Some people stop at nothing until they achieve their dreams. They get knocked down repeatedly and come up against countless challenges but still manage to power through. Adam Van Tassell is one of those people.
He knew many years ago that he wanted to be an entrepreneur and open his own fishing lodge with his family, but he didn’t have enough experience or money. But he kept going. When he was eventually able to purchase a resort, his relationship with his partner soured, and he lost the business.
When he bought another resort with his wife, the place was in shambles. But Adam and his family didn’t give up; on the contrary, they dug their heels in more and made it work. Then Covid hit, and everything took a tumble.
And where’s the Van Tassell family? They’re still at it, working tirelessly to live their entrepreneurial dream. Their resort today brings in $350k per year, even though it’s only operational for a few months each year.
Keep reading for an inspiring story of perseverance and learn how Birch Forest Lodge in Minnesota came to be.
In this interview, you’ll learn how Adam and his family:
- Got their start in the industry
- Purchased their current lodges
- Learned how to pivot
- Turned fledgling businesses into thriving ones
- Weathered the global pandemic
- Market their businesses
- Reach their target market
- Leverage YouTube to stand out from the competition
- Approach email marketing
- Find ideas for their content
- Nurture their relationships with customers
- View online reviews
- Manage their expectations and those of their guests
Meet Adam Van Tassell
I married my wife Kasey in 2004, and we have 3 kids, ages 15, 12, and 6. Together we operate Birch Forest Lodge.
We both grew up in Utah, and neither of us went on many vacations or had much discretionary income. Vacations for us were either camping somewhere in a tent or visiting a relative and sleeping in sleeping bags on their living room floor.
We met at Utah State University. Ever since we met, I’ve had a goal of owning a fishing lodge. She used to laugh at me when I would tell her that someday we will own one.
Their experience in the industry
Over the years, we both worked many jobs in the sector like:
- Taking kids on hiking trips and teaching them how to camp,
- Doing accounting and marketing at a tourist start-up,
- Renting canoes and equipment for a canoe outfitter,
- Cleaning cabins,
- Working in restaurants,
- Taking tourists on excursions on a tourist submarine…
If there is a job that relates to a resort/lodge/tourism, we’ve done it.
Originally I went to school for mechanical engineering, but later I switched to business management. I eventually pursued a degree in hospitality and tourism management. For many years I’ve wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I didn’t have savings or any way of raising capital to run a business with my family.
Eventually, a family member helped us by purchasing a resort in Minnesota, and my family and I moved there and turned the whole business around. It grew fast, and in 2014 we were awarded the “Best of State Award.” But in the end, our vision for the fishing lodge and resort were not the same, and we parted ways.
I didn’t give up, though. I got a corporate job to make ends meet and spend weekends looking for the next business opportunity. May of 2015, I looked over my college notes and Googled a resort I had researched: Birch Forest Lodge. I saw that they were for sale and made a phone call. We secured a loan, and one month later, we signed documents and took over the operations.
Starting out at Birch Forest Lodge
When we took it over, the business was in bad shape. According to online reviews in the region, it was the worst-ranked business for customer service. The cabins weren’t falling over, but they needed work. The marina had issues. We knew we needed to fix things for the business to grow, but we didn’t have the cash to buy equipment or make repairs.
I ended up working remotely for my corporate job in the summers and moving back to Utah in the winter. I would work online in the mornings and then in the late afternoon go work full time at the resort. By spring, I was able to quit my job and work full time for myself.
The First few Years
That first summer, we did about $90,000 in gross sales. Our mortgage was more than that. We had taken over the business in early July, and the only thing we had was what the former owners had done. We really struggled.
The second year, we did almost double that – still a struggle. After quitting my corporate job, we stayed in Minnesota year-round, and I worked at the local school as a full-time substitute teacher. I’d come home in the evening, and we’d work on a project related to the lodge.
Rather than buying t-shirts and hoodies to sell in the gift shop, we ordered blank t-shirts and hoodies and silk-screened them ourselves. We remodeled cabins. We did a ton of marketing. Facebook, SEO, sports shows, and even some print advertising.
We never went out to eat, didn’t take a vacation, and shopped at thrift stores. Every dollar we made was going back into the business. Family and friends worried about us. We assured them we would be fine. My wife and I had a plan and were determined to get there. We also added another baby to our family during this time.
Turning things around at Birch Forest Lodge
The business grew. The following year we grew by almost another 40%. At that point, we could see that we were on to something and decided to expand. We built another cabin and increased our boat fleet for rentals. Business continued to grow.
In our 4th year of operating, we ended up just shy of $300,000 in sales. After operating Birch Forest Lodge for 4 years, we saw that the business was improving. We could see the upward trajectory and that our efficiencies were improving because we had been fixing things. Not only were we making more in sales, but our margins were also improving.
