By anyone’s standards, 2009 has been a tough year for the U.S. economy.
But while most Americans have tightened their budgets in response to job losses, difficulties obtaining credit or simply because of economic uncertainties, campgrounds and RV parks have remained economically resilient, according to a news release from the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC).
“We are very grateful for the level of business we’ve had,” said Jayne Cohen, president of Adventure Bound Camping Resorts in Center Harbor, N.H., which owns and operates nine RV resorts in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Arizona. “When we closed down our November numbers, we were even with last year in revenue.”
That’s a significant accomplishment, Cohen said, not only in this economy, but given the fact that most of her company’s parks are located in areas that suffered unusually cold and wet weather last summer. “We strongly feel that if we had not had bad weather, we would have been ahead of last year’s figures,” she said.
Most of the nation’s campgrounds, in fact, reported business levels that were stable or slightly ahead of last year’s figures, and most private park operators expect their business levels to remain steady or experience continued growth next year.
“I’m very optimistic and very grateful for how we finished out this year,” said Mark D. Anderson, president of Camp Chautauqua Camping Resort in Stow, N.Y. “Our reservations are looking very good for next year. We’re already just about full for Fourth of July weekend. And to be almost full at this time of year is pretty good.”
Across the country, Harriette Groth of SunBasin RV Park in Ephrata, Wash., said she is already receiving reservations for Memorial Day weekend next year. “Two groups have already called in for reservations for Memorial Day weekend. We feel that’s encouraging,” she said.
David L. Berg, ARVC chairman, said he is also optimistic about the level of consumer interest in camping next year. “I think we’re looking across the country to an improved camping season next year,” he said. “The state of the affairs of our economy has not hurt the camping business at all.”
Revenues at Berg’s own park – Red Apple Campground in Kennebunkport, Maine. – were up 8.5% this year, compared to last year, and Berg expects the upward trend to continue.
“Our reservations for next year are at least as strong right now as they were a year ago,” said Jim Ozburn of Falcon Meadow RV Campground in Falcon, Colo. “I really think the camping business is going to get better. As long as gasoline and fuel behave, those who do the most traveling will still do it.”
Ozburn added that he, too, is already receiving reservation requests for next year, which he finds encouraging.
Carolyn Strong, co-owner of Sundermeier RV Park and Conference Center in St. Charles, Mo., is also receiving reservations for next year, including reservations from large rally groups. “We had a tremendous increase in business this year,” she said, adding that as of mid-December her park was already running about 10% ahead of its business levels in both 2007 and 2008.
Some Sunbelt parks are also reporting strong reservation levels for this coming winter. “Right now, we just finished the best November we’ve ever had, and our advance bookings from now through March are probably 20% over last year,” said Doug Shearer, who opened Parkview Riverside RV Park in Concan, Texas, in 2001. He expects this winter to be the best winter season he’s ever had.
Some park operators remain cautious, however.
Bruce Aljets, who owns Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resort in Sioux Falls, S.D., experienced a 17% jump in business this year, despite the recession. “I don’t know what to expect next year,” he said. “Being in South Dakota, we generally lag behind the rest of the country. But I’m going to hope for the best.”
Cohen of Adventure Bound Camping Resorts, for her part, said her company is optimistic but cautious about the future. “We’re very enthusiastic and we’re very pleased with the results of this year. But we’re not taking anything for granted, either.”
The New Hampshire state budget leaves few happy campers.
The $11.6 billion plan, which the Legislature may finalize Wednesday, imposes the meals and rooms tax on campsites for the first time. It also increases the tax rate from 8% to 9%.
Campers and campground owners rallied today at the State House against the tax, which was quietly added to the budget last week, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester.
“Nobody comes and makes our bed. We make our own,” said Emily Laplante, a retiree from Jacob Brook Campground in Orford. “Nobody cooks our meals.”
Owners from around the state said the tax extension is unfair and hurts people who cannot afford it.
“You’re not being very transparent by sneaking it in,” said Scott Christophers, owner and operator of Seven Maples, a 125-site campground in Hancock. “We as campground owners do not supply meals or rooms.”
Others question how it will be implemented, and how far-reaching it might be, such as tax applicability to campers at or around New Hampshire Motor Speedway during busy race weekends.
It hurts campers and property owners, who are already suffering from a bad economy and a wet spring, said Jayne Cohen, president of Adventure Bound Camping Resorts, and owner of Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in New Hampton.
“It feels almost like the world’s coming to an end, to be honest,” Cohen said. “To me it goes against what New Hampshire’s all about.”
Cohen questions how it would be implemented, given that some campgrounds have no had to collect the tax for the state, and the New Hampshire fiscal year begins July 1. And what about campers who have already paid for sites this summer? “Now what do we do? Are they exempt if they’ve already paid for it?”
Gregg Pitman, executive director of the New Hampshire Campground Owners Association, had a scheduled meeting Sunday with state Revenue Commissioner Kevin A. Clougherty to try to answer some of those questions. One he hears often, if campers have paid, do owners have to eat the tax?
“We’d like to see the Legislature vote this budget down and get back to work on it,” Pitman said.
It would put many campgrounds on a competitive disadvantage, he said. The New Hampshire Campground Owners Association has about 155 public and private members; the association also promotes New Hampshire state parks and state campgrounds.
State campgrounds would be affected by the tax extension, but not federal campgrounds, according to Pitman.
Campgrounds with cabins already collect the meals and rooms tax for the state.
The budget bill defines “hotel” as sleeping accommodations for rent, with the term including cabins, dormitories, lodges, private clubs, cottages, barracks, camps and now campsites.
Pitman said the tax change would especially hurt seasonal campsites, where customers pay anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 for a long-term site.
A new 9% tax would hit these seasonal campers with another $270 in tax, said Dave Mankus, owner of Lake Forest RV Resort in East Wakefield. He owns and manages 130 seasonal sites, many of which are frequented by retirees who have already seen their savings depleted by the economy.
“It could be the last straw,” he said. “These people will just stay home.”
Mankus said he was mystified at the state lawmakers for rushing the tax imposition out without a public hearing or any notification for campground owners.
Members of the Legislature have struggled all year with overcoming a budget deficit for the two-year budget.
Senate President Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord, said Friday that the budget is “fiscally responsible, reflecting the very difficult economic times we are in.”
The budget plan will result in the layoff of about 200 state employees, potential furloughs, and cuts in numerous programs. Further changes include closure of the Lakes Region prison, a requirement for retirees under 65 to contribute to their health coverage, and a freeze on travel and equipment purchases.
Christophers, at Seven Maples, said campground owners appreciate the difficulty of state budgeting in this economy. What irks him, he said, is the legislative spin. “They are presenting this budget as ‘no new taxes,’ ” he said. “This is a new tax.”