.”

Reinard noted that this experience underscores the need for park operators to have a contingency fund to cover unexpected costs. 

“What are you going to do,” she asked, “if something breaks or needs repair and you have to fix it to stay open?”

Be a good employer: “Treat your employees the way you want to be treated yourself,” Reinard said, adding, “You have to treat every employee the same, just like treating all campers the same.”

Establish clear policies and procedures for your employees that are in compliance with state and federal laws: “I am astonished at how many people still post work camper-type jobs that are not compliant with employment laws,” Reinard said.

Create a daily project list for your staff: “Assign tasks, timelines and projects to keep your staff productive,” Reinard said.

Develop an emergency plan and practice it: Emergencies of all types can happen at any time. Make a list of the types of emergencies that could happen at your park, from generator breakdowns, power outages and water or sewer service breakdowns to severe storms, medical emergencies and active shooters. How will you respond to each of these situations? Who is going to be your point person for media calls or for communicating with firefighters, paramedics, police and other first responders? 

Part of the emergency planning process involves recognizing your skillsets and personality traits. “If you are the type of person who faints at the sight of blood, you need to have someone in charge of emergencies who can handle it,” Reinard said, adding, “You need to establish a process. What will you do if something happens in the middle of the night? Do you have a list of suppliers who can come help you? You need to have an emergency infrastructure plan. That’s part of surviving every year.”

Reinard had an emergency last year involving a small child who fell into a fire pit. The child had to be airlifted out of her campground by helicopter. 

“We did everything right,” Reinard said, “but we didn’t have as good of a radio protocol as we should have. We realized we needed to establish an emergency radio protocol so that we didn’t have people speaking on top of each other.”

Be an active member of your community: “If you are asked to support a local charity, a baseball team or other sports team, do it, even though your town will never help fill your campground,” Reinard said. 

Supporting community charities and sports teams helps build equity in the relationship a park has with its community, which can benefit the park in other ways down the road. 

“If you ever ask for a variance on your property, (being known as an active member of the community) will go a long way toward getting a ‘yes’ vote in the future,” she explained. 

Spend time away from your park each week: “Find a way to get off the property at least once a week, even if only for a few hours,” Reinard said. “Such breaks are critical to preserve your sanity and family relations. You also have to take care of yourself.” 

Spending time away also helps park operators maintain their energy and enthusiasm for the campground business itself. 

“Part of surviving the first year is remembering why you bought your park in the first place,” Reinard said. “Otherwise, you can completely drown in the negatives. Don’t let the 4% or 5% of people drag you down. Think of the 95% you are making happy.”