The recreational park trailer segment of the RV industry took its hits just like traditional RV builders during the Great Recession. And its recovery may take a bit longer than the mainstream towable market.
That’s according to William Garpow, executive director of the Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association (RPTIA), who says park models’ customer base is the cause.
”The reason is, our particular consumer is 55 to 70 years of age,” Garpow told RVBUSINESS.com. ”They are facing retirement and their 401(k) took a 35% dip and their house dropped 30% in value. They haven’t got the time to make back the dollars they had before they retire.
”As a consequence, they still may want to get into a park trailer, but they have to do everything they can to build their nest egg while they are still working.”
Garpow reported that shipments of park trailers reached a high of about 12,000 units in 2006 before falling to about 6,0000 units last year. ”Still, that wasn’t as bad as other segments of the industry and now 20% of what we lost has come back,” he said. ”But it’s slow and gradual.”
One thing going for park trailer dealers during the economic turbulence, Garpow said, was that most weren’t under pressure from lenders to bring down large inventories. ”Park trailers traditionally are not inventoried,” he said. ”The products that we are shipping are custom built, so we weren’t affected by that.”
He said RPTIA, with headquarters in the Atlanta suburb of Newnan, Ga., ”hasn’t lost any significant number of manufacturers,” during the downturn and that business right now ”is steady and it seems to be fairly decent.”
A factor working in favor of the park trailer segment’s recovery is an emphasis on adding park models as rental units at rates several times higher than those charged for regular campground sites by Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), Jellystone franchiser Leisure Systems Inc. and other parks.
”We identified this has a very strong potential market about 15 years ago,” Garpow said. ”The rental part has really come alive in the last three or four years.”
For campgrounds in designated rural areas that want to expand their park model inventory, Garpow said the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a viable source of guaranteed financing.
Earlier this summer, Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) CEO Jim Rogers visited with leaders in Washington, D.C., who share his interest in improving America’s outdoor recreation.
Roger’s message: KOA’s nearly half-century of camping, guest service and outdoor recreation experience is a valuable resource for our country’s public agencies and their guests. Rogers believes that a collaborative effort between public agencies and the private sector is a necessary step toward achieving national outdoor recreation and healthy lifestyle goals, according to a KOA news release.
Rogers’ meetings in the nation’s capital were held to increase dialog about potential ways to enhance the outdoor recreation experience across America and are an example of KOA’s goals to provide families with fun, healthy and memorable outdoor recreation experiences.
“KOA is looking for public recreation and park leaders who want to share campground management expertise to add revenue-generating features and better services for campers,” said Rogers. “KOA has been sharing its campground management learnings and innovations for nearly 50 years. And, considering the significant future challenges for public campground funding, it seems appropriate for us to reach out to our public sector partners to discuss ways we can work together.”
“At KOA, we look at trends, such as the leisure activities of the Baby Boomer generation and we are investigating ways to engage America’s fast-growing, ethnic populations in outdoor activities. We’re optimistic that 44% of campers today are planning to get outdoors and go camping more in the near future. Both public and private outdoor recreation proponents can plan wisely, to give outdoor enthusiasts what they’re looking for and motivate others to get outside,” said Rogers.
Rogers shared several of KOA’s key strategies for engaging people in outdoor activities, including: connecting with youth; keeping programs simple, low-cost and fun; creating experiences that people remember and want to repeat; and using innovative technologies to help connect people with the outdoors.
Rogers met with key staffer James Hague, of Sen. Mark Udall’s, D-Colo., office. Udall is co-chairman of the bipartisan Senate Outdoor Recreation Caucus, which promotes healthy, active lifestyles and fosters an appreciation of America’s outdoors, through many outdoor activities, including camping.
The message for U.S. states and public agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is that KOA continues to demonstrate successful strategies for engaging families in outdoor recreation and that KOA’s private sector experience can be a valuable resource for public agencies with parallel goals.
Rogers also met with former Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, a long-time champion of outdoor recreation, to discuss the importance of making recreation on public lands a national priority, again using the private sector model as a key resource for enhancing public programs by incorporating ways to provide better, guest-oriented service, among other methods.
Assisting Jim was Bruce Ward, who serves as a consultant to KOA. He is the former president of the American Hiking Society, founder and former executive director of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance and founder and president of Choose Outdoors, a coalition of outdoor recreation interests.
“Now, more than ever, it is critical we join forces to develop a 21st century vision for outdoor recreation in America,” said Ward. “The stakes are high: the literal and figurative health of our country is at great risk. We must step forward and work together toward substantive and innovative solutions to preserve and expand our recreation legacy.”
