Customer service is key. I can’t tell you how many of our Google reviews specifically mention how kind our staff is. It’s nearly every one. We’ve done so much work to make sure the space at Roamstead is memorable, but it’s never going to be as impactful as how special our staff make our guests feel. I just finished reading Unreasonable Hospitality by Will Guidara (highly recommend), in which he describes how he encourages his staff to create magical moments for the customers at his restaurant. We’ve tried to emulate this from the very beginning, by looking for small ways to impress our guests. This might be decorating for a birthday, providing an anniversary gift basket, or welcoming our puppy guests with their own Roamstead Rover bandana. It’s the little things that turn into stories our guests will share with their friends.
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shannon Connolly.
Shannon Connolly founded Roamstead — modernized campgrounds that offer cabins, camper hookups, yurts, lodge rooms, and tent sites — alongside her husband Thomas in 2022. The couple opened their first site, Roamstead Smoky Mountains, in July of 2023.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My husband and I started camping with our kids when they were very young, with a goal of checking off National Parks in our camper. In 2021, after being cooped up for a year and a half during the pandemic, we decided to take a month-long trip out west to check off National Parks in Colorado and Utah. During the planning phase of that trip, we found ourselves disappointed with a lot of the campground options. The surroundings were beautiful, sure, but the campgrounds themselves were often old, run-down, dirty, or just plain. We love camping, but we also love staying in cool hotels or other unique accommodations, and we just didn’t understand why there had to be such a gap between these two lodging experiences. Following our trip, we started digging, because surely there were some cool campgrounds out there that were the types of places we wanted to stay, but we just didn’t find any. So we decided we could do it ourselves!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Taking the leap of quitting my previous career of 10+ years was scary, and I often questioned whether I was making the smart decision. We looked for months for the right property. We knew we wanted to start in the Smoky Mountains, because that’s where I grew up. One night, after months of searching, I came across a random website that had one small classified ad for a campground for sale in the Smokies. I texted the number and asked if it was still available. It turns out the listing was many years old, and the family had decided not to sell, but the website wouldn’t remove the post. But they had just revisited selling the property and retiring days before my text, so the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Then, we reached out to a well-known architect who was high on our designer wish list, Sanders Pace Architecture, to see if they might be interested in designing our lodge and pavilion spaces. We assumed they’d be too busy or out of our price range. But in our first conversation, we found out that one of the partners had been coming to this particular campground for years with his family. He was excited to be a part of the transformation. So, I think sometimes you get signs that you’re heading in the right direction, that you’re not crazy for leaving security behind and following your dreams. That was the case for me.
But also, there was the time we had to push a massive, broken aqua-massager off the second story of the lodge during the pre-renovation cleanout.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There were a lot of lessons learned here, but most were not that funny and mainly around budgeting. A lot more went into furniture and decor than we would have expected. Renovations are notoriously hard to budget in general, and this project was no exception.
Additionally, we learned where we need to add extra “hands” going forward. On this project, we realized we needed a lot more help on the ground for last-minute construction tasks that you can’t really plan for. For instance, the day of our soft opening, as our first guests were checking in, my husband was running around the campground installing toilet paper holders, paper towel holders, soap dispensers, and towel hooks in all the bathroom stalls. That time would have been better spent doing other things, but we just didn’t have enough hands there to get everything done.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Too many people helped us realize this vision to nail it down to just one. In the beginning, our branding consultant helped us organize our thoughts on this concept and get it down on paper. Our graphic designer helped us bring our brand identity to life, which was such a fun and rewarding step. Our financial partners were able to buy into the vision when we still weren’t the best at explaining it. Then our design and construction teams help us pull off a renovation on a property with a lot of quirks and imperfect infrastructure within a 7-month window. It certainly took a village to get this first project across the finish line.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
Our goal is really to bridge the gap between the boutique hotel and the campground experiences. We want to bring those hotel amenities to the world of outdoor lodging. This includes modern design, enhanced amenities like food service and site service, cocktails and craft beers, spa-like bath houses, and making cleanliness a top priority. We want to provide everything you need for a comfortable stay, including food, linens, and bath products, to make the camping experience as easy, accessible, and comfortable as it can be.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
Some of the main “pain points” we hear about from potential campers is that camping is too hard. You have to have the right gear, you have to plan out your meals and bring all the stuff you need to cook. Not to mention everything you need for hiking, swimming, fishing, or whatever other adventure you plan to tackle. Your car is packed to the brim before you even get the family inside. And then I think the other thing that keeps families from camping is the inherent “ickiness” of camping. There’s a lot of dirt, and bugs, and those “rustic” accommodations are often run-down. These things can make it difficult to unplug and relax.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
COVID introduced a whole new group of travelers to the benefits of outdoor travel. Being in nature improves both our physical and mental well-being, and so many of us realized the importance of that over the last few years. Because of that, we’re going to continue to see growth in the glamping space, both from single-property owners and from chains like Under Canvas and Autocamp. Online travel agencies like Airbnb have even added glamping options to their search tools, like domes, yurts, and RVs.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
My perfect vacation experience would definitely be a trip in our camper to a National Park we’ve never been to. I want to open my door in the morning to some unique views (Maybe mountains? Maybe the ocean? There’s so much to see!), and enjoy a cup of coffee outside. We’d do some hiking and fly fishing, explore whatever small town is nearby, and eat some delicious local food. I definitely plan my trips around meals, so that’s very important to me. I probably spend more time researching restaurants than any other part of the trip! Then, I’d end the day with a cocktail around the campfire, listening to the night wildlife.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
I love this question, because we’ve heard a lot over the years that staying in a campground in our RV isn’t “real” camping. I think some of the more hardcore outdoorsy folks feel like the only “real” way to camp is to be isolated in nature. Just yourself, your tent, and your surroundings. And I think there is absolutely a time and place for that. But we believe one of the things that makes staying at a campground like Roamstead such a unique experience is the sense of community you experience. What we find when we visit campgrounds is that guests tend to gather around the fire pits or other shared spaces and talk about their travels. What is the best hike you’ve been on? Any good fishing in this area? What’s the best dinner spot in town? Where are you off to next?
