Glamping with Yogi Bear at Jellystone Resorts
Jellystone CEO Rob Schutter (left) shoots the breeze with franchisees Ronald and Ginger Bowyer, who have poured significant resources into expanding their campground south of Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. Their upgrades have included several rustic camping cabins, which are especially popular with families of young children.
Photo by Shane Kislack
You might not know it by looking at him, but Yogi Bear is just as clever as he’s always been. While he scampers into a sixth decade of tricks and chicanery, the franchised Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts are evolving into miniature theme parks where the guests are indulged in activities and luxuries that are a far cry from the aluminum-clad Airstream trailers and A-frame tents of those post-war years when Americans first started vacationing in the woods. Yogi and Boo Boo have gone glam.
Modern families and their kiddos now have much higher standards than early campers who packed Vista Cruisers and Wagoneers full of pillows, blankets and pic-a-nic baskets to rough it in the wild. These days, it’s Pacificas and Outbacks loaded to the gills with android children and their tablets, e-scooters, hoverboards and enough Shopkins to thwart a home invasion. They haven’t coordinated their busy schedules or left their opulent McMansions to get rained on, argue with bored children or abandon their carefully curated digital lives in any way.
Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts, owned by Ohio-based Leisure Systems Inc. and with lasting ties to the Hanna-Barbera cartoon empire, saw these changing habits and expectations coming a mile away and directed its 84 franchised parks to zig and zag with the times. Waterlogged tents, flashlight-led trips to sketchy bathrooms and no contact with the outside world were officially left at the wayside. Today’s campers want rustic-fancy cabins, on-site water slides and spraygrounds, and programmed activities like zombie hunts, pudding wrestling matches and paintball battles.
On the accommodations front, Jellystone’s guest research showed spending the night in a tent has become increasingly alien for families, especially those with young children. In response, the typical Jellystone offerings now range from mega motorhomes and travel trailers to on-site rental cabins and lavish bunkhouses, which look rustic enough while salvaging those inevitable rainy days. The idea is to give city dwellers a natural experience without the negative externalities most associate with life in the woods—including hungry bears.
CEO Rob Schutter says modern log cabins are popular at Jellystone.
The man for the job
Cruising through the park riding shotgun in his Honda Pilot, Steve Stafford, the park’s GM, pointed out the facility’s banquet halls, gift shop, countless kid play zones and zombie maze while explaining his staff swells to nearly 400 at the peak of summer, including kids who come from Europe to earn good money and learn about life in the United States.
Compared to anyone who might be stressed out by intense staffing demands, high-needs parents or packs of screaming children, Stafford is cool and collected as he explained his team’s goal of creating as many family bonding moments as possible, regardless of what Mother Nature has in mind.
Spread over 110 acres, the North Texas Jellystone can accommodate more than 6,000 guests at the season’s peak. Asked why he isn’t a nervous wreck with so much on his plate, Stafford parked by the artificial lake his coworkers named after him and struck a serious tone.
“I want to be part of something that makes a difference in the world and can change the world,” he said. “I really believe that we can do that, and I believe Jellystone is a vehicle in which that opportunity exists, so that scratches a huge itch for me.”
That was Jellystone CEO Rob Schutter’s cue to offer his take on what’s kept him in this industry and company for nearly 25 years as he aims to bring the system up to 100 franchisees.
“That’s what we’re doing, creating experience and creating memories,” he said, underscoring Stafford. “Some people think camping is like staying in a hotel. Well, no, it’s not. I always say, you don’t go next door to knock on the door to see who’s rooming next to you, but you will go extend your hand to the person who’s pulled in next to you, asking how are you doing, where are you from, just striking up a conversation. It’s a very social type of activity.”
As we rolled through the modern log cabin neighborhoods, Schutter said tent camping is now just 15 percent of the system’s campers.
Pulling up to a newly vacated log cabin, we walked up the wooden stairs into the screen porch and inside to check out the 400-square-foot, super cozy little cabin that opens to a vaulted ceiling with two bedrooms, a kitchen and an upper loft big enough to fit three queen beds.
Cabins like these, Stafford said, go for as much as $325/night during the summer, and dip down as low as $135/night in the off-season. Guests need to bring their own bedding, but otherwise these luxurious little cabins are a world away from my own childhood camping experiences where I learned that setting up a tent was the scariest thing my parents ever did together.
The Yogi Bear movie from 2010 has helped keep this lovable thief top of mind with kids.
Business of glamping
Dissecting the rise of glamping, also known as glamorous camping, Schutter explained that his parks started adding camping cabins around the turn of the century, which required setting up manufacturer-sourced financing to ease the burden for franchisees being asked to join the great camping arms race.
“The one thing we found from our research was moms were upset that they had to get up in the middle of the night to take their kid to the bathroom,” he said. “That’s when we started thinking long and hard, what do we need to do? We went to one of the manufacturers and talked to them about putting bathrooms in.”