Rogers and Chris Fairlee, KOA assistant vice president of system development, will represent KOA at next week’s meeting of the National Association of State Park Directors in Santa Fe, N.M., where KOA is a sponsor. Rogers will speak about ways state parks can achieve sustainability through utilizing lessons learned by KOA in the camping business. KOA will share a booth at the meeting with the Boy Scouts of America, where Rogers is president of the Western Region and recent recipient of the group’s Silver Antelope Award.
Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) owners from throughout North America will be gathering in Savannah, Ga., Nov. 7-10 for KOA’s Annual International Convention – an event that will feature presentations from nationally known customer service experts, as well as plenty of fun.
“Getting together each year to learn and exchange great ideas is a big reason to be a KOA franchisee,” KOA CEO Jim Rogers stated in a news release. “No matter what you may be facing as an owner, it’s almost certain that you’ll be able to find another KOA owner who has experienced – and solved – the same issue.”
The 2010 KOA Convention is being held at the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort and Spa.
One of this year’s featured speakers is Fred Reichheld, founder of Bain’s Loyalty Practice and author of “The Ultimate Question – Driving Good Profits and True Growth.” Reichheld pioneered the business concept of Net Promotor Scores (NPS) whereby customers are asked their intent to return to a business, or refer that business to other customers.
This summer, for the first time, KOA owners have been supplied with Net Promoter Scores from their campers based on immediate results from “rate your stay” surveys. The scores and the surveys help owners identify and deal with service issues as they happen.
Also set to speak are customer service expert Ruby Newell-Legner and Carrie Stolar, a noted authority on combating childhood obesity and “nature deficit disorder.”
In a new convention event intended to give back to the host community, KOA owners will grab their shovels and boots for two “green” community projects. The first will be a project to develop wetlands trails along the Georgia coast, and the second will be a project to deposit oyster shells in oyster shell beds to improve the habitat.
“We want to demonstrate in a very real way KOA’s commitment not just to sustainable camping practices, but we want to give back to the communities we visit,” said KOA President Pat Hittmeier.
Also on the convention agenda is KOA’s popular KOA Workamper Job Fair, where KOA workampers from throughout North America will be able to meet one-on-one with prospective KOA owner/employers. One lucky participant in the job fair will win a free Apple Ipad.
On Nov. 8-9, KOA owners and staff will attend several learning sessions covering topics such as lodging best practices, social marketing for their campground, implementing sustainable “green” practices on campgrounds and e-mail marketing, to name just a few.
On Nov. 10 – the last day of the KOA convention – will feature the KOA Expo, where hundreds of campground suppliers and vendors will work with KOA owners to gear up for the 2011 camping season through the purchase of everything from a KOA Lodge to store supplies. That evening will end with the annual KOA Care Camps Auction. Each year, KOA owners support KOA Care Camps for children with cancer through a variety of fundraising events including the annual Convention Auction. Funds raised through the auction go directly to send children with cancer to one of 44 specialized summer camps throughout North America.
“This event is always a highlight of every year,” said Rogers. “It’s a great way to wrap up the summer camping season and get ready for both snowbird camping and the 2011 summer season.”
Year-to-date occupancies and revenues at campgrounds, RV parks and resorts through Labor Day weekend were generally consistent with last year’s figures, according to a news release from the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC).
“Private park operators are generally pleased with their performance this year,” said Linda Profaizer, ARVC president and CEO.
She added that parks that have invested in rental accommodations, such as park model cabins and cottages, have done particularly well.
The biggest exception, however, were parks along the Gulf Coast, many of which lost considerable summer business as a result of the BP oil spill and related media coverage.
Billings, Mont.-based Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), the nation’s largest campground chain with roughly 475 parks, said its year-to-date occupancies through Labor Day weekend were down 0.7%, while revenues rose 2.7%, according to Mike Gast, KOA’s vice president of communications.
The slight occupancy decline was largely due to weaker business levels last winter, while summer occupancies actually outpaced last summer’s figures by 2.5%, Gast said. He added that revenues for the company’s park model cabins and cottages, which KOA markets as “Kamping Lodges,” were up 27% over last year’s figures, which reflects both rising consumer demand for rental accommodations in campgrounds as well as a larger rental inventory.
Indeed, KOA and other campground chains have increasingly invested in park model cabins and other rental accommodations in recent years.
Milford, Ohio-based Leisure Systems Inc. (LSI), which franchises Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts, saw its year-to-date occupancies through August increase by 4%, while revenues grew by 3%, said company Vice President Dean Crawford. Demand for cabins and park models, however, grew by 13%, also reflecting increased demand and an increased inventory of units, he said.
