Bands, buses, bonfires and golf carts—lots of golf carts. Those are some of the cogs on the University Station RV Resort & Event Venue wheel that make it “the ultimate tailgate experience,” according to Jill Holt ’99.
She’s not alone in her opinion. Thousands of tailgaters who make their way on football weekends to the recreational vehicle park she owns with her husband, Mathan, would heartily agree. When you step onto their almost 250-acre lot, you feel like you have stepped into the middle of a very Auburn celebration.
Two weeks before the first Auburn kickoff, fans drive their RVs to their chosen spots at University Station and are welcome to stay until two weeks after the last game.
“They bring their inflatable Aubies and their BBQ grills to get set up for the season,” says Mathan, who can easily name off the benefits of their RV resort. “Our tenants don’t have to get off work early on Thursday afternoons and race down 280 to find an open spot to park their RV. They don’t have to run a generator. There’s plenty of water and electricity at hand, and they don’t have to haul their RV back and forth on every home game weekend.”
A quick tour around the park shows that these tailgaters don’t just bring their Auburn decorations, golf carts and grills. They bring their family and their love of all things Auburn, especially Auburn football.
“We are a tailgate community that recreates the campus spirit you knew when you went to Auburn,” Jill says.
She knows all about the Auburn campus spirit. A 1999 grad with a degree in art, she and Mathan have three sons who are also Auburn grads, so the family has a deep love for the school. William ’15, John ’10 and Joseph ’08 graduated in public relations, biosystem engineering and business and entrepreneurship, respectively. Mathan grew up in Loachapoka and is a life-long Auburn fan.
The Holts have been recreating the Auburn campus atmosphere at University Station for more than twelve years. The park was initially a storage lot for RVs, which in 1999 was all that was needed. When a nearby RV park that provided water and electricity closed in 2005, several of those tenants asked if they could relocate to the Holt’s storage lot.
The next year those residents asked for a full hookup. The next year they wanted a band and the next year they asked if a meal could be served. They kept coming back year after year, and now the park has almost 800 leased lots, with plans to add around 20 more this year.
In 2006, Mathan came up with the idea to buy a bus and drop people off near campus. The members loved it so much that he kept buying buses as the park grew. On game weekends, University Station guests can catch a ride on one of 10 buses that regularly circuit from the park entrance near Loachapoka on Highway 14 to a private lot close to the stadium. Mathan estimates that they transport about five to six thousand people every home gameday. For those who have difficulty walking from the lot to the stadium, the Holts have a service called Grab-a-Cart, which is a fleet of low-speed golf carts ready to deliver guests to the stadium gates or around town for shopping before or after the game.
On Friday nights, there’s a band and a buffet to get the tailgating festivities started. Guests gather for dinner at 6 p.m. and the bands begin playing around 7 p.m. When cold weather sets in, Mathan uses a backhoe to form a bonfire out of giant logs the size of telephone poles. Because of his background in heavy equipment, moving logs and running underground electricity and pipe is a “piece of cake” for him.
Along with the bands, bonfires and buffets, there are plenty of social events throughout the season. On homecoming weekend, there’s a golf-cart float parade, as well as a presentation by the Southeastern Raptor Center, which fans of all ages are eager to see. Rolling trees after a win is also a park tradition. In the off-season, the Holts host a variety of events including a bluegrass festival and the Bodda Getta BBQ Cookoff.
Their hospitality even extends to opposing teams’ fans—at least, some fans of some opposing teams. The Holts made friends with a group of LSU fans while tailgating in Baton Rouge and now, when LSU comes to Auburn, those friends bring fresh shrimp to make big pots of gumbo and jambalaya for the crowd. The Holts hold spaces for LSU fans to park their RVs and also hold a spot on the stage for them to put on a skit and strut in their finest purple and gold to the LSU fight song.
Jill says that the primary things that built the park were “A. God and B. the guests.” That may be true, but item “C”. on that list would likely be Customer Service. Mathan says their business plan is straightforward: take care of the customer.
Last year’s lease holders are offered the right of first refusal on the same lot for the next year. They are welcome to make improvements to their space, and plenty of tailgaters have. Coach houses, patios and decks surround RVs as commonly as Auburn flags. Should a lease holder want to move to another lot or roll on home for good, they can sell those additions to the next person to lease the lot.
Mathan believes that part of what makes their renters happy is knowing they can build what they want on their lot—as long as it passes the architectural review board, of which he is the sole board member.
Jill is responsible for naming the streets, which are Auburn-inspired and clever—“Gotta Sec. Ave,” “Shotgun Pass” and “Victory Lane” are some of the streets that wind around the resort. She says naming the streets is the part of the job that’s gotten harder as the park has grown.
Jill’s street-naming days are only beginning, though. The Holts are starting to see a second generation of Auburn families staking out their lots at University Station. They are also seeing residents ask to extend their leases for other sports seasons like basketball, swimming, baseball and equestrian. Mathan’s happy to sort those details out because customer service is at the heart of his business plan.
This increase in other Auburn sports, along with the need for more lots to meet this year’s waiting list, means less down time in the off-season. Mathan is spending more time moving dirt and adding pipe for the new lots, and the Holts are adding an event center at the back of their property that will seat four to five thousand people. Jill says it will give them more flexibility to host events throughout the year in any weather.
Having a large building with a roof has the added benefit of “keeping the audience from getting soaked” if it rains. There will also be a stage area and a large kitchen. Jill is particularly thrilled that the event center will have “an awesome fireplace.”
Without Mathan’s knowledge of heavy equipment operations and Jill’s promotional talents, the park probably would not have grown year after year the way it has. Five other schools have come to the Holts asking how to recreate a resort like University Station at their own school. Mathan says he is happy to share what they’ve learned because “after all, it isn’t rocket science.”
True enough, but portions of the Holt’s RV resort formula are impossible to replicate—like Mathan’s relentless “make the customer happy” business strategy and Jill’s penchant for dispensing hospitality with a dose of humor. Even if the other schools have success in starting their own version of University Station, it is unlikely to match the Holts’, even if they have someone who can move dirt around like a “piece of cake.”
That’s because the essential attribute of University Station can’t be packed up with the inflatable Aubies and the grills, then moved down the road in an RV—it’s the Auburn Family football spirit that makes it unique.