How Adam and Kasey Turned a Struggling Fishing Lodge Into a Thriving Business

Birch Forest Lodge: A Thriving Family Fun Business

The most inspiring entrepreneurial stories often feature someone who’s created a business around their hobbies or passions. Adam Van Tassell always enjoyed being outside, surrounded by nature. In this in-depth interview, he shares how he escaped office work with a family-run fishing lodge in Minnesota.

Adam and his wife, Kasey, have been running Birch Forest Lodge for nearly ten years, but it took considerable risks and years of hard work to get to where they are now. These experienced some challenges along the way, like issues with a partnership and the COVID-19 pandemic, but today, they operate to lodge with the help of their three children.

Adam’s journey has taken him to Utah, Korea, Hawaii, and Belize. Read on to see how Adam and Kasey have created the life they desire for their family and the lessons learned along the way.

👇 Key Takeaways

  • The business allows Adam to pursue his passion for the outdoors
  • Adam and Kasey had to overcome a few years of struggles before turning the corner with the lodge
  • They focused on improving their guests’ experience and getting better online reviews
  • Adam shares an important lesson he learned about work-life balance and taking time for his family


Business Name: Birch Forest Lodge
Website URL:
Owner: Adam and Kasey Van Tassell
Business Location: Orr, Minnesota
Year Started: 2015
Number of Employees/Contractors/Freelancers: 0

How much revenue does the business generate?

We generate about $375,000 a year in total revenue at Birch Forest Lodge.

Tell us about yourself and your business.

I moved to Minnesota right out of high school after securing a job working at a small fishing lodge outside of Voyageurs National Park. I had grown up on a cattle ranch in Utah and wanted to get away from the farm and see the world. I made it as far as Minnesota.

I fell in love with working at a fishing lodge for two reasons. First, people were happy. They wanted to be there, arrived in good spirits, and generally left even happier. Second, I discovered that I loved to fish. Working there, I was involved with a happy customer base and shared a passion for fishing with the customers. 

Shortly after that summer, I went to Seoul, Korea, for a couple of years, where I was a missionary. Living in Seoul was a great experience, and I loved being submerged in a culture that was foreign to me. During those two years, I learned a lot about serving people but learned I wasn’t cut out for big city life. I moved back to Minnesota to work a couple more summers and, in the winter, applied to Utah State University (USU). 

I met my wife, Kasey, at USU, and while we were dating, she suggested that I major in business. Shortly after we were married, Kasey graduated with a degree in accounting. About a year after she graduated, we moved to Key West, Florida, for a couple of years and worked together in tourism. There, we discovered we loved working together! And we both enjoyed helping people have amazing vacations.

After two years, we decided I should go back to school and get a degree in tourism and hospitality. We moved to Laie, Hawaii, where I attended BYU-Hawaii to pursue a degree in hospitality and tourism management with the idea that someday we would run our own vacation business.

While attending school, I competed in a large entrepreneur competition and wrote a business plan on how to acquire and operate a “family-oriented, outdoor recreation-based resort”. Out of 81 entrees, I took 2nd place. In 2009 I graduated and was also awarded the outstanding graduate award for the school of business. I started using the plan that I wrote to pursue an opportunity to purchase a business our young family could operate together.

Two years later, Kasey and I partnered with a family member and purchased a small fishing lodge in northern Minnesota. The business was not doing well, and with the economic conditions of 2010, we were able to purchase it at a reasonable value.

Four years later, we had turned the business around and were not only profitable but were awarded a “best of state” award for Minnesota. We were so sure that greatness was around the corner. Sadly, that was the pinnacle of that business for us. Less than two months later, we were separating ourselves from our business partner and starting over from scratch.

In early 2015, I was working for a software company in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was not enjoying working in a cubicle. I did not enjoy being a “cog in a machine.” I found that I missed the stress of balancing various aspects of operating a business and wanted another chance to prove I could run a successful company. Early that spring, my wife and I decided we would try to find another operation we could run together. We took the old business plan out, looked it over, and decided we would try one more time.

