Name: Michelle Kagarmanov
Business: Mystic Hills Hideaway / Mystic Trails Rentals
Location: Black Hills, South Dakota
Launched: 2013 (bought the existing business from previous owners)
Before Michelle Kagarmanov moved back to her home state of South Dakota, she was the program director of a non-profit working with refugee students in Minneapolis. She and her husband were ready to start a family of their own, so when her dad, aka “Pops”, called to ask if she’d run a newly purchased Black Hills RV resort with cabins, a restaurant/bar and off-road vehicle rentals she saw it as an opportunity to be near family, as well as to make her own schedule.
With motorized sports ranking as the number one outdoor recreation activity in the U.S., their Mystic Hills Hideaway caters to a year-round clientele of ATV, UTV and snowmobile enthusiasts who come for the 500 miles of US Forest Service trails directly accessible from the campground. We spoke with Michelle about how they balance the seasonality of running an outdoors-based business and how they’ve found ways to hire more staff so the family can enjoy a little recreation time, too.
Hi Michelle! Tell me about your business at Mystic Hills Hideaway.
We have two businesses here in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The RV resort and our restaurant and bar make up Mystic Hills Hideaway. For liability reasons, we rent out one-person all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), two, three, four, five and six-seater utility-terrain vehicles (UTVs) and snowmobiles under a different business, Mystic Trails Rentals. We have 76 RV sites, nine cabins, two lodge rooms, a treehouse and three stationary campers that we rent to guests.
How and why did your family decide to open Mystic Hills Hideaway?
My family wasn’t into off-roading when we purchased this resort, ironically. My uncle had asked my dad to help him find a recreational cabin in the Black Hills. They looked around and saw businesses for sale and that led to them thinking about investing in a campground business. It grew from there. My uncle is a very shrewd investor. He’s really into business, and he saw a good opportunity here to expand this campground and have a solid business.
When they started getting serious about operating a campground, they asked my husband and me to move out and help run it. We moved from Minneapolis to South Dakota in 2012 and have been operating the resort ever since.
The first two years we leased the rental ATV business to another operator. Then we decided to buy all the rental vehicles so we could have more control over the marketing and take in the revenue from that aspect of business.
How involved is your family in the operations?
My dad is very much involved. My uncles are investors and aren’t involved in the day-to-day operations. My brother Todd does repairs and maintenance, and I handle the reservations, rentals and I previously did the books before our new manager took over that responsibility. My husband is an accountant, and he initially set up the books, but he now works in Rapid City. We have a newborn and an almost 4-year-old who likes to play with the visiting kids who come through.
We have a core group of six year-round employees, and we hire about a dozen people during the high season. Our summer high season is May to September, and the winter snowmobiling high season is December to March.
In the off seasons, we spend money on upkeep and improvements and on property projects we can’t do when we have guests staying.
How did you get your business up and running?
Because we bought an existing business, we literally signed the papers in May and started working immediately. It was summer, so there wasn’t a whole lot of training, we just hit the ground running. The previous owners didn’t have a great reservation system, so they would tell people, “Just come, we have open spots.” That first summer people would show up and we didn’t have a reservation recorded. It got so bad that we used to have a heart attack whenever anyone would pull up, thinking, “I hope they have a real reservation!”
During the chaos of that first summer, we had a family come to stay for a week. The dad had meetings in town, and we didn’t have their reservation in the books. So we cleaned up the staff housing really fast and put them up there. My dad gave the wife his convertible and told her, “Here, take my car and go see Mount Rushmore.” Now they come back every year!
We have a new reservation system, and we make sure we don’t have any mix ups. I also made a new website because the original one was full of animated gifs. I was like, “No, no, we have to get this changed fast!” I manage the content on the website -- it’s a Weebly template -- and it looks great. It’s not that hard to have a good website, and it’s really important to business.
What are some of the unique challenges of operating your business?
Staffing is a huge issue in the Black Hills region, which is a tourism and industry-heavy location. We compete for employees with other resorts and attractions, so it’s really hard to find people to help, especially in the summer. And with the current work visa challenges, there’s not a lot of international workers coming anymore. That makes the labor market even tighter.
Another challenge is running a family business and trying to separate the business and the personal. I love working with my dad, and I think we have a good rapport. However, when I’m on vacation and he wants to talk about the campground, that can be hard. I don’t want to hear the latest employee drama or messed up food delivery story. I just want to catch up with him!
Did you change or upgrade the business once you bought it?
When we bought the property we added 30 more full-hookup RV sites. A full-hookup site has water, power and sewer connections. We’ve added another well, and we’ve renovated to add three more rental units.
We came to the business with new ideas and ways of expanding -- which is why we added the off-roading vehicle rentals as part of our business plan. At a certain point you reach your income peak, but you need to make more to be able to support a staff, so how do you do that? That’s the question we were asking ourselves because we needed to hire employees. If we didn’t hire staff, we’d be running this place seven days a week. We’d be exhausted, and then customer service goes down and you end up with bad reviews. We didn’t want that, of course. Adding the rentals was our way to add more value and bring in more income.
What is your best advice for budding entrepreneurs or for those who are struggling to make it past the two, three, and five year anniversaries of their businesses?
I think our success has been due to hiring good people, especially full-time employees. At the beginning, I was doing all the reservations all the time, even at home, and never getting a break. It was too much because I was doing all the accounting, too. We have another manager now, and she oversees the restaurant as well.
Part of having a successful business is figuring out how to make enough revenue to hire other people, because no matter now motivated or dedicated you are, you can’t expect to work all the time. If you get burned out and lose perspective -- even if your business is doing well -- you’re not going to succeed. Finding good-hearted, dedicated, full time employees who have our best-interest in mind has been so important. All that being said, I don’t think my dad has had a vacation since we started!
QB Community members have you bought an existing business? If so, how did you change or rebrand it to fit your vision?
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