By Melanie Van Horn, senior studying public relations at Iowa State University
This story is part of a series featuring each of the fifteen startups in the CYstarters 2019 summer cohort. Each team has the opportunity to focus on their startup or business idea while receiving $6,500 or up to $13,000, along with mentorship, accountability, and educational sessions on how to build a business.
Stephanie Bias described the site of Ristokrat Clay Products Company, a brickyard that had once supported nearby communities, as a mysterious and forgotten place. But where some only saw the abandoned ruins of a once-thriving business, Bias and her family saw a new opportunity to transform the historic site into a place for visitors and tourists to experience central Illinois in a new way.
In 2017, Bias’s parents were looking to buy land in the LaSalle, Illinois area.
“My mom, who always has really big ideas, asked ‘What if we turn this into an event venue and a luxury campground?’”
While Bias, a senior in event management at Iowa State University, said their family initially dismissed the idea, they eventually decided that the business would be a good fit for the area, which draws nearly 3 million visitors annually at Starved Rock State Park.
From there, Camp Aramoni was born. The name comes from the traditional indigenous name of the river that runs through the property and was changed to Vermilion when French explorers invaded the area.
“We wanted to go back and pay homage to the original people who lived here before us,” Bias said.
For the last two years, Bias and her family have worked to restore the property and create an inviting venue and luxury camping experience, all while preserving the history of the site. Camp Aramoni, which is set to open in August 2020, will provide guests with semi-permanent tents and an event venue as well as activities and local hiking trails.
“There’s been a huge increase in visitors in the last three years, and the state of Illinois just voted to expand one of the state parks. There’s going to be a lot of development in the area in the next few years and we want to be a part of that,” Bias said.
What did you learn about the history of the area while you were working on the site?
The brickyard employed nearly the entire town and surrounding areas. A lot of buildings in Chicago are made from those bricks today, but the brickyard ended up closing in the ‘70s. The site has an interesting history, and we’re trying to preserve all of that. We have some historical records. We are trying to find people in the community who worked there to hear their stories of what it used to be like.
Describe what guests will experience when they visit Camp Aramoni.
We have the history, and the accommodations that we’ll have are different from anyone else in the area. We’ll have semi-permanent tents with hardwood floors and canvas tops. Our accommodations are going to set us apart, and we’re going to have fun events and work with the local state parks to bring more people to the area.
What’s your role in the business?
I built the website, and whenever I go home, I take pictures and videos. I post those to our social media and our website so people can keep up with our progress. I also work on the logistics of the business, like pricing and hiring. We want to have policies in place to make it an easier transition to a full-time business. I’ll be living between both LaSalle and Ames next year, so it’ll be interesting to balance my classes and my responsibilities with the business.
What has it been like working on your business as a family?
My family has a history of entrepreneurship. My grandpa started an electrical contracting company in 1976, and my mom took it over in 2004. I thought I would do something different because I never had any interest in construction or electrical contracting. Some days are challenging because if my mom tells me we need to do something, I hear it as coming from my mom rather than my boss. Communication is even more important because we need to respect each other and help each other more because we’re involved in all aspects of each other’s lives.
What are some future challenges you’ll have to overcome?
I know staff turnover in the hospitality industry is high. We’re looking to build a strong team now by connecting with people in the community and finding those who would be a good fit. Lots of hospitality businesses and event centers hire part-time employees, but we’re looking to find people to be full-time employees. Even though it’s fewer employees, they’d be working the same amount of time. It will be a huge learning process over the next few years as we try to get the business off the ground.
Have there been any classes at Iowa State that have prepared you to run a business?
All of the classes in event management that relate to design have helped me. I liked learning about Adobe products such as Photoshop and InDesign. I’ve taught myself things along the way by taking the content that I’m learning in class and then relating it to the business. Another great part of being at Iowa State has been the community of people I found at the Pappajohn Center. It’s been great meeting people who have the same interests and support you.
How has the CYstarters program helped you?
I think it taught me a lot about business in the sense of how important it is to network and know people, because that program introduced me to a lot of different people who, as soon as you ask for help, they are willing to give it. You just have to ask. I also liked seeing what other people are doing. There are so many good ideas out there and people who are passionate about making them happen. When you’re invested in what you’re doing, you want to do everything by yourself, but you don’t realize that other perspectives can make it even better. Once you start to ask for help, the ideas are born from a community of people rather than just you. There are more perspectives and it seems to create a stronger outcome.
Who has been a mentor for you?
Jamie Beyer is one of my professors from Apparel, Events and Hospitality Management (AESHM), and she’s invested in students and cares a lot about them. I know if I ever have any problems as I’m figuring things out, I can go to her, and she has really good advice. She has a lot of industry experience, so she’s been a great mentor.
Tell me about a time you faced a problem in the business and how you solved it.
I was struggling with the timeline because my mom said that we would be opening in August. There were so many things that we still needed to do, and I didn’t have a list or know what the business was going to look like in the next year. I worked with one of my mentors in the CYstarters program, Bill Malone, and he encouraged me to make a Gantt chart, which is a detailed timeline, and I refer to that to keep me on track and motivated. It is really easy to get overwhelmed as a student and entrepreneur.
What’s surprised you about creating a business?
I would say it’s been really fun to connect with clients. A lot of people have reached out asking about the event venue, and we already have three weddings on the books for August and October this year. All three of the brides are very outdoorsy, and they said the venue fits with their aesthetic.
What have you learned about yourself in this process?
I think I realized throughout this that I’m a perfectionist, and I think I’ve been learning to be okay with the imperfections. Sometimes it’s better to have it done than to try and make it perfect. I’ve learned what my working style is compared to other people, especially my family.
Have you enjoyed the experience of starting and working in your own business?
It’s been a great experience, especially with the CYstarters program. I never really thought of myself as a business person or an entrepreneur. Being in the program gave me so many resources. Before, I might have doubted myself or felt like I wouldn’t be able to do it, but now I feel so much more capable of doing these things.
Interested in booking your next adventure or planning an event? Learn more at CampAramoni.com or reach out to Stephanie at Stephanie@camparamoni.com.