We contacted and visited dozens of resorts in the US. None fit what we were looking for. After numerous searches on Google and many hours of prayer, I decided to contact the resort I wrote my initial business plan about in college. I called Birch Forest Lodge in northern Minnesota and found out the seller wanted to sell the company, and he needed to sell it fast. We negotiated a deal, and 35 days after cold-calling him, we signed a loan and took over operations. 

Now, nine years later, we are about to start our 10th summer operating Birch Forest Lodge. Over the years, we have added cabins, upgraded the marina, updated kitchens and bathrooms in the rental cabins, and more than tripled revenue. 

Birch Forest Lodge
Birch Forest Lodge, photo courtesy of Adam Van Tassell

How does your business make money?

We rent cabins and boats to people wanting to vacation on a lake near the Canadian border. Most of our guests are families looking to spend time together or fishermen just wanting to be on the lake fishing. Along with the cabin rentals, we have a marina that rents boats, leases dock spaces, and sells gas and bait. We also have a gift shop in the lodge for souvenirs, basic supplies, and treats.

What was your inspiration for starting the business?

For three summers, I worked for a resort and loved working outside helping people have a good vacation. I decided I didn’t want an office job. I wanted to work around people that were happy. And I wanted to be outside. And I wanted to be around fishing. I decided the only thing that fit those parameters was to purchase a fishing lodge. 

Adam with a fish
Photo courtesy of Adam Van Tassell

How and when did you launch the business?

We purchased Birch Forest Lodge in July of 2015. 

How much money did you invest in the business?

We purchased the business (real estate property, buildings, and existing equipment) for $1 million. We didn’t have nearly enough money to purchase the business, but the seller was very motivated, and we worked with their bank to secure a loan.

Working with the banks’ SBA specialist, we structured a deal where we secured a conventional mortgage for 55% of the loan, secured a loan with the SBA for 35% of the value, had the seller carry 5% of the note, and put down 5%.

We mortgaged our house and then moved out so it could be rented to come up with the 5% down payment. Money was extremely tight for the first two years! We also took out my 401K savings in order to purchase equipment and inventory that first year. Our first year we grossed $88,000. Our mortgage was $104,000. I’m still not sure how we survived that first year. I know that I was working a full-time job on the side, and my wife was also working just trying to make enough to cover our bills and take care of our two small children. 

After our second summer, we were able to pay all our operating costs and the financing costs from the business. I quit my full-time job and worked full-time in the summers for the resort and found a winter job at the local school. By year four, we started expanding the business. In year five, I stopped working at the school and focused solely on the business.

Lodge interior
Photo courtesy of Adam Van Tassell

How did you find your first few clients or customers?

When we took over, we did what we could to retain the few customers that came with the business. But it wasn’t nearly enough. We decided our first move was to rebuild the website and install an online booking engine. Then, we started working on search engine optimization. Alongside the internet work, I would travel in the winter to fishing expos and vacation and travel shows to meet potential customers. 

What was your first year in business like?

The first year in business was really scary. Every time we had to make a mortgage payment on the property, we were moving funds around trying to figure out how to make a minimum payment. Our credit cards were often maxed out, and we kept track of a payment schedule to know which card had to be paid when, and how much could be delayed.

I was fortunate that my old company offered to let me work remotely (in Minnesota) rather than have me in the office (Utah) during our summer busy season. I would log in and work full time on my computer, and when my shift ended, I would go out to the resort and work 8-10 hours. On weekends, I worked 16 hours. My wife was working 16-hour days, seven days a week.

We knew we needed to make some improvements to things like appliances and beds in the cabins. But we didn’t have any money to buy new stuff. We took out my 401k to purchase new mattresses for all the cabins. Everything was on the line.

What strategies did you use to grow the business?

We really focused on reputation management. When we bought the business, we had terrible reviews online. We read every one of them and made a plan for how to deal with the problems, such as uncomfortable mattresses.

We changed the pricing strategy of the resort to reflect the variable demand due to seasonality. We did away with all mentions of luxury cabins and focused on making the cabins clean and comfortable.

We also tried to find things we could become an authority on. We decided on three tactics. First, we repositioned our resort as a family resort with activities enjoyable for everyone.

Second, our resort is in a unique spot for seeing the northern lights. We started pumping out content on our website about unique experiences, such as how to see the northern lights.

