More snowbirds are rolling down to Southwest Florida in a winter house-on-wheels this year, providing a boost to area RV resorts and campgrounds idled by the recession.
According to the Bradenton Herald, it’s still not quite like the boom days, when reservations were needed a year in advance and visitors would stay for the entire spring. But with Florida in the midst of its peak tourism season, RV resorts say business is accelerating.
Many snowbirds are coming down with no notice. Others are splitting time between resorts in different parts of the state.
The trend has been driven by Baby Boomers, more spontaneous and energetic than full-time retirees, who now are catching up on the trips postponed during the downturn.
“We’re definitely seeing an uptick,” said Bobby Cornwell, executive director of the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds. “The parks really rely on winter season to get them through slow times. Luckily, the snowbirds and Baby Boomers are coming.”
Cornwell said tentative consumers, still wary of the economy, have changed their travel habits. They’re not taking those extended stays at luxury hotels, and that bodes well for Florida — especially RV resorts along the Gulf.
The state’s 800 RV parks are coming off two years where occupancy held relatively steady around 60%, according to the association.
Park operators predict rates this year to climb closer to 80% for high season, which generally runs from late January to Easter.
Most of the snowbirds are driving their RVs from Canada and the Great Lake states, with about 5 million RV campers expected to visit Florida in 2012 — lifting revenues at gas stations, attractions and restaurants.
Weather trends both here and up north also will play a deciding factor in that tally, said Pat Vamora, spokeswoman for Equity LifeStyle Properties, which owns 180 resorts across the country, including 10 between Manatee and Sarasota counties.
“We’ve seen some strong activity in our Sunbelt states,” Vamora said. “It’s still an affordable option for a customer coming from the East Coast who doesn’t want to endure that winter.”
The recession forced many of the industry’s mom and pop operations to close, with mega corporations buying out the small players. But those companies have reinvested in new amenities, which has actually brought more RV travelers to Florida.
Carefree RV Resorts, which operates 28 parks in the state, including three in Manatee, has seen monthly RV site rentals grow 4% from the same time last year, said David Napp, the company’s CEO.
The trend is mostly consistent throughout the 28 registered parks in Manatee-Sarasota area.
“Things are picking up a little bit, and we’re hoping each year gets better,” said Sharon Chastain, property manager at the Winter Quarters Manatee RV Resort in Bradenton. “It’s not the same snowbird season we had eight years ago. We’re filling up, but not to the point where we’re parking people everywhere to squeeze them in.”
Interest in RVs is growing among baby boomers nearing retirement. Many are renting a rig first to test the waters. Lending also has become more accesible for those intrested in buying.
Generally the larger parks that offer more activities and amenities have seen the strongest rebound, with business at its best along the state’s West Coast, said Tim Deputy, general manager of the Sun-N-Fun Resort and Campground in Sarasota.
Sun-N-Fun has seen a 20% increase in RV site rentals and a 27% jump in park model rentals from a year ago. The resort is fully booked for February and March, Deputy said.
He attributes the gains largely to the resort’s new indoor pool and workout room. Improvements in the economy haven’t hurt.
“It’s definitely a good season,” Deputy said. “This time of year snowbirds are the business. The whole industry has seen an increase.”