A glance at ourwill show that there is a wealth of information supplied by good books on the subject of buying and running a bed and breakfast or a small hotel. However there is very little available literature on the subject of running or buying a campsite.
The owners of this website own and run a campsite after owning and running a small hotel business and so have accumulated a lot of useful experience in the general area of small scale tourist businesses as well as the specifics of running a campsite or campground as it is known in some parts. We have decided to publish what we have learnt in the hope that it may help others.
This article does not include advice about researching the financial viability of a particular business.
Are there any semi-permanent lodgings on the grounds not owned by the campsite? This will vary from country to country but many campsites do rent plots to owners of chalets or log cabins. This is important for two reasons. First: don't make the assumption that if you buy a campsite you will own everything you see. Second: find out what the terms and conditions are for the owners of those chalets; in short how long are you legally obliged to continue to rent out the space to that particular owner? Do you have the right to change the rental rate? Under what terms could you evict a problematic client. Clients of this nature often represent a desirable and steady income, but you do need to check out your liabilities and commitments before you buy. You also need to find out whether such chalets have their own toilets and showers otherwise they may be counted as users of your toilet facilities and therefore limit the number of visitors you can accept for a given star rating.
Star ratings vary from country to country, region to region and indeed from camping organisation to organisation, for instance you may have a two star with the local authorities and have a three star with some camping guide. Star ratings usually take into account the number of toilets and showers available to a given number of guests - for instance one toilet to twenty people might deliver a two star and one toilet to forty people might deliver a one star. Be aware then that expansion of the campsite without similar expansion of facilities may lower your star rating. Unfortunately many camping authorities give star ratings to facilities that campers are not interested in so dont be surprised to find a campsite littered with table tenis tables that no-one is using - the owner is probably just "chasing stars".
Is there a swimming pool on the campsite? If so then does it conform to local regulations? Is the equipment in good order with evidence of maintenance? Local regulations may stipulate that the pool is surrounded by a child proof fence and also that a qualified lifeguard is on duty when the pool is open. A pool may be a must in hot locations but do not underestimate the work or commitment involved in running a clean, legal and safe pool for your clients. What is the peak season temperature of the water without any additional heating? Will you need heating and if so is solar an option? Don't assume that a swimming pool is a must - on the author's campsite many parents of young children have stated a preference for not having a pool so that youngsters can play without supervision in the knowledge that they are in a safe environment. Pools may have barriers but older children may unintentionally subvert the system by giving access to younger children on an unsupervised pool. Older clients may specifically seek out campsites that dont have pools in the belief they will be more tranquil - know your market - know your customer - there are no cast iron rules here.
Emergency access. What do local rules or regulations demand? Once again this will vary from country to country but the types of things you need to think about are the width of roads, the passable width of any gates. Emergency vehicles will need to turn around when they exit the campsite, the 'turning circle' of a fire fighting vehicle is not small. Its worth talking to the local fire fighting agency to find out what is required for the larger fire-fighting emergency vehicles. At the same time get any oil or gas fuel tanks checked over and ensure any required permits are in place.
Find out what your obligations are in terms of simple first aid and public fire fighting equipment and training. Don't assume the existing owner has ticked all the boxes - the authorities will not excuse any serious omission on your part on account of the conduct of the previous owner. Check out what local taxes or fees you may be eligible for, in many countries businesses pay higher rates for services than private homes.
Are permits obtained for the number of spaces or pitches already operated? Similar with any semi-permanent buildings.
If you plan to expand the campsite then talk to the relevant authorities before purchase. It is not just a matter of permission for more pitches, it is also a matter of what obligations you may have in terms of upgrading existing infrastructure, electricity supply, water supply, sewerage, access, security, health and safety, for instance the electrical supply may only be sufficient for the electric current demand of the existing number of pitches so existing cable work may need replacing.
