By Greg Gerber
Editor, RV Daily Report
There are few people better suited to be campground managers than Robyn and Tim Chilson, who own Meadville KOA, which is located an hour south of Erie, Pa., and two hours east of Cleveland, Ohio.
Her vivacious, chatty personality instantly makes people feel relaxed and welcome. Tim’s attention to detail and ability to fix just about any problem at the campground makes him the right guy to handle the operations side of the business.
Meadville KOA sits on 63 acres of property and offers 160 camping sites, 77 of which are designated for extended stay and seasonal use. The Chilsons have four cabins, three of which they added. Two of those are lake-front deluxe models that offer restrooms, kitchens, two bedrooms, heat and air conditioning. They also added a camping cabin that just has beds and a table – a perfect rustic upgrade for tent campers who are tired of sleeping on the ground or fighting inclement weather.
Originally known as the Brookdale Family Campground, the property was a farm at one time, and then a fish hatchery until it was converted to a campground in 1985.
Before buying the campground, the Chilsons lived in eastern Pennsylvania where Tim worked as a division accountant and office manager for a natural gas company and Robyn as an engineering technician for a chemical company. Desiring a career change, they thought getting into the campground business would be more rewarding and enjoyable.
Since acquiring the campground in 1999, the Chilsons have completed a major upgrade to the sewer system in 2008, at a cost of $350,000.
“Septic is an unappreciated cost incurred by campground owners,” Tim explained. “It’s something customers don’t readily see or think about. But the state requires us to have a sewer plant license and testing costs are $200 per test, which is conducted bi-monthly.”
Prior to that, in 2002 they added 11 pull-through, 50-amp sites to their already existing sites that are 45 to 50 feet wide. In 2013, the Chilsons installed new transformers and pedestals to bring 50-amp service to 10 seasonal campsites at a cost of $1,000 per site. Last summer, they finished installing satellite TV to 123 full-hookup sites, which was another large investment.
“We laid about 10,500 feet of cable throughout the campground to deliver a high-quality signal,” said Tim. “Every site has its own drop so the signal doesn’t degrade.”
“The first day we flipped the switch on the TV system, we saw a big spike in usage,” he added. “It’s not your father’s camping experience any more. People want more luxury in their RVs. Cable TV was one of the most requested amenities when people called to book a site.”
Four years ago, wireless Internet access was added to the campground, and an upgrade to a better version of Checkbox was completed last year too. That’s a good thing, because the campground is situated in an areas where it is difficult to get strong cell phone signals on the property, especially after Verizon rotated the tower equipment just a few degrees a few of years ago, and they lost almost all Verizon service at their campground.
“We’ve seen demand for wireless increase year after year,” Tim explained. “Children are bringing more toys that connect to the Internet, and parents want to check e-mail or keep up with their Facebook friends. So, last year, we upgraded to the highest level of high-speed service offered by our cable company. The investment pays off in customer satisfaction with guests connecting at download speeds of 15 mbs and higher.”
The Chilsons live in a home located in an obscure part of the park, but close enough for them to promptly return to the campground to handle any situations that may arise.
“We don’t generally have a problem with our guests,” said Robyn. “We have developed a reputation as a family campground. On occasion, we do get a late arrival or camper off the road, and we come back to the campground to meet them and escort them to their campsite.”
Plenty of fun
There is plenty to keep kids busy throughout the park. There is a soccer field and basketball court, as well as three separate playgrounds and a place for volleyball games. Guests can also engage in catch-and-release fishing in any of the six “ponds” on site.
The campground sponsors a fishing tournament July 4 weekend. In addition, on other designated weekends, several catfish are tagged with a special zip tie, and whoever catches one wins a prize bag containing $10 worth of lures and fishing supplies. Kids and adults who catch their first fish, or a large fish, can have their photos posted on a bulletin board in the lodge and on the campground website by e-mailing the photo to the campground through their website.
For those folks who want to swim, Meadville KOA offers a nice pool with solar heated water. The filtered water runs from the pump house to the pool through a series of black plastic tubes coiled along the pool’s fence that faces the sun. As the water circulates through the tubes, the free solar energy warms the water, which can get up to 80 degrees.
Sandbox diggers are a big hit with smaller children because they can scoop up sand and create big piles — just like construction workers. Their new wooden playground and retro swings are popular with kids too.
A large multi-purpose room in the recreation hall serves as a bingo facility and for meals. A large game room allows people to earn tickets for prizes that can be redeemed for toys and win items like ice cream and large stuffed animals.
Meadville KOA offers paddle boats and pedal karts rentals for 30 minutes of use, plus mini golf at the “Nuttin’ But Puttin” course.
Guests can purchase wristbands to get all-day or all stay up to a week access to the rental amenities which includes the paddle boats, pedal karts, mini golf, and a large jumping pillow on weekends. The fee helps cover the costs to maintain the equipment and pay for items like helmets and life preservers.
“I love that kids can get fresh air and exercise when they come here,” said Robyn. “After the kids have played hard all day, by evening we’ve worn them out and they’re content to sit around the campfire, eat a s’more, and crash for the night.”
Attention To Customer Service
The Meadville KOA has a wide selection of food products available in the camp store, and gets weekly and in some cases bi-weekly deliveries to resupply the shelves. The list of items carried has expanded over the years as campers requested items they didn’t routinely carry.
“Shopping in the store saves people a seven-mile trip into town and seven miles back just to get milk, bread, or something for dinner,” she added. “We serve as both a camp store for the campground and a local convenience store for the local rural community.”
