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Interviewing San Diego KOA Manager Clint Bell

INDUSTRY EDGE

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Balancing PASSION & SAVVY: clint bell [san diego koa] - PART II

Manager & Entrepreneur Of California Park Discusses Impact Of Technology & Importance Of Outreach

Clint Bell helps a guest at the San Diego Metro KOA. [Courtesy: Clint Bell]

Clint Bell knows the camping business but also has the passion of a philanthropist. With his direct and extended family, he helps run the San Diego Metro KOA along with their three satellite KOA campgrounds in Flagstaff, St. Louis & The Grand Canyon. For him the importance of family and community goes hand in hand. Giving back and especially helping children as he does with KOA Care Camps is also extremely close to his heart. Bell sat down with The Buzz for the 2nd part of a 2-part interview to discuss the impact of technology, the passion behind his drive and the importance of the life changing outreach charity program in KOA Care Camps.

The Buzz: Does the business model of campgrounds change with a multiple park management approach. For instance, a scenario where where a guest would stay with you in St. Louis in the late spring, San Diego in the summer and Grand Canyon or Flagstaff in fall or winter? Plus it would seem that the diversity in ethnicities, family structures and income brackets is always changing.

Clint Bell: Absolutely. I think we are seeing more and more not just in our operation set but also in a lot campground operations, [that] it is becoming a more professionally managed business. There is a requirement and a level of service that is expected now by most consumers. There is such a volume of choices out there that the service level…the amenity level…the experience level has really been racheted up for most consumers. They have now come to expect that. And whether that is a monetary value kind of an equation or a perceived value equation they’ve put in, customers are coming in and not paying [just] $25 a night anymore. They are paying more than that in a lot of locations. And because they are paying that, they are expecting a certain level of service. They expect a certain quality...a certain amenity and that of professionalism. That has changed that business model. And when you get into a multiple park environment, you now open up from that. [A guest might] travel from San Diego and they have had this great professional experience. Everything was manicured, clipped, cleaned and beautiful. And now, when they go on to the Grand Canyon…when they go on to Flagstaff…when they go on to St. Louis…if they choose to visit us at those other properties…they are expecting the same level of professionalism they experienced at the first property. That consistency throughout is really important. And it takes a more business savvy eye to identify that existing market...that new market…and see how it is evolving. [You have to] make sure you’re predicting [correctly] and you’re meeting those needs…not that you’re simply reacting. You’re not putting these [additions] in because people said, “Oh gosh…this would be nice!” [It is about] being actively involved in the RV community to find out “Alright. How big are rigs? What is the hot new trend? Is it outdoor kitchens? Is it full wall slides? LED lighting?” All these types of things. And if you can maintain a little tow in that water, you can also help to predict what new things are coming off the market. [This will] help [you] predict what guests might need based on the equipment they [currently] have or the equipment that they will be eventually purchasing. It has taken a little bit. [But now] it is not just that our doors are open...that we are very welcoming...and that we are very hospitable. It has now changed into [us being] a very professionally managed environment that requires an eye on all aspects of the market.

Hanging Out Near The Bikes At San Diego Metro KOA. [Courtesy: Clint Bell]

The Buzz: This also applies to engaging and building on aspects of technology where it be green or solar. The reality is that motorhomes are getting bigger and require more power. How much does that enter into the equation?

