Lazy River Campground: Remarkable Restart
When brothers-in-law Glenn Bracklow and John Lawrence and John’s wife, Heidi (Glenn’s sister), decided in the early 1990s that they wanted to go into the outdoor hospitality business, they had two choices: start from scratch or buy an existing campground.
They chose the latter and in late summer 1991 bought a rundown campground in the Hudson River Valley near Gardiner, N.Y. The facilities were meager, John recalled. There was a single cash register in the office and a pop machine outside. “There were a couple of hookups. The place wasn’t nice,” John says succinctly. But the site had some special features. The Wallkill River bordered the mostly level campground on the east side, thick woods covered a portion of the park and a stately barn and 40-foot silo served as a focal point to the 80-acre property.
They kept the campground open that first fall but when the season ended in October, they began to gut the barn and update the sites, running water lines and 30-amp service to 100 sites. They added an inviting covered porch to the barn – which serves as the office and campground store – thereby creating a popular gathering place for guests to sit and chat.
When they reopened in May 1992 as the Lazy River Campground, they had something they could be proud of.
Today, the 170-site Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park at Lazy River is one of the top Leisure System Inc.’s (LSI) franchises in the country, earning multiple awards from LSI and endearing generations of campers. Sites are spacious. The campground is gated which gives an added sense of security.
“We want to make people feel comfortable where they can let their kids run loose” within reason, John said.
Success has not come without a stiff price. Along the way, these soft-spoken owners have battled brutal hurricanes, several floods and repressive governmental and lending regulations that hamper the future of their investment.
The trio was all in their 30s when they bought their campground. They were neophytes in the business: Glenn was a machinist and tool & die maker, John was a homebuilder and Heidi helped in her husband’s business. But they knew they wanted to offer a campground that was neat and tidy that would attract repeat customers. The Lawrences loved to camp and wanted to share their favorite pastime with others.
After just two years in business, the owners chose to join Leisure Systems. John explained, “We thought LSI is a quality establishment and wanted to be part of it. When we were private, people tended to skip over our park. Being part of LSI takes that doubt out of their minds. Getting new people to come here for the first time became easier. Once people have been here, getting them to come back was not a problem.”
Indeed, John figures 50% to 60% of Lazy River’s campers are repeaters. The LSI affiliation helped spread the word well beyond the Hudson Valley. Not only does the campground draw much of its trade from New York and the adjoining states of Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it also attracts campers from the South and points West.
The campground started out with four cabins and added two more a few years later. In 2000, they added 10 more cabins, bringing the total to 16. Ten are park models; the other six are stationary.
They also have a heated pool and adjoining Tiki Snackbar, a recreation hall and a host of outdoor activities. Themed weekends are scheduled throughout the season.
Besides the superior amenities and loaded activity schedule for kids, Lazy River has an ambience that many other campgrounds can’t match: its grounds are impeccably clean.
The owners’ goal is a clean environment, so they make sure everything is picked up. You won’t find trashcans around the campground. Instead, campers are encouraged to place their trash in bags and leave them at their sites where workers pick them up each afternoon between noon and 4 p.m. It’s a time-consuming task, but they consider it necessary to keep their park looking neat and clean.
Running the Park
To avoid burnout, Glenn and John share responsibilities, but rotate their duties. One week, one of them will open the campground in the morning and the other will close it at night. They’ll switch duties the following week. One of the owners is always at the front desk to greet campers and answer questions. Heidi joins her husband and brother for frequent coffee talks where they discuss all aspects of the campground. She considers herself more of a troubleshooter – operating in the background. Their homes are next to the campground so they’re never far from work.
The three owners’ four children grew up at the campground but only one, the Lawrences’ youngest son, Connor, 20, is on staff.
Still, with four family members always around, Heidi maintains that “we have eyes and ears all over the place” to keep tabs on the campground.
They try to retain a sense of humor, even when employees make comments such as, “I want more hours but can I have Saturdays off?”
John said they would have added more sites by now, but the county and state regulations make it harder to develop and expand. For example, 15 years ago, the county suggested they install fire extinguishers at each site. The owners were amused by the government’s preposterous request and the county eventually relented.
Just a portion of their 80-acre tract is developed, so they have plenty of room to expand. Glenn said they would like to double the size of the park and see this as a possibility if only lenders would cooperate with their plan. “There are so many hurdles. Everybody is so apprehensive to loan.”
Instead of a major expansion, they’ll do it in stages, maybe adding 20 sites per year until they reach their goal. Plans are in the engineering stage at present.
Glenn sees growth inevitable because the camping public is growing and campers are seeking out campgrounds where they can do more things with family.
In 1998, Lazy River added an automated reservation service from Digital Rez International. About 10 years ago, the campground launched its first website and in 2010 started its Facebook presence. Heidi credits Strait Web Solutions for the campground’s attractive website.
“Our social media goal is be totally interactive and connected with our guests and office,” she said. “This is just now starting to all come together. I’m excited and anxious at the same time.”
Severe weather has battered the campground on several occasions. Winter ice jams on the Wallkill River will occasionally send water pouring onto the campground over the winter. In 2011, Hurricane Irene hit the campground right before Labor Day weekend. Water from the Wallkill River flooded much of the campground, with the river lapping at the first step of the campground store.
“Irene was the worst of the storms. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Heidi. “Old farmers said the flood was beyond the 100-year flood line.”
The campground was closed for three weeks during the cleanup. Then, two weeks later, Tropical Storm Lee came through.
Last fall, Superstorm Sandy took down many trees around the campground.
“Every park needs to be aware they could be hit at anytime. I would tell them, ‘Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,’” she said.
Trying Something Different
For several years, the campground has operated a nice profit center by renting out pedal carts and kayaks to ply the Wallkill River. The 2011 hurricane and tropical storm damaged their boat storage buildings and altered the flow of the river, making it less desirable, so after the 2012 season, they retired the fleet and decided to do something different.
They’re turning the shelter into a farmers market. They’ve rented out the facility to two seasonal campers who will offer fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, eggs and organic meats this season. They hope to run it from Memorial Day through the rest of the summer.
What Others Say
The resort is one of the top parks in the LSI chain, said Dean Crawford, LSI executive vice president. “They took a park that needed a lot of work and turned it into a nice resort,” Crawford said.
The park annually earns LSI’s Pinnacle Award for scoring 95% or better on the home office’s inspection and has twice been named Facility of the Year (2002 and 2004), he said. It also won awards for theming and landscaping.
He said the owners exude “high energy” but remain low-key who let their award-winning park speak for itself.