Sandy Mace counts her RV park as one of the fortunate ones. Mace said Villa Alameda RV Resort is small for a Yuma, Ariz., park at about 300 spaces, but it managed to hold steady for the winter visitor season – nearly full for the most part, in fact. According to a report by the Yuma Sun, she’s heard around her RV park peers, though, that wasn’t the case for everybody.
“We were one of the luckier ones,” said Mace, an office manager at Villa Alameda.
She’s certainly appreciative of the turnout – “We have no complaints.” But she’s noticed something that’s been trending lately: earlier farewells. Although Easter, a common season-closer for many, came at the end of March this year, Mace has seen people leaving for their northern homes sooner for at least the past couple of years, and she’s not sure why.
“I cannot believe all the people that have left this early in the year.”
It was a similar story at another smaller park, OG RV Resort Park. Manager Debbie Saunders said her 146-space community doesn’t have high turnover. (She credits word-of-mouth, resident-led activities and roomier individual spaces.) So while it’s quiet now, at the peak of the season she was at 100%.
“We were completely full. I was turning away people,” she said.
But Saunders was also hearing that not every park was as packed. RVers coming by to check out the park said they found other parks with more empty pads than usual. And Saunders, too, has noticed for a few years now that people are headed to their summer homes sooner.
“Folks, especially our Canadian friends, are not staying quite as long as they could,” said Saunders, who is herself a seasonal resident from Washington state and has been at OG for eight seasons. She’s headed back north in May.
“Most seasons end about mid-April or so, but a lot of them are going home now by the end of March.”
According to Yuma Stats, RV park occupancy was at least slightly down for the 2012-2013 winter visitor season.
In January and February, when part-timers historically reach their zenith, the parks were only about 81% and 86% full, respectively. In January 2012, the parks were 85% full; in February of last year, they were at about 91%. That’s out of about 15,000 spaces around the region.
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There already have been sightings of vehicles in Yuma, Ariz., with out-of-state license plates from places like Washington, Oregon and other northern climes.
They herald the start of the annual winter season, when thousands of people from up North migrate to Yuma to bask in the sunshine, preferring shuffleboard for their activity of choice over shoveling snow, the Yuma Sun reported.
Last winter, slightly more than 80,000 winter visitors descended on Yuma. That’s fewer than in some years but still a big temporary increase to Yuma’s population and an infusion of an estimated $600 million to the local economy, Jon Heidrich told the audience at the Oct. 18 meeting of Know Yuma Inside and Out.
Heidrich, who owns and operates Shangri-La RV Resort with his family, was one of the speakers for the monthly business forum that focuses on various elements of the local economy.
The typical winter visitor is a retired blue-collar worker or farmer coming to the Southwest to get out of the cold, Heidrich said.
“We fondly refer to them as the Old Guard. They’re happy to get a reasonable place to stay and sunshine.”
But things are changing, he said.
“We’re seeing the front end of the baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1965. There’s 78 million of them … 35% of the U.S. adult population. It’s a huge segment.”
And they’re reaching retirement age by the millions every year. As they do, they want it all, Heidrich said.
They want a busy and active lifestyle from swimming and tai chi, to hiking and scuba diving. They want to be entertained and they’re very much into volunteering, Heidrich said.
And if you think shuffleboard is a game for the “Old Guard,” think again, he said. Four couples who stay at Shangri-La helped put on an international shuffleboard tournament in Seattle that drew people from 11 countries, with a whole division for those 17 and younger.
The challenge for Yuma is how to attract the emerging winter visitors to Yuma and then get them to stay, Heidrich said. They’re on the Internet, and a Facebook presence is a must for park owners, he said. And good service is key.
“The first thing,” said Mac McCann, director of operations for Palms RV Resort, “is get to know your customer. The ‘boomerbird’ is different from the ‘snowbird’ with their demands and expectations.”
They have every intention of enjoying their retirement, and many of them are getting a head start with long vacations in the cold winter months, he said.
They’re also a more affluent group. McCann noted that last year, 50% of the Palms RV residents were in motorhomes valued from $150,000 to $2 million.