Northern Lights
Northern Lights from Birch Forest Lodge, photo courtesy of Adam Van Tassell

The third thing we did was we really focused on helping people catch fish. People visit a fishing lodge to catch fish. We worked to make sure they did just that. People want to brag about a fish when they catch one. We encouraged our guests to brag to us. We wanted to hear their stories. What tackle did they use? Where were they fishing? We then went out and tested their tactics ourselves. And the next week when people showed up we gave them the info needed to find fish.

After a while, we took this a step further and set up a whole YouTube channel all about fishing. Now, people could watch weekly fishing reports and “how to” videos before they even showed up. This tactic also doubled down as it significantly improved our search engine optimization due to the frequent updates on fishing content.

Tell us about your team.

Our team is our family. I handle the marketing, grounds keeping, and marina operations. My wife manages the books, the gift shop, and the cabin cleaning schedule. In the winter, we work together to make the shirts and hoodies we sell in the gift shop. We literally print the clothing we sell.

On Saturdays, we bring in a small cleaning crew to help us clean all the cabins. We do have three kids, and they all work at the resort with us. Our daughter is 16, and she has been a leader with the cabin cleaners for three years now. She is a fantastic worker. Our oldest son is now 13 and works at the marina with me. He helps keep boats clean and collects the garbage at the cabins. He also helps me with the fishing as a part-time guide and also does the video recording and editing of our fishing videos. Our youngest is seven, and he “helps” however he can!

Van Tassell family
Photo courtesy of Adam Van Tassell

What are your future plans for the business?

We are just about finished with our latest cabin addition. When we bought the business, there were 11 lodging rentals, 3 boats, and no gift shop. We now have 14 lodging rentals, a busy gift shop, and 6 boat rentals. There is no space for anything else without diminishing the value of the existing experience. However, the resort is closed in the winter (after three years of losing money in the winter we shifted to operating in the summer only) and decided to branch out in the winters. 

Our first move was to purchase a small fishing lodge/jungle adventure resort in Belize in 2019. This was something we felt we could operate in the winters. We followed the same blueprint as the first two resorts. We found a small resort that was in a great location but had management problems. We negotiated a deal that allowed us to get a foot in the door and then came in, adjusted some policies, updated the marketing schema, and gave more attention to customers.

This went well for a while, right up to the point that Belize closed its borders because of the Covid-19 pandemic. We decided to keep our staff employed and were ready when the border reopened a year later. However, the tourists didn’t immediately return, and after two years of almost no customers, we were approached by someone interested in leasing the property from us. In January of 2022, we stepped down as operators of Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize. 

We recognized that due to the global pandemic, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of small business operators in the fishing industry alone that were struggling to recover from the pandemic. We already had a small YouTube channel about fishing. And I travel in the winter, usually to fish. So we started recording our fishing trips and editing them into fishing videos.

Now, we use those fishing videos to help small fishing outfitters connect to fishermen here in the US. We also continue to use the fishing channel to promote the fishing on our lake. The channel is still quite small, but it is growing, and we love making fishing videos. We’ll see where this goes…

What are your favorite books, blogs, podcasts, or YouTube channels?

When I don’t want to focus on business, my favorite books are the Stormlight series by Brandon Sanderson.

My favorite business books are:

My favorite YouTube channel is my own, Crazy Good Fishing.

How did you make the transition from side hustle to full-time?

Making the leap from a side business to a full-time venture was extremely scary. We relied on my income as a sales engineer in a software firm. We had a young family and needed the income to pay bills and health insurance. But we knew that if we weren’t “all in,” we’d never differentiate ourselves from our competition, and we wanted to stand out, not blend in.

We did spend the first year with me working full time. But as the business started to grow, we weaned me away from working for someone else. We made a lot of sacrifices during those first years. We never ate out. We didn’t go on a vacation. If something broke, we looked up a video on YouTube and fixed it ourselves.

We had an older truck and drove it. The air conditioning didn’t work, but the engine did, so we drove it. We simply ran lean.

An example of this is our in-house manufacturing. We built out a small gift shop in the lodge but struggled finding good apparel to sell that was unique and at a price point we could afford. Kasey’s family owned and operated a small silkscreen and embroidery business back in Utah. We traveled back to Utah that winter to visit, and while we were there, we spent hundreds of hours designing hoodie and t-shirt designs. Then, we ordered blanks and printed them ourselves.