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
1) Customer service is key. I can’t tell you how many of our Google reviews specifically mention how kind our staff is. It’s nearly every one. We’ve done so much work to make sure the space at Roamstead is memorable, but it’s never going to be as impactful as how special our staff make our guests feel. I just finished reading Unreasonable Hospitality by Will Guidara (highly recommend), in which he describes how he encourages his staff to create magical moments for the customers at his restaurant. We’ve tried to emulate this from the very beginning, by looking for small ways to impress our guests. This might be decorating for a birthday, providing an anniversary gift basket, or welcoming our puppy guests with their own Roamstead Rover bandana. It’s the little things that turn into stories our guests will share with their friends.
2) Be intentional about creating a space that is welcoming for all. We know that people of color and those in the LGBTQ+ community aren’t always well-represented in outdoor spaces, and campgrounds might not always feel welcoming. Additionally, camping can be intimidating for people who don’t have a lot of outdoor experience. From the start, Roamstead has set out to be intentional about welcoming all campers to our community. It begins from the very first conversations we have with potential staff members. And it’s a simple statement on our website, demonstrating diversity in our marketing materials, and providing amenities that make everyone feel at home. We want to be the most inviting campground our guests have ever visited, and that doesn’t just happen by chance.
3) Enable a sense of community at your property. Building on that sense of “welcoming” in my last point, one of the things that makes an outdoor resort or campground like Roamstead unique is the ease with which people can gather together. We’ve traveled to many different outdoor destinations across the country, and immediately when we pull in, our kids beeline to the playground to find others to play with. It’s so natural for them. When a space is designed with community in mind (and opportunities for gathering are implemented), I think adults do the same thing. We’ve planned our common spaces to be comfortable hang-outs — cozy seating, fireplaces, fire pits, yard games, you name it. And then we provide free granola and drip coffee in the mornings to encourage folks to visit our Lodge, and hopefully stay a while for a latte and other breakfast items. In the evenings, we’ve got cocktails, craft beers, and pizza that can be enjoyed in our pavilion or around our community campfires. It’s a perfect place for sharing about the day’s adventures, crowdsourcing for the best hikes, or just connecting with other like-minded travelers. You can’t find this in a hotel setting.
4) Beautiful design can enhance your experience with nature. There seems to be a belief that “rustic” is the only design style appropriate for the mountains. Cabins can only be wood-on-wood-on-wood, an old plaid couch, bears on the quilt, and moose on the shower curtain. They all look exactly the same, and we’ve been trained to associate this with the mountain setting. But we believe that modern design can actually enhance our connection to the outdoors. For us, that means large windows and sliding doors that make indoor spaces feel like outdoor spaces. It means choosing colors that blend into the environment, and, like I mentioned above, intentionally creating spaces that make spending time enjoying the outdoors easier.
5) Cleanliness = comfort. Historically, I think campgrounds have been held to a much lower standard of cleanliness. You almost expect to shower in nasty bath houses, where you’re afraid to touch the floor or set your personal items down. We couldn’t understand why there has been such a disparity between a campground bathroom and a hotel bathroom. So, we set out to make our bathrooms feel as “spa-like” as possible. This goes well beyond just the bathrooms — our cabins and common spaces like the lodge, pavilion, and pool are all held to high standards. When we feel clean, we feel comfortable, and that goes a long way to help us feel relaxed and rejuvenated on a vacation.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At Roamstead, our mission is to make the outdoors more accessible to every camper. We’ve committed to partnering with local nonprofits who help further this mission. At our Smoky Mountains location, a portion of every stay is donated back to Friends of the Smokies. Friends assists the National Park Service in its mission to preserve and protect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by raising funds and public awareness, and providing volunteers for needed projects. They restore trails, build handicap-accessible access points, and provide urban youth educational opportunities in the park, to name just a few of their many projects. Our guests are also given the opportunity to donate an additional sum of their choice at the time of booking, so everyone plays a part in giving back to the community in which we’re located.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Hands down, it would be introducing more people to the wonders that our National Parks have to offer. Each one is so different and awe-inspiring in its own way. From mountains, to rock formations, to shorelines, you can find every landscape imaginable in our National Park system. Some parks, like Mesa Verde, also provide the opportunity to learn about the Native peoples who once inhabited the area. I believe that the more we explore these unique outdoor spaces, the more we’re inspired to protect the land, the wildlife, and the people who call these regions home.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!