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Winter visitors seem to be staying longer in Casa Grande, Ariz., this season, partially because high gas prices have kept them from moving around, TriValleyCentral.com reported.
According to three RV park managers in Casa Grande, located between Phoenix and Tucson, a number of factors are contributing to the prolonged stay of some.
“I’ve noticed a lot more people are staying longer,” said Sally Johnson, manager of Sundance 1 RV Resort on Thornton Road. “I’d say the cause is that gas prices are getting up there and the weather here is much nicer than back home.”
Wendell Johnson, general manager of Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort, agreed, saying, “Our longer stays are up 20% this year. They seem to be coming for longer periods of time — three to five months.”
Johnson attributed this phenomenon to rising gasoline prices and residents of his park embracing the community. “RVers are used to moving around and staying different places,” he said. “But gas has prohibited that this year. They seem to be staying here longer instead.
“One of the reasons our residents come to Casa Grande is for the small-town feel,” Johnson said. “The longer they stay, the more they become a part of the community.”
Casita Verde RV Resort manager Kathy Wallick noted that the Canadian visitors in her park — which she said is roughly half — are the most active. “The Canadians are great,” she said. “They want to be a part of everything in the park and in the community.”
The sense of community among winter visitors has been a growing trend, said Greater Casa Grande Chamber of Commerce CEO Helen Neuharth. “Our winter residents support our local businesses by spending money here, but they also have an overwhelming sense of community. They have been volunteering at the chamber more and more.”
Wallick said that while gas prices may be affecting winter visitors who come out in RVs, the media coverage has been making it worse. “Yes, the prices are going up, but when you hear about it all the time it just keeps reminding everyone.”
What worries Wallick, she said, is if the prices continue to rise. “What I’m concerned about is if the gas goes up as high as they say it will — up to $5 per gallon — what next season will be like.”
RV parks and resorts in popular snowbird destinations across Arizona are reporting occupancies consistent with last winter’s figures, with some parks experiencing slight increases in occupancies over last winter.
“I think that, if anything, we see a little comeback in the economy. Even 1 or 2 percentage points is a little bit of a boost in the economy,” said Jo Ann Mickelson, executive director of the Arizona Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.
“We are having a very good year,” said Jim Beach, general manager of National Mobile Development, which owns the 1,800-site Mesa Spirit RV Resort in Mesa. “Our reservations were up 2% to 3%, but my sense is we’re up a little bit more than our reservations told us we were.”
Wendell Johnson, general manager of the 1,863-site Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort in Casa Grande, said his occupancies are also up. “I would say that right now we’re about 3% over last year, and we had one of our best years last year,” Johnson said. He added that Palm Creek will be filled to capacity or very close to it by the middle of February. “That’s when we hit our maximum,” he said.
Saundra Bryn, who operates Desert’s Edge RV Village in Phoenix, said her business has also been trending upward in recent years, though last year was especially busy at her park because her winter snowbirds were supplemented by insurance adjusters, roof and dent repair specialists who spent several months at her park after the city experienced a major hailstorm.
Further south, winter business levels are also in sync with last winter’s figures at the two Rincon Country RV Parks in Tucson, according to park operator George O’Leary. He added that the winter snowbird business remains strong in southern Arizona, particularly at parks that are continuing to improve their facilities and amenities.
Parks in the Yuma area are also having a good winter, including Rolle’s Lynda Vista RV Park. “Things are busy,” said park manager Ruth Conti. “I haven’t had a cancellation in years.”
Mickelson, for her part, owns J and H RV Park in Flagstaff. But even though northern Arizona is in the midst of winter’s grip, she’s already receiving reservations for the coming summer.
“I’m having lots of reservations and inquiries coming in every day now,” she said. “That’s a good sign. That’s what we want. I feel people are thinking about what they want to do, whether it’s for the winter months or the summer.”
For more information about winter business levels at RV parks and resorts in Arizona, contact Mickelson at the Arizona Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, at (602) 493-6196. The association is the Arizona affiliate of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, the national voice of the outdoor hospitality industry. Visit their respective websites at www.gocampinginarizona.com and www.gocampingamerica.com.