Three blasts from the air horn signaled the last of many goodbyes. With that, as reported by the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press, the 40-foot motor home with Bill and Marsha Rowe and German wirehaired pointers Dieter and Gretchen lumbered away. Destination: New Boston, southwest of Detroit.
“We’re all leaving: It’s just a matter of time,” said Dick Werning, a neighbor of the Rowes at San Carlos RV Park near Fort Myers Beach.
Werning and the Rowes are Southwest Florida snowbirds — that human species who help make the local economy purr between November and April.
This month, improving weather, family and business ties beckon them north. It’s a bittersweet time for many snowbirds — and for the local businesses who count on their dollars during “season.”
The week following Easter also marks the beginning of the end for local tourism’s “high season,’ when visitor demand is highest and hotel rates peak.
At stake: In Lee County, a $2.4 billion-a-year local industry that employs almost 43,000 people. In Collier County, a $1.4 billion industry accounting for an estimated 32,300 jobs.
By all accounts, Southwest Florida had a slam-dunk good season. Business leaders credit improving consumer confidence, decent weather here — and bouts of bitter temperatures in New England and the Midwest.
“Season started early, and stayed strong,” said Gary Locke, operations director for SunStream Hotels & Resorts’ six properties in Lee and Collier counties.
“We had an extraordinary amount of group business. And, our leisure business was up considerably over last year,” said Hunter Hansen, managing director of the Waldorf Astoria Naples.
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Recreational vehicle parks are now allowed in Cape Coral, Fla., paving the way for a nearly 200-acre luxury RV resort.
The Fort Myers News-Press reported that the Cape Coral City Council voted Monday (March 12) to establish a land use classification for the parks and set the minimum guidelines for projects. In August, council directed the city manager to draft the necessary changes to the city’s land use regulations to make the parks possible and Monday’s ordinance put them into effect.
The only RV park in the pipeline is The Resort at Tranquility Lake, a 188-acre site off Burnt Store Road. The proposed resort, estimated to cost between $27 million and $30 million, will feature 250 lodging sites — down from 330 — an 87-acre lake, several pools, restaurants, a clubhouse and spa, mini golf, dog parks and other recreational options, some of which will be open to the public, according to developers.
Cliff Repperger, vice president of Avalon Engineering, said the site will draw the attention of RV enthusiasts across the country.
“I’ll put a lot of publicity on Cape Coral, a lot of RV people, a lot of RV magazines and everything,” Repperger said. “They’ll be focusing on Cape Coral. So I’m expecting big things.”
To avoid smaller, less-desirable parks, council members adopted several proposed changes to the ordinance Monday, including a minimum size of 75 acres and a maximum lodging time of six months.
Council members also confirmed the project had, in fact, changed its name from The Resort at Burnt Store Lake to avoid potential mix-ups by emergency workers because of a community in south Charlotte County named Burnt Store Lakes.
Resident Rick Williams, who lives on Old Burnt Store Road, said the project provides a nice contrast to other recent developments.
“It’s a good example of moving on from the gas stations and convenience stores that seem to be popping up here,” Williams said.
The Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds raised more than $16,000 in its annual fundraising auction Wednesday (May 9) night, which took place during the half-way point of the association’s 2012 Conference and Expo.
Proceeds from the auction will be used to pay for the association’s scholarship fund and educational programs, said Bobby Cornwell, executive director of Florida ARVC, which is holding its annual conference at the Shores Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach.
According to a press release, about 70 representatives from 42 parks in Florida, Alabama and South Carolina were participating in the event along with representatives from 28 companies that provide products and services to the campground industry.
Wednesday’s activities included Florida ARVC’s annual business meeting and an election of board members and officers. Officers selected for one-year terms include Chairman Pat O’Neill of Camping on the Gulf in Destin; Vice Chairman Tim Deputy of Sun-N-Fun RV Resort in Sarasota; Treasurer Chris Long of the Central Park of Haines City; Secretary Don Hilgeman of Lake Waldena Resort in Silver Springs; with Bob Little of Flamingo Lake RV Resort in Jacksonville as immediate past chairman.
