While Ted Bell was working as a detective with the Chula Vista Police Department in the 1960s following a stint working at Convair, he started investigating ways to bring in extra income to support his wife, Carol Bell, and their three children.
The Bells, seasoned travelers to state and federal parks by automobile during family vacations, had long lamented that many camping spots were lacking in amenities and overall care – and from that realization came a life-changing decision.
While winding down what would be an 18-year career in law enforcement, Bell in 1968 began a new career path – developing and running San Diego Metro KOA Resort, a five-acre campground in the South Bay for recreational vehicles and tent campers.
Now that campground off Second Street in Chula Vista – part of a group of seven campgrounds run as Kampgrounds Enterprises, Inc., under the umbrella of Kampgrounds of America, Inc. – has grown into a 42-acre destination spot, with 160 full-hookup RV sites, spots for tents, glamping and both pet-friendly basic camping cabins and fully loaded deluxe cabins with bathrooms, showers, wi-fi access and more.
The site has a swimming pool with cabanas and two hot tubs, a kids playground, a climbing structure, bicycle rentals, jumping pads, a pet park, a convenience store, a café and other amenities.
“My wife and I started this out as a little business just to get our kids through college,” said Bell, whose son, Mike Bell, and Mike’s three children now oversee the San Diego Metro site and six more Bell-backed campgrounds across the western United States.
“We started out with the idea of a place for travelers coming in, and now we do an enormous local business, with people just coming down for a weekend, or a week. We saw it as a small business… and then it exploded.”
For his more than five decades of innovation, growth and expansion, and for being a progressive industry leader passionate about the great outdoors, Ted Bell, now 92, was presented last month with KOA’s Darrell Booth Lifetime Achievement Award. Bell is the eighth recipient of the KOA achievement award, first created in 2011.
The award honors those who dedicate a significant part of their lives to advancing the KOA system and camping lifestyle in North America. Booth was KOA’s first president, guiding the company and overseeing the growth of the KOA campground system during the 1960s and ’70s. KOA now has more than 500 locations in the U.S. and Canada.
“Much like Darrell Booth saw the opportunity in building the first KOA, Ted’s innovative spirit has made an indelible mark on our industry,” said Toby O’Rourke, president and CEO of KOA.
The Beginning of the Bell Era
Mike Bell was 14 when he started working for his father, helping build the KOA site literally from the ground up, several years before Interstate 805 would be built nearby. He said his father was never afraid to pick up a shovel or dig a ditch.
“When we first started, we leased five acres,” Mike Bell said. “When we opened the campground in June 1968, I remember we were charging $2.50 a night.”
Now the cost of per-night stays varies but can be as low as $50 during the off-season for economy tent sites to as high as $300 during the summer for a deluxe cabin.
Mike Bell said his dad’s initial goal to earn some extra money certainly worked, “putting me through college and later supporting his grandchildren.”
What began for Ted Bell as one KOA campground in San Diego is now a third-generation family business consisting of the original San Diego Metro KOA Resort, Temecula/Vail Lake KOA, Palm Springs/Joshua Tree KOA Holiday, Grand Canyon KOA Journey, Williams/Circle Pines KOA Holiday (Arizona), Flagstaff KOA Holiday and St. Louis West KOA Holiday.
The KEI group and its 300 employees bring in about $23 million a year.
Bell, a 1970 Hilltop High graduate, said his dad never pressured him, but that it only took a couple of years studying small business management at Northern Arizona University to convince him to follow his father into the campground business.
“It’s been my profession since I got out of college,” Bell said. “And now, my kids are involved. It must be in their DNA since they grew up on the campground like I did.”
Kampground Enterprises, Inc.
FOUNDER: Ted Bell
PRESIDENT: Mike Bell
HEADQUARTERS: Chula Vista
BUSINESS: Recreational short-time camping facility/RV campground
REVENUE: $23M over seven sites
SOCIAL IMPACT: KEI supports and hosts child and family oncology camps and fundraisers.
NOTABLE: KOA started in 1962, and KEI founder Ted Bell is the one of the last remaining franchisees from the 1960s still running a campground today.