Remember sewerage does not travel uphill, at least not without specialist sewerage pumps so you need to consider the existing layout when considering expanding into areas of differing elevations. Is the capacity sufficient for current use and any expansion plans? Has the system been inspected by the relevent state or local authorities - have they issued any demands for improvements and if so how long would you have to comply and how much would it cost? If you are relying on a cesspit system then be aware that most designs hold solid waste in tanks but re-distribute liquid waste into the soil using porous pipes - there are usually restrictions on such land - in other words extending or expanding a cesspit system may require additional land that cannot then be used for other purposes. In most countries cesspit design and installation are heavily regulated to protect the environment and groundwater, ill-informed DIY work is likely to result in prosecution - its best to get an expert in unless you already are one.
Find out who the most important camping bodies and organisations are for the relevant country. Most will have a website or year book, check if to see if the campsite is listed and if so then what comments and ratings are given. Most large camping organisations also have inspectors who visit sites, find out what they are looking for when they rate a campsite. For instance a certain governing body in Europe stipulates a minimum shower cubicle width as a condition for a certain star rating - if cubicles have already been built but too small then obtaining higher star ratings may prove expensive. You could choose to view the inspectors demands as a hurdle to jump but actually he only represents the wishes of the majority of campers in the organisation he represents so really his comments should be seen as valuable commercial advice - ignore the wishes of your campers at your peril!
Don't buy a campsite until you have slept in it a few nights - seriously !! Take your tent or your camper van (or RV in America) and stay for a few nights - use the toilets, showers and the facilities and ask yourself if you would stay there yourself? Get chatting to other users of the site, some may be regular clients who can tell you a lot of useful information about the campsite and also the surrounding attractions - how many times have they returned and what keeps them coming back? Regulars will be able to tell you whether there are any noise issues or similar disturbance problems associated with the immediate area that might be a problem. Do not base your decision to buy a campsite on one overnight stay, spend a week or longer if you can.
Be aware of any seasonal issues, floods, nuisance insects such as army ants or mosquitoes, familiarise yourself with regional climate and animal or insect life that may affect your clients.
Know your target market and what their standards are. For instance in continental Europe the Dutch are very keen campers but they are also known for their expectation of high standards of cleanliness.
What are main attractions in the area? Beach, Sea, Mountains or cultural cities? How does this affect the type of client and their duration of stay? Do most people stay a week or are they passing through. Neither is necessarily best, a steady stream of people staying only two nights on their way to some other destination might be a very good line of business but it will mean you spend more time settling arrivals into their allotted pitches.
Get the relevant professional advice to establish the legal boundaries of the campsite. Don't trust wire fences or wooden fences. Urban houses tend to have very well defined boundaries but visual indications of boundaries on a campsite may be misleading. If the previous owner has constructed anything of a permanent nature or relies on access that transgresses a boundary you may be in for complications.
The road or track leading up to your campsite is your lifeline. Make sure you understand who owns the road and what protection you have for the continued access of your clients. Is the road easily passable in all weather conditions that are likely to occur during tourist season? Find also how service pipes exit the campsite, they may well travel alongside or underneath the service road.
If you can talk to a local figure of political authority, a mayor, councilor or politician then take the opportunity to find out whether the local authorities are supportive of the business. In many cases local authorities are keen to encourage tourism and you will find a favourable response. You may find yourself applying for permits from these people so its important that they look favourably on you and your business.
Check out the local competition, in particular any sites run by local government, council or authority as these may have very competitive rates, superior advertising muscle and high standards.
Food! This is a big subject but starting out from the customers point of view, a lot of campers would like the option of restaurant food and also appreciate somewhere that they can cook for themselves. There are advantages and disadvantages to getting into the restaurant side of things, for one thing you will need to ensure that cooking and eating ares meet local regulations and even if you franchise out the responsibility of cooking you will still be the person who is responsible overall. There is a two fold advantage to supplying food, firstly your revenue will increase on account of direct sales but secondly you will generally attract more campers if you provide food. If you are not keen on being responsible for a restaurant yourself then another option is to buy your campsite within easy reach of existing restaurants and then form a co-operative relationship with these businesses, distance will of course be the main factor here, people will tend to want to be able to stroll to a restaurant in the evening, especially if they are drinking alcohol so the acceptable range may be only one or two miles or kilometres.