Initially these semi-permanent homes, called park models in industry lingo, came with sheetrock walls and hardwood floors, which showed too much wear and tear under the high-duty use seen at campgrounds. These particular models were sourced from a nearby manufacturer to minimize shipping costs, and Stafford said each cabin costs approximately $40,000, which kick-started my own dreams of tiny living in the woods.
After a few seasons of experience, Jellystone swapped out sheetrock for raw wood wall paneling and lined the floors in durable wood-look vinyl planks that showed little signs of abuse after three years of nonstop vacations.
When this craze first caught fire, the park model manufacturers financed these cabin upgrades for franchisees, but Schutter explained that creative financing goes even deeper for Jellystone. He shared the story of Randy Isaacson from United Bank, who studied the business, became enamored with the economics of such rental units and dove in head first—providing more than $40 million in financing to Jellystone franchisees and later becoming one himself, buying a park in Caledonia, Wisconsin.
“He gets to see everything being a banker, so he saw what the revenue returns were and became a franchisee,” Schutter said. “I thought it was a testament to what we were trying to accomplish throughout the system.”
That mirrors similar evolutions on the franchisee side, where Jellystone has seen real estate investment trusts becoming franchisees in the system in recent years. Schutter said they’ve become excited about the recurring revenue such parks can provide, and are more able to plunk down millions to buy an existing park, which is increasingly difficult for mom-and-pop-style individuals.
Once such REIT is Michigan-based Northgate Resorts, which owns nine Jellystone locations across the country. In a quote on Jellystone’s franchising page, Northgate CEO Zachary Bossenbroek said his company’s due diligence showed that Jellystone parks are some of the most profitable RV parks in the country.
“Not only are Jellystone Park guests loyal to a specific Jellystone Park, which oftentimes experiences 50 percent or better repeat business, but to the Jellystone system in general,” he said.
I asked Schutter if institutional franchisees is a long-term risk for the system, compared with a more traditional family-style ownership structure. He said it’s too early to tell what the impact will be long term, but said institutional franchisees have so far been eager to add rental cabins and make similar large-scale investments into their properties.
With ever-increasing land costs, as well as challenges around local and state regulations that tend to limit development along bodies of water, Schutter said building new campgrounds has become increasingly rare for Jellystone. Even though it still happens, with a new campground coming soon in North Carolina, most of his team’s franchise recruitment efforts involve talking with existing franchisees to plan future expansions, consider buying out adjacent Jellystone campgrounds or jump-starting family succession plans.
“It’s a way to perpetuate the known,” Schutter said of the ongoing search for new blood. “You understand what type of owners they are and, if you are really convinced they’re great for your system, you’ll try everything you can to continue that type of relationship.”
Rustic camping cabins don’t have an oven, but are geared toward young families.
Luxe inline hotel rooms made for a posh home base while on assignment.
King of the Woods
To properly observe the modern American family at play, I booked a Premium King Cabin with a fireplace, whirlpool tub and included golf cart at the North Texas Jellystone south of Fort Worth, Texas. With most of my needs anticipated in advance, I was told to only bring a change of clothes and none of the camping gear I’ve assembled over many years of paying a fortune to connect with nature.
Coming from an extended family of frequent campers, the youngest among us tend to make fun of campgrounds like these where titanic trailers and motorhomes outnumber red-blooded tent campers. This was my chance to see how the other half lives, so I left any pretense back home in Minnesota. Over two days of exploration, photo shoots and interviews with the park’s owners and Jellystone CEO Rob Schutter, I accepted that tent snobs like me are a dying breed—an undeniable sign that I’m aging out of the prime demographic.
A woodsy arms race
Camping industry stats back up anecdotes that this hobby has morphed into an arms race. Boomers typically bring the bling with their mega-rigs at every park that offers RV hookups, but millennials and Generation X-ers now outnumber older campers, comprising about 75 percent of the market. What’s more, the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association reports that RV shipments exceeded 500,000 units for the first time last year, up more than 17 percent from 2016. The business of camping is bigger than it’s ever been.
Here at Jellystone, where the waterpark chlorine flows like wine, the fanciest trailers and motorhomes have flat-screens that descend from the ceiling at the push of a button, color-changing LED lighting, surround sound and countless slide-outs that expand living spaces to previously impossible dimensions. I didn’t spot a single camper cooking lunch on a stick or doing their laundry on the shores of the pond.
Planting for the future
On the campground’s eastern flank, franchisees Ronald and Ginger Bowyer recently added a new plot of land that’s now home to dozens of new concrete pads for docking large campers and motorhomes. It’s a large, open field where hundreds of young pine saplings will one day shade future vacationers. Further in, among more mature trees, rows of miniature log cabins resemble scaled-up tiny homes. My own accommodations were within an inline bunkhouse on one of several side streets buzzing with golf carts and happy campers playing bag toss.
On the king-sized bed, I rested my travel-weary feet by the fire for a few moments and then set out for the Bear’s Den lodge to meet up with Schutter and the park’s GM, Steve Stafford, for the full story on franchised camping and the nature-industrial complex.