If ever you are tempted to entertain the old adage: ‘Men can’t do two things at once’, Kevin Boam will change your mind forever. On the day I Skyped him at Hill View Campsite, which he runs jointly with his wife Susan, he managed simultaneously to deal with phone calls, check in arriving campers, handle enquiries from those already staying, and talk to me about his top-ranked lifestyle block camping ground. Impressed? So was I!
Mind you, Kevin knows a thing or two about getting on with the job. Originating from the UK, he more or less left school when he was 14 (turning up for class one day a week to the teachers sweet). But his early working life has been very much about hard yakka. He started off hauling stones out of paddocks and rebuilding walls with them, moved on to a bit of building, worked in restaurants and cafes, and generally kept himself self-employed whenever he could.
In many ways, Hill View Campsite is a continuation of the same sort of thing because, as Kevin will tell you, making a living from tourists, with just 2 hectares of land at your disposal, isn’t easy.
“Five years ago we started with a bare block of land and moved an old farmhouse onto it. Step one: get it liveable!”
Because Kevin and Sue’s land was right beside a road that sightseers passed on their way to The Nuggets lighthouse, a Catlins’ tourist destination, they soon had folk calling in to ask if they could park their self-contained vehicles on their farmlet for the night.
“A lot of rental places tell tourists it’s all freedom camping down here in the south, but it’s not, and when they have to go to a regular camp, they find it’s just too expensive. We didn’t have any facilities 5 years ago but if the vans were self-contained we’d let them stay for a donation of $5 a night. Mind you, without toilets and showers, most self-contained campers expected to pay nothing. We have services on-site now but we still give a discount of 10% to NZMCA.”
As was to be expected, the growing popularity of the informal camp irked local businesses who were providing a more up-market version of the same thing and, before long, the local council became involved. Which was “fair enough,” says Kevin. It was time to apply for resource consent.
Obtaining that consent would have been a simple matter if only the local council had known more about the Boam’s situation but, as Kevin found out, councils seldom know everything and, even if they do, they’re not always forthcoming with advice.
“We started off by applying for consent for self-contained camper vans because that’s the advice we got. That consent application was approved. But, then, we had tenters wanting to stay at the camp so we had to install toilets and showers, and that meant applying and paying for a second consent application. We got it but it would have been a whole lot better if we’d actually applied for that second consent in the first place. You learn the hard way.”
Working with (or “battling”, depending on how you view it) the Council is ongoing work and Kevin struggles not to lose heart, especially as, through his own meticulous research and personal experience, he has proved the local authorities wrong on countless occasions.
“We began offering food to campers: pizzas, pies with chips, beans, breakfasts, that sort of thing. Council said we didn’t have consent and made us remove all food advertising from our camp website. I explained we didn’t require consent because we were working under B & B regulations. Once a new staff member joined Council, everything was sorted out in no time and, as we already knew, we were told we didn’t require a commercial kitchen to offer food for sale.”
Affordable fees are one thing but it seems that Hill View Campsite has that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that just keeps pulling the punters in. Kevin puts most of the success down to attitude.
“Campers are on holiday and they don’t want people spoiling their fun. Lots of commercial camp owners are spoilers. They’re: ‘Give me your money! Don’t park there – park there! Put your tent there – no, move it there!’ We don’t take that attitude. We’re: ‘The gate’s open so you can go through it.’ We don’t give people maps or tell them where to park. We don’t even have ‘sites’. Campers are adults. They can use their common sense.
The other day, our local digger driver, who’s been very good to us, suggested we put in a driveway all the way down the paddock to the campsite [currently campers come down the same drive as the Boam’s themselves] but when I talked to one or two customers about it, they all said ‘No – don’t do that.’ They like it casual so that’s the way we’ll keep it.”
In fact, the tourists love what the Boam’s has to offer. No one breathes down their neck, the kitchen rarely closes despite its 11.30 curfew, and the whole experience feels as if you’re staying on a farm, not on a camping ground.
Kevin also goes by the motto: ‘Show some respect and your campers will return it’. (Mind you, he does have to bite his tongue now and then when folk asks where the drinking water is and the sign is right in front of their noses!). But tolerance and personal contact is what really counts, as he recently proved.
“We had a group of ten young Germans celebrating a mate’s birthday one night. It wasn’t a noisy party because we don’t allow that, but I went down to see what it was all about and, when I got there, there were bottles and beer caps everywhere. We had a bit of friendly banter (I told the birthday lad that he was after a birthday kiss, he wouldn’t get it from me!) and then I left them to it. The next morning they all came up to the office to thank me and say goodbye, and when I checked their site, there wasn’t one piece of rubbish left on the grass. One of the boys said: “We usually just come into a camp late at night and sneak off in the morning.” What that means is that New Zealand camping is unaffordable for a lot of young ones. We aren’t going to make a fortune with the prices we charge for a campsite but we can make a living from it.
