Campground Industry News
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Des Moines KOA Is Run By Rising Stars
Five years ago this month, Chris Rademacher and his wife, Jamie, went into business together when they bought the Kampgrounds of America (KOA) franchise location in the Des Moines, Iowa, metro area.
As for many campground owners, the driving force in the Rademachers taking over the Des Moines West KOA Holiday was a desire for independence. “Owning a campground was going to give us an opportunity to venture into business ownership and work on our own, not have to work for someone else,” Jamie Rademacher told Woodall’s Campground Management. “Chris had experience living in a campground for a while in his previous career, and he really enjoyed that.
“We’d been married for a year and thought, ‘This is going to be a great adventure. Let’s go for it,’” she said
Her husband recalled, “We searched for probably about a year-and-a-half and ended up with this park. We wanted a park we could run partially or fully remotely. We had a lot to learn.
“After being here a short period of time,” he continued, “we realized that really wasn’t what we wanted to do. We really enjoy living and working here at the park and have realized some great growth here in Des Moines. We’ve taken the park from strictly an overnight park to really a family destination weekend park for the local area. We’ve grown the business that way for kids and families.”
And looking back, Jamie said that change is one of the most rewarding aspects of the last half-decade. “Seeing it flourish into a place that families love to come, they love to spend time and get away from whatever it is they’re trying to get away from and really enjoy being with us, it’s really been a great experience for us.”
The Rademachers became the third owners of the park since it was built in the 1960s, and it had been a KOA all along. “We wanted a KOA or a park we could convert to a KOA because we were completely new to RV park ownership,” Jamie explained. “We felt like it made sense having KOA’s national support, those resources and the name recognition behind us,” she said. “It’s been a really good partnership for us.”
As it turns out, it’s been a good relationship for KOA too. The Billings, Mont.-based franchisor named the Rademachers its “Rising Star” award winners in November at the KOA Annual Convention at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“The Rising Star goes to owners who absolutely love the KOA lifestyle. They institute good business practices from the start to make sure that as they look forward to standing here in 30, 40, 50 years, that from the get-go they ensure growth, profitability and outstanding service,” said Jef Sutherland, KOA senior vice president of franchise operations.
“Our rising star has the desire — and shows it — to improve facilities that will enhance guest satisfaction. Rising stars do not sit still. They’ve proven their ability to not only plan, but to implement those plans,” Sutherland said. “They have doubled the campground income. They have taken advantage of everything KOA offers: Risk management, site upgrades, they’ve just done such a fantastic job. They’ve added patio sites, deluxe cabins, and along with that they never forget the fun. They have a great staff and they get their staff involved in the operations.”
At the awards ceremony, Sutherland read feedback from guests praising improvements, praising the Rademachers and staff for going the extra mile, remarking on the clean restrooms, the kid-friendly environment and the clear pool.
The land on which campground sits, about 16 miles west of Des Moines and about a mile-and-a-half north of Interstate 80, was a farm field half a century ago, though there are gentle slopes on three sides of the campground, which sits in an area of mild hills.
“When they developed it they planted some trees in the front half of the park, but they’re not overly thick,” Jamie said. “The back half is wide open. We have some areas of woods people can walk through in the back, on the east side of the pond. There’s a small fishing pond and the tent sites are on the north side and south side.”
The setting, like the park, has been a great blessing for the Rademachers, Jamie said. ”It’s a great park in a great location. We get a mix of folks who are traveling over the road because we’re just off I-80. We also get a lot of folks who are local. We also get a fair mix of people who are staying long term.”
Intentionally, the mix has changed since they took over.
“The local business was really underdeveloped when we bought the park,” she explained. “It was our goal to turn an overnight park into more of a destination.”
To do that, they’ve added amenities and activities in their tenure.
In addition to the heated swimming pool, there’s a large inflatable jumping device, water wars, gem mining, pedal cars, horseshoes, ladderball, basketball, volleyball, a dunk tank — Chris good-naturedly mans that sometimes — and a slip-and-slide. They’re in the process of adding trampoline basketball, paddleboats and kayaks in the ponds.
Plus, there’s a full activities schedule Fridays and Saturdays. There are hay rides, movie nights in the open-air pavilion and much more.
“We try to be all-encompassing for activities so people can come locally and feel like they’re getting away and have a ball. Our philosophy is to keep the kids busy all the time so the parents can relax,” Jasmie explained. “We have two to three activities people on staff.”
Their total staff includes up to 14 people, a mix of the Rademachers, work campers and local employees, and the way the staff has created that family environment is a source of pride for Jamie.
“I think success comes in a lot of different ways. One of the greatest things we can hear is a guest who comes in and tells us what a great time they had with us, that they’re coming back again and bringing more friends and more family with them. This year, the number of small groups we’re seeing, those successes are huge for us,” she said.
“When we can see our campground full it’s really exciting. The energy that exists in a full campground,” she continued, “is incredible. We got into it to be able to help families and campers create great memories.”
Of course, financial success is important to the health of a business, too, and the Rademachers have managed that through all their efforts and expansions.
They started out with four basic cabins and two park model RV “KOA Deluxe Cabins” and now have eight park models, plus a towable RV rental.
“We plan to add more,” Jamie said, along with deluxe patio RV sites.