Many campers consider some form of refrigeration essential, campers vans or RVs will have their own fridges but those in tents will appreciate somewhere to keep their milk fresh. A recent online poll conducted by the authors on a European web site showed that refrigeration was one of the most important considerations for those staying in tents.
Drainage - Find out what the local soil is like and whether it is likely to get waterlogged at various times of year - installing drainage is not necessarily an expensive proposition if you dont mind hard spade work yourself but be prepared to do some research on the best drainage methods for the type of soil and the level of the water table in the area in question. Also its no good sinking drainage pipes at a depth of one metre if you have a layer of impermeable clay at 20cm - the water will take forever to get down to the required depth, in such cases you may need to consider digging trenches for French drains which lie just under the surface but are connected up to the drainage pipes at a greater depth. Another option is to sink vertical boreholes and fill these with gravel but this only works if there is a permeable layer underneath the clay layer - in all cases consider lining with a membrane to stop the gaps between the gravel clogging up with silt or clay. Its often convenient to think of drainage as two processes, the first being simply to get surface water down as quickly as possible - think of your french drains as resevoirs - the second is then the much longer, slower but constant process of leading water that has sunk down to a greater depth away. Deep drainage wont clear puddles from a downpour within an hour but french drains and gravel filled boreholes can.
Tractor! A tractor on some campsites is a useful addition - you may encounter new caravaners who lack confidence siting their caravan - short term clients who lack confidence may simply go for an easier pitch but seasonal guests who plan to stay months may place greater priority on the position of the pitch and may ask for help. After a particularly wet period some campers may need help extracting their caravan from sodden pitches, cars, even 4x4s can rarely deal with every situation - an old second hand tractor may not cost very much but a 4x4 simply is not even in the same ballpark when it comes to traction and pulling power. Tractors are also useful for pulling out stumps and with a suitable accessory are very good for re-levelling hardstanding roads. Be aware that caravans left on the same spot for months will slowly sink into the turf, preventative measures may be taken but be aware that a tractor may be the easiest way to pull sunken wheels out. Make sure you are fully confident handling the tractor before handling the clients precious caravan - very slow, very careful is the rule here.
Please be careful with a tractor, it is potentially an extremely dangerous piece of equipment, the hydraulics are immensely powerful so make sure you fully understand the 3 point hitch at the rear - dont try and pull out a tree stump before you find out how to do it - the naive way is to pull at the rear and consequently rotate the whole tractor up and over the rear axle - use the internet and find out about tractor safety. Whilst on the subject of dangerous tools, if there are trees in quantity you will most likely need a chainsaw, another piece of equipment that requires great respect and some research before use. Both these items may be necessary so dont shy away - just do the research, become a knowledgeable and safe user and allow plenty of time for each job so you can proceed with concentration, care and thought - keep your speed down at all times.
Electrics: Two of the most demanding situations you can encounters is campers without hot water (or perhaps water) and campers without electricity. In the authors experience most brown-outs are due to something that a client has plugged in that has a small earth leakage which then triggers the breakers - dont assume that the breakers on the pitch are the ones that will go first - often you will need to reset a second level breaker in the technic room and this means that several pitches will probably be affected (typically a second level breaker may serve 5-20 pitches). Be prepared for a process of elimination to work out the faulty appliance - its no good just resetting the breakers without determining the cause as they will simply flip open again. Also watch out for inexperienced campers who will happily place electrical connectors in a dip in the ground or orientated incorrectly so that rain enters where it should not - caravanners will generally use purpose built connectors but not all tent campers zill have invested in these cables and home extenion cables may find their way onto your pitches with inevitable consequences when it rains. Be prepared, know your electrical system, take photos and create electrical maps to relate pitches to breaker posistions - have a tool box with all your necessary tools and a powerful torch on standby at all times - dont take tools from this box for other jobs - keep it strictly for electrical emergencies and add to its content as experience demands.
