If you envision running your own campground one day, you may picture scenes of people hanging out around a fire roasting marshmallows, sharing stories and making new friends. There’s certainly a social aspect to running a successful campground, but it’s also hard work.
We spoke with Don Pezza who owned and managed the Waterloo Harbor Campground in Waterloo, New York for 17 years on what it’s like to run a campground.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What did you do before buying the campground?
A: I worked for Kodak and retired in 1991. I purchased the campground a few years before that, but I didn’t manage it until I retired from the corporate world. My wife and I ran it for 17 years, and we sold the campground six years ago. When I bought it, I had 25-30 campground sites, but I expanded that to 55 sites over the years.
Q: What made you choose to get into the campground industry?
A: I’ve been an avid camper since 1964, so I knew it was what I wanted to do when I left my corporate job. I had traveled all over the country and stayed at many campgrounds so I knew what to expect.
Q: Do you need experience in the industry?
A: Absolutely. You need to be familiar with camping from a consumer’s point of view. I’d also recommend working at the campground you are considering buying with the current owners for a few weeks. You need to see if you can handle it before you buy it.
Q: What is a typical day/week look like?
A: It’s long. I would open the office at 8am and handle camper check-out until 11am when my wife would take over the office while I went outside and worked on maintenance or landscaping. I would get back to the office around 5pm-6pm and that’s when new campers would be checking in. You definitely have to like the business to do it every day.
You also need to be available to your customers 24-7. Once someone broke a water pipe and water was gushing 50 feet into the air at 11pm. If I hadn’t lived onsite, that would have been a real problem.
Q: What do you think it takes to become a successful campground owner?
A: You need to have excellent people skills. You have to be able to read people so you know how to treat them. You also need to create a sense of community at your campground. We would have celebrations for Fourth of July, ice cream socials, even pet birthday parties. Everyone would bring a plate to pass around and get to know one another. People become like family at campgrounds.
Q: What kind of skills do you need to run a campground?
A: It’s helpful to know something about electricity and plumbing so that you can manage any issues yourself. For many years, I managed the landscaping and maintenance on my own. Of course, you can hire people, but that will cost you and it can be hard to find good people.
Q: How did you market your business?
A: Most of my marketing was word of mouth, but I did advertise in two camping magazines. That’s it. The rest was all repeat business. You have to have good customer service and clean facilities. If you don’t have clean bathrooms and showers, you will lose customers. The location of my campground also played a big part in its success. It was located on Seneca River and had boat launch and dock facilities so people could bring their boats and fish. I had many people who stayed at my campground year after year, some for as long as 15 years. I made some great friends who ended up like family to me.
Q: What are the most attractive aspects of the campground industry?
A: My wife and I were satisfied with our work because we got to meet people from all over the world, who were really interesting. We would sit in the office and they would tell us all about their country over a cup of coffee. People came to us from as far away as Germany, Japan, China, India and the Ukraine. They would rent a camper and explore our country.
Q: What are the most challenging aspects of the industry?
A: For me, it was our septic system. Once that was fixed, it was just a matter of keeping up with repairs. You can’t let anything go. You must take care of maintenance issues as they happen, and you must keep the health department happy.
Q: What one piece of advice would you give to someone considering buying a campground?
A: You have to provide a sense of community. Have a place where people can come in, enjoy a cup of coffee and just talk. Remember to treat people as you would want to be treated the moment they walk in the door. I remember a time when I woman came in to check in and she looked really unhappy. She asked about our washing machines, and I pointed her in the right direction. She asked if she could have a cup of coffee while her laundry was going. Of course, I said yes and started to talk with her since she appeared to be so sad.
Turns out, she and her husband had sold everything they owned and bought a $300,000 motorhome nine months ago. But her husband got sick, and his doctor said he had to go home and couldn’t travel again. She just needed someone to talk to. When she checked out, she thanked me for listening. It pays to have compassion for people and to lend an ear when they need to talk.
Interested? Take a look at our campgrounds for sale at BusinessesForSale.com