Chris explained, “When we bought the park we grossed half of what we ended up grossing last year. In five seasons we’ve doubled the revenue overall for the park. We love to see that. There’s still a lot of room for growth.”
The park sits on 18 acres and the Rademachers’ house is there on another three acres on the property. “We plan to start on an RV site expansion this year on the south side of the house, another 14 sites probably,” he said. “Last year we added water, electricity and sewer service for 12 or 13 more cabins down by the pond and we’ll add those at some point. We’ve invested tons and tons of money into the park. There’s never an issue of value.”
Another investment that’s paid off is their larger-than-average camp store.
“It’s pretty extensive,” Jamie said. “We have Hunt Bros. pizza in our store, hand-scooped ice cream, and we’re adding shaved ice this year. We have RV supplies, gifts souvenirs, beer, wine, shirts, snacks, toys, games — we even do local wine tasting. It’s pretty extensive, more so than many campgrounds,” she said.
In fact, Chris estimated it’s three times the size of the stores at most similar-sized campgrounds. “Because of that, 18% of our revenue is out of our store. We try to grow it every year,” he said.
And of course, while they’ve had plenty of successes, the Rademachers have certainly had their share of missteps and difficulties.
“We realized that remote ownership and leadership of your park is not something that’s a reality. We learned quickly we needed to be here on site,” Jamie said.
Chris agreed, saying, “It was a park that wouldn’t have supported a manager anyway. Now it could make sense to have a manager, but with as much redevelopment as we’re putting into it, we really need to be on hand.”
That said, they can’t do it all themselves.
“It’s critical to have the right staff,” Jamie emphasized. “We’ve been really blessed to have an awesome staff. They’re the ones who are interacting with your guest, making their day and making the experience for them. We couldn’t do it with the wrong staff.”
And, of course, there’s the topic that vexes so many rural RV park owners: Internet access. The park has a good Wi-Fi system, but getting enough bandwidth to the park is a struggle, Chris said.
The fastest access they can get is a 1.5 megabit-per-second line, so the Rademachers have been paying for 14 lines to the park just to get guests a half-decent experience. The good news, Chris said, is their local provider may be upgrading the minimum speed to their park from 1.5 to 12, which can result in a lot more guest satisfaction.
So what big-picture advice do these award winners have for others in the campground sector?
“I think taking the time to get to know our guests personally when we can, listening to their stories, hearing what their expectations are and doing our best to not only meet them but exceed them is very important,” Jamie suggested. “Campground ownership is hospitality. We’re the ones who are providing a place for these folks to have family reunions, weddings, birthday parties, get-togethers. We can create an environment that’s awesome.”
Chris said, “The other thing for me is really focus your time and effort on learning from people who are doing a fantastic job with their businesses. Get involved in 20 groups would be a huge recommendation for us.
“We’re involved in two separate ones, one with KOA and one with ARVC (the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds). It’s surprising to us how few people are involved with 20 groups in the industry and it’s crazy to me,” Chris told WCM. “We try to surround ourselves with the best of the best when we spend time at conventions and expos. We still have a ton to learn. We have some information to offer newbies, but we still need to learn and we spend time with the best to try to do that.”
Another lesson the Rademachers — members of the Iowa Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds and ARVC — offered was that little things can be surprisingly important.
“Focus your energy first on income-producing items,” said Chris, “but we learned a lesson last year. We really invested a ton of money in the business. We added four cabins and added a bunch of infrastructure for future cabins, which was costly, and aside from that did a lot of infrastructure improvements with a full bathhouse remodel, a lot of concrete work. The result we saw from that was a lot greater than we expected. “
The park’s net promoter score — KOA’s gauge of customer satisfaction — jumped 14 points over the previous year, and Chris said that was based primarily on those infrastructure improvements.
“If your infrastructure on the surface is lacking in some areas, you need to bring that up to standard,” he explained. “People drive in and they notice tipped up concrete by your building or they go into your bathroom and they were built in the ‘70s, even though they’re clean, people notice.”
In all, Jamie said, while it’s a tough job, it’s one they recommend. “Campground ownership has meant that our family gets to provide our own destiny. We have been able to set our goals for our business and for our family, it means we get to work together, it means our son (3-year-old Zach) is right there alongside us. He gets mom and dad all the time. He gets to experience what it’s like to grow up owning a business and what it means to be an entrepreneur.
“I never knew what to expect when buying a campground. To see our ideas put in place and to see what we’ve had grow into something we can be so proud of,” she concluded, “is awesome.”
Name: Des Moines West KOA Holiday
Address: 3408 L Ave., Adel, IA 50003
Number of sites: 110, with 73 full-hookup RVsites with a mix of 30-amp and 50-amp service, 17 water and electric tent sites, four basic cabins, eight park model RVs, one rental towable RV and dry tent camping areas.
Physical description: 18 acres set in a hilly area in the Iowa countryside, with several surrounding ponds, including the park’s fishing pond. There’s a swimming pool, basketball court, a dog park, a playground, a cornhole area, volleyball courts and horseshoe pits.
Season: April 1-Oct. 31
Rates: $37.95 to $70.95 for deluxe patio sites, basic cabins $63.95 to deluxe cabins overlooking pond at $144.95, tents $27.95-35.95