From Boy Scouts to recreation management school, Daniel Mahoney knew where he belonged and where he’s going to be since he was young, and it was in the great outdoors.
Campground managers, RV park operators, and other outdoor hospitality players all have one thing in common–it’s the love for the outdoors—and for Mahoney, the campground manager of KCN Campgrounds’ Vernal Dinosaurland KOA Holiday, working with people, dinosaurs, and collecting funko pops are only some of the things he loves the most.
Mahoney’s upbringing in the Boy Scouts exposed him to a lot of outdoor activities like hiking and camping. This love for the outdoors influenced his decision to pursue a degree in recreation management. His passion led him to a path in the campground industry.
“I found that I really enjoyed that mix of being outdoors, and being able to interact with people and help them to have a good experience. And so it took that joy that I had always grown up with and just kind of evolved it,” Mahoney told Modern Campground.
Mahoney’s Outdoor Hospitality Industry Journey
Prior to completing his degree, Mahoney began his journey in campground management with an internship at the Winthrop, North Cascades National Park KOA in Washington.
What came after was becoming assistant manager, and just when the Washington campground was set to be sold, an opportunity arose in Vernal. This led to a swift transition for Mahoney.
In addition to his passion for the outdoors, Mahoney has a deep-rooted love for dinosaurs. As a child, he aspired to become a paleontologist. The Dinosaur National Monument and the prevalent dinosaur theme in Vernal made it an ideal location for him. Now in his second year at Vernal, Mahoney expresses immense satisfaction with his role and the region, describing his experience as “a blast.”
“Vernal was kind of like a dream location for me, besides, loving the outdoors, one of my favorite things is dinosaurs,” he said. “It was a totally ideal location for me.”
Mahoney’s campground management journey has not been met without challenges. According to him, one of the most significant challenges is the unpredictability of the job.
Whether it’s unexpected equipment breakdowns or unforeseen incidents with guests, campground management requires constant adaptability.
“I would say the toughest challenge of running a campground is you’re always going to be surprised by something that happens, whether it’s something breaking or something crazy happens with a guest or you’re battling the elements, you have to be prepared to tackle whatever random challenges get thrown at you,” he said.
Mahoney highlighted a particularly challenging winter they experienced, describing it as the worst in many years. The severe weather conditions impacted various aspects of the campground, from plant growth to the timely opening of sites.
On the brighter side, he believes that ensuring guest satisfaction isn’t overly complicated.
“I would say it’s not too difficult, keeping guests happy, as long as you can help them to facilitate some good experiences and you take care of them,” he noted.
When asked about one of his memorable moments in his campground management journey so far, Mahoney shared the story of an unexpected visit from two young bears that created quite a stir at his former campground.
One morning, two adolescent bears, recently let go by their mother, made their way through the campground. The sudden appearance of the bears left the staff in a momentary state of shock, pondering their next steps. Following protocol, they promptly informed animal control about the situation.
However, the incident took a humorous turn when a guest approached the staff, expressing delight at witnessing the bears on his birthday. He described it as the “most wonderful thing” and the “greatest birthday present.”
Playing along with the guest’s enthusiasm, Mahoney jokingly remarked that they keep the bears in a cage and release them as a special treat for guests celebrating birthdays. This light-hearted exchange provided a moment of laughter and remains a cherished memory for Mahoney.
Oasis in the Desert
What makes Vernal Dinosaurland KOA special? According to Mahoney, the campground prides itself on being an oasis amidst the barren rocky landscapes of the region.
Despite the rugged surroundings, the campground boasts lush green fields, ideal for various games and sports. One of its standout features is the well-maintained pool, offering a refreshing respite from the scorching summer heat.
A highlight for both campers and locals is the mini-golf course, providing hours of family-friendly entertainment. Further enhancing the family-centric vibe, the campground hosts movie nights every Saturday during the summer.
The campground also features a range of activities tailored for children. Kids can rent bikes to explore the campground or enjoy the inflatable jump pad situated adjacent to the playground. Emphasizing the family-focused environment, Mahoney describes the campground as a place where families can relish the outdoors without feeling overly exposed to the elements.
