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If you love the outdoors and some hard work, you could start a campground business. Whether you have land or are purchasing land, you could start enjoying the great outdoors and working for yourself as soon as you get everything set up. You'll provide a place for people who are passing through on their way to another destination and for those who want to enjoy some time connecting with nature. Campers use all sorts of shelters from tents to fully contained RVs.
Before you start a campground business, you'll need the knowledge and willingness it takes to do many things, including accounting, repairs, road maintenance, plumbing, electrical maintenance, and management. You may be able to farm some of these things out, but it is much more cost-effective to do these things yourself.
Who is this business right for?
A campground business is perfect for someone who loves the outdoors and dealing with people. The right person for this business also has experience in management, including accounting, budgeting, hiring staff, and keeping inventory.
What happens during a typical day at a campground?
A campground business owner will have several daily activities to do, unless he or she hires some help. Assuming that at startup, the business owner will be doing all of the work, his or her duties include:
- Checking campers in and out;
- Emptying trash containers at each campsite;
- Cleaning bathhouses and bathrooms;
- Interacting with campers in person and on the phone;
- Setting reservations;
- Planning events;
- Handling campers' complaints about other campers, the site or the campground;
- Opening and cleaning rec rooms and other amenities the campground offers; and
- Seasonal duties such as snow plowing, picking up debris from trees and cleaning up after storms.
What is the target market?
Customer types will depend on the type of campground you are running. If you are running a campground that has only primitive sites, your customers will like tent camping. If your campground also features sites with utilities, you'll attract “glampers,” those with RVs that enjoy having all the comforts of home.
How does a campground make money?
A campground makes its main income by renting out sites. It may also have a small store that is stocked with camping gear, non-perishable food and other items that campers may find useful. A popular seller is ice, so adding an ice freezer will also make some money for the business.
What is the growth potential for a campground?
The growth potential depends on how much adjoining land is available. Campground owners could make over $1 million per year if the campground is large enough and is popular. If a campground is small, but is always booked to capacity, the owner could buy adjoining land to create more campsites and significantly increase business.
Another avenue for growth is to create a franchise. Franchises give you unlimited growth potential, since you could open campgrounds across the country. In a franchise, franchisees – those who buy the franchise – would be operating the campground. You would make money from franchise fees and a portion of the profits for each campground.
What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful campground?
Campground owners need a plethora of skills if they want to do all of the work without hiring anything out. Skills that will help include:
- Office management
- Customer service
- Working with heavy equipment
- Landscaping and design
What are the costs involved in opening a campground?
The costs to open a campground business depend on what you are starting with. Assuming it's nothing, costs include:
- The purchase of land. These costs vary depending on location and the number of acres being purchased. Land may range from $1,000 an acre if has a lot of “unusable” land or upwards of $10,000 an acre if most of the land is flat, it's on a lake or river, or it has outstanding views.
- For buying an existing campsite, prices range from about $100,000 to over $2 million.
- Licensing and permitting, including sales tax and occupancy certificates. These fees also depend on the size of the operation, what you are offering and the location. For example, you may have to pay a fee for each soda machine you have on the premises, or a fee for each employee.
- Designing the campground, including roads, the locations of the sites, and locations of amenities you are providing. These may include playgrounds, a dog walk area, rec room, boat ramp, hiking trails, roads and bridges.
- Clearing of the land and creating the roads.
- Installing electric, plumbing and septic systems.
- Building bathhouses, bathrooms, fencing, rec buildings, installing a pool and building any other amenities you plan.
What are the steps to start a campground?
Once you're ready to start your campground, follow these steps to ensure that your business is legally compliant and avoid wasting time and money as your business grows:
- Plan your business. A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. A few important topics to consider are your initial costs, your target market, and how long it will take you to break even.
- Form a legal entity. Establishing a legal business entity prevents you from being personally liable if your campground is sued.
- Register for taxes. You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
- Open a business bank account. A dedicated checking account for your campground keeps your finances organized and makes your business appear more professional to your customers.
- Set up business accounting. Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
- Obtain necessary permits and licenses. Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
- Get business insurance. Insurance is highly recommended for all business owners. If you hire employees, workers compensation insurance may be a legal requirement in your state.
- Define your brand. Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
- Establish a web presence. A business website allows customers to learn more about your company and the products or services you offer. You can also use social media to attract new clients or customers.
Select your state below for an in-depth guide on completing each of these steps in your home state.
Where can I find a business mentor?
One of the greatest resources an entrepreneur can have is quality mentorship. As you start planning your business, connect with a free business resource near you to get the help you need.
Having a support network in place to turn to during tough times is a major factor of success for new business owners.
Recommended: Fizzle.co offers video courses and a supportive online community of like-minded entrepreneurs. Try one month membership for for free.
What are some insider tips for jump starting a campground?
You'll spend much less if you already have land that you are able to convert into a campground. Think about what the area has to offer. If there is a river on the property, you might cater to those who like to fish. If most of the land is flat, you may want to cater to the handicapped, especially if you are able to make concrete hiking trails that would be easy for those in wheelchairs to navigate. Depending on what you offer, you may need several different licenses and permits. Campers are there to enjoy the experience, so you may want to have a small store, playgrounds for children, a dog park area, and a recreation room for those rainy days. Additional tips include:
- Make curves and turns in the roads wide enough for longer rigs.
- Be sure to have plenty of pull-through sites to make it easier for the larger rigs.
