Nestled in the heart of Williamsburg, Virginia, Anvil Campground is an award-winning park with 69 years of rich history to boot. Their namesake comes from colonial-era blacksmithing, which began with the family’s great grandfather. Read on to see how General Manager Chris Jump continues to bring heart and team spirit to his family business today, resulting in happy staff and satisfied guests.
Hi, Chris. What led you to campground ownership?
If you want to go way back, ever since I was a child, I always felt like I wanted to have my own business. I’ve never enjoyed being told what to do. I wouldn’t necessarily say I was a tough child to deal with, but I’m very opinionated. I like to be able to act on my creativity and I don’t like to be put into a box. So, I always knew growing up that I wanted a job where I could create and try new things.
As far as my journey to campground management, Anvil’s been in my family since 1954 when grandpa started it, and later my dad took over. I grew up doing all the grounds maintenance and whatever a kid could do around here to help. As my dad grew older, it became clear he was looking to sell. In the back of my mind, I thought it would be cool to try to take on the family business, but only when Dad was ready.
I bussed tables and was a server all throughout college, and the restaurant industry is very translatable to hospitality as far as communication and customer service skills go. After graduating with my degree in business administration management, I came home to run the park for a few years. It turned out to be a really cool gig and something I could shape for myself. I bought the place in 2011, and here we are 12 years later. We all work hard at Anvil, and we never stop fixing, redoing, thinking, or acting on our thoughts, which is very important.
Sounds like a dream come true!
Absolutely. You know, that’s the one thing prospective owners need to know. Thoughts are cool and ideas are cool, but there’s not much value in words alone. You have to actually go after your dreams, put in the hard work to bring them to life, and then celebrate when you actually have accomplished what you set out to do. That’s important for me and my team.
On that note, as the new owner, how have you shaped the park to fit your dreams for its future? What makes your business different in the landscape of campground management?
I’ll start by saying that it’s not fair to compare the past 50-some years of camping to what we’re doing today. The 50s, 70s, 80s, 90s, even the early 2000s were just different. There wasn’t WiFi, plus 50-amp sites and slideouts weren’t even a thing! Now, of course, the industry is way different.
With that perspective in mind, what differentiates us today is most certainly our customer service on all levels. Guests notice that everyone is always going to smile or chat with them on the grounds. That atmosphere of happiness and camaraderie shows.
We really focus on the details of our park, especially cleanliness. We renovate constantly, from our WiFi to our pedestals. We also offer free weekend activities, like snow cones, barrel train rides, and our complimentary game room. Parents appreciate that their kids never run out of quarters and that they have a nice, safe place to play.
Can you summarize the story behind your park’s name?
My family came from Flint, Michigan. My dad, my grandpa, and my great-grandpa were very hands-on blacksmiths, woodsmiths, and gunsmiths. As colonial Williamsburg became a growing attraction, my family moved and continued their work here. The anvil on display in our general store is the same one they did the majority of their blacksmith work on.
Such an incredible family history! What personally motivates you each day in your role as general manager?
My goal every day is to be so good at what I do that my guests and staff have nothing to complain about. I try to make daily operations easier for me and everyone else—for every day to be a smooth day.
Speaking of, we have the best staff. COVID-19 impacted the Williamsburg area more than, say, a rural area because Williamsburg is all about being around a lot of people, given the nearby amusement parks. Luckily though, we were able to retain our staff and as soon as restrictions were lifted, we were busy out of our minds.
That’s great. Let’s talk more about your staff. What’s your philosophy on building or expanding your team, which has clearly led to Anvil’s success?
I actually spoke on this topic at the 2020 Outdoor Hospitality Conference and Expo (OHCE) on how to run a successful campground. I talked about three pillars: happy staff, happy guests, and efficient business—but having happy staff is number one.
I was only 23-years-old when I took over Anvil. That’s actually why I first grew a beard, to look a little older and try to earn respect from my staff. As you can imagine, it took me a while to learn that respect is earned, and it’s something you have to earn daily. Just because you were great to your staff yesterday does not mean you’re automatically great to them today.
We have well-thought-out rules and procedures, but we also empower our staff to do what they have to do in a situation to get the best outcome. This goes back to being a unified team and having each other’s back. We equip our staff with the tools they need for success on day one, which is also why respect and unity come pretty naturally among our team. Everyone has the same kind of mindset when they’re working, and everyone can have as close to the same voice as possible when interacting with guests.
Lastly, we make sure to compensate our staff well so they feel their time at Anvil is valued. As the manager, you have to genuinely appreciate staff dedicating this portion of their life to you. So, we care for everyone like a family.
When hiring, are there particular qualities you look for in order to fit the team at Anvil?
