One of the perennial challenges facing campground owners is the struggle to find high caliber seasonal employees. Particularly when unemployment is as low as it is these days, it is not easy to find people who are anxious to clean toilets, mow lawns under the mid-August sun, or rake pieces of broken glass out of campfire rings. You understand because these are the types of jobs that you do yourself whenever necessary.
There is no question that those of us who run our own businesses think it is entirely normal to work 60+ hour weeks, to be on call when we are not working, and to grow accustomed to income uncertainty. I doubt that there has ever been a campground owner who has not at least occasionally been able to divide income earned by hours worked to find that his compensation calculated out to a fraction of minimum wage.
With that perspective as a backdrop, campground owners must nonetheless face the challenges of recruiting a qualified workforce. Larger parks that need to hire a hundred employees clearly face a more formidable task than smaller parks that get by with a half dozen multi-tasking workers. Complicating recruitment is the fact that most campground jobs are temporary and seasonal, forcing parks to compete against theme parks, golf courses, landscaping firms, farms, and any other businesses that are concentrated within the same limited tourist season.
Students on summer vacation and recent college graduates quite naturally come first to mind; however, many of them are still fantasizing that they should be earning six-figure incomes while doing nothing but sitting behind a desk. Then, there is the problem of schools resuming their fall sessions, often even before Labor Day, while your business is still at its peak. It is no wonder that I noticed the local Six Flags theme park holding recruitment days as early as January, hoping to fill up to 1,000 jobs prior to the park’s soft opening in April. I have also noticed over the last several years that the majority of lift attendants at U.S. ski resorts are South American college students who were recruited from the southern hemisphere to work in the cold during their summer vacations.
There are plenty of other businesses that face seasonal workforce challenges. Perhaps the most well-known is Amazon, a company that must recruit armies of warehouse workers to meet the demands of the spike in business that occurs during the holidays each year. In fact, Amazon has set up its own recruitment organization, called Amazon CamperForce, a name that has its origin in the fact that most of those workers are full-time RV’ers who have traded in their home mortgage payments for the freedom of the open road. Some the victims of corporate downsizing or plant closures, some former professionals who have grown restless with retirement, and others simply natural-born nomads, these mostly older folks tend to supplement their retirement incomes with seasonal employment.
When the holiday season is over at Amazon, that at-will workforce hits the road and heads in the direction of its next seasonal jobs, often found through advertisements in publications like Workamper News and Workers on Wheels or booths at camper rallies and outdoor festivals. Amazon CamperForce itself has partnered with campgrounds in 27 states – from Alaska to Florida – that help to provide a degree of employment continuity for those warehouse workers who are no longer needed after December 23rd.
When it comes to temporary seasonal employment, most businesses have a strong preference for the work ethics of older employees, and the job at your campground is much more appealing than running the concrete floors of a regional Amazon warehouse or harvesting crops under the sweltering sun, according to “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”, a 2017 book by author Jessica Bruder that paints a somewhat biased and less than flattering picture of the “work-camper” movement.
Seeking practical advice from campground owners with long histories of hiring experience, I asked several to share a few of their recruitment secrets. Those owners were Jack Robinson, the second generation owner of Four Seasons Family Campground, a New Jersey campground that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017; Leslie Baum, a second generation owner of Otter Lake Camp Resort, a larger park in the Poconos of Pennsylvania; Beth Ryan, the owner of both Lake Huron Campground in Michigan and the Keystone Lake Jellystone Park in Oklahoma; and Cathy Reinard, who has owned several parks, most recently New York’s Copake KOA.
The common thread among most of these park owners is probably Workamper News, a service that has been providing frameworks for connecting RVers with employers throughout North America since 1987. Workamper News is a bi-monthly printed publication, and Workamper.com is its online companion, each offering a wide range of free listing services and paid advertising options. Reinard says that Workamper News works best when her park is looking for employees at least six months in advance. The primary market here consists of older folks, often retired professionals who could be real assets to their employers, but the employee who you want to start working in April could be committed to another position thousands of miles away until then. Both Reinard and Ryan mention how providing a free full hookup site and free electric are real incentives for employees who are living out of their RVs and would otherwise have to pay to stay elsewhere. Ryan also offers an end-of-season bonus as incentive for workers who stay for the intended full term of their employment. On the other hand, Reinard points out that she still prefers local hires, where she does not have to lose the income that a seasonal site would otherwise generate, while gaining a greater likelihood of continuity of employment from year to year.
To find these local hires, three out of these four park owners turn to the guidance departments of local high schools and community colleges, even posting flyers on campus bulletin boards when permitted. Bulletin boards in general can be highly effective. There is a bulletin board outside of the pharmacy in my small town that is widely read. Reinard relates how she posted a job opening on the bulletin board in a local laundromat, leading to the hire of a new member of her housekeeping staff. The park owners say that they have also posted classified ads in local shopping guides (controlled circulation newspapers that are found in many local markets), Craigslist (where employment adds incur a $15.00 fee but typically generate many qualified responses), and Indeed (where employers can post jobs for free or pay per click for premium listings.)
Although many parks have a habit of posting job openings on their Facebook pages, Reinard cautions against this practice. She very succinctly states, “You do not want to appear to be one of those parks that are always looking for help (sending a wrong message to your guests who follow you on Facebook). If you are one of those parks, you need to take a hard look at your business and figure out why you have a problem.”
Some park owners also implement their own personal recruitment efforts that are loosely based upon the CamperForce model, except without the wheels. For example, Baum’s son is working a winter job at a nearby ski area, where the park is hoping he will be able to recruit a seasonal employee for the upcoming summer. She also mentions that her park pays higher wages than most other seasonal employers in the area, which also helps to encourage employees to return from year to year. Although the park owners also mentioned that they sometimes hire seasonal campers as employees, Reinard makes the point that she would rather avoid “mixing customers with employees”, preferring that they be one or the other but not both.
In addition to recruiting prior season employees for return engagements, Robinson summarizes employee recruitment at Four Seasons as “being visible in and interacting with the community” as the secret to his park’s success. The Robinson family has a strong presence in the Grange, the local fire company, the church, and the community in general. Their interactions with the families in these organizations spreads the word that they are in the market to hire young adults (primarily high school and college students.) According to Robinson, “There are families having three or four children, where all the children end up working for us – for many years.” This is a classic example where word of mouth has proven to be the most effective form of advertising.
With these peer insights as guidance; let’s hope that your park’s next recruitment effort will be its most effective ever!
This post was written by Peter Pelland