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By SHAINA STOCKTON, Staff
FANCY GAP — In 2005, Mark and Cheryl Manning decided to make their life-long dream of owning their own campground a reality.
Soon after, they found the perfect place to start: a campground on Fox Trail Loop in Fancy Gap, off of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Carroll County, that had been there since the 1950s.
Along with help from the rest of their family, they set to work turning it into the campground they had always imagined.
Two years later, they franchised the refurbished business under KOA, a chain that encompasses more than 480 campsites nationwide.
Every year since 2007, their extensive efforts have earned them the President’s Award and Founder’s Award. This year, they added a new trophy to their shelf: the Rising Star Award.
This annual award is given to one of the KOA franchises nationwide. To win, the franchise must be less than five years old and show excellence in business planning and superior customer service.
“It’s more or less an award for newer owners who have really excelled in all facets of ownership and have reinvested heavily in their campground,” said Benjamin Manning, Mark and Cheryl’s son, who helps them run the campground.
Since the Mannings bought the property, they have been hard at work fixing the place up, cutting back trees and adding new features to improve the experience for their customers.
“We’ve done basically everything you see here,” Manning said, gesturing out the window from the store at the front of the campsite. “In the beginning, the store was a big office, with a wall down the center with a window like you would see in a hospital.”
It was cold, uninviting, and nothing like what they had envisioned. So the wall came down, the store was remodeled and a clubhouse was added that now runs the full length of the building.
The shelves are stocked with inventory from all over. The majority of the stock is local, such as T-shirts from Embroideryville, food from local grocery stores and fresh chicken eggs from the Mannings’ own coops.
Fixing up the grounds proved to be a daunting task. There was around 10 years worth of overgrowth that had to be dealt with. “After a while, we stopped keeping count of the trees we had to cut back,” Manning said.
The count stopped at a little over 100.
Once the area was clear, they then set to work adding campsites. They wanted a variety of sites to appeal to everyone’s camping style. Along the loop of the grounds, customers can choose from a tent site, rental trailer site or camping lodge. There are around 85 different sites to choose from, Manning said.
Full hookups are also offered for RV’s, along with restrooms, showers and laundry rooms, making the process of “roughing it” just a little less rough.
Over the years, the business has mostly remained a full-time family affair. The staff mainly consists of Mark, Cheryl and Benjamin. Benjamin’s wife, Sheryl, and their two sons, Zeke and Matt, put in a lot of helpful hours, as well. During the summer, they hire some additional help to make the busier months less stressful.
Manning feels that his family has benefitted from their involvement. “The boys are charismatic, friendly and eager to approach people... I think they got that from growing up on a campground,” he said. “They make new friends every weekend, which is sad for them when their new friends go home at the end of their stay. But they have some local friends who stay here a lot, too.”
Although things can get hectic from time to time, the overall mood at the camp is typically upbeat, just as a vacation spot should be.
“Campers are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet,” Manning said. “Walk up to a group of people having a campfire, and they will invite you to join them, share their food and talk with you. Pop the hood on your car and act like there’s a problem, and you’ll have more people than you know what to do with.”
He smiled. “That’s why we like what we do so much. That, and the fact that it’s a daily challenge. You never know what is coming through the door.”
Cheryl Manning laughed from behind the store counter, and nodded in agreement. The two began trading stories back and forth about some of the more memorable visitors to the campground over the years.
One weekend, a group of people opted to camp out in horse trailers. Another week, a family with a pet potbellied pig checked in. “It had this special ramp built for it so that it could walk up to the RV, and it would squeal as it ran up and down it,” Cheryl said.
While they have many visitors from all over the U.S., they’ve noticed that some of their customers visit from a 100- to 200-mile radius.
Their busiest times during the year are usually Memorial Day through October, Benjamin said.
“We get a lot of people coming to see the leaves around that time,” Cheryl agreed.
To give customers even more excuses to socialize, there are several fun events planned throughout the year, as well. Over Memorial Day weekend, they hold a chili cook off with guest judges, such as local pastors. On Easter, they hold an egg hunt, followed by a church event. Halloween gives the customers an excuse to go all out with decorations. The family with the best design wins a free night of camping.
Benjamin talked about one activity that they do during their “Water Weekend” in July. A truck carries a group of kids armed with water pistols around the loop, and they douse anyone who dares to stray outside.
Manning gives all customers fair warning during the event to duck into their shelters if they see the truck coming and don’t want to get wet. Of course, when the water runs out in the truck, the participating campers get their chance at revenge by soaking the kids back with water hoses.
One of the biggest events, however, is when they raise money for KOA’s specialized Care Camps, designed specifically for children who are battling cancer. On May 10 and 11, the camp offers one night free of charge in the hopes that some of the saved money might be donated to help fund the specialized camps.
Last year, $600 was raised by their franchise, Cheryl Manning said.
Overall, the campground is designed with their customers in mind, and they are continuing to offer more and more options each season.
Some of their more recent investments include the addition of cable and wifi services, a swimming pool, cabins, lodges, a clubhouse, a second modern bath house, a stocked fishing pond, a gem panning sluice, deluxe and patio sites and a new category of campsites known as “back yard sites,” designed specifically for pet owners.
“We wanted to do some marketing towards pet-owners, because they make up around 50 percent of our clientele,” said Manning. “We’re really proud of [the sites]... they have fenced-in areas where owners can put their dog so that it doesn’t have to be on a leash.”
This year, they are adding another feature for their four-legged visitors: Camp Canine. “There will basically be an area where the dogs will have toys to play with and obstacles to jump through and over,” he said. “Ideally, we will have two — one for smaller dogs and one for larger dogs.”
Manning noted that this addition will hopefully come before July 4.
Other future plans for the camp include a newer, larger store; a remodeled laundry facility; food service and more cabins and lodges.
So far, the experience of running a campground has offered exactly what the Mannings were looking for, and more. “Having my family here, getting to see my grandkids everyday, it has been wonderful,” Cheryl said.
• The Fancy Gap/Blue Ridge Parkway KOA campground is located at 47 Fox Trail Loop, Fancy Gap. For information, call (276) 728-7776.