Meanwhile, Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS), a Chicago-based Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) whose holdings include RV parks and resorts, said occupancies and revenues for its core RV properties were up 2.3% and 3.1%, respectively, through July, according to Ellen Kelleher, ELS’s executive vice president of property management.
Kelleher added that while occupancies for transient or traveling RVers fell by 3.3% during the period, revenues were up 3.3%. ELS also reported gains in seasonal and annual customers, up 15.3% and 2.1%, respectively, while revenues increased by 3.9% and 4.9%. The annual figures include occupancies and revenues from consumers who own park models at ELS parks, Kelleher said.
ELS also reported an 8.5% decline in park model rental occupancies through July, but this was because the company wound up selling many of its units to consumers who wanted to stay for extended periods of time at ELS resorts.
Across the country, several park operators and industry officials reported an exceptional summer camping season.
“We are showing an increase of 6% in business for 2010. This is our actual increase in site nights after subtracting for our annual rate increases,” said David L. Berg, who owns Red Apple Campground in Kennebunkport, Maine, in addition to serving as ARVC chairman.
Berg, whose park is affiliated with the Best Parks in America network, attributed much of the increase at his park to an unusually hot and dry summer in Maine. Berg also said many campers are taking more frequent trips, but for shorter periods of time. “I find folks making reservations at the last minute, or trying to get in when we often are sold out. Also they are not staying for week-long stays, but rather doing three- and four-day mini vacations and are getting away more often.”
Berg also said he has seen a large influx of tent campers this year, which he attributes to the economy. “I feel this is a win-win situation for all,” Berg said. “Customers get a reasonable priced vacation and we as an industry get new customers, who if they get the experience they are looking for, they will upgrade in time to a popup or RV of some sort down the road. This is an example of finding the silver lining in the tough times we are all in economically.”
But tent camping is also influenced by weather patterns.
KOA, for example, saw tent camping decline by 1.3% at its parks nationwide, Gast said. “Weather nationwide is probably the primary driver of that,” he said. “Inventory (tent sites) has been relatively stable for years.”
Other parks also saw significant business gains this year, including Misty River Cabins & RV Resort LLC, a Best Parks in America affiliate in Walland, Tenn., which saw its year-to-date business grow by 17%, according to park owner Jimmy Felton.
Castaways RV Resort and Campground in Berlin, Md. also saw double-digit growth during the summer season, with a 4% increase in business year-to-date, according to Kathleen Morris, the park’s general manager. Morris attributed the increased business in part to the warm dry summer on the East Coast.
Meanwhile, Crossroads RV Park in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, saw a 19% increase in year-to-date occupancies, said park owner Jeff Krug, who also serves as president of the Iowa Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds. Krug attributed the increase in part to the relative newness of his three-year-old overnight park, which more and more campers are discovering.
In California, Ron and Sheryl Culp of Green Acres RV Park in Redding said their year-to-date business was down 2.7% from last year, although their summer business was up 4.3% from a year ago.
A record number of children with cancer from all over North America will be enjoying summer camp next year thanks to the efforts of Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) owners and their campers.
Billings, Mont.-based KOA raised a record $378,232 from all sources during the May 14-15 Come Kamp & Care With Us Weekend event, according to a news release. During the sixth annual event, a record 57,000 campers received a free night of camping on Saturday just for staying as a paid guest on Friday, May 14.
“Our KOA owners across North America do a wonderful job creating fundraising activities for their campers and really pull out all of the stops to help raise funds for KOA Care Camps for children with cancer,” said KOA CEO Jim Rogers. KOA Care Camps is a network of 44 specialized summer camps located throughout North America that give children with cancer and their siblings a summer camping experience, while allowing them to continue their treatments and recovery. The camps are staffed with medical personnel and specially trained counselors. All donated funds go directly to operate the summer KOA Care Camps.
Next year’s KOA Come Kamp & Care With Us Weekend has already been scheduled for Friday and Saturday, May 13-14.
The event was created in 2004. That first year, about $30,000 was raised through donations to benefit KOA Care Camps.
“You can see how the May event and the ongoing charity efforts have grown over the years,” Rogers said. “Come Kamp & Care With Us Weekend has become a recognized ‘start of the summer camping season’ event for tens of thousands of camping families throughout North America.”
Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) saw a slight increase in Labor Day Weekend camping numbers, despite Hurricane Earl’s holiday visit to the Eastern U.S. and Canada.