For those seeking tranquility, Dinosaurland KOA has secluded spots away from the main area, allowing guests to immerse themselves in nature and savor a serene atmosphere. In essence, Dinosaurland KOA seamlessly blends fun-filled activities with peaceful retreats, ensuring a memorable experience for all its visitors.
With a variety of lodging options available in the campground, from RV sites to yurts, managing diverse needs and expectations of campers can be challenging, but for Mahoney, honesty and communication are key.
“There’s always going to be things that pop up with a campground with the amount of use and the amount of people that come through, there’s gonna be random water breaks or leaks,” he said in a conversation with Modern Campground.
“But usually I find that if you are honest and open with your guests, that’s the key. I find that as long as you talk to people and make them aware, people are very understanding and I feel like that’s a very good way to kind of manage those expectations is to just have that open dialogue.”
‘A Place Where People Care’
Mahoney emphasized the significance of community in distinguishing the campground beyond its natural allure.
While the area boasts numerous attractions, Vernal KOA provides a relaxing haven for guests to return to after a day of exploration. Whether it’s cooling off in the pool or simply unwinding, the campground ensures a comfortable and memorable stay.
“We want to create an environment where they can come to us. They can go out and explore and see all the really fun and exciting things and then they have a really nice relaxing place. And so we’ve really tried to make Vernal KOA stand out as that destination within the destination.”
Mahoney further highlighted the sense of community that defines Vernal. Describing it as a friendly and supportive place, he shared the campground’s involvement in community initiatives.
“Vernal is a very friendly community. Everybody is very kind, they’re supportive of one another and you feel like you’re in a place where we’re people care.”
To foster that sense of community within the campground and its guests, every Saturday they hold pancake breakfasts in support of Care Camps, a charity that helps children with cancer attend summer camps.
The local community’s response to this initiative has been overwhelming. From a radio broadcast at the campground to a Girl Scout troop donating a significant portion of their cookie sales, the support showcases the tight-knit nature of the Vernal community.
Mahoney concludes by emphasizing the warmth and welcoming nature of Vernal, making it a truly special place to live and visit.
For the campground manager, the most rewarding aspect of his role is the interaction with guests and the opportunity to create special experiences for them.
“I would say, my favorite part of being a campground manager is being able to interact with the guests and to be able to make things special for them. When somebody comes up to us and says, ‘you know, this was such a wonderful experience,’ or ‘we just absolutely loved this aspect of their stay’ it just warms my heart.”
“And I’d say that really is what makes managing great is when you can just see how happy people are and how much they enjoy the experience that you work to bring forth for them.”
With all the hard work and effort he and the KCN Campgrounds team puts in, the genuine appreciation and positive feedback from visitors make it all worthwhile. Mahoney believes that the true measure of success in his position is witnessing the happiness and contentment of the people they serve.
He also shared some exciting expansion plans for the campground. One of the notable projects underway is the transformation of certain cabins into specialized “dog cabins.” These cabins will feature fenced-in areas, allowing guests’ dogs to roam freely without disturbing other visitors.
This initiative aims to enhance the guest experience, especially for pet owners. Furthermore, Mahoney emphasized the campground’s intention to embrace the “dinosaur land” identity more fully, believing that this unique theme will make Vernal KOA an even more attractive destination for visitors to the region.
When asked about advice for budding campground owners, Mahoney candidly expressed that the journey would be filled with unexpected challenges and long hours.
However, he underscored the importance of welcoming these experiences with open arms. While there will be days of frustration, there will also be moments of immense joy and satisfaction, he noted. Mahoney’s advice to aspirants is to persevere through the challenges, focusing on the rewarding outcomes that result from hard work and dedication.
“I would tell them to be prepared for some weird and crazy days and experiences. But, welcome it with open arms. It’s all part of the experience, and it’s kind of what makes it wonderful and unique. Every day is different and you’re gonna work long hours and there’s going to be days. We’re just frustrated to all ends, but then there’s gonna be these blossoming moments of joy and happiness. When you see all those efforts come together and you push past the rough edges to see the beautiful result of that effort.”
Featured image from Vernal Dinosaurland KOA Holiday.