Starting a campground is a massive undertaking for anyone, but what if there was a slightly less expensive way of going about it?
Small Business Trends recently spoke to Andrea Steele, co-owner of Camper’s Paradise in Sigel, Pennsylvania. Steele’s family gave up everything – including high-pressure, high-paying jobs – to spend more time together and teach their children the value of hard work and determination.
The family had no idea just how hard that work would be.
Andrea’s husband, Mike, was a superintendent in a coal mine. Despite the great benefits and pay, Mike was tired of company politics, so Andrea, in great faith, told him to quit.
After spending about a year looking for a campground to purchase, the couple and their two school-age boys gave up their award-winning Victorian home, which they had renovated themselves, and set about building a whole new life.
In January 1995, the Steeles made their big purchase. By that Spring, Camper’s Paradise was already up and running, but it was a long winter.
“We didn’t even have a house to live in. We lived in our camper through the winter. We had no water, and had to drive up to the bathhouse and clean out a stall to use. We started from nothing, really,” Andrea said.
The First Step – Location
The secret for how to start a campground with this family was to find a foundation that had already been laid and build from the ground, up.
When the Steeles discovered their would-be campground, there wasn’t much to write home about. But Andrea saw beauty in the mess. It was little more than an old campground in decay.
“I could see the potential of it,” she says. “It was a dump, but I could see the potential. It had beautiful property. So we put our house on the market and sold it in one week for cash.”
Before the property could start looking anything like the family-friendly campground the Steeles envisioned, Andrea and Mike had to tackle the bare-bones basics.
The Second Step – Infrastructure
“We had to redo the whole infrastructure,” Andrea explains. “All the electrical lines were above-ground, so we had to lay them underground. There was water in the ground with no conduit. We had to go through DEP (Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection) and that was a nightmare.”
The couple then had to deal with the gas lines. The Steeles told the gas company they’d have to bury their lines, so the company put in roads.
“The original campground already had septic tanks, which was very cost-saving,” Andrea says.
Third Step – Lodging
While the gritty work of rebuilding took place, Andrea and Mike were also busy securing more land. With over 100 available private camps located directly across the street from what would become Camper’s Paradise, the Steeles started purchasing parcels for their cabins.
They quickly went from having just 24 sites to 115. Today, the sites house nine cabins, a manager’s house, a pool, pavilion, extensive playground (built by the Steele family) and the Steeles’ own log home.
Fortunately for the Steeles, the whole family is pretty handy, which meant that much of the building and rebuilding could be done by them, without the hassle of hiring contractors, dealing with bids or worrying that the people they hired wouldn’t have the same vision for their business.
Saving money was important to a family who had given up everything to pursue their dream, but they wanted their work to be top-notch. What they would have spent on contractors they put into materials.
“When we were building things, we didn’t cut corners. We put in top-grade materials. My family is very handy. We didn’t have to hire out,” Andrea says.
Andrea admits that it was considerably easier to start a campground in 1995 than it is today. The family was able to avoid all sorts of pitfalls that plague campground entrepreneurs today.
Be Sure to Check Into the Details First
“We didn’t need many permits. But today — oh, my gosh — I can’t even imagine what it would cost to purchase the land,” she says. “To start a campground — and this is hard to believe — it’s about $15,000 to put in a site. That’s what a friend of ours – a campground engineer — told us.”
The cost for permits varies from municipality to municipality. In the state of Pennsylvania, this was not always the case. Until about the late 1970s or early 1980s, the price and process of securing the necessary campground permits was universal across the state, according to Beverly Gruber, CPO and executive director of the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association.
“Until the [Richard ‘Dick’] Thornburg administration, everything was pretty universal,” Gruber told Small Business Trends. “Now you go to your township supervisors and the zoning board, and each one has their own rules. You have to find out if the land is zoned, and in some places there are no zoning rules at all.”
Andrea said that in 1995, Jefferson County didn’t have any ordinances. All they needed was a $7 permit.
“That $7 permit would cost you $300 now,” she said.
Building and starting a campground is “24/7 work,” Andrea told Small Business Trends, adding that even after you’ve physically built your site and celebrated your grand opening – the real work has only just begun.
She says, “You can’t buy a campground and expect to just hire people and have your old lifestyle. It’s a totally different lifestyle. After 20 years, we finally built a real log home and have hired a manager.”
But the hard work has paid off, and Camper’s Paradise has become somewhat of a luxury campground – or what many now call “glamping,” which refers to bringing the world of luxury into nature.
There are luxury cabins located across the street from the main site that boasts four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fireplace, hot tub and HDTV. Each cabin is housed on its own acre of land. There are also two primitive cabins on-site, for those seeking a more rustic camping experience.
The learning curve never really straightens, however. There was no Facebook or social media of any kind when Camper’s Paradise was born in the 1990s.
The Internet was a new thing. Andrea and Mike understand the importance of being on social media sites, but worry that if a customer has one negative experience, they could post a devastating review online.
They’ve also learned that putting 2 x 3 ads in local newspapers (“they just wind up becoming birdcage liners,” Andrea says) is a waste of money.
Instead, they rely on the Internet, charity events, and local radio to get the word out about their business. They also hired a brochure distribution company to advertise the campground to a wider area.
The Steeles put a lot of time and money into their dream business (“It was six years before we could go on a family vacation,” Andrea said) but the family now has their dream home again, they are their own bosses, and they bring people joy and relaxation for a living.
They gave up everything – so that they could have the world.
Images: Campers Paradise.net