KOA, the largest system of open-to-the-public family campgrounds in North America, saw a 0.4% increase in camping nights compared to Labor Day week figures from 2009, according to a news release.
“That’s a pretty significant accomplishment, when you consider that campgrounds from northern Florida to Nova Scotia were affected by Hurricane Earl at some point during the Labor Day weekend,” said KOA CEO Jim Rogers.
Kampgrounds of America has 475 locations throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Camping results have been strong throughout the summer, with a nearly 2.5% increase in camping nights projected between May and October, compared to the same period in 2009, comparing the same campgrounds in the system.
“This summer has been largely a repeat of what we experienced in 2009,” said Rogers. “North Americans are looking for a fun, affordable vacation alternative and our strong summer results over the past two years indicates that KOA camping meets that need.”
Top-ranking officials with Billings, Mont.-based Kampgrounds of America Inc. said at a Thursday night (Aug. 19) company picnic that the business is performing well, even through recent tough economic times, the Billings Gazette reported.
Oscar Tang, chairman of the holding company that owns KOA, said the company was hit hard at the beginning of the recession but made a quick recovery.
“We’ve done quite well in a very difficult economy,” he said. “It hit us hard in 2008 because of the price of gas, not only the price but how it rose to $4 a gallon so quickly. That was during the height of our season, in August and September. But in 2009, when the economy was at its worst, we were strong.”
KOA runs nearly 500 franchise campgrounds in North America, including 26 it owns. It was founded in Billings in 1962 along the banks of the Yellowstone River.
A national emphasis on staying closer to home while on vacation, affordability and improved facilities, amenities and features at the campgrounds has helped fuel two strong years for KOA, Tang said.
CEO Jim Rogers said a recent survey of campers at KOA sites showed that 58% had stayed at their own homes the night before coming to KOA. He also said camping reservations for the coming months are up 13%.
“We’ve had to build more of a destination, activity-based campground,” he said. “It’s an affordable, experience-based vacation.”
Those improvements, he said, include putting on things like ice cream socials and barbecues for campers, adding on-site stores and creating more activities for them.
But it wasn’t all business for the KOA officials and employees Thursday. After more than a day of board and business meetings, the evening’s event was more social, with games, plenty of food and the chance to meet other people in the company.
Tang, who bought KOA in 1980, brought along about 20 family members. KOA employees and campers wandered underneath several large tents at the back of the KOA on Garden Avenue in Billings.
“I look at this company, and it’s a wonderful franchise, wonderful people,” Tang said.
A special guest was also on hand. Steve Holcomb is the driver of the USA men’s four-man bobsled that won a gold medal in the Vancouver Olympics earlier this year. KOA was an official sponsor of the team, and Holcomb came partially to say thank you for the support.
“It’s been a great relationship (with KOA) so far,” Holcomb said. “The support there has been excellent.”
But he also got the chance to get back into one of his favorite pastimes — fishing. Before Thursday’s picnic, he fished the Yellowstone River near Columbus and hauled in seven fish, including a quartet of rainbow trout.
“I’m coming off a serious fishing drought, like over the last five years,” Holcomb said. He had been training for the Olympics for the past 12 years and spent the past five as the team’s driver.
When a small group of investors came together to build a campground on property in Yankton, S.D., owned by the National Field Archery Association (NFAA), they decided to make it a first-class facility.
“The group of us decided that, if we were going to do it, we were going to do it nice,” Dale James, one of the investors, told the Yankton Press & Dakotan. “There are going to be a lot of activities — way more than most campgrounds. You won’t just go to camp there.”
The owners anticipate that the Yankton/Missouri River KOA, located at 807 Bill Baggs Road, will quietly open by the end of next week. A more official opening will occur in mid-August when a couple of archery tournaments will bring an influx of people to the area.
It will have 90 campsites, including pads for campers, four small cabins and six lodges.
The 20-acre site will also include facilities for basketball, sand volleyball, croquet, badminton, miniature golf and horseshoes. Additionally, it will have playground equipment, a swimming pool with a slide, a recreational area for dogs and a jumping pillow that can hold approximately 75 people at once.
Bruce Cull, president of the NFAA, which is an investor in the development, and James could be found bouncing around on the large jumping pillow during a recent muggy afternoon.
“Talk about a cardio exercise!” Cull said as he hopped off the pillow. “I was on there for a minute, and I’m breathing harder than if I had run for 10 miles. It’s crazy.”
Cull said the idea was to make the KOA facility a “destination campground.”
