4 Sisters Run Iconic Keen Lake Campground
Editor's Note: The following campground profile appears in the February issue of Woodall's Campground Management magazine.
Staying at Keen Lake Camping & Cottage Resort near Waymart, Pa., is like stepping back into history.
Jim and Dorothy Keen established what is now the 336-site campground as a simple cottage resort in 1954. Jim Keen was the seventh generation descendant of the original pioneers who in 1814 homesteaded around a 90-acre spring-fed mountain lake located in the scenic northern Pocono Mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Today, there is a retro feel to this campground, which was voted the Best Campground in the Poconos for 2011 among 45 contestants and has received the “A-Rating” from GuestReviews for the last four years. Camping facilities run the gamut from tent sites to seasonal and yearlong cottage rentals, with some of the latter in quaint, little buildings that date from the mid-19th century.
The uniqueness of this campground continues with its ownership: four of the Keens’ seven daughters now run the resort, known by many as “the girls’ campground.”
“We are four strong-minded women,” says Jan Keen, the oldest of the seven daughters.
They have successfully built on their parents’ initial successes and taken the resort to a higher level.
Jim Keen was a mechanic who decided in 1954 to rent out the “honeymoon cottage” he built on the lakeshore to vacationers and soon developed a thriving business as he renovated and rented other nearby buildings along the shore. One of the cottages had been a one-room schoolhouse in the 1800s. Another cottage was once home to the men who cut ice for the Keen family. Another cottage was a pre-Civil War blacksmith shop.
Yet another, built on the island in the center of the lake, went up on the former site of an 1800’s dance hall where revelers were transported to and from the island aboard wooden rafts. Today, the island cabin is one of the most popular accommodations at the campground.
In the early 1960s, the Keens allowed some RVers to park their rigs along the lake and the campground concept began to evolve.
The Campground Today
The Keens’ daughters grew up on the campground and learned the ins and outs of what needs to be done.
Jan recalled, “My mom had a saying, ‘If you can’t be hospitable, you don’t belong in the outdoor hospitality business.’ We grew up with this. It was ingrained in us.”
They met hundreds of guests who would come and spend a week (or more) at the resort. These loyal guests would return year after year and tell their friends about this campground, thus creating an automatic feeder system for Jim Keen and his wife.
When Keen became ill, wife Dorothy turned to her family for help.
“That’s how some of us came back,” Jan explained. “Mom said, “ We really need help.’”
Jennifer Keen Wertz, following a successful career in the mortgage business on Wall Street, took the leadership role among the four returning sisters.
“Over four years, he taught me more than I ever wanted to know,” Jennifer says of the mentoring her father provided.
The four women actually purchased the campground in 2000 and ran the campground for a year before the public realized the transfer of ownership. It was a ticklish matter, Jennifer says.
“We bumbled around until we found what our talents were,” Jan recalls. “It gave us each some autonomy. The first year, when we took ownership, we didn’t tell anyone. There was such concern among our repeat and seasonals, what would happen without mom and dad at the helm. We had a year to make what mistakes that we could make privately.” They announced the change in ownership a year later, just days before their father’s death.
“I was out to prove we could do this,” Jennifer said. “We all dug deep.”
The sisters set out on a 10-year plan and crafted a laundry list of all the changes they wanted to make at the campground. That list included new bathhouses, refurbishment of the athletic field, improvements in electrical and cable service, more playground equipment, new boats and the first kayaks.
“Our goal was to make this a premium park,” Jan said. “We want it to be a place where we would take our own families. We know how important vacation time is. Campers pick you; they don’t have to come here. When they choose you, it’s an honor. It’s our responsibility to provide them an experience that renews their family. That’s key for us.”
Meanwhile, the duties assigned to each of the four sisters were:
- Jennifer was named CEO and given final authority She is a CPO.
- Jan, also a CPO, handles marketing.
- Jim Ann Petroski handles housekeeping, purchasing and stocking of all purchases.
- Jane Kopa handles human resources and oversees landscaping.
Each sister is strong-willed but they appear to get along. “We don’t fight as sisters,” notes Jan. “When all is said and done, we generally agree. We have a healthy respect for one another.”
They have a staff of 41 part-time workers and six who work year-round. Several of the sisters’ children also work at the campground.
Keys to Running a Family Business
Jim Keen didn’t leave his daughters high and dry when he became ill.
Instead, he enrolled his daughters in family business classes early on and accompanied them to class.
“We chose to be a business family, not a family business,” Jan said. “It means you leave your childhood stuff at the door. The classes helped us determine our roles and what our expectations were.
“We agreed on areas where decisions must be made together. Disagreements cannot be personal. You’re going to have feelings that may bump against your partners. But as partners you make decisions for the good of the business, not necessarily for the good of the family. It gets dicey sometimes. We attended some really great education programs for families put on by ARVC and PCOA. Education is the key. Family businesses are more a norm in the campground business than a lot of other businesses.”