CB: The WiFi early on is something that we identified that was simply going to be the 4th amenity in a full hook-up environment. There’s water. There’s sewer. There’s power. There’s cable. There’s WiFi. And now, it’s almost changing to the point where WiFi and the availability of it…of streaming content and streaming media...is overriding the need for cable television. People are not watching local cable TV anymore. They are streaming it down on their phones because they want to get their news from home. They want to get LA news or San Diego news for one reason or another. They want to get the East Coast feed on a game...not the West Coast. Maintaining those systems [though] certainly comes at a pretty significant cost. However, that is the expectation is when you are in a controlled environment. If you were going to go out and camp in a national forest, you wouldn’t expect that [level of] WiFi. You didn’t choose to go out to the national forest because you wanted to have that technology. But when you’re on the road and you’re traveling, you go into various environments and you need that technology. It is a challenge…especially with the myriad of outdoor and wireless [gadgets]... to meet all those needs. Sometimes it is an infrastructure question. Sometimes it's like [what] we have in Grand Canyon...we have begged, borrowed and stole the fastest possible internet connection that we can get with any kind of reliability given its remote location. It is still not enough. It is a necessity to manage that guest expectation in that “We do have that technology available for you. We do have that WiFi available for you. But it is not going to be a 'like home' browsing experience. It is not going to be a 'like home' streaming experience.” And [this management of expectation] is also in respect to the community so everyone can send and receive emails and not kind of monopolize the signal strength. It [ultimately though] also comes down to the way we put technology out on parks.

The Buzz: From a power perception, it is also location specific. Like out in the Grand Canyon location...you are likely reducing power consumption and cost via solar as compared to say a more urban environment.

CB: The ability to [use] solar panels just makes a lot of sense I think in the camping industry. [Because] what you have is a lot of real estate. [So] you have opportunity to go and bring that kind of technology to a campground. We certainly have made our first forays into that with a fairly significantly sized system which provides anywhere between 12 and 20 percent of electrical demand on particular circuits throughout the park. That has been awesome. It has been something we have been able to leverage for our guests. [Now] whether that means there is less demand on the local power grid in areas that are more remote. [It might mean] less brown-out possibilities and more stable power because it is there on site and you're generating [it on] your own. But it is a huge investment...a huge investment that takes not only someone that can look at it and go “OK…from a professional standpoint…this is where we need to put it and this is how we put it in”. But also [it becomes] how do you integrate that? Can you make that solar system disappear so that people who are out in those remote locations still feel like they are part of the great outdoors? That is a lot of the allure of the RV experience…being outside. If you have a campground that is just fully covered with solar panels, that is not necessarily the same experience as being able to sit outside by your campfire looking at a myriad of stars in the Grand Canyon. [It is about putting] those solar panels in locations that are strategic that don’t disrupt that experience. Finding a way to make technology, whether it be WiFi antennas or the connections to electrical boxes, blend in to maintain that outdoor experience is what I think consumers are really asking for. That’s what they want. They want to feel like they’re out in the wild yet at the same time having that comfort and that security of a good camping environment. That is really important.

Enjoying Life At San Diego Metro KOA. [Courtesy: Clint Bell]

The Buzz: Could you talk about your involvement in philanthropy specifically with KOA Care Camps and the important of that outreach.

CB: Our involvement in Care Camps obviously started a long time ago when it was part of the KOA Owners' Association. My dad served on their board in some of its early days. Personally [with our family], we have always taken the opportunity to go up to our little care camp which is only an hour away and do a pancake breakfast...or what started out as a pancake dinner. The first time we did one of those I was 13 years old. That was almost 25 years ago and we have continued making that a part of our summer. It is something my dad and I and our staff look forward to every year. It is a pretty incredible thing to be part of a group that really focuses on that pure joy...that pure entertainment...to get kids outside that otherwise would just see the inside of a hospital room or a treatment room. [And] it really came home to roost with me this past year. A girl, who is in my daughter's school, is fighting a brain tumor. And to see her at the camp finally was wonderful. And then when she came home, she told her mom: “Gosh...Mr. Bell's pancakes are the best pancakes I've ever had!” It was just the coolest thing. It is [so] heartwarming on an individual level but also on a national level. The fact that we, as an industry, can provide what we so vehemently believe in: that outdoor experience and the opportunity to enjoy the companionship around the campfire. [At Care Camps] we are able to help these kids enjoy the outdoor environment and all it has to offer...kids who may or may not otherwise get that chance. It is awesome.