“It’s such a cool project,” he said. “All the things we’re going to have for campers is incredible. We’ve got pretty much everything to make it a real destination.”
In addition to the previously-mentioned amenities, Cull points out that a building at the site will house showers, bathrooms, a convenience store, an arcade room and a video lottery area. A pavilion will also be used to hold activities.
On the NFAA grounds adjacent to the campground, there are four 28-target field archery courses, a trap range, a tennis court, and a pond for fishing.
The project will represent an investment of more than $2 million, Cull said.
“The whole idea is to bring more people to town,” he stated.
James added, “Look at the money these campers are going to spend in town. They’ve got to buy fuel, food and will also spend money on recreational opportunities.”
A manager will live in a lodge on the campground, and it is expected to be open annually from March through December.
Cull believes hunters will be among those who use it during the traditional camping off-season.
“The operation is set up so it can run in harsh winters,” Cull said. “The intent is to be open as long as we can profitably do so. The bottom line right now is to keep our heads above water financially. We’ve got a big investment here.”
More campers than ever before are visiting Kampgrounds of America parks this summer.
Between May 1 and July 15, KOA saw an increase of more than 7% in camper registrations, compared to the same period in 2009, the Billings, Mont.-based campground chain reported. That news comes on the heels of a record Fourth of July weekend, which saw an 8% growth in camper registrations compared to 2009. In fact, Friday, July 2, was the highest volume of camper registrations in Kampgrounds of America’s 48-year history.
The growth trend isn’t showing any signs of slowing. KOA advanced reservations through the end of September show an 11% growth over the same period in 2009.
“Our campground owners have done a wonderful job taking care of the needs of our campers, as well as investing in their facilities to give campers more options when it comes to food, entertainment and accommodations,” said KOA President Pat Hittmeier. “We’ve been around a long time, but new campers are still discovering that a stay at KOA is a fun, affordable family vacation option.”
There are also now more than 1,200 full-service Lodge accommodations in the KOA system. KOA Lodges come complete with full bathrooms, showers and kitchens. KOA Lodges are bringing camping to a new type of guest that may not have considered camping before.
Kampgrounds of America, the largest system of open-to-the-public campgrounds in the world, has been ranked 21st in the list of Top 50 Franchises by Franchise Business Review.
Each year, Franchise Business Review interviews franchisees from the top 500 franchising companies in North America. There are more than 75,000 different franchises in the U.S. and Canada. Last year, KOA was 24th on the list.
“It’s gratifying to see that we’ve moved up a few spots,” said Pat Hittmeier, president of Kampgrounds of America Inc, in a news release. “It’s great to be at the top with some of the best brands in the world.”
“Franchisee satisfaction is the most critical factor for any prospective franchisee to consider before investing in any franchise opportunity,” said Eric Stites, president of Franchise Business Review. “Even during challenging economic times, the very best franchise businesses maintain high franchisee satisfaction. This year’s award-winning franchises are in that elite group and represent the very best franchise opportunity investments in the marketplace today.”
Now in its fifth year, the Franchise Business Review awards begin with in depth research on more than 500 franchises that include more than 100,000 franchisees. Other award winners include FastSigns International, Heaven’s Best, Auntie Annie’s Pretzels, Paul Mitchell, Home Instead Senior Care and Computer Troubleshooters.
Franchise Business Review surveys thousands of franchisees to measure satisfaction levels related to their franchise ownership experience. Survey questions cover everything from training and support, system quality issues, franchisor relationship, financial opportunity to overall satisfaction.
“We are confident that we do a good job for our franchisees in all of the measured areas, and then some,” said KOA’s Hittmeier. “It’s gratifying to see that confirmed by an outside source.”
Kampgrounds of America Inc. is the largest system of family campgrounds in North America., with more than 475 locations in 46 states and nine Canadian provinces. The company headquarters is located in Billings, Montana, where it was founded 48 years ago.
Three months after the BP oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, some RV park and campground owners say their businesses are beginning to recover while others report summer occupancy rates off as much as 50% as the region continues to combat the perception that oil is washing up on hundreds of miles of beaches.
”We are fortunate; we’ve had very few cancellations,” said Katy Folkertsma, manager of 60-site Pineglen RV Park about three-quarters of a mile off the Gulf in Panama City Beach, Fla. In mid-July, she said, the park was 75% occupied with the third July weekend fully booked.
”People call and ask us and I tell them the beaches are fine,” said Folkertsma. “For every cancellation that I get, I get another person calling for a reservation.”