Due to our location in northern Minnesota, we were only operating for 4.5 months a year, as it was so cold. Looking at the two resorts we’d run, we could see similarities and knew that if we could find a resort with a longer operating season, we could make more money.
After looking around, we decided a better idea would be to find something with an opposite operating season to Birch Forest Lodge. Something counter-cyclical.
Discovering Cotton Tree Lodge
We had taken a vacation to Belize in 2013 and loved it. Friendly people, English speaking, set exchange rates, and great weather. Belize’s main tourism season is November to May. It seemed perfect for us, and Belize’s status as a British commonwealth made us feel comfortable with their legal system.
We started traveling to Belize to find an opportunity and found Cotton Tree Lodge. We knew that location and setting were paramount for the success of a small resort operation. This resort was set deep in the jungle on a slow-moving river with access to the ocean for both fresh and saltwater fishing. Relatively nearby, there were Mayan ruins, caves to explore, and numerous cultural activities for tourists to enjoy.
The sellers were motivated and we were able to negotiate a price that worked for us. In October of 2019, we moved our family of 5 to Central America for the winter. The resort needed work. Lots of it. The marketing plan was in shambles. We set about fixing the “cabanas,” hired staff, and reworked the marketing plan.
We focused on a new website, a new Facebook plan, lots of SEO, partnered with various vacation planners and sellers, and by the end of the year, were looking like things were going to explode. December was very busy. January and February were sold out. March and April were pre-sold.
When the pandemic hit
In early March of 2020, early one morning, we received a phone call from a large group that was set to arrive from Canada. They were at the airport, checked bags, and at the gate. But it had just been announced that Canada was closing its border, and the plane would not be taking off.
Within days, all our bookings had been canceled. We assumed this would take a few weeks to resolve. A week later, it was announced that Belize was closing its border, and the American Embassy in Belize was strongly “suggesting” all Americans return to the US.
We were uncertain of the timeline for what would become the Covid 19 pandemic but knew we couldn’t get stuck in Central America, so we called an emergency meeting with the staff and prepared to leave. We promised our staff that we would not lay anyone off. At the time, we did not know we were going to go about 21 months with almost no tourism in Belize.
We returned to Minnesota and dealt with closures and shortages while trying to figure out a plan for operating Birch Forest Lodge during Covid. The state government had us closed down until mid-May as a “non-essential” business.
In mid-May, we were able to open up, but people were worried about traveling. By mid-June, the fortunes had turned. People realized they wanted to go somewhere, but most places were still closed.
Birch Forest Lodge boomed. Phone calls, emails, and Facebook messages at all times of the day and night. After a couple of years hovering just above $300,000 in sales, we went to $350,000. In 2021, we anticipated the increased demand and prepared. Sales went to just shy of $400,000.
The aftermath of the pandemic
Belize did the opposite. Keeping 25 staff employed during the pandemic was more difficult than anticipated. We changed our marketing plans in Belize to target local Belizeans and cut down on hours. But we still lost $100,000 a year.
In October of 2022, we were approached by a family who wanted to buy Cotton Tree Lodge from us. They couldn’t purchase the business, but we did lease the property to them. I have worked with them this year, and they are doing well. Travel in Central America is growing again.
At Birch Forest Lodge, 2022 has seen a regression in sales. Canada, Europe, Mexico, Hawaii, Disney World, and other places are open again. Sales are down by about 17% this year, and we are projected to finish around $350,000 in sales. We are also working on a new expansion project.
We’re building 10 RV sites and two camper cabins to allow us to diversify our marketing options. Some of the sites will be functional for the 2023 season.
How much money he’s making per year
Birch Forest Lodge makes between $300,000 and $350,000 a year in sales. Resorts such as this are mostly fixed costs. Resorts that have occupancies less than 65% lose money. The average resort runs at just shy of 70% occupancy. They can make their mortgage and have a little to live on if they have a good rate structure.
We operate above 90% occupancy. We anticipate that we will continue to bring in about $350,000 a year in sales at Birch Forest Lodge. Cotton Tree Lodge is currently leased. We were paid $350,000 upfront for a 3-year lease with an additional $30,000 a year. At the end of 3 years, we will see what happens.
His top marketing strategies
First, we market to our existing clientele by delivering their expected vacation. We take care of our customers. They have already decided to be here, so we do everything we can to ensure they’re happy.
Our business is about 70% repeat clientele. There’s no point in doing a lot of marketing if you can’t keep your current customer happy. We don’t over-promise anything and make sure people know they’re in the woods and life is different than in a city.