On another level, I certainly have had the privilege of being an auctioneer for the KOA Artists Association as well as Southeast [Publications] who has been an incredible partner in Care Camps. [Southeast] has really brought the cause and the dollars into light. It has really been a wonderful experience and truly why I got into auctioneering in the first place. For me, personally, it has created a whole different level of life. Care Camps is just kind of one of those things no matter where I go or who I talk to or what part of the campground I'm in, it is always front of mind. How we can better help these kids? There are kids all over the country suffering on every level. But the most unique thing about it is they all come back [from KOA Care Camps] and say, “Hey...you know what? They were just like me! I don't feel uncomfortable. I don't uncomfortable like I am in the classroom when I don't have any hair. I don't feel uncomfortable because people are looking at me because I am too skinny or I have this thing sticking out of my chest. I go to a camp environment where everybody has the exact same thing”. It really shatters those social barriers and those confidence barriers and allows these kids to flourish and to feel accepted and warm. Until you step foot on a care camp, I don't think you ever really feel understand or fully grasp it.

[Over] the last 25 years, it certainly has had a huge impact on my life and I hope it continues on into the future. Unfortunately there are more kids coming down with cancer from all the environmental and all the developmental challenges that we face. It is not going away yet. Until it goes away, my greatest goal...my greatest hope...is that we never need these camps...that childhood cancer goes away. I hope it becomes like polio...something we never have to think about...something that we explain to our 5th and 6th generation that there was this thing called cancer that affected a lot of people. But until then, the opportunity to just allow a smile ...just allow that heart to heal a little bit...and to feel that acceptance...in that outdoor environment...is what we can do, as an industry, to really leave our stamp...leave our mark.

Enjoying Family At San Diego Metro KOA. [Courtesy: Clint Bell]

The Buzz: You seem to have true passion behind what you do. What continues to challenge and inspire you.

CB: For me, every day is a new day…and I love that. I have had the opportunity [in the past] to work in an environment that is office controlled. [When] you walk into an office every day, you can pretty much expect what you need to do…what your work product needs to be at the end of the day. Somebody asked me the other day: “What is it? What do you do when you manage a campground?” And the answer is? You go in…especially in the summer time…you go in...you get prepared for the day and you just get ready to address any need that may arise. [Sometimes] it is communicating to a family that there is an emergency back home…[sometimes] it is preparing water lines…[sometimes] planning or executing activities...or just figuring out a new way to do the same old thing. [But] I mean what other job can you have that is just completely different every day? There is no monotony. I think that is what’s great about it from my perspective. There is always something different. There is always something that will tax and challenge and enable you to learn a new skill. [It can be] a new opportunity to learn about sewer systems..a new opportunity to learn about water and hydraulics..a new opportunity to learn how RVs work and the mechanics underneath them so you can be ready to fix them. It is a constantly changing environment that never gets dull and never gets boring.

In some cases, in a campground, it's like you’re the mayor of a small community. You’re seen there as a leader…someone to go to for answers...but at the same time you have a responsibility to those community members…those constituents…to provide to them what they expect. It is a unique blend of all of the trades and the hospitality industry. It is really kind of “boots on the ground” and “getting things done”. For me, it is also reassuring and fun. I went out yesterday [into the campground] and just before I went home, there was this whole group of kids. Last year, they had kind of met each other [here] and they are returning guests this year. These kids range from age 10 to to 15 or 16 and there were about 9 or 10 of them. They have all grown up here. They are all from different families but they have all grown up here over the course of 4 or 5 years. So last night, this great community of kids are out riding their bikes. They feel safe in the environment. They drive by and say “Hey Mr. Clint…what’s going on!” Then they all sit near the café ..sharing donuts. And you know…I know…that come August 10th most of them won’t see each other anymore. [But] they will look forward to seeing other here again. Those are the kind of memories we [in the business] have a really small part in. We get to act as a facilitator for these memories that will build relationships for these kids. [They know] whether they're from Indio or Arizona or Washington or Oregon, that there is always a common place [where] we can all get together. It is just cool to be part of those nostalgic opportunities. That’s the way I look at it.

Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

KOA Care Camps

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KOA Care Camps, where kids have the chance to experience summer camp with others their age who understand what they’re going through. They swim, hike, sing, laugh, make new friends and create joy-filled memories, all while receiving the medical treatment they need.

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