- While “glamping” is quite popular, you will also find that there are many who like to rough it. Be sure to have plenty of primitive sites for tents.
- Offer a good variety of 50-amp and 30-amp hookups.
How to promote & market a campground
Marketing a campground business depends on where you are located and the type of people you are catering to. The best way to promote is word of mouth, which means customer service that goes above and beyond. Advertise on social media sites, send out flyers and advertise on sites for campers, at specialty outdoors stores and on radio and television, if possible. Radio and TV ads are expensive, so this may not be something you can do upfront. When marketing your campground, be sure to tell potential customers about the amenities that make your campground the best place to camp. If you have a large lake, list activities such as fishing, boating, canoeing and swimming. When advertising hiking trails, add the length and difficulty of the trail. Let potential customers know if you have a camp store, a recreation area and the types of sites you offer.
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How to keep customers coming back
In order to attract and retain customers, you need to target your advertising to those who would most likely use your campground. If offer only primitive campsites that require a hike to get to, advertise to those who like to hike. If you provide enough hiking trails with great sights, hikers will come back time and again.
If you have sites that offer electricity, WiFi and other amenities, advertise to those with RVs. Keep all sites, no matter which type, clean and easy to access. Make roads easy to navigate for the longer RVs. These are all features that you would advertise to “glampers.”
How and when to build a team
It's time to build a team when the number of sites you have is too high for you to maintain them all by yourself each day. You may have to clean each site, and at a minimum, empty the trash. If you are by yourself, you also need to be able to complete site maintenance early in the morning so that you are in the office to check people in and out.
If you have grown to the point where it's difficult to manage yourself, or even with a spouse, you should have the income to hire at least a part-timer to help you with some of the physical work. You might also hire someone to mind the office.
Once you decide to hire outside help, be sure to check references and do a background check. The person has to be trustworthy enough. Even if the person is working the grounds, you want someone you can trust not to break into your customer's campers or lift some of the camping gear your customers might leave outside when they go to town or go sightseeing.
Read our campground hiring guide to learn about the different roles a campground typically fills, how much to budget for employee salaries, and how to build your team exactly how you want it.
Federal Business Licensing Requirements
Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate a campground. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.
State & Local Business Licensing Requirements
Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate a campground business. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.
For information about local licenses and permits:
- Check with your town, city or county clerk’s office
- Get assistance from one of the local associations listed in US Small Business Associations directory of local business resources.
Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, check out our informative guide, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.
Release of Liability
To avoid liability and potential lawsuits, campground businesses should have their clients sign a release of liability. Here is an example of one such form.
Recommended: Rocket Lawyer makes it easy to create a professional release of liability form for your campground when you sign up for their premium membership. For $39.95 per month, members receive access to hundreds of legal agreements and on call attorneys to get complimentary legal advice.
Certificate of Occupancy
Businesses operating out of a physical location typically require a Certificate of Occupancy (CO). A CO confirms that all building codes, zoning laws and government regulations have been met.
- If you plan to lease a location:
- It is generally the landlord’s responsibility to obtain a CO.
- Before leasing, confirm that your landlord has or can obtain a valid CO that is applicable to a campground business.
- After a major renovation, a new CO often needs to be issued. If your place of business will be renovated before opening, it is recommended to include language in your lease agreement stating that lease payments will not commence until a valid CO is issued.
- If you plan to purchase or build a location:
- You will be responsible for obtaining a valid CO from a local government authority.
- Review all building codes and zoning requirements for you business’ location to ensure your campground business will be in compliance and able to obtain a CO.
How much can you charge customers?
The charge per night depends on the amenities, the location of your campground, the location of the site and the type of site. Sites might go from $10 per night to over $100 per night. Primitive sites would be the cheapest, while sites that provide electric, water and WiFi hookups might cost more.
Also, if you have amenities, such as a pool, a rec room, a playground and more, you need to charge a little more per site so that you can cover the cost of putting those amenities in, and cover the cost of maintenance for them.
What are the ongoing expenses for a campground?
Expenses will vary, depending on how you set your business up. They may include:
- Garbage disposal
- Septic tank maintenance and cleaning
- Cleaning supplies
- Licenses and permits that need to be renewed
- Gas for camp vehicles
- Maintenance on camp vehicles
- Gravel for roads, if applicable
- Patch materials for paved roads
- Entertainment, such as paying performers
How much profit can a campground make?
Profit is dependent on many things, including the number of sites you have, whether you have cabins for rent, the business expenses and start-up liabilities, such as loans for land. A smaller campground with extensive liabilities will make less profit than a larger campground with the same amount of liabilities.
If you are able to keep costs down, your profit will be larger. Before you set pricing for your sites, you'll need to figure your monthly overhead. This includes mortgage payments, utilities, employee costs, licensing and permitting fees and inventory. For items that are not paid monthly, divide yearly payments by 12 to get the monthly cost. Once you get your monthly overhead, you'll be able to figure how much you need to charge for each campsite.
If you charge different prices at different times of the year, or if you give discounts, you'll also have to figure that in. If your monthly overhead is $3,500 and you have 100 sites, you'll have to charge $35 a night just to break even, unless you have a camp store or other amenities that you charge for.
How can you make your business more profitable?
Make your business more profitable by taking several steps:
- Add more sites
- Check your accounting to ensure that you are charging a fair amount that covers utilities and your liabilities
- Ensure that you are sold out by making your campground the best place to go in your locations
- Create a budget and stick to it
- Add additional services that you might charge for, such as ice, firewood, and a store