An industry built on wanderlust is surviving on the notion of “wander less.”
Texas RV campgrounds are part of a national trend of anchoring specialty vehicles, called park models , which look and feel like small cottages, for rent or purchase, according to the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman.
Forty percent of Texas recreational vehicle campgrounds have introduced the models, twice the rate of five years ago, to appeal to a broader market and to increase revenues, according to the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).
“There’s a good segment of the population that wants to experience the campground experience but don’t own an RV, and they don’t want to sleep in a tent,” said Brian Schaeffer, the association’s executive director.
Consider the state of the RV manufacturing industry, as compiled by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA): One in 12 vehicle-owning U.S. households owned a recreational vehicle in 2005. Shipments of new RVs of all kinds were down more than 57% in 2009 from the industry’s record year in 2006. And the continuation of an uptick in shipments this year depends on a healthy economic rebound — something that’s not at all guaranteed.
At RV parks, however, the story is brighter.
Despite the recession and fluctuating fuel prices, reservations at RV parks were up 8% in 2009, and rentals of park models were up 20%, according to the industry, as many people were looking for cheaper, shorter vacations.
“The idea of driving to the Grand Canyon isn’t happening as much as it used to,” Schaeffer said. “They are looking for something nearer to home.”
To campground owners and managers, the park models make sense as an alternative to hotels.
“People who had been in the business a lot longer than me said everyone in the business should have them,” said Bryan Kastleman, president of the management company for Hill Country RV Resort in New Braunfels.
He said the owners have invested $1 million in the park, including adding 33 park models, in the past two years.
Park models typically are 300 to 400 square feet, with the option of an additional 150 square feet of loft space for children. Some come with porches. Decks can be added once the model is anchored, its trailer hitch detached and the underside carriage hidden by skirting that matches the building’s exterior.
“They’re not cabins,” said Ken Butschek, the owner of La Hacienda RV Resort & Cottages, on Hudson Bend Road on the way to Lake Travis. “They’re little houses.”
The cottages are free-standing (no common walls) with full kitchens, wood laminate floors and high ceilings. They are typically equipped with the comforts of home: high-definition televisions, air conditioning, linens, microwaves, coffee pot and dishes.
“Bring your clothes and your ice chest, and you’re good,” Butschek said.
Butschek said he started with two models when he opened in 2004, has 15 today and expects to add more.
Austin Lone Star RV Resort, which has been in business for 40 years at Interstate 35 and William Cannon Drive, has just taken delivery of its first park model, manager Sharon Knopf said.
“We’re looking to sell them,” Knopf said.
The national chain, Carefree RV Resorts, bought the local site four years ago. The chain, Knopf said, has a track record of selling park models and leasing the plots where they are anchored.
“They are very popular in Florida,” Knopf said.
Rents for the models vary by size, season, locale and duration of your stay. Daily rents can range from $80 to $195, as opposed to $20 to $50 for a spot for an RV. Weekly or monthly rates are cheaper. The larger cottages can sleep eight.
Butschek doubles as a dealer for Athens Parks Homes. He said a basic model, including setup, could cost $28,000 to $42,000, plus customized finish-out.
Leasing a plot at La Hacienda, which is about a quarter of a mile from Lake Travis, would run $475 to $600 a month. “You can have a lake house for under $60,000,” Butschek said.
One perk: no property taxes, because a park model is legally a vehicle — albeit one that doesn’t move very often — instead of real estate.
La Hacienda’s amenities include a covered pavilion, two saline swimming pools, hot tub, spa, fitness center, laundry, cable TV and Wi-Fi Internet access.
Besides modern-day convenience, RV park owners are selling what they call the “campground experience,” which is a mixture of summer camp, Bohemian lifestyle and communal hearth.
“On a scale of one to 10, it’s an 11,” said Barbara Roach, a retiree who’s been based at La Hacienda for more than three years.
The widow drives her 30-foot motor home with Jeep in tow between Montana, Fla., and Austin to visit grandchildren. “It’s a cheap way of living,” she said.
Donna Holzhueter and Kevin Lassing, still in their 40s, left Madison, Wis., for the road two years ago.
“We were thinking of buying a house,” Lassing said, “but my wife thought it’d be fun to travel until we’re broke.”
To Holzhueter, who had worked 24 years in government, “what’s important are the experiences, not the stuff you’ve collected.”
Despite the vagabond lifestyle, she’s joined the segment of the economy that works from home — though from her RV. She does online technical support for a company.
Her husband is a “work camper,” who trades part-time work at the RV campgrounds for rent.
A few yards away, at a party building, a band is rehearsing in the middle of the afternoon.
Freddy Powers, a singer-songwriter who toured for years with Merle Haggard, is preparing his band, Stop the Truck, for an appearance at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnic.
Powers and his wife, Catherine, sold their house and donated his memorabilia to Texas State University in San Marcos after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
They are now living the RV lifestyle.
“He’s lived most of his life touring on a bus,” Catherine said of her 78-year-old husband. “I wanted to keep him on the road.”
La Hacienda serves as their base, but when there’s gig, “we just secure and go,” she said.
“We love living here,” she added.
If the road ever stops calling, there’s always a cottage that’s just across the park. It’s not going anywhere.