We can’t control fishing or the weather, but we can be clean, comfortable, well maintained, and friendly. Most people are delighted with the resort. They then go online and leave positive reviews.
Another thing we have been very deliberate in understanding our offering and who we want to target. When you talk to people about fishing lodges, many people—or maybe most—think of a fishing camp where men go fishing in the day and drink at night. There’s a lot of money to be made with that kind of resort. Groups of men represent multiple incomes, and alcohol has a good markup margin.
However, we decided to go against the grain. We have a young family and felt we’d do better by targeting families. We’ve set up Birch Forest Lodge as a family-oriented resort. This has helped because many fishing lodges struggle when fishing is poor.
Fish like cooler water, which is usually in May, June, and September. But families like warm weather for swimming and playing outside. We cater heavily to families in July and August, particularly family reunions or gatherings. This has allowed us to pinpoint marketing strategies and keywords to different target demographics for different seasons.
The third thing we do is a ton of SEO marketing. We pick out keywords, write blogs about relevant topics, and have a small SEO firm look for opportune linking strategies. We blend this with Facebook marketing (again, mostly to our existing clientele).
When we bought the business, no one could find us online. The SEO marketing we have done has brought us to the front page of many google searches.
His unique strategy for business growth
We’re using a semi-unique strategy right now for our niche.
Most small resorts around us aren’t using YouTube. In past years we had a YouTube channel with our business and occasionally posted a video. This year we took a different route.
We started a second channel under a different brand called Crazy Good Fishing and have been posting a video every couple of weeks.
This is done for two reasons:
- First, we’re finding new people looking on YouTube for fishing ideas and places.
- Second, in YouTube’s opinion, we’re becoming an authoritative source in the region on fishing.
Even though we aren’t using any mention of Birch Forest Lodge or our branding, we have the videos on our website. When people browse our website, they find the videos and watch them. Then they can see that we’re serious about fishing and how much content we have compared to others and come back to our site to book.
We think this long-play strategy will take a couple of years to kick in, but the early returns look promising.
The importance of SEO
SEO is the most important part of our marketing strategy for new customer acquisition. SEO allows us to target people already far along in their decision-making process on where to vacation.
Over 40 million unique people a year travel and spend at least one night in Minnesota. A couple million of them come to northern Minnesota to fish. We don’t want to get lost fighting over the 40 million; we want to hone in on the hundreds of thousands who want a cabin on a lake.
Plus, we can gauge the success of our SEO efforts by measuring conversions from our online booking engine against the dollars spent on SEO.
We also do everything we can to stay on top of search trends. You don’t have to have a perfect website. Not everyone wants the same thing when it comes to websites. But the site needs to be real. People should show up to the property and say, yup, it looks just like the pictures. But they need to be able to find the website first.
How Adam Van Tassell approaches email
We don’t have an email list for doing email blasts as that hasn’t proven to be a very successful marketing strategy for our business.
What we do have is a mailing list for our customers. We only use our mailing list to send a Christmas card to our existing customer list. Our customers want to feel we care about them and seem to enjoy reminding them we exist each Christmas.
We simply want to keep us in their mind as they gather with family and friends during the holidays and hopefully plan a vacation together.
The Content Creation Process
We take time to get to know our customers. Most of them are here at the resort for a week. They come up to the lodge to play games, buy souvenirs, go to the marina to rent our boats, and so forth.
It sounds basic, but too many businesses overlook listening to the customer. For example, we did generic fishing videos when we first started doing YouTube videos. People liked them, but they didn’t grow fast.
People always email before their trip asking how the fishing is, so this week we did a YouTube video with a current fishing report. Everyone loved it. We heard back from customers about how great it was. We will do another in a couple of weeks.
Now people can look forward to these fishing reports and share them with their friends. All we had to do was listen to what they were asking us for.
Achieving current revenue levels
It took us 4 to 5 years to get to a point where we knew we had it made financially. Part of this was because we were putting so much money back into the business the first few years. People loved that. They loved seeing the improvements. After 4 or 5 years, we knew we were going to make it and then started asking ourselves, “What next?”
Online reviews and bookings
Online reviews are important. People love to brag about good decisions and complain when they aren’t pleased. You have to pay attention and listen. Not everyone is comfortable telling you to your face. They will go online.
We try to simplify our sales process and never oversell anything. Our properties aren’t luxurious. They are both set in remote wilderness settings. Things like mosquito bites are a real possibility. Our websites try to make it look inviting but also convey that this isn’t a 5-star luxury hotel.
Reviews do the opposite. Customers will rave about good experiences. We leverage reviews to give people the idea that they will not only survive their experience in the woods of Minnesota or the jungles of Belize, but they will also have fun.