This allowed us to control our inventory and also to keep our prices at a point where we could sell the items at a targeted margin. Those first few years were really tough, but they taught us a ton, and we’ve never looked back.

Sunset at Birch Forest Lodge
Sunset at Birch Forest Lodge, photo courtesy of Adam Van Tassell

What was the turning point when you knew your business was successful?

When we realized we went from “how do we find people to where do we put all these people,” we knew we were going to be successful. This happened when we realized we needed to add another lodging unit. We were starting to lose people because we didn’t have enough units. Then a couple of years later, we had to add another. And then two years ago, we added another. 

How much traffic does your website receive, and what are your primary sources?

Our business is very seasonal. During our busy season we receive 3000 to 5000 visitors a month. During the slow season, we get 1000 to 1500 visitors a month. Most of our traffic is now from organic searches. Nine years ago, we only had three keywords that ranked on the first page of Google. They were variations of our business name. Now we have over 100 keywords ranking, with dozens on the first page of a Google search query. 

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned growing the business?

Don’t lose sight of why you wanted to be in business. Years ago, we bought our first fishing lodge. I wanted to be outside, serve people who are vacationing with friends and family, teach my kids to work and to spend time with family in the outdoors.

For a couple of years, it was everything I wanted it to be. But then I started to be bothered by social media posts from people I knew and some I didn’t know. They would post pictures of things they bought, and I started to worry I wasn’t successful enough because I didn’t have some of the “things” they did. Rather than focus on being grateful for having everything I dreamed of, I began to worry that I didn’t have things that others dreamed of. After a couple of years of this bothering me, I made a regrettable change in my approach to our business, and we lost the company. 

When we bought Birch Forest Lodge, I vowed not to lose sight of my goals. But I almost did. This time for the opposite reasons. I worked so hard, made sure that everything at the lodge was working, and was always there if anyone needed anything. But my passion was being outside in nature, spending time with my family and fishing. But all I did with my family was work.

One day, I overheard my oldest son telling a guest that his dad valued work more than spending time with him. I stopped and listened to the exchange. My 8-year-old son wanted to go fishing with me. But I was too busy working. He didn’t even want to ask me to go fishing anymore because he knew I would say I was too busy working. To make matters worse, he saw dads taking their kids fishing every day. I was crushed when I heard this innocent conversation. I was so worried about losing another business that I had forgotten why I was doing this. 

After a long, restless night, I asked my son the next day if he wanted to go fishing. He was ecstatic. I was worried the customers staying at the resort would be upset if they saw me fishing rather than working. So we tried to slip out discreetly. Well, several customers saw us go fishing, and each commented that they were glad to see us actually enjoy doing what we were selling. They also really appreciated the improved fishing reports and tips we gave them.

We started fishing more (a couple of hours a week), and all our guests responded positively to the improved fishing advice we gave them. Since then, that same son and I have launched our YouTube channel on fishing, and not only do we enjoy doing that together, but the business has grown because people know we genuinely love to fish and will help them catch fish.

What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome?

External factors are the biggest issues we deal with. We’ve dealt with government closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic, natural disasters, government shutdowns over budget impasses and more. When we have an internal problem, we can step back and work for a solution. When the government says you are shut down, well you’re shut down.

Anything internal can be overcome. External problems are sometimes unsolvable. You can only wait. But even then, you can work on your end to make sure you are ready so that when the external problem is resolved, you are at the front of the line to accept business.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

  • Learn what you can control. Focus on that. Only on that. 
  • Don’t be afraid to show your passion. If you go into business because you love doing something, don’t be afraid your customers who love doing the same thing will know you genuinely love doing it.
  • Know what you aren’t good at doing. Either work to get better at those things or find good, positive people to do those things. Either way, the job has to be done right.
  • Don’t over promise. Keep your promises simple. Focus on amazing people with the delivery. If done correctly, your customers will brag about your work plenty. 

What is your favorite quote?

There is no such thing as luck, merely opportunity meeting preparedness

George Patton

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