For me, it starts with their smile. Do they seem like a bright, outgoing, and go-with-the-flow person? Are they easy to talk to? As long as you have a good spirit and you’re a hard worker, we can absolutely work with you.
Because we focus heavily on cross-training people once hired, all our employees can fill all the positions. We don’t particularly want our staff to just sit at the front desk all day. We want people that are willing to go outside and take on odd tasks or pitch in during a scheduling change.
How do you convey your staff dynamic and energy to first-time visitors, so they know what the Anvil team is all about?
While there’s no such thing as perfection, we try to provide the absolute best experience for our guests. We try to think ahead of any possible issues our guests could encounter and plan them out of existence. Of course, things will still happen outside of our control, and something’s definitely going to break. But because our staff visibly maintain a friendly, can-do attitude with guests, guests aren’t upset when something goes wrong. They know how hard we work, they see us over-communicating, and they are more understanding as a result if something less-than-ideal happens.
You said you kept your team employed throughout the pandemic. These days, does your staffing change seasonally, or is it pretty consistent?
We like to keep our same people employed all year-round if we can. I know this is not normal for many other parks, but it’s always worked out for us.
We have about 10 staff members and keep them hired on even through the winter when we slow down. If we can’t provide many cleaning team hours, then we have our staff painting, powerwashing, raking, or doing any other number of tasks. We have some variance, like one awesome employee who goes to school and returns for the summers.
The benefit to this approach is not having to constantly worry about hiring and training.
That makes sense. How do you approach training—is it more in the moment while on the job, or planned out?
We have daily team meetings that serve as the foundation of our training. For specific roles, like guest services, we have study guides to explain the policies and philosophies of Anvil. We test our employees on these concepts, too. We don’t put someone on a shift until they’re completely empowered and ready.
We also have the constant connection of communicating through various WhatsApp group chats. If anyone has questions or someone is new, there’s an existing staff support network available at their fingertips. Constant communication is key for us.
Awesome. We’d love to hear more about your experience with Campspot. How long have you been using the software, and what led you to that decision?
When we came to OHCE in Knoxville in 2019, we definitely had the sole mission to pick a new platform. Campspot was one of the representatives during the provider panel. We also took it a step further to sample all of the platforms virtually, and the biggest seller for me going into it was whichever had the greatest ease of online booking.
That’s the one thing that always stood out for me with Campspot. The online booking for us is absolutely superior—easier for staff and easier for guests.
How does Campspot specifically help or empower your team to carry out their daily roles?
When you all created online check-in, that was huge for us. We completely changed our process to match it. Before, we were used to having guests come into the office to talk to us and pay. It was a lengthy process, and as a camper you know that’s not really what you want either. You want to arrive at the park and immediately get comfy. Instead, campers are usually stressed about check-in and delayed in getting to their spot after long travels. So, online check-in has been huge and I’ve continued to advocate for others to shift to this practice. It started as a result of COVID, but now we’re 1,000% going to keep it in place forever!
Glad to hear it. Are you using Campspot for any reporting or forecasting to help you with overall business decisions?
Yes. It’s important for me to see the daily reservation numbers, which I feel is the best way to track the health of a business—not necessarily your revenue, but your daily reservations, historical trends, and pacing of cancellations. Finding a way to control and decrease your cancellation rate is a big factor for parks, which we’ve actually done a great job of the last few years. It doesn’t matter when you have 1,000 bookings if 500 get canceled. That’s not a good sign. Being able to clearly visualize our net reservations is a huge asset.
Have you had any personal or professional mentors along the way as you’ve grown your business?
Honestly, not so much. I completely believe in mentorship because your evolution as a person and an entrepreneur would escalate so much faster than if you had to learn everything on your own. When my dad passed in 2005, he didn’t have many things documented on paper. We really had to figure things out as we went. The business evolution could have been much quicker if I had some drawings and written guidance to reference.
Although I haven’t had the luxury of a consistent mentor, I will say our state associations are incredible assets. Every campground owner should take advantage of their local association and be involved in some way, like serving on the board. I’m the current president of the Virginia Campground Association. In some ways, all the campgrounds in one state could be seen as competitors, but we’re not selling the same thing. Each property has their own unique style and experience to sell. In that sense, we all benefit from sharing resources and insights.
It’s been so much fun to talk to you, Chris. Thank you for your time.
Haley Dalian is a lifelong Michigander who takes advantage of recreation throughout the state’s changing seasons—from snow skiing to scuba diving in the Great Lakes. A former Campspot marketing manager, Haley holds a B.A. degree in public policy from Michigan State University and an M.S. degree in sustainability from the University of Michigan. She is passionate about environmental stewardship, exploring the outdoors, and has never met a potato she didn’t like.
Image credit: Anvil Campground