This way, when people show up and realize that, yes, they’re in a remote wilderness setting. However, they still have hot and cold water and impeccably clean cottages. They are pleasantly surprised rather than slightly disappointed.
Online booking engines are crucial to success for us. Not everyone wants to call us up to make a reservation. Most people want to compare rates, locations, and other amenities and then book online. So many of our customers show up without direct interaction with us.
Because we know managing expectations is so important, this was scary when we first allowed people to start booking without interacting with us. You must ensure that good, relevant content is out there for people to go through. YouTube videos showing what people do on vacation in your area, online reviews, and pictures of cabins, bathrooms, and grounds.
People want to feel confident about their decision to stay with you. And then, you need to be able to consummate the transaction. People get emotional when they plan a vacation. They get excited. Give them a way to take their credit card info when they’re excited. Don’t make them wait for the business to open the next day. They might have changed their mind.
His biggest challenge
The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a business owner is outside influences. The Covid 19 pandemic nearly ruined us in Belize. We survived, but it was tough. But that isn’t the only external influence that hit us hard.
We’ve dealt with government shutdowns and natural disasters as well. In Belize, we had a couple of hurricanes come by. Insurance doesn’t cover everything. In Minnesota, the state government shut down due to an inability to agree on the budget, and no one could buy a fishing license. People were scared to go fishing.
We also had a federal government shutdown, and the national park around us was closed. People canceled trips. Wildfires have given us a few scares. We haven’t had one in 100 miles, but we’ve dealt with smoky air from fires 500 miles away.
People get scared. They watch the news, and usually, the news shows the worst possible angle, and people buy it. Anything that’s internal, we seem to be able to get a hand on it eventually. Outside factors are harder to overcome.
Adam Van Tassell’s greatest accomplishment
I’m not sure it’s an accomplishment for many people, but surviving the first couple of years was tough. Looking back now, and seeing how much we did with so little cash, is amazing. My wife was right there beside me the whole time, scared but supportive. We haven’t won any awards with the last couple of resorts, but we still have them.
With the first one, we won a couple of awards and lost that business. Each year we grow, and people are happy. When we first purchased Birch Forest Lodge, we had terrible online reviews. We were able to get many of them removed when we took over and have worked hard.
We have great reviews now. Sure, we aren’t perfect, and I’m sure some people didn’t love it here. But most people do and some take time to share it. Each time we see a new 5-star review, we know we did something right and feel good about ourselves. You aren’t supposed to take reviews personally, but we do.
What he wishes he knew back then
I wish I had known that making a few mistakes wouldn’t kill me. I always worried. I’m a control freak. I want people to have a great vacation. I want them to love their time at one of our resorts.
Sometimes the weather is bad. Maybe a couple has a fight on their vacation, and things look bad for the relationship. Some days the fish don’t bite. Anytime something went bad, I would worry. I spent so many nights laying awake trying to figure out how to make people happy.
But you can’t fix everything and that’s okay. Or it will be. As long as you keep working, keep trying to do better. The good will come out. It’s okay to lose a customer sometimes. Lately, we’ve even found ourselves at times telling a customer they would be better off staying at a competitor.
His biggest mistake
In 2013/14, I took my eye off the prize. Our resort was doing well, growing fast. But I wasn’t making much money. We didn’t have a nice car and weren’t going on cool vacations. I would look at social media and see my friends getting new cars or going on vacations and feel left out.
I started trying to measure our success against their success and was comparing my lack of perceived success to their posted success stories. At that time, I stepped back from overseeing the resort business and hired half a dozen people to replace my wife and me.
We started an internet-based company that looked like it could make big money. Dollars measured everything at that point. We hired 23 people to work at the new company, pushing for big profits. Instead, losses came, and a year later, I was forced to shut down the company and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I realized we were happier running a resort, and while I wasn’t posting pictures on social media of cool vacations or new cars, my family was doing well. We were building equity in a company. We tried to go back to running the resort but my partner had taken control of things there and he was headed in a different direction than we wanted. That relationship soured and we lost everything.
The whole thing could have been avoided if I had stayed the course, focused on our goals, and not worried about what others were doing or thinking.
His advice for other entrepreneurs
My advice is to know your limits. There are things you don’t know how to do. Most of what we don’t know, we don’t even know we don’t know it. Trouble comes when you suddenly realize there’s a problem and you had no idea about it. The things you don’t know you don’t know will bite you eventually.
Your only option is to keep learning. Push yourself to learn as much as you can on anything relevant to your business. Learn every menial task that your company might do. If you aren’t willing or know how to clean the bathroom, how will you know if it is being done right, or what it takes?
Employees will know the difference between someone who values what they do and someone who doesn’t know what they do.