The Chilsons also added consignment RV sales to their list of services offered. The units are displayed along part of the campground’s highway frontage. The couple advertises and shows the RVs for owners in exchange for a percentage of the price. It’s a great way to entice tent campers into the RV lifestyle, and provides an additional valuable service to campers, Robyn explained.
Unauthorized vehicle access to the park is kept to a minimum with an electric gate that requires a gate card to open. The gate also helps slow down traffic by preventing vehicles from pulling off the highway and speeding into the campground, and it provides a level of security for the campers.
The Chilsons, or one of their staff members, escorts each camper to their campsite after arrival and check-in.
“We want to ensure that our camper gets on the site that they desire, and are happy with that site, whether that means they want more shade, less shade, closer to a playground, etc,” Tim said. “It gives us an opportunity to make that personal contact and make sure the camper is satisfied with their site and move them to a site that better meets their expectation, if for some reason the initial site doesn’t.”
People who make frequent trips to the campground can pay $1 per day for storage when their RVs are not in use. The staff will pull the rigs back onto a campsite before the families arrive, and move it back to the storage area after they check out.
“Pets are one of the biggest blessings and biggest problems for Meadville KOA and most campgrounds,” said Robyn, who noted that many families want to bring their pets with them when they’re vacationing. But, barking dogs and owners not cleaning up after their pets are the most frequent complaints they hear.
“When our staff visits a site after check out to clean the fire rings, they are also looking for and removing any animal waste left behind,” Tim explained.
The camp staff not only mows and trims the overnight sites, they also mow and trim the seasonal sites to ensure a more uniform appearance for the campground. Seasonal campers have very neat, clean, and well maintained campsites personalized with decorations, flowers, and other plantings.
“It’s an aesthetic thing. We do the mowing during the week when we’re not so busy so that people don’t have to listen to a neighbor mowing the grass on a Saturday morning,” said Tim. “In addition, it’s a premium level of service we supply that no other campground in Western Pennsylvania does. It’s a level of customer service that sets us apart from other campgrounds. We believe that our level of customer service, and getting to know our campers personally, and them knowing us, is some of the reasons that our repeat campers and friend referral numbers are so high.”
When looking for a campground, the Chilsons were active KOA campers themselves. They had hoped to buy a KOA, but the one they were looking at sold before they could sell their home. They were forced to pass on that campground. However, the Brookdale Family Campground soon became available and they acquired it instead.
For 10 years, they ran the facility pretty much like the previous owners had until a KOA representative approached them in late 2010.
“We already had a good reputation, and we really didn’t want to give up our logo and the brand we had worked so hard to develop, but I promised the rep we would look at the information,” Robyn explained. “After reviewing it, we couldn’t say no to national advertising at a level no other franchise delivers, the KOA reservations system, guest reviews system and quality programs, and the opportunity to get more travelers, especially overnight guests.”
In 2014, the Chilsons achieved their first KOA Founder’s Award, which is based on quality inspector’s marks and guest reviews from their camping customers. It is KOA’s highest quality award, and Meadville KOA has been a President’s Award winning park since joining the KOA system in 2011.
One of the things most campers don’t realize about owning a campground is the amount of training and licenses required to operate a public camping facility, which of course, varies by state. For example, in Pennsylvania, campgrounds must study and take a pesticide application test to become licensed to operate a public swimming pool. The license holder must also maintain continuing education credit hours, which Tim does when they attend conventions for their state each fall. In addition to the pool license, they are required to have a sewer license, sport fishing license, propane distribution license, food handler’s license, and a license to sell dairy products in the store.
Tim served on the Pennsylvania Campground Owner’s Board of Directors for five years. The Chilsons have attended KOA University, the ARVC School of Campground Management Graduate Class, and both achieved their initial certified park owner credentials from the National Association of RV Parks and Campground. All of these programs have been instrumental in them running a successful campground, they noted.
Despite the extra work it entails, the Chilsons say they won’t trade the campground lifestyle for any other job.
“We’re fortunate and have been blessed to meet a ton of great families,” said Robyn. “We get to have fun with their kids and introduce them to wacky activities they aren’t likely to enjoy anywhere else, like free crafts, candy bar BINGO, panning for gold, water barrel battles with the local volunteer fire company, cardboard and duct tape boat races.”
“We have kids who are in college now who have been camping here since they were 3 or 4 years old,” she added. “And one of our seasonal campers and a student employee who fished with his parents and grandparents in our ponds has brought his kids here to enjoy the same experience.”
The Chilsons not only serve RVers, they love to go RVing in their Laredo travel trailer, which they often take to the KOA and ARVC conventions. Robyn and Tim, who have been married for 34 years this summer, have two sons who were 12 and 16 when they moved to the campground.
“We had camped with our own kids for years before we considered buying a campground,” Tim added. “Camping is a great investment parents can make with their kids.”
Tim Chilson added, “Owning a campground is a nice, fun way to make a living while providing a valuable service. Our children learned a lot working here during their high school and college years.”
Their oldest son, Michael, now lives and works for an engineering company as a CAD designer in the Pittsburgh area, and runs a DJ service. He is still a DJ at Meadville KOA events on the holiday weekends, which he started doing as teenager while in high school. Their youngest son, Anthony, lives and works in eastern Pennsylvania as a social worker, and volunteers each summer at the county’s summer youth camp for at-risk kids in the social services system.
For more information, call 814.789.3251 or visit www.meadvillekoa.com.