On the other hand, Judy Hezik, manager Baywood Campground, a 117-site RV resort 1 1/2 miles from the beach in Gulfport, Miss., said the phone hasn’t been ringing like it usually does. ”Business definitely has slowed down a lot — probably 30%,” she said. ”People assume there’s so much oil on our beaches that they don’t even call.”
Hezik said that while the winter season typically is busier than summertime at Baywood, “we usually get a flow of RVers, but that’s not happening right now. We need the negative publicity to stop.”
Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) reports that its 50 company-owned and franchised campgrounds in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and Texas were down 1% through the middle of July compared to 2009. However, over the Independence Day holiday, those same facilities reported a 14% dropoff vs. the holiday weekend a year ago. ”We are complaining like everybody down there that the media hasn’t been very kind,” said Mike Gast, vice president of communications for KOA. ”People just aren’t taking the chance.”
Through June, by the same token, business is down 50% for the season at Perdido RV Resort in Perdido Key, Fla., an island on the Intercoastal Waterway 10 blocks from the Gulf in the Florida Panhandle.
But that began to change in July, according to owner Julian McQueen. ”It seems to be settling down a little bit,” McQueen said. ”We’ve seen our numbers come back a little bit in July. I don’t know why. Maybe people are taking a more reasonable look at this and whether the Gulf and the beaches having oil on them is an impactful as the media is portraying.”
After attending a meeting with Kenneth Feinstein, who is in charge of distributing $20 billion in aid to Gulf Coast residents and businesses from a special, independent fund set up by BP, McQueen said he is confident that campground owners applying for relief will receive compensation. “He made it clear he’s not working for BP or the (Obama) administration, but that he’s working for the Gulf,” McQueen said.
Indeed, Bobby Cornwell, executive director of the Florida and Alabama affiliates of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, said he has heard anecdotally that some campground owners already have begun receiving checks.
”I don’t know the exact numbers, but there are a few parks that have received some responses and some have received payment,” Cornwell said. ”It’s not been enough to cover losses, however.”
Cornwell said occupancy is down 50% at Camping on the Gulf in Destin, Fla., one of the few Florida parks with campsites right on the beach. ”The fact is,” Cornwell said, ”there is no oil on those beaches.”
“The media talks about the beaches as if everything is covered with oil and that’s not the case,” said Camping on the Gulf General Manager Pat O’Neill, who reported in a news release that negative national publicity is costing the park more than $3,000 a day in lost reservations.
The campground is trying to counter that perception with daily videos on its website (www.campgulf.com) that prove that the Gulf waters and its beach are clean.
Government agencies are taking the same tack.
While acknowledging scattered problems with oil along its 32 miles of beaches, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism have set up a special website (www.thebeachfacts.com) with a daily video reporting on beach conditions that is also posted on YouTube.
”The thought behind that was to provide accurate, verified information for our guests to deal with other than the noise from the media,” said Kim Chapman, the agency’s public relations manager.
In Mississippi, with 62 miles of beaches stretching through three counties, the Mississippi Development Authority is using $15 million received directly from BP to buy radio and TV spots aimed at vacationers in the southeastern states. ”We want people to know that our beaches are not covered with tar balls,” said Jennifer Spann, the authority’s public relations manager. The media perception is hurting us. Some parts of our beaches have been closed at times. But most of the beaches are open, and we are still encouraging people to come on down because there is still plenty to do.”
Mark Anderson, owner of 101-site Poche Plantation RV Resort on the banks of the Mississippi River in Convent, La., says the oil spill has hurt business more than he anticipated. ”We don’t have any oil problems, but business is off 30% to 35%,” he said. ”We don’t have any oil in our face, but we have oil in the minds of people coming down this way.
”The question I get a lot is ‘if I can smell the oil?’ I tell them ‘no.’ People think that if they come down here, they are going to get oil on their rigs (RVs).”
Cornwell, for his part, said the owner of Anchors Aweigh in Foley, Ala., reported that business is off by about 50% for the season. ”A lot of their business is from people going deep sea fishing and they are usually full this time of year,” Cornwell said. ” People who live nearby are coming as usual, but most of the campers who are coming from up north are assuming the worst and don’t want to take the chance. The area is having a horrible summer. Local restaurants have closed down and many of the condos are empty.”
In Texas, Gulf Coast campgrounds are reporting that business hasn’t been affected by the oil spill, according to Brian Schaeffer, executive director of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).
He reported that tar balls that showed up on some Texas beaches in mid-July didn’t come directly from the oil spill. ”The Fourth of July was fantastic,” Schaeffer said. ”Texas campgrounds that rely on water tourism are doing great. They seem at this point not to be concerned.”
