Scott Swanson of Gila Bend KOA talks RV Park Building




Owner/Operator Of Gila Bend KOA In Arizona Discusses RV Park Building & The Journey Through Details At Chattanooga Show

Scott Swanson at the KOA Expo in Chattanooga, Tennessee. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

Putting a campground together can in many ways be seen as a parallel to a writers room on a major network show as far storyboards, outline…but when building an RV Park in your mind, it is almost the psychology of the worker and the psychology of the guest working together make sure everything's done correctly. It’s a very interesting, specific, and regimented journey to make sure that all the Is are dotted, and the Ts crossed. Scott Swanson, owner and operator of Gila Bend KOA, knows the road less traveled. From his early years at the Leaf Verde Campground, working in Hollywood as a post-production producer on shows such as “Gilmore Girls” and “Person Of Interest” and then finding his way back to the outdoor hospitality industry through the resurrection and then sale of Leaf Verde and then the transformation of Gila Bend KOA, Swanson’s progression in an education in resilience and details. He sat down with The Buzz at the KOA Conference & Expo in Chattanooga to talk about charting the course and staying true.

The Buzz: Approaching an RV Park with the eye of a Hollywood producer is an interesting concept in a way…

Scott Samson: Yeah, I know. Even in some of my reviews, and I can find them for you, it says “This is the most organized RV park I've ever been to.”  The whole goal [with Leaf Verde]…our park was run down. We lost business. Our revenues and net operating income was below [what it needed to be].  For 30 years, it was in my family. My uncle ran it until 2005 when he retired. From 2005 to 2008, we didn't have any family members on site, so the property kind of went down. Maintenance was deferred. Band Aids were in place of actually doing [or] renovating something. So, in 2008 when the current staff was there, there were issues going on. We had a group of pipe liners that were traveling through for [about] two years, and the police were out there. The [snowbirds] were run off. It just became a trailer park and not a campground anymore. It became a true trailer park. So we decided, the family… there was 18 of us…we decided we're going to have to sell this. But who in the family has got the flexibility of coming over and overseeing [that]?

The Buzz: And you had in your mind that it was going to be sold at that point….

SS: We listed [the campground] on the market in 2008, got rid of the riff-raff, brought in a management company, did a few touch-up things. Put makeup on the pig is what we did, basically. And then the market crashed. Then we decided “OK. We've got to do something.” So I went out there. I was the one who had the flexibility. I'm single and my job's freelance, so I said “I'll go out there and let me see what we can do.” We wanted to renovate the tennis court. I had a two week plan…a $10,000 budget to renovate our tennis court, and try to see what was going on. Six years and $1,000,000 later, I renovated the whole park. So during that time, I went in and did forensic accounting, find out why would we go from $500,000 net operating income to under $100,000 for year end 2009. In my course of going through the records, there wasn't any theft. It was just mishandling of things, with management keeping sweet deals and the guests taking over [and] running the park. My challenge was “How am I going to fix this place up if we ever do want to sell it? I told my family that I'll [would] take the summer off. I won't go back to work that next television season, and I want to meet these snowbirds. I want to see what these snowbirds do. I basically didn't know anything about the RV park business at this point.

The Buzz: Nothing?

SS: No. I mean, it's been in my family for 30 years. I was there when I was 18 years old with my grandfather. When I graduated high school, when all my friends were going to U of A, NAU, and ASU, Scott was in a 32-foot travel trailer at 18, out in the middle of the desert, helping my grandfather complete construction of this thing.

Scott Swanson with some of his post production team on the TV Show "Person Of Interest". [Courtesy: Scott Swanson]

The Buzz: So you grew up in Arizona?

SS: I grew up in Arizona, 30 miles west of Phoenix. At 18, I went out there. I helped open up the store. I really liked accounting. I worked out there for three years and actually was one of the managers. And then when my grandfather got ill, and he had decided he's not going to be there to support me, I left and went to California where I was at a hotel for five years, so I was kind of in the hospitality industry.

The Buzz: LA?

SS: San Diego. The Omni San Diego. [I went] down to The Gaslamp. I was going to San Diego Community College. I ended up taking five years on my two years degree because when I was working at the Omni Hotel. The movie “K-9” moved in with Jim Belushi. So I started being friends with the crew, became an extra, hung out on the set, and said, "This is pretty cool." So I changed my major at San Diego Community College to radio and television. I got my two-year degree there and went to go work for the San Diego Film Commission after the hotel. I worked there for a year as a liaison between the city and filmmakers, television. There was a producer that came down, who did a couple “movie-of-the-weeks”. We got along working in the city

The Buzz: And there was a ton of television or movies shooting down there?

SS: Yeah. San Diego was huge.

The Buzz: When was this?