Board members elected to three-year terms included O’Neill of Camping on the Gulf, representing the northwest; Ed Schneider of Ocean Grove RV Resort in St. Augustine Beach, representing the northeast; John Parkhurst of Holiday Travel Resort in Orlando, representing the central region; and Carl Ludecke of Olde Mill Stream RV Resort in Umatilla, who will serve as an at-large representative from the central east area. Ray Seigneurie of Newby Management was also elected as a representative for Florida’s southeast region.
Silvana Clark provided an entertaining keynote presentation highlighting some of the things campground owners can learn from reality TV shows, while Jeff Crider, ARVC’s publicist, provided a seminar on how to get your park into the news. An exhibitor reception and trade show also took place in late afternoon.
Jeff Sims, who heads up ARVC’s state relations and program advocacy, served as the auctioneer for Wednesday night’s auction, which took place before a dinner and live music on the top floor of the Shores Resort & Spa.
Today’s activities include a morning tradeshow and several educational seminars, including “Managing the Millennials as Employees,” by Silvana Clark; an update on federal labor laws in Florida, by William Richardson, Jr. of the U.S. Department of Labor; and a presentation by John Barron of GravityFree titled “Making sense of Internet marketing.” A conference luncheon was also scheduled with group discussions, a legislative update and question and answer session.
Based in Tallahassee, the Florida ARVC represents 380 parks in Florida and 18 in Alabama.
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.”
As Florida heads into its peak winter season, many RV parks and resorts are reporting growing numbers of snowbirds who are showing up at the last minute without reservations, while others are splitting their time between resorts in different parts of the state.
“The Baby Boomers are coming now,” said Lynda Phelps, owner of Up River RV Resort in Fort Myers. And unlike snowbirds of years past, who would book sites for the whole season, Phelps said Boomers are more likely to book campsites at the last minute, often calling from the road.
“They are more tentative, probably because they are just getting their feet wet” in seeing what Florida has to offer, she said.
But even if they only make a reservation for one night, Phelps finds that her winter guests often wind up staying for a week or more, once they get an idea of her park’s amenities, which include a heated swimming pool and spa; a 9-hole non regulation golf course; tennis; bocce ball; and fishing and kayaking along the Caloosahatchee River.
Even though today’s winter visitors are more spontaneous, Phelps said her winter business levels are strong. “Our business is up over last year,” she said. “We’re having a good season.”
Tim Deputy, general manager of Sun N Fun RV Resort in Sarasota, said his business is way up from last year’s figures, with a 20% increase in RV site rentals and a 27% increase in park model rentals. He said the park is “fully booked” for February and March.
He attributed the increase in part to the resort’s new indoor pool and wellness center, which was completed in time for the winter season. “It’s just insane,” Deputy said. “I’ve never seen so many people working out in the resort.”
John Parkhurst, manager of Holiday Travel Resort in Orlando, said occupancies at the 935-site park are consistent with last winter’s figures, though he is also experiencing a large influx of snowbirds who show up at his park without reservations. “We’re getting people who are staying longer,” he said. “They come in for a month and they stay longer.”
Carefree RV Resorts, which operates 28 resorts in Florida, is seeing growing demand for RV site rentals this winter.
While the company’s daily/weekly and monthly occupancies are flat this month compared to last January, daily/weekly and monthly RV site rentals are up 3% and 4%, respectively, in February, said David Napp, the company’s CEO.
Across Florida, business levels appear to be strongest along the West Coast, with parks in other areas of the state reporting business levels that are either flat or slightly down from last winter’s figures, said Bobby Cornwell, executive director of the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.
Chris Long, a general manager and partner at Central Park of Haines City, said occupancies are down 3% to 4% at his park this winter, which he attributes in part to “jumpers,” snowbirds who split the winter in different parks to see what the different regions of Florida have to offer.
But while his overall occupancies are down this winter, Long is seeing exceptionally strong demand for park model rentals at his park. “Either they have an RV and gave it up or they want to try it before they buy a park model or another RV,” he said, adding, “The rental market is strong.”
Bill Harvey, who owns and operates Cross Creek RV Resort in Arcadia, said his business is about 6% ahead of last winter’s figures. “The activity is very strong,” he said.
For more information about winter business levels at RV parks and resorts in Florida, please contact Bobby Cornwell at the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, at (850) 562-7151. The association is the Florida affiliate of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, the national voice of the outdoor hospitality industry. Visit their respective websites at www.campflorida.com and www.gocampingamerica.com.