Listen to this story
By Greg Gerber
Editor, RV Daily Report
Owning a campground is hard work, but it also provides an exceptional opportunity for a true family business.
Paul and Anita Peoples acquired the KOA in Abilene, Texas, in July 2017. They operate the campground with five of their six children. Their 25-year-old son, Connor, lives in Minnesota with his wife and two kids.
Each of the younger children has a specific job in managing the day-to-day operation of the campground:
- Rowan, 21, works as the manager-in-training and is licensed to dispense propane.
- Caitlin, 17, helps manage the front desk and responds to email, reviews and social media comments. Her real strength is getting things done outside, such as mowing and tree trimming.
- Alyssa, 15, provides cable and wi-fi support to customers. She is also the unofficial dog ambassador who knows just about every pet by name.
- Morgan, 10, helps clean the campground and stocks shelves. She’s also starting to answer phones and learning to check in guests.
- Judah, 6, works as the greeter.
The children also deliver ice and wood, help pull cables when remodeling sites, and engage guests. Because they love to cook, the kids often take responsibility to prepare meals while mom and dad tend to the campground.
Paul is a native of California and Anita calls Mississippi home. They met at Mississippi State University, while Paul was majoring in electrical engineering with a math minor, and Anita was working on a degree in political science. She wanted to specialize in foreign relations.
Paul landed a well-paying job after graduation. But after many years of work, something weighed heavily on his mind.
“One day, I was looking at my coworkers and managers and thought, ‘Is this really how I want the last 20 years of my career to play out?’” he explained. “I just knew there was more to life than looking at a computer screen.”
A vacation becomes a business
The summer of 2016, the family took an extended vacation to visit 14 national parks in 14 days. As they were relaxing at the KOA campground near Ouray, Colo., the owners stopped by the Peoples’ campsite to meet their guests. They talked for more than an hour.
“They owned the campground for 30 years,” Anita explained. “Listening to their story triggered a vision. The more we looked into the opportunity, the more we knew it matched our personal goals.”
The kids have been homeschooled their entire lives, and Anita is convinced playing a role in supporting the campground is teaching them valuable life lessons in business and responsibility.
“They are also learning how to treat people of all ages with respect and to serve others every day,” she added. “They get to learn about other places through the different experiences our guests have shared.”
Paul continues to work at a full-time information technology job, but he can do most of the work at the campground. Having that extra income helped accelerate the business by giving the family extra cash for improvements.
It starts with a smile
The best way the family serves their guests is with a smile and a friendly word, Paul explained.
“Sometimes people drive in and they are hot, tired and irritated,” he added. “Anita has an amazing gift to listen to people and a heart to help.”
The Peoples are sincere in being a light to others, whether they are guests or neighbors. A motel next door occasionally poses some challenges, such as when the campground was burglarized twice. Yet, throughout the week they encounter people who just need some extra help.
The children are learning to serve through observation and action.
“I remember one night last summer when Revive Texas was in the area,” said Paul. “It was pouring down rain and our 6-year-old saw a broken-down car on the highway. He encouraged me to go out and help. So, I grabbed a chain to tow them into the campground only to discover they were in Abilene for Revive Texas.”
Since the family is in the customer service industry, they recognize a responsibility to genuinely care for people.
That’s why if a guest hasn’t arrived before the office is about to close, someone calls to offer instructions on how to check in when they get to the campground. The staff explains that although nobody will be in the office, someone is always available to help and note the mobile phone number is listed on the paperwork waiting for them near the front door.
Work and life balance
After the campground was acquired, the kids went from having Anita home all day to sharing her with the business. It was a healthy growth pain that made them more independent, she said.
“We are demonstrating to them that family and business are integrated,” she explained. “Everything we do is relational. We don’t always get to spend ‘quality time’ with the kids, but we do spend a lot of time with them.
“We all become very adept at taking advantage of the moment,” she added. “We might not do dinner at precisely 6 p.m. Rather we see that we have a free moment and opt to do it right then.”
Because the campground is always busy, Paul and Anita seek ways to catch a few moments one-on-one with their children whenever an opportunity presents itself. Perhaps they will enjoy a conversation while washing dishes, or chat during a garbage run through the campground.
Every day is a busy day, but Anita and Paul insist that Thursday night be a time when the family shuts off the world and focuses on each other – between emergencies, of course. Staff members do their best to honor that special night.
“Sunday morning is also a sacred time for us,” Paul explained, noting that he often leads the family and any interested guests in a period of worship and Biblical instruction. They hope to offer a formal Bible study soon.
“Our faith is a big part of our lives,” Anita explained. “We’ve incorporated matters of faith into our employee handbook so that anyone who works for us understands why we are here and why we consider this business to be a mission.”
That mission is to serve people in need, whether it is campers on vacation, hitchhikers needing a meal and a place to sleep, or stranded motorists needing help. The children are also discovering their own areas of giftedness and unique strengths.
“They see a need and fill it,” said Paul. “They are realizing that if they want something, they will likely have to become go-getters and do it for themselves.”
As parents, it has been a fun experience watching the kids grow in the past two years. Fifteen-year-old Alyssa, for example, stepped up to become proficient at using the campground software before anyone else.
