Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts
Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park proves it’s smarter than the average campground.
By Tim O’Connor
For decades, Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts were primarily a destination for families that had their own RVs. But when franchisees began putting in cabins in the 1990s it opened the campground chain up to new kinds of customers – and accommodations.
When Ron Vitkun began running his own Jellystone campground in the mid-1990s he started with four cabins. As he added more, Vitkun saw the campground’s family reunion business take off. The cabins allowed families that didn’t have RVs to still enjoy a week outdoors with their more dedicated camping relatives. “We’ve seen exponential growth in revenue because of cabins,” he says. “You’re expanding your market beyond just people who have an RV.”
By the time Vitkun sold his campground in 2014 to become the director of franchise sales and development for Jellystone Parks, it had 51 cabins. Other franchisees have taken the concept further, adding tree houses, tipis, yurts and even old train cabooses to their accommodations.
Regardless of how they camp, the kind of visitor who comes to Jellystone has stayed consistent after nearly 50 years in operation. “From day one, our target has been and always will be the family who is on a weekend getaway or is staying there for a week for a family getaway,” Vitkun says.
Yogi Bear may be a pic-a-nic basket thief, but his likeness gives parents confidence that every Jellystone Park campground is a suitable family destination. “You’re going to that location because of Yogi Bear and his friends, the amenities and everything else it represents,” Vitkun says.
All 79 franchise locations must meet several requirements and standards designed to uphold that reputation and ensure guests will return to the brand. Aside from regular appearances by Yogi, his pal Boo Boo and their friends, each campground must have modern bathrooms, a registration office, laundry machines, a swimming pool and a pavilion building for holding events.
Campgrounds also have retail stores for necessities and merchandise such as beach towels, snacks, firewood and stuffed toys. The stores have become an increasingly important revenue generator for franchisees because they’re the first places visitors go when they need something. “If you have things campers need and you meet their requirements, you can sell almost anything,” Vitkun says.
Leisure Systems Inc., the parent company of JellyStone Parks, has made more retail resources available to franchisees. The company now offers more than 600 retail items and it has two staff members – Vice President of Retail Operations Sheila Isaac and Retail Director Renata Evans – who can help franchisees lay out their store and merchandise products.
The embrace of retail is just the latest evolution for the family-friendly campground company. The first Jellystone campground opened in 1969 in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., and remains in operation today. As the company approaches its 50th anniversary, it’s planning a blowout event to celebrate the milestone and give franchise owners an opportunity to connect. “Networking is so important,” Vitkun says. “The more time we spend as a group together, the stronger that network and information sharing becomes.”
That willingness to share experiences and best practices helps franchisees lift each other up. Vitkun recalls when he started out and wanted to add pizza because it was a high-margin product but he didn’t know how to go about it. He reached out to other franchise owners who had already installed ovens and they recommended vendors and shared sales numbers that Vitkun used to implement his own program. “It was so nice being new in the industry to have that go-to for the questions that I had,” he says.
Leisure Systems supplements the franchise network with its own support systems to maximize sales and guest satisfaction. The company is testing a cloud-based network that will provide franchisees with real-time data such as occupancy to compare their performance to other Jellystone Park campgrounds and identify areas for improvement. During booking, the system will also automatically suggest to guests add-ons such as golf cart rentals or visits to their campsite from Yogi Bear.
The system will begin rolling out to all campgrounds next year. “The program is helping you sell those ancillary income items online,” Vitkun explains.
On the personnel side, Leisure Systems gives franchisees access to custom-made training videos and testing to help them develop staff. The company also plans to introduce a mystery shopper program to measure performance and identify areas where more training is needed. “I love this because you never know who that mystery shopper is going to be,” Vitkun says. “It can be that person next in line so you need to have all your staff guest trained.”
Having a good staff is especially important for recreational businesses such as Jellystone Park where employees are a major component of the guest experience. Staff members are responsible for everything from checking visitors in to running all the daily activities. “You develop a really good recreation staff and have fun things because that’s why [guests] are going to come,” Vitkun says. “They want to be entertained. The more of that you can do, the more you’re going to be successful.”
Jellystone Park’s success in creating a memorable family experience is starting to attract attention beyond the traditional independent campground owner. Experienced franchisees from other industries have seen the potential and begun asking about opening their own campgrounds. Franchising inquiries are up 200 percent this year, Vitkun notes, and the company is well positioned to reach its target of 100 locations by 2020.
“We really need to broaden our reach and get to work with some of these franchise networks out there,” Vitkun says. “That’s what excites me, the quality of some of these people who are now looking in our industry who maybe in years past haven’t.”