34 - February 2018 Woodall’s Campground Management degree in political science and sociology from Virginia Tech andstartedacareerinthelawn care industry before going into the campground business. By his late 20s, in fact, O’Neillwasmanaginga1,000-customer route for the North Atlanta office of Leisure Lawn and had actually just started his own lawn care business when a friend called and asked if he would consider running Camp Gulf. O’Neill had passed on the same opportunity before, but this time curiosity got the best of him. “I talked to the owner,” O’Neill recalled, “and told him it wouldn’t hurt for me to go down and take a look at it.” The family that owned Camp Gulf had leased the campground to a man- agement company to operate, but over time they let the park fall into disrepair. “The park had about 250 sites, but there were only 100 with working utili- ties,” O’Neill said. And when the previ- ous management company’s lease CAMPGROUNDPROFILE Camp Gulf Battles Back from Two Natural Disasters — and Remains a Customer Favorite on the Gulf of Mexico expired, they not only left the property but also took practically everything that wasn’t bolted down with them. “There were no papers with customer information. There was no cash register. There was nothing in the store. They left a few tools, but every- thing else was gone,” O’Neill said. Buteveninitsdilap- idated state, O’Neill could see that Camp Gulf had great poten- tial with 15 acres of beachfront property between Highway 98 andtheGulfofMexico. “It was a good op- portunity to be in the outdoors and to have my own business,” he said. “I’m a sailor and I thought it would give me a chance to bring my Hobie Cat down and spend more time on the water. So, I took over management of the park in February 1995 and I moved onsite on October 1.” Three days after O’Neill moved from Atlanta to Camp Gulf, however, north- west Florida was struck by Hurricane Opal, a category four hurricane. “A 22-foot storm surge came in and took out the south half of the park,” O’Neill recalled.“I needed somebody to come in and bulldoze it and start over again. We’ve been under construction ever since.” While some park operators might be overwhelmed by the destruction of a hurricane,O’Neillsawthetaskofrebuild- ing Camp Gulf as a blessing. “I’m an optimist,” he said.“I saw it as providential and as an opportunity to rebuild.” Indeed, the priority was to clear the park of debris and start rebuilding its campsites as soon as possible so the parkcouldbeginproducingtherevenue needed for rebuilding. The resort suffered another major business setback in 2010 — along with thousands of other tourist-oriented businesses along the Gulf Coast — with the BP oil spill, the largest accidental oil spill in U.S. history, according to the SmithsonianNationalMuseumofNatu- ral History. The spill, which took place about42milesoffthecoastofLouisiana, lasted for nearly three months. But the publicity surrounding the spill was far more devastating to Gulf Coast businesses than the spill itself. “The National Oceanic and Atmos- pheric Administration was saying there was going to be an oil spill on the beaches from Texas to Key West. That didn’t happen. They contained it,” O’Neill said. But from a publicity stand- point, the damage was done. “Immediately,thephonestartedring- ing with cancellations,” O’Neill recalled, noting that the spill began right around the end of spring break. “Rather than having the phones ring for summer reservations, people were cancelling theirreservations.Ourbusinesswashalf thatyearcomparedtothepreviousyear.” To counter the negative publicity, O’Neill posted videos on the Camp Gulf website showing that the beaches were clean and free of tar. Some of the videos also included interviews with guests commenting on the nice quality of the beaches. “Weboughtemaillists.Weadvertised in places we hadn’t before,” O’Neill recalled. The videos helped, but it took three years for Camp Gulf’s business levels to get back to where they had been before the oil spill. BP eventually paid out claims to tourismrelatedbusinessesalongtheGulf Coast, though they didn’t cover the full extentofthelosses.“Theypaidus66%of the loss for two years,” O’Neill said. But despite the trauma associated with the BP oil spill, O’Neill said man- aging Camp Gulf and building it into a successfulRVresorthasbeenagreatex- perience that has given him the ability to run the park with his family. O’Neill met his wife, Heather, after he hired her father to work with the cleanup and rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Opal. HesubsequentlyhiredHeathertoman- age the park’s reservations and the camp store and married her a year later. Camp Gulf in Deston, Fla., gives guests prime access to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Camp Gulf’s Sand Castle Cabin features an all wood interior. PatrickO’Neillwithhiswife,Heatherandtheirchildren. Camp Gulf, a 200-site resort in Destin, Fla., that features beachfront campsites, a 1,200-square-foot beach house and 20 cabins, keeps very busy as a much sought-after place for people to park their RVs on the Gulf of Mexico. But today’s Camp Gulf is far cry from what it was 23 years ago when General Manager Patrick O’Neill first started running the park. “In those days, it was called Holiday TravelParkanditsmascotwasaskunk,” O’Neill recalled to Woodall’s Camp- ground Management with a laugh. That was back in February 1995, when O’Neill was 29, single, and knew nothing about the campground busi- ness.The son of a Marine Corps officer, O’NeillhadgrownupintheWashington D.C. area, earned a double bachelor’s CampGulffeatures20cabins, along with 200 RV sites.