“She’s an expert on the campground process,” said Anita. “She’s also the person who generally responds to feedback and reviews.”
Alyssa’s effort is paying off considering most reviews since the People’s took over are four- and five-stars.
Clearing the first hurdles
The campground keeps busy through a steady stream of events associated with Abilene Christian University, Hardin-Simmons University and McMurry College. Abilene also plays host to numerous softball tournaments as well as a several rodeos throughout the year.
The Peoples are expecting to be even busier this year, so the they are planning to greatly enhance holiday weekend activities as well as create more themed weekends and special events for adults and children to enjoy together.
“We’re going to be selling root beer floats this summer and donating the money to help KOA Care Camps,” Anita explained.
While 2017 was the year for getting their feet wet, and 2018 allowed the Peoples to immerse themselves into the campground operation, this year they plan to make several enhancements to the business.
One of the renovations they made was to convert the upstairs of the iconic KOA A-frame building into a reading and recreation room for all guests.
They’re also looking to upgrade the water heating system and expand the pool deck. Plans are in place to install a security system and enhance the campground’s wi-fi service. The roads will be resurfaced and the waterlines shored up for winter.
Some of the sites will be upgraded and a drainage ditch running through the campground will be shored up, too. The playground will also be enhanced and resurfaced. Community grills will be added in the park area.
“Time is our biggest enemy,” he added. “The economy is very good in this area and contractors are already booked out much of the summer.”
Upgrading to satellite television service is in the works because the Peoples found using cable boxes to get signals is a real pain for the staff and guests alike. Guests will have fewer channel options, but the change will lower costs to enable the Peoples to funnel more money into stronger wi-fi connections.
If there was one improvement Paul wishes the RV industry would embrace, it would be to use Cat5 ethernet cabling in RVs rather than coaxial cable.
Too many RVers desire internet connections more than cable television, so coax just doesn’t make much sense any more, he explained. It would just be easier if RVers could tap directly into the campground’s internet service to stream content.
“However, considering expected enhancements to cellular data speeds, campgrounds won’t have to rely so heavily on providing internet connections in a few years,” Paul predicted.
Abilene KOA was built in 1965 and has always been part of the KOA system. It has 92 sites, including six tent sites, four rustic cabins and two two-room deluxe cabins. There are hundreds of trees on site, many of which were planted by the original owners.
The couple was attracted to the KOA system for several reasons. The first was the security of being part of a franchised system that included a central reservation process, online app and integrated website. Brand recognition was also important as well as the point-of-sale software and KOA loyalty program.
“It really took the pressure off of jumping into the business,” Anita explained, who noted that KOA University provided immeasurable help.
Now that they have a few years of experience under their belts, collaboration with other KOA owners and corporate staff are the biggest advantage. If Anita, Paul or Rowan has a question or problem, simply posting it on the private Facebook group for KOA owners often yields dozens of responses within a few hours.
“Everyone seems interested in our success, especially other campground owners,” Anita said. “Combined, they have thousands of years of experience and are always willing to offer advice.”
“If we ever truly experienced a serious problem or disaster, I am confident there are at least six other campground owners I could call today and they would be in our campground the next morning,” Paul added.
A family affair
Now that they’ve been at the campground for a few years, the children weighed in on their experience.
“I like living in a bigger house and meeting new people,” said Judah, the youngest.
For 10-year-old Morgan, meeting new people is both a blessing and a challenge.
“It’s hard to meet people, get to know them, and say goodbye,” she explained. “But, its fun to get to learn about all the places they’ve been and the things they like to do.”
Being a teenager living on a campground is a rather unique experience for Alyssa. However, she said learning to manage a business and provide customer service gives her insight that most people her age never get.
For her, the challenge is to keep work and home life separated.
“We all try really hard not to bring family drama into work, and vice versa,” she explained.
This summer Alyssa is looking forward to completing driver’s education and getting her license. She’s still exploring career options, but is gravitating toward medical school or enlisting in the Air Force.
At 17, Caitlyn is planning to go into active duty in the Air Force soon. She’s already a member of the Civil Air Patrol.
She was instrumental in transitioning the campground to KOA’s new K2 software system in 2017 and making sure her parents, sisters and the rest of the staff became proficient in using the program.
“I was looking forward to the upgrade,” she explained. “With the old system, it was tough to remember all the codes to navigate from page to page. The new system is very intuitive and more direct. Best of all, if anyone gets stuck, all it takes is one click to get to the home screen in order to start over.”
Rowan will graduate from college in May with a degree in English. At 21, she knows she’s rather young to be managing a business the size of Abilene KOA, but she’s up to the challenge.
“It’s a challenge for me to keep everyone in line and moving in the same direction,” she explained. “Accounting and balancing the books requires some effort. Fortunately, we have a bookkeeper who manages most of that.”
Rowan said she enjoys the variety of tasks that comes with managing a campground, but she dreams of traveling herself someday. She’s having fun now, but is still keeping her career options open.
Despite the challenges and never-ending work, the Peoples are grateful to be involved in a business that unites every member of the family around a common mission — to help other families make memories.
For more information about Abilene KOA or to make reservations, visit koa.com/campgrounds/Abilene.