Whatever it is that the Boam’s are doing, it’s working because campers not only keep pouring in, they keep returning!
“We often get them staying for one night, traveling the hour and a half north to Dunedin to go sightseeing, and then coming back here for a second night before they head north again the next day! Seems like a lot of travel to me, but that’s how much they like us!”
The camp’s website is hard evidence of the genuine affection which tourists have for the Boam family.
“The only reason we have a website is that it cost us nothing! A German web-builder and his family stayed here for a couple of nights (they said they’d never stopped anywhere for more than one night) and we got talking. One thing led to another and we ended up taking them and their kids down to the stream to catch and release eels. Our son came along, too, and it was a real bonding experience. When the family left, this web-builder chap said that if ever we needed a website, to let him know. He gave me his email and I eventually contacted him and he did it all for me from Germany. He wouldn’t accept any payment. He and his family loved their time here that much.”
The camp has gone from strength to strength and now offers powered sites, toilets, gas-heated hot water showers, washing machines and driers, a camp kitchen, and backpacker cabin units (sensibly located on trailers so they’ll tick any Council boxes that may pop up in the future). The Boam’s are ‘givers’ and fruit trees have been planted and more are planned so that free, fresh food will be available for visiting tourists. And for the time being, campers are often offered spare veges from the family’s own garden.
So, given that it’s all been a success so far, would Kevin recommend a farm-style camp to others as a way of making a living off a smallholding?
“You won’t get rich in a hurry if that’s what you’re thinking,” he advises. “Our camp is popular but part of that is because our fees are up to 3 times lower than big commercial camping grounds. Put up the prices and you won’t get as many people stopping. We’re coming out alright now but it’s 5 years on, and 5 years is a long time.
But if you’re really prepared to be nice to people and do a lot of tiring work, and if it’s the lifestyle you’re doing it for and not to get rich quick, it might be worth your while. I’m lucky because my wife is as keen on the camp as I am – she loves it. And both of you have to be committed.”
Although the Boams haven’t taken a holiday in 7 years, they’re not backing away from their business venture. In fact, they’re now considering installing a dorm building with 20 beds, and a commercial kitchen to cater to locals as well as campers. But as Kevin well knows, there are a lot of petty rules to be negotiated first and, as with everything they’ve done so far to build their sterling campsite, it’s all going to take a huge amount of research before they’re ready to apply for consent.
Kevin's top tips
- Don’t take out a loan to get you started. The tourism industry is hit and miss. You can never be sure how the trade will go from season to season and if you’re putting yourself in debt, it’s your family home that’s at risk if it all falls over.
- Beware of hidden costs such as eftpost machines and commissions charged by sites such as Booking.com. Many sites don’t let you take a non-refundable deposit and if people who have booked a bed don’t turn up, you’re down the tube that night.
- Don’t be put off offering camping just because you’re not on the main road. It hasn’t stopped people from coming to us.
- In your favour is that New Zealand is getting increasingly popular with tourists worldwide. Even the Australians are even finding New Zealand fantastic! We used to have campers from January to February. Now it’s more like January to April. This October we had 200 more campers than at the same time last year.
- Be prepared to do your own repairs. And if the job’s beyond you, make sure you’re friends with a local tradesperson. Getting someone out from town is going to cost you an arm and a leg.
- There’s outside work to be done such as lawn mowing and edge trimming, and the cleaning is endless, but also resign yourself to being in the office from mid-afternoon until late at night. And plan on turning up for work again at 5 am! The job’s not hard but it is tiring.
- Be kind to your community and it will be kind to you. We put any tips we get into a jar and shout the local school kids a barbeque and cheeseburgers now and then. We also show the locals we appreciate them by putting on a ‘do’ for them each year. Think about giving to national appeals, too.
- Plan on employing staff but only if you can afford it – and if they’re prepared to go the extra mile for you.
- When you’re after information on how to start up, skip the commercial campsites and ask around at small businesses such as farm campgrounds, alternative eateries (such as mobile carts), and related trades. If your own council doesn’t know something, ask other councils how they do things. Above all, be thorough and don’t be in a hurry.
- Prepare for the fact that other businesses are not going to take kindly to your doing things on a more casual (and cheaper) basis than they do. No one likes serious competition.
Check out what tourists really enjoy about New Zealand camps at:
Basic camps that impress
I love it that my favourite small-time camping ground has no website, but here’s where to find out about it:
Luggate Camping Ground (on the Luggate Cricket Ground)
Contact: Ken Galloway, 3 443 7384
Each local council will have its own regulations for camping ground consent.
Use Southland's to get you started.