A record number of campers were hosted by Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) parks during the Fourth of July weekend.
The 475 campgrounds in the KOA system welcomed more than 20,500 camping families on Friday, July 2, making it the largest single registration day in the 48-year-old camping company’s history, according to a news release.
“Kampgrounds of America has been serving campers at our top-ranked campgrounds throughout North America since 1962,” said KOA’s CEO Jim Rogers. “After nearly five decades, we’re more popular than we’ve ever been.”
Last weekend’s registration record was 8% higher than that for Fourth of July weekend in 2009. Typically, the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend holidays are the highest check-in weekends of the year. With a record July Fourth weekend in the books, the outlook for the rest of the summer looks bright. KOA’s advanced reservations for the 2010 summer season are already 11% ahead of the same time last year.
“We had a record summer in 2009, so it’s easy to see why we are very optimistic about not just this summer, but the camping and outdoor recreation sectors in general,” Rogers said. “More and more families are discovering that camping is a fun, affordable outdoor vacation option that they can enjoy close to home. With the largest campground network in North America, there is sure to be a KOA close to where our campers want to be.”
The July Fourth weekend results were high despite depressed camper numbers along the Gulf Coast, due to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the recent Hurricane Alex.
Rogers said campers shouldn’t take camping’s popularity to mean that campgrounds are crowded.
“With more than 70,000 sites for recreational vehicles and tents, as well as all of the wonderful Kabin and new full-service lodge accommodations we have available, we still have plenty of room, but advanced reservations are always recommended,” he said.
Instead of pitching a tent or roaming the great outdoors in a recreational vehicle, travelers increasingly are interested in staying in plusher accommodations in campgrounds — we are talking private bathrooms, kitchens, air conditioning and even flat-screen television sets, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Rental units — sometimes small cabins and sometimes prefabricated transportable units made to look like small cabins — are gaining traction with travelers and campground owners across the U.S.
“They do extremely well,” says John Croce, a managing member of a collective that owns and operates nine campgrounds in the western U.S. At Yosemite Pines RV Resort & Family Lodging in Groveland, Calif., his group has installed about six new rental units every year for the past several years. These now occupy 30 of the campground’s 200 RV sites, he says. But those rental units account for about 39% of the campground’s revenue, says Croce. Rates for the campground’s rental units range from about $80 to $200 per night. Depending on their size, the units can sleep four to eight people. By comparison, a basic tent site costs about $25 a night, depending on the season.
Campground owners and franchisers say the rental units are attracting a new kind of camper — one interested in the great outdoors, but happy to sleep in a bed and have access to a private bathroom or other amenities. “You are sleeping on a pillow-top mattress and you have a flat-screen TV,” says Mike Atkinson, director of lodging at Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), which owns and franchises 475 campground locations. “But you can still go outside and have s’mores.”
Most popular with campground owners are the pre-fab transportable rental units, known in the industry as “park models.” That’s because those units are officially considered RVs, and therefore don’t require building permits or other regulatory fillings to install, reducing their capital cost. The cost for a park model ranges from about $30,000 to $50,000, depending on amenities, furnishings and transportation costs. To keep up with demand, KOA campgrounds installed about 371 park model units this year, up from some 225 in 2009, and about 190 in 2008, says Atkinson.
While camping overall has proved resilient in a down economy, revenue from the rental units is particularly strong. Last year, the number of occupied nights in rental units rose 8% at Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts campgrounds, while traditional camp site nights rose only about 1%, says Rob Schutter, chief operating officer of Cincinatti-based Leisure Systems Inc, which franchises 76 of the campgrounds in the U.S. and Canada. Leisure Systems is a subsidiary of Park River Corp.
As the owners of a 32-foot Winnebago Vectra RV, Ron and Margie Johnson seldom lack for space when they travel — unless, that is, they’re traveling with their grown children, their children’s spouses and a passel of grandchildren.
Last summer, the three-generation, 11-member group came up with a clever solution to the space problem during a trip to California’s gold country. Setting up camp at the Marble Quarry RV Park, in Columbia, they reserved an RV site and one of the campground’s “park model” cabins, a cedar-sided unit with a kitchen, bathroom and large deck, according to msnbc.com.
“It worked out great,” says Johnson. “We stayed in the motorhome; they stayed in the cabin, and no one had to stumble out of a tent to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.”
Not your father’s camping cabin
If you haven’t stayed in a campground in a while, you may have missed the hottest trend in the business. Now offered by approximately one-third of the nation’s 8,000 public campgrounds, park models are making the outdoors more accessible to people who don’t own an RV, prefer not to sleep on the ground and wouldn’t mind a little comfort along the way.
