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.
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.
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.
This week’s ARVC Business Forum, held on the campus of Keystone RV Co. in Goshen, Ind., featured a typically lively give-and-take among the leadership of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds and some of the nation’s key campground vendors.
Forum members met in conjunction with the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) Committee Week and Annual Meeting functions held not far away in downtown South Bend. The week’s agenda also included an industry party in recognition of what RVIA has designated in 2010 as the RV industry’s centennial.
The ARVC Business Forum brings together members of the ARVC Executive Committee and key players in the RV parks and campground business to discuss topical issues.
Shane Ott, director of campground relations for Thor Industries Inc., Keystone’s parent company, who helped orchestrate the meeting at Keystone, said the forum meeting at an RV company, a first for the forum, will help narrow “the huge gap” between the campground and RV industries. “There is no reason we shouldn’t do this more often,” he said.
A few forum highlights:
Mark Anderson, former ARVC chairman and owner of Camp Chautauqua Camping Resort, Chautauqua, N.Y., reported that his park and many others in the East “had almost a perfect Memorial Day weekend,” providing “a great start” to the season. The summer’s outlook for the Northeast is good as travel is up, he added. He noted that while the state of New York is “broke,” the governor found funds to reopen the state parks, which Anderson considers “an important baseline to private campgrounds.”
Vic Nolting, vice chairman of Leisure Systems Inc., franchisor of the Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts, Milford, Ohio, began by summarizing, “In general, things look oh so much better than last year.” He then deferred to LSI’s COO, Rob Schutter Jr., who went into greater detail. Schutter echoed Anderson’s holiday observation. He said business in the Northeast is “leveling out” after “a disaster last year,” due to weather.
Schutter, noting that Yogi operators are seeing an upturn in campers’ ancillary spending after a 2%-3% downturn in such spending last year, reported that the rental market at Jellystone Parks is “through the roof,” thanks in part to its non-dependence on good weather and the growing number of visits of campers new to the Jellystone system.
LSI’s rental business was up 8% in 2009 and he expects another rise this year. The rental business, which puts campers into lodges and cabins, is bringing a lot of non-traditional or first-time campers, added Nolting. They explained that many Jellystone Parks maintain good working relationships with area chambers of commerce and hotels, which also spurs business. Cabin rental rates were $145 a night in 2009 and have been raised by $10 a night for the 2010 season, said Schutter, adding that LSI opened its first company-owned park this year in Bloomington, Ind.
Cindy Halley, publisher of the Trailer Life RV Parks and Campgrounds Directory and vice president of Good Sam Club marketing, Ventura, Calif., reported that TL’s rep teams are well underway in their collection of data and advertising sales for the 2011 directory. Team members “are very upbeat and expect a better year overall,” she said. On the club side, membership growth is exceeding forecasts and currently totals about 950,000. Good Sam Club members average 62 years of age and are typically retired, empty nesters. However, she added, the club is always trying to recruit younger members.
Eric Stumberg, president and co-founder of Wi-Fi provider TengoInternet, Austin, Texas, reported that TengoInternet’s acquisition of Nomad ISP is complete with Nomad’s clients integrated into Tengo’s in May, bringing its market penetration to some 800 parks and between 67,000 and 100,000 guests a month, depending upon the season.
Wi-Fi remains a key criteria in RVers’ decision on where to camp, he noted. He sees mobile point of sale terminals, such as an ice cream cart that accepts credit card swipes, becoming the next popular phase in parks and campgrounds. He is targeting 25% growth for 2010.
David L. Berg, ARVC chairman and owner of the Red Apple Campground in Kennebunkport, Maine, said business appears to be “back to where we used to be.” He had sold out his 140 sites for the July 4 holiday by Memorial Day and his tent and popup trailer sites sold out first for the first time ever.
Berg, at the same time, said he remains “boggled” by the growth and popularity of the cabin business. He charges $120 a night for a cabin, even though “the motel down the street charges $29.” He can explain the willingness to pay more because customers “want it all today, the safety, the experience…” He also is getting into the RV rental market, charging about $1,000 a week to rent a unit on-site.
Al Johnson, president of Recreational Adventures Co., an 11-park chain based in Hill City, S.D., reported “an exceptional Memorial Day” and stated that nine of his 11 KOA-affilitated properties are ahead of plan so far this year. He has begun to replace aged cabins with new park models. He is putting on hold an overhaul of RV sites until he can better determine size requirements for the next RV generation. He, too, saw more guests with tents and folding camping trailers last year, but said it’s too early to tell whether that trend will continue this year.
David Gorin, who wore multiple hats to the forum as a campground consultant, ARVC lobbyist, park owner and state association director, reported that his Holiday Cove RV Resort in Bradenton, Fla., experienced a 25% increase in business last year, with his rental business up 20%-25% annually.
Gorin says he sold approximately half of the lots for sale in his park in the last 19 months. As director of the Virginia Campground Association, he said that state’s parks are looking for a good year, but that they’re concerned about whether the Gulf oil spill will make its way eventually up the East Coast. Meanwhile, Gorin says his Best Parks in America network has grown from 22 to 63 parks in the past year, has recently finished a long-term strategy session and will be publishing its first print directory. Finally, Gorin announced that he will be building a new 250-site RV park in Palmetto, Fla.
Ann Emerson, ARVC Business Forum chairwoman and vice president of Woodall Publications, publisher of the Woodall’s North American Campground Directory, Ventura, Calif., said sales consultants are reporting overall that most parks are doing well. In general, parks near metro areas are still faring better than those in remote areas. And there’s a serious concern among tourism-related business operators — parks among them — in many Southern and Southeastern locales regarding the long-term impact of the Gulf oil spill, prompting some owners to defer decisions on marketing expenses.
Emerson began a discussion on the explosion of social media in the campground business. At her parent company, Affinity Group Inc. (AGI), parent company of RV Business and Woodall’s Campground Management, almost all the websites have a Facebook page and each publication has at least one staff member assigned to increase its social media presence and AGI is developing a SmartPhone “app” for both of its campground directories. This discussion elicited comments on mobile marketing, which fueled a wider discussion on the explosion of mobile phone use in society. Some 90% of all U.S. homes have cell phones, and a significant percentage of Woodall customers have SmartPhones, she said. Stumberg noted that one study showed that almost as many people today access the Internet via their SmartPhones as from personal computers.