The campground draws a loyal following from Pennsylvania and nearby states of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut and from as far away as Florida. Nearly half the campsites or about 160 campers are seasonal, guaranteeing the sisters a steady income. Word-of-mouth leads to many other first-time campers. This summer, they will be welcoming the fifth generation of a family to camp at Keen Lake.
The sisters are active members of several marketing associations and promote their campground in various media.
The GuestReviews service available through the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) has been an enlightening experience for Jan who said the program “has taught me to respond to every issue and make sure their (campers) experience is the one they wanted. I think we do a better job because of it. We have improved our park based on their reviews.”
Jennifer calls their campground’s customer service “top notch.”
The campground owners at first were very apprehensive and did not embrace the GuestReviews concept. But after some encouragement from GuestReviews founder Bob MacKinnon, they signed on.
As Jan humorously recalls, “We put on our big girl pants and went with it.”
Now they are staunch supporters.
“Jennifer and Jan are great examples of how successful campground owners are benefiting from fully integrating the GuestReviews’ feedback program into their business strategies,” says MacKinnon. “Keen Lake Campground actively uses guest feedback in staff training to improve service delivery and recover from mistakes. Although the park consistently earns high grades, they’ve learned that solving the occasional problem quickly is the key to creating loyal guests. Since most guests never mention any problem during their visit, having a real-time online method for guest comments provides owners with an early warning system to uncover unknown guest dissatisfaction and proactively address it. Congratulations to Jan and Jennifer for listening to their guests and taking positive action, even when they hear something that is uncomfortable.”
Movers and Shakers
It should be no surprise that the sisters have taken a very active role in local, state and national affairs.
“Keen Lake Campground has always participated in both the state and national associations,” noted Beverly Gruber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association (PCOA). “When I started with the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association in 1983, one of the first campground owners I met at the NCOA convention in New Orleans was Jim and Dorothy Keen. I could always depend on them to go the extra mile. They instilled this sense of duty to their daughters. Keen Lake is a beautiful facility and a great supporter of the industry.”
Besides their service to PCOA, the sisters have represented the state of Pennsylvania on the ARVC Council of Delegates, serving as an officer of the Wayne County Campground Owner’s Association, participating on the Pocono Mountain Visitors Bureau Marketing and Campground committees and the Wayne County Tourism Board. They are also a Best Parks in America affiliate and a member of an ARVC 20 Group.
“Family-owned campgrounds are the backbone of the park industry,” says David Gorin, Best Parks founder and president. “Best Parks in America is proud that most affiliates are family-owned. Keen Lake is one of those parks with multiple generations leading the park to greater and greater heights. Keen Lake and its owners exemplify the Best Parks in America principles and core values that make the Best Parks system stand out from the rest.”
The four sisters have owned and operated the campground for 12 years now, but some old-timers still consider it their parents’ park. That belief was reinforced late in 2012 when the sisters held a retirement party for one of their employees and several campers stopped by.
Jan recalled, “At the end of the party, some seasonals told us, ‘Be sure to thank your parents for us.’ We just laughed. It is so ingrained in them this is mom’s and dad’s place.”
As 2013 began, the sisters were still trying to resolve their Wi-Fi service.
An estimated 85% of seasonals and a high number of transient guests use Wi-Fi, placing heavy demand on the system, Jan explained.
Dense woods and rolling hills in the area also play havoc with Wi-Fi, despite four towers on the property, Jan said. Heavy demand on Memorial Day and July 4 created some unhappy campers, she recalled. “As a result, some sites on the campground can’t get Wi-Fi, while reception in the lake is perfect. It’s maddening,” she said.
The campground has invested time and talent into social media, creating an active Facebook page, adding a mobi site in 2012 and assigning social media to two staffers during the summer season.
The staff also sends out a mini newsletter twice monthly and a monthly newsletter during the winter to seasonal guests. “The older guests and regulars like that,” she said.
As the new year unfolded, the sisters planned several major improvements to their campground. Curiously, the future of a dam on their property will dictate how much they can accomplish.
The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has indicated the dam needs some work but to what extent is unclear, Jan said. The sisters are in their fifth year of working with the DEP. Engineers on both sides have debated what to do.
“We’re trying to be conservative in what we do until we know what the final price will be and what the DEP wants us to do,” Jan said.
However, the sisters want to expand their RV rental facilities, improve the kitchens in their rentals and finish converting all RV sites to 50-amp service.
The cottage improvements are necessary because the campground is attracting a new generation of campers who don’t have RVs but are coming here to be with their RVing friends and family, Jan noted.
“The cottage business is changing,” she said. “In the beginning, it was the cottages that attracted the RVers. Now, it is complimentary. Who knew years later it would be the campsites that would attract the cottage guests.”
Campground Data Box
Location: 155 Keen Lake Road, Waymart, Pa.
Amenities: Family-owned since 1954, this campground offers 336 sites (214 with water/electric/sewer/cable, all but 16 of which have the option of 50-amp service; 78 water and electric sites that can accommodate either pop-up campers or tents, and 44 sites with no hookups for tents) and 13 rental units (cottages, mobile homes and RVs).
2013 Season: April 27 to Oct. 14
Phone Number: (570) 488-6161