The units are perhaps more accurately called park trailers, although the industry tends to frown on the “T-word.” Maxing out at 400 square feet, they’re built on chassis by RV companies and can be rolled into place. Once on site, they’re hooked up with electricity and real plumbing, which means no messy holding tanks, and outfitted with decks and wheel-hiding trim. (Guests generally bring their own linens, toiletries and cooking gear.)
The result is still technically an RV, but one that’s designed to remain stationary. And while some do, indeed, look like shrunken double wides, others take their design cues from log cabins, Cape Codders and other region-specific motifs. Either way, they’re a large step up from traditional campground cabins, which have historically offered the lodging equivalent of a tent with walls. Depending on the season, location and amenities, park models typically rent for $75–$150 per night.
“It’s the fastest-growing part of our business,” says Mike Atkinson, director of lodging at Kampgrounds of America (KOA) Inc., which offers park models at 249 of its 475 campgrounds.
“We now have 1,370 in the system, six or seven hundred of which have been installed in the last three years.”
The West Glacier KOA, outside Glacier National Park, Mont., for example, recently installed six units — “Kamping Lodges” in KOA vernacular — which are proving especially popular for family reunions and other large groups. “Some folks will be in RVs, some will be in tents, but everyone can use the cabin as a central meeting place,” says owner Theresa McClure. “They’re completely booked for July.”
Changing times, changing tastes
The appeal of park-model camping, say promoters, has also gotten a boost from the economic turmoil of the last few years. “People haven’t been taking big vacations,” says Linda Profaizer, president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC). “They’re looking for simpler vacations and staying closer to home. We’re seeing a lot of people who wouldn’t have considered a campground before.”
Younger people, too, says Atkinson, who notes that park-model renters skew slightly younger than KOA’s traditional customers: “We’re working with generations — Gen X, Millennials — that expect more. We want a bathroom; we want pillow-top mattresses. We want to enjoy the outdoors, but we also want a comfortable experience.”
That’s certainly true at the Pecan Park Campground in San Marcos, Texas, which offers two western-themed cabins — complete with flat-screen TVs, DVD players and six-foot front porches — overlooking the San Marcos River. “These are not the folks who pull in in a million-dollar motorcoach, set up camp and never come outside,” says owner David Rowley. “They’re kayakers and canoers — boomers, Gen-Xers and beyond.”
They’re also part of a larger demographic trend, suggests Shane Ott, director of campground relations for Thor Industries Inc., a major park-model manufacturer: “Mom’s working; the kids are engaged in school activities that extend far into the summer. Most families can’t take that two-week vacation anymore. Traveling within a day’s drive of home and staying in one of these units is sort of the new wave of camping.”
Scott Duever, who spent the Memorial Day weekend at Pecan Park with his wife and two other couples, would probably agree. By day, they kayaked on the San Marcos River; come evening, they cooked communal meals and enjoyed the cabin’s amenities, not to mention the fact that they didn’t have to sleep on the ground or squeeze into an RV.
“We used to have a pop-up camper, but it was old and used and we just didn’t like it that much,” says Duever. “And we’re a little past the camping in a tent phase. We’ve all had the adventures of being out in the boonies. This is a nice way to go.”
You can still pitch your tent at any of the more than 470 Kampgrounds of America parks around North America this Fourth of July weekend . . . but you don’t have to.
For the past two years, KOA has rapidly been adding luxury KOA Lodges complete with full bathrooms and kitchens to the iconic camping company’s inventory of accommodations.
“We’ve added more than 400 of these beautiful units in just 2010 alone,” Mike Atkinson, KOA’s director of lodge development, stated in a news release. “We now have more than 250 campgrounds with camping accommodations that include private bathrooms.”
The full-service lodges join more than 4,000 of the more rustic KOA Kamping Kabins (without kitchens and bathrooms), which are available at nearly every KOA campground.
The boost in lodge inventory comes just in time for the huge Fourth of July Weekend. Advanced reservations for the Fourth of July weekend are running about 7% higher than at this time last year.
“We know that our campers want choices when it comes to KOA,” said Kampgrounds of America CEO Jim Rogers. “We still love our tenters and RVers, but it’s great to see our campgrounds being visited by folks who were looking for a little more comfort in their camping experience. Our Kabins and Lodges offer families a wonderful way to experience camping with a minimum investment in equipment. You can have all of the comforts of home, and still have your campfire.”