WOODALLSCM.com February 2018 - 35 “I bought his books and sat down with him and picked his brain on what to do,” O’Neill said, adding that he also visited other successful parks in north- ern Florida; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Branson,Mo.“Iwouldjustgotourthem as if I were a guest,” he said. “I would look at the campsites, the bathrooms and the laundry facilities.” O’Neill also took courses in various aspects of campground management from the ARVC Foundation’s School of RV Park and Campground Manage- ment in Ogelbay, W.Va., eventually earning his Certified Park Operator designation. O’Neillsaidthathealsorecommends other operators learn to fund improve- ments from their existing cash flow. Unlike most park operators who take out loans to build their businesses, O’Neill used a different approach — making capital improvements from existingcashflowratherthanborrowing money from banks. “We saved 10% (from campsite rentals) and continually funded that back into the park for capital improve- ments,” O’Neill said. While this approach was obviously challenging to implement in the after- math of Hurricane Opal, O’Neill said many of the park’s seasonal campers had pre-paid their fees for the winter of Together, the O’Neills have five children, ages 12 to 20, several of whom help run the park.“Camp Gulf has been a fantastic environment to raise my kids in,” O’Neill said, adding that he hopes they continue to work in the campground business. The O’Neills, in fact, have had so much success at Camp Gulf that they took on management of another park, the 45-site Twin Lakes Camp Resort in DeFuniak Springs, Fla., which they are turning around into a more profitable operation using the same strategies O’Neill used at Camp Gulf. O’Neill said that he recommends campgroundoperatorsleanonindustry associations to help them weather rough patches, like hurricanes and oil spills,andforeducationalopportunities. Soon after becoming general manager of Camp Gulf, O’Neill joined the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) and began picking the brains of park operators, consultantsandARVCofficials,manyof whom were happy to offer advice on how to turn his park around. “You can learn a lot from other parks,” O’Neill said, adding that joining national and state campground associ- ations gives park operators the oppor- tunity to ask questions of people with a lot of experience. “I was like a dry sponge soaking it up.” Those helping out the neophyte manager included Jeff Sims, ARVC’s director of state relations and program advocacy, who had about 20 years of experience operating Compton Ridge Campground in Branson, Mo. O’Neill also attended the Atlanta Camping & RV Show, where he soaked up words of wisdom from park operators and consumers alike. “I sat in the booth and listened to people,” he said, “including Lee and DickWarn, who owned and operated a Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park-Camp. Lee and Dick spent that whole week at the show, giving me a crash course in running a park.” Officials from Milford, Ohio-based Leisure Systems Inc., the company that franchises Jellystone Parks, also came down to offer advice, including Rob Schutter, who is now the company’s COO. “We did not join theYogi system,” saidO’Neill,“buttheywereveryhelpful.” O’NeillalsohiredthelateJohnImler, acampgroundindustryconsultantwho passed away in December. 1995-96 and were willing to apply their fees to the following winter, rather than demand an immediate refund. This gave O’Neill the funds he could use to begin rebuilding the park. And because Camp Gulf was right along the water, the sites continued to be in demand. O’Neill said one of his most impor- tant decisions was to take the park off septic systems and tie it into the city sewer system, a year-long project he began in 1999. “There were very few sites with sewer, which was directly correlated to length of stay,” O’Neill said. “Holding tanks allow for about three days maxi- mumbefore(theguesthasto)pullupto the dump station. By providing city sewer, we could increase the length of stay and improve the guest experience. “The park’s existing sewer systems were failing and we all know what a messthatcanbe,”hecontinued.“When the city offered a connection to their systemforhalfthecostoftheliftstation, it was a no-brainer.” O’Neillsaidheandafewhelpersper- sonallyinstalledabout10,000linearfeet of 12-inch, 8-inch, 6-inch and 4-inch pipe and tied it into the city lift station. But while O’Neill had to install sewer lines himself, the park’s owner had the foresight to install 50-amp electrical connections at all of the campsites. O’Neill said he has been overseeing the gradual rewiring of the park to keep up with camper demands for power. He said he also bought, rather than rented, his laundry equipment. “I am very grateful to those who would say, ‘Don’t rent your laundry equipment. Buyit’,”O’Neillsaid,notingthatlaundry facilitiesareimportantprofitcentersfor parks. “The maintenance is nil and you arepayingfortheelectricityanyway.We bought$33,000worthoflaundryequip- ment and it paid for itself the first year.” Other tips O’Neill had for operators: • Take your worst campsites and make them into your best sites. In addition to being in less-desirable loca- tions,poor-performingcampsitesoften lack landscaping, concrete pads and utility connections. But these negatives can often be overcome by making the necessary investments to make these sites attractive and sought after. • Survey your guests. “The first several years, we surveyed anybody who walked in the door,” O’Neill said. “We would ask our guests to fill out sur- veys.We’dsendthemhandwrittenpost- cardsandsay,‘Thankyouforvisitingus. Campground Overview Name: Camp Gulf Address: 10005 Emerald Coast Parkway, Miramar Beach, Fla. 32550 Physical Description:This 200-site RV resort includes 16 beachfront RV sites, 22 park model RVs and a 1,200- square-foot bunkhouse that sleeps 15. Amenities include two solar heated swimming pools, one spa, a 30-foot high water slide, basketball, shuffle- board and carpetball courts. Rental equipment includes golf carts, segways, pedal carts, wagons and beach carts. Organized activities are also available on holiday weekends. Season:Year-round. Website: www.campgulf.com Contact: (877)-226-7485 WCM A new waterslide was recently installed at Camp Gulf. A beach house offers a unique gathering spot for guests. Whatcanwedotoimprove?’Alotofthe campers were very open with us. Some of them would write pages and pages of suggestions, and hand them to us.” O’Neill said he even reduced Camp Gulf’s number of beachfront campsites in response to guest surveys. “When the slideouts came along, we had 20 beachfront sites,” he said. “But when you put the slideout out, there wasn’t enough room to put the awning out, too. So, I surveyed every guest all summer long and I asked them, ‘If we gave you more room, would you pay for more space?’ 100% of them said yes. That winter, we took out four sites and weraisedtheratetomakeupforthelost income and nobody complained.” • Consider adding a rental accom- modation for large groups. When O’Neill first started working at Camp Gulf, it had a bunkhouse on the beach. But after being damaged by Hurricane Oval, O’Neill turned the structure into a pavilion. “A few years later, I closed it in and made it into an activity center,” he said. “Then, five years ago, I turned it back intoabunkhouse.Wediditupwithhigh- end furniture. It rents for $3,500 a week and it’s full all the time. It sleeps 15. It is just steps away from the Gulf and is the best use of its valuable location.” • Watch what’s coming in terms of technology.“If you’re not paying atten- tion to what the cutting-edge demands are, you’re going to lose out,” O’Neill said, citing Wi-Fi service as a case in point. “When you try to put in cutting- edge technology, it’s more expensive, but when your campers leave, they tell their friends, ‘This is where to go because they have Internet access’.” Camp Gulf has had to install “seven or eight generations ofWi-Fi antennas” to keep current, but the continual investments in new technology bring guests back, he said. —JeffCrider WCM Camp Gulf offers a laundry room for guests.