SS: Late 80s.  So I moved to LA in '90. This producer got an executive position at Paramount Studios and moved me up to be his assistant. So I moved from San Diego to LA. I worked for Paramount Studios. They paid for 75% of my tuition to get my business degree at Pepperdine. Then I got a job as a production administrator at Warner Bros. Television in '96 or ‘97. When I worked corporate for Warner Bros. Television for two years, my boss was a production executive who oversaw “Friends”, “Drew Carey”, “ER”, all these number one shows. I started meeting all these producers involved in them. Then I left and worked for him but went freelance where I worked on “Gilmore Girls” for the first two years then worked on ”Everwood”. Then in 2010, I just finished doing a television pilot for Amy Sherman-Palladino who was the creator of ”Gilmore Girls”. That pilot finished and then I moved to Buckeye [Arizona] to start this project. So cut to me being there. Now I was living at the park so I used the facility. It was kind of like “Undercover Boss”. The employees knew who I was but none of the guests knew. I kind of blended in and then I saw what the park needed.

The Buzz: Were you living there in the RV?

SS:  Yeah, I had a friend that had a trailer. Then I rented a motor home. Then I bought a fifth wheel.

An aerial of Scott Swanson's former Leaf Verde RV Resort right outside Phoenix, Arizona. [Courtesy: Scott Swanson]

The Buzz: So incognito pretty much…

SS:  For the first couple months, I could see all these different things. The lights were kicking on [with] a timer at 6 at night but it didn't get dark until 8. All these little tiny things. Then all the complaints. The showers were too small. They were run down. I kind of knew what needed to be[done] so I told my family. I said, "I'm going to stay here for the season, and  find out what's going on with the snow birds. What do they need? How can we bring them back? What are the complaints?" But I need to be physically there. [Then I said to] my family, “We're not going to do any distributions for two years”.

The Buzz: Really?

SS: No.  So no distributions for two years. I'm not going to take any money. We move in and renovate the park. I'll put together a list of what are priorities. I actually brought in a safety person who used to work for OSHA. He spent eight hours going through the entire park and telling me everything…all my violations. So we fixed all those. The first thing was nobody wanted to do any beautification. They wanted anything that had to do with structure, code or safety issues. There were so many crazy things going on that I had to bring my mom out to validate that I wasn't being a drama queen….

The Buzz: Drama queen?

SS: Or sensationalizing any of the events that took place at this park. My mom moved in the vestibule next to mine. She started helping me organize the office and figure out what was going on. I got ahold of a local general contractor, and we worked on the infrastructure. Over the course of five years, we remodeled the bathrooms, and made them ADA compliant. We made almost everything ADA compliant and brought in all the brand new electrical pedestals…brought in all new hose spigots. It went from galvanized steel and PVC to brass and copper. We have didn't inherently have to redesign the entire [campground]….it was just structural. Whatever was there, we had it fixed. We had 30 year old water valves…gate valves that were four-inch, six-inch, eight-inch. We went in over the course of three years and did 10 a year which was $100,000. Then--

Scott Swanson at Leaf Verde RV Resort right outside Phoenix, Arizona. [Courtesy: Scott Swanson]

The Buzz: You knew accounting …but you didn't know electrical, plumbing….

SS: No. I didn't know any of that stuff. I had Electrical 101 for Dummies. Now, what I did start to do…because I knew I needed to know what other issues people were having…I literally called the managers and owners of four other RV parks near me. I guess they're competitors but I said, "Hey. Are you guys up for a lunch or a little round-table? And let's talk? We don't have to tell anybody anything proprietary but let's just meet.”

So we got together every three or four months and talked about the guests and “What are you doing about this?” It was really kind of networking. I mentioned that to somebody and he said, "Oh…you should join ARVC Association." So I said, "Okay." So I did that. And then my mom and I seven years ago, we flew to Savannah for the ARVC convention. It was like this huge-- it was funny. It was like this big  huge AA convention. Everybody was there to help each other. It was a big therapy session for everybody. It's like, you raise your hand and say, "My name's Scott and I'm a RV Park owner."

The Buzz: It's funny because at the last ARVC convention in Fort Worth, I was standing next to this lady who just took over a campground in Abilene, Texas. It is like that AA thing where they     are coming it to like: "We need help. I think we're addicted [to this lifestyle] but we don't know what to do." It's literally that psychology.

SS: People hit bottom. I mean it’s like, "What do I do about my campground now?" But at ARVC you've got all these people that are there to help you, and you hear their stories, their testimonials…when they bottomed out…when they needed help, and what they did to fix it. There was a session on how to get along with your family. When my uncle ran the park, he didn't talk to a lot of us for a long time when he quit.

The Buzz: Because he was so close to it emotionally?

SS: Any company…everybody has their own way of running things. Then you deal with your family members and it gets pretty touchy. There's a lot of disagreements and arguments and things are taken a little bit too emotionally when it comes to families. Our original goal was to get in there and fix this thing up. So I spent three months in LA a year for five years, and nine months at Leaf Verde. I rented a motorhome and I visited over 40 RV parks in Arizona, looking at their signs, their streets, their stores, their office, just to get an idea of how can I make ours more efficient? So this is my first three years [at the park].

To Be Continued...

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.

Gila Bend KOA

Make Sure To Stay At:

Gila Bend KOA,  a campground built for RVers by RVers and it shows: You'll find roomy full-hookup sites throughout the park! The spacious clubhouse is well-suited for rallies, reunions and other large gatherings. Fido will love the 4,000-square-foot Kamp K9 with three separate corrals.

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