Editor’s Note: Jim Westover, vice president of operations at Milford, Ohio-based Leisure Systems Inc. which franchises Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts, spoke with Woodall’s Campground Management (WCM) about the franchises recent recognition by business-focused magazines Franchise Business Review and Entrepreneur. The 83-park system appeared for the first time on Franchise Business Review’s Top 200 list of award-winning franchise opportunities, and moved up 207 spots to No. 265 on Entrepreneur’s Franchise 500 list for 2018. The edited version of our conversation is below.
WCM: What does this kind of recognition mean for Jellystone? Being viewed as one of the top 200 franchises?
Westover: I think what it’s really done for us is bring a different set of eyeballs to our industry, a different type of investor. It’s really exposed us to a different clientele if you will. Just a lot of entrepreneurs out there that are looking for different businesses and this is certainly another avenue for those people.
Some of the franchisees we have currently have diverse backgrounds. They have owned something prior, like we’ve had some of them put that they have owned auto body shops on our forms, and they’re just kind of looking to diversify their portfolio and get into something new. This is obviously a fun industry to be involved in.
WCM: What was your initial reaction to seeing that you guys had made Franchise Business Review’s Top 200?
Westover: I was surprised. I mean, I know for Franchise Business Review we scored really, really well. I think the best part about it and the thing we’re probably the proudest about is when they ask guest, ‘Would you do it again?’ And they all resoundingly answered yes. Like 89% to 95% of the time.
So that is a big relief, and with Entrepreneur, we kind of just slid in there last year in the top 500. So I was not anticipating us moving up more than 200 spots to No. 265. That one was quite a surprise to me. We also were the No. 1 franchise in the campground category, so we’re really excited to be number one 1 in campgrounds, and we’re going to keep pushing. But we did have a heck of a year and we seem to have the needle going the right direction.
WCM: What are some of the things you can pinpoint that the company is doing that’s kind of driving Jellystone’s success?
Westover: I think we are taking a lot of the feedback that franchisees give us to heart. It’s not always an easy conversation, but we’re taking a look at some of the tools we’ve used in the past. We’ve implemented a new survey program, we’ve implemented a secret shop program and a texting program. So, just a lot of things that complement our business and help our franchisees do their jobs better, as far as supporting their guests.
WCM: What are some of the things you guys do to kind of differentiate yourself? Obviously you guys have the water features and everything, which is a big part of Jellystone Parks. What are some of the other things that you guys do to differentiate your parks?
Westover: I think the first thing we do is family entertainment. We wanna keep guests entertained. Whether it’s with Yogi or something else, our activities are definitely what set us apart. The requirements that we have for the franchisees in regards to activities keep schedules pretty full, we have the different crafts and we also have the merchandise and things that kind of go with it, to kind of set it apart, because guests are proud to say that they were there and that it was a great vacation.
It’s a different clientele, it’s really laid back, we want to provide a safe environment for a guests’ family, while they are there. And I think that’s what kind of sets it apart, is guests know it’s all a family-safe atmosphere and guests know they are going to always have fun, each day.
We also have a slew of new things we’ve branched out into, whether it’s a zombie hunt or a ninja warrior course, there have been a whole bunch of different things that our franchisees have had the vision to go out and do, which I think kind of sets us off from others as well. We’re not really cookie cutter. We let our franchisees have that entrepreneurial spirit and the franchisees have really excelled at that.
WCM: If I have a campground and I’m looking at becoming a Jellystone, what are some of the things you require before you let a campground into the franchise?
Westover: So, we’re always going to look at the demographic, but beyond that we want franchisees to have five cabins. Our clientele tentatively skews to that. I mean, our cabins are always 90% to 95% full, particularly on the weekends, so we want to provide that experience, all the luxuries of home.
We want franchisees to have Wi-Fi and typically we want franchisees to have 100-plus sites, because we do draw in a lot of folks. So the next requirement we look at is the spraygrounds and pools. We want franchisees to have those as well. Because we gotta keep guests entertained. Like I said, that is a big thing for us, keeping guests entertained the whole time they are there. And that’s what the expectation is.
WCM: Jellystone Parks has had a goal to reach 100 campgrounds in the system for a number of years now, is this something that you guys want to get to as quickly as possible, or are you just kind of looking at the market and letting that dictate how things progress?
Westover: Right now we have 83 open, two more under contract and we’re probably going to sign another two here soon. So we’ll be close to 87, almost 90 campgrounds here shortly. One hundred is our goal, and we are probably a little bit ahead of schedule right now, based off of where we are at. Just a lot of interest recently in the last year has really helped us grow.
We’re not actively let’s say marketing per se. We’ve done a lot with the franchise portal that allows people to kind of find us. So, I mean, our goal is still to be at 100, but I think it has to be 100 quality parks.
WCM: Jellystone Parks is looking to extend its footprint more to the west, correct?
Westover: Correct. We have held a couple of workshops for what we call prospective owners, one was just in Texas recently and we’re actually going to host another one this year on the east coast. But on the west coast, we really targeted kind of Colorado as our striking point and then of course NorthGate Resorts has really opened up a beautiful Jellystone Park in Lodi, Calif., that has already begun to draw a lot of attention.
WCM: What are some of the things that Jellystone Parks are doing to modernize and attract the millennial campers or younger families, or even the people who live full time in their campers?
Westover: I’d say comfort, No. 1. I think the beds and the care taken, the cabins itself have gotten bigger and bigger. We have begun to offer glamping cabins. Obviously Wi-Fi is huge. We need to have places for guests to stream. Flat-screen TVs have been involved a lot more now and that is become part of the model, just part of really taking care of the customer and what they are looking for.
It really all comes down to luxury and comfort. Guests want all the same things they have at home and like I said we have some glamping cabins that really fit that. They’re more spacious. But we also have some of the trendy things in our chain as well, with some parks featuring tiny houses and one park has a tree house in place.
WCM: Is Jellystone Parks encouraging owners to look at adding more of those unique accommodations?
Westover: Absolutely and they see the value in it. I think what’s one of the greatest things about this industry is they take pride in their parks and they constantly reinvest back into them. So whether it’s more state-of-the-art cabins, whether it’s just more regular cabins, they’re always looking for more comfort for their guests. And that’s been really key to our growth, because that’s what our consumers expected and that’s kind of a big draw.
WCM: What are some things that Jellystone Parks is focused on in 2018?
Westover: Still customer experience. We have switched to another survey company, and what we want to do is just get a lot of the analytics, to give our franchisees real time consumer data to be able to make adjustments.
They also have a social media aspect that helps survey and look for any positive or negative feedback. Obviously, we hope guests are coming back to us, and that’s why we do the surveys so we know how guests feel, and how we’re performing and addressing things.
So, really taking care of the consumer is what we are focused on this year, as far as just comfort and just maximizing opportunities with them.