Roads and paths - If you do have a tractor then, in the authors opinion the best type of track for most cases is a hardcore one - this consists of large aggregate with a top layer of sand and smaller aggregate - rather than paying out for tarmac repairs you simply re-surface the road by dragging a purpose built blade behind the tractor that both scrapes up the top layer and smooths it out, the road never wears out or cracks up due to frost and ground movement - it simply needs a scrape and smooth every year or so. Also be aware if you have a lot of paths and roads how much the colour of the road surface will effect the look of your campsite. On the authors campsite all roads are hardcore, the rocks and sand all being light beige in colour which complements the sea-side feel, light and sandy - dark grey tarmac roads would give a completely different look and feel.
Camping Huts - Often a very good source of revenue, if you are buying a campsite with the intention of adding huts make sure you know in advance what size and height restrictions are imposed by the local authorities. It varies from country to country but many authorities indicate in advance acceptable sizes and the campsite may already have permission for a certain number of huts of a given size but this rarely means you have to right to build without submitting plans to the authorities, it just means that if your design meets all their requirements then the authorities are unlikely to refuse permission. It is likely you will also have to consult with the local fire department, this really something you should consider anyway for the benefit of your customers, huts are generally made from wood so additional thought and care regards fire is advised, look after your clients, invest in smoke alarms, fireblankets ( for the stove ) and fire extinguishers, any mezzanine sleeping quarters should have secondary escape routes such as a suitably sized window and a means to get down to ground level safely - ensure that the area beneath any such window is free of sharp or hard surfaces in case anyone is forced to jump.
Lawn Mowing Machines for campsites - if you have 50,000 square metres of grass to mow then your choice of a lawn mowing machine will be critical. Most popular designs involve some form of small garden tractor with a blade assembly slung underneath, infront or behind. The width is one critical criteria - try for a width of cut at least one metre ( three feet ) wide but bear in mind at the same time this will limit the gaps you can get through. In the authors opinion, the best designs are the front slung variety so you can drive 'into' bushes and cut right up to the undergrowth. If your choice is the underslung type then it helps to have at least 30cm or one foot of cut width that lies outside the tyres on one side so that you can run parallel to bushes and cut close without getting scratched. Be careful driving equipment into bushes that have been pruned as you might be impaled on a sharpened branch. Be prepared to do a lot of mowing in Spring when the grass 'wakes up' and starts a growth spurt. Be wary of trying to mow the campsite in one go - most visitors will prefer shorter intervals of noise each day than a five hour session in one go - planning work that involves combustion engines ( petrol strimmers, chain saws, lawnmowers ) around guest activities is a skill and one that needs thinking about - you need to think about two year olds who may be asleep in caravans in the afternoon, adults eating at mid-day and the times when people are most likely to want to relax without noise. Of course all campers want the grass mowed - just not whilst they are there - a difficult balancing act requiring thought to get right - weekend visiors may ask 'why dont you do it in the week' forgetting the proportion of your guests who see it the other way around. It seems redundant to point out that decibel rating should be a criteria when considering a machine. Do not shirk the bills involved in maintenance and repair - unless you are lucky enough to have two mowers you will quickly recognise that this is one piece of equipment you cannot afford to have fail - two weeks of unmowed grass could easily result in a number of bad reviews and future loss of trade.
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Please note: This document is a work in progress, we will add to it from time to time so please return again. Also it will not be a complete list, what we hope to achieve here is to help others start asking themselves the right questions.
All information is offered in good faith but no responsibility is accepted for the accuracy of information presented here or any situation or eventuality arising from its use. All suggestions and recommendations are no more than that and should not be considered an alternative to professional legal advice.