Donna Geier chatted to us while looking out of her office window, which has a beautiful view of Cunninghame Arm, part of the Gippsland Lakes system. It’s a gorgeous spot and one of the main reasons people come back here year after year.
The Geier family have run the BIG4 Waters Edge Holiday Park in Lakes Entrance, Victoria since 1996. It’s a 3.5-acre site, comprising 70 powered spots for tents and caravans, 11 cabins of various configurations and eight sites for longer term residents.
Running the park are Donna, husband Tim and their three children, plus Tim’s parents Robert and Cheryl.
Aside from family members, how many staff do you have?
We have three other staff members. They help us out with cleaning and general site maintenance.
What did you do before running the campsite? Did you acquire any skills that were transferable to your new role?
I used to work for the department store Meyers in their accounts department. Although it was a while ago, the skills I learnt there helped me to set up the payroll here and handle any discrepancies in the accounts, plus the obvious office management skills.
What are your main overheads?
I would say the main ones are electricity, wages, insurance and water rates. Maintenance of the park can be fairly up and down. In the end, it all costs a fair amount to run.
Do you like camping yourself? How did you decide to buy the park?
Yes, I do like camping, but that wasn't the reason for it. My father-in-law was made redundant from his job and was looking around for his next venture.
He found this [Waters Edge] caravan park and asked my husband if he would like to join him in the business. So rather than a love of camping, it was more about finding a viable business opportunity for the family.
It’s also very pretty here, and the weather is nice on this coast; it’s the perfect spot.
What kind of guests do you attract?
We get a lot of grey nomads – the retirees like it here – but our primary customers are families.
It’s not a very touristy place. It’s not like a Phillip Island, for example, where you get a constant stream of tourists.
It’s more laid back – except at Christmas, when it gets completely booked out!
The families like the pool, playground, jumping pillow and the games room. We’re about 200 metres from the footbridge to the surf beach in Lakes Entrance and about 100 metres from the shops, so we’re in a prime position.
We also have the bonus of flat ground.
What happens in the off-peak season? Do you ever get a break?
August is the quietest month by far. You’ll get a couple of cabin bookings, maybe two or three powered sites, but not much more than that.
Yes, we do get a break. This year in July we went to the Gold Coast for a week to get some warmth!
What are the biggest challenges?
It’s a big challenge to live on the site because we’re always at work. We’re not a big enough park to employ staff to cover us, so we end up doing most of it by ourselves.
The office is open 8.30am to 6pm, but we work outside of those business hours on all kinds of tasks: accounts, payroll, GST reports, ironing pillow cases... whatever’s needed!
What kind of marketing works best for you?
It’s hard to say what works best. We put specials on our website occasionally, which will encourage new customers. As a family, we’re not big self-promoters so the marketing part is more difficult for us.
Would you do anything differently if you started again from scratch?
We should have decided to modernise the accommodation more quickly than we did. After we updated the cabins it made a huge difference to our customers.
In the end, it’s a case of balancing the need for updating facilities with how much income we’re getting.
What’s the top piece of advice you would give to someone thinking about buying a site?
A couple of things. Firstly, do your homework about the lifestyle, especially if you have young kids. Make sure it’s the right thing for your circumstances at the time, especially if the park isn’t big enough to employ staff to cover you.
Secondly, get some good cleaners! People underestimate how much work goes into getting the accommodation ready for a customer’s arrival.
Find reliable cleaners who understand the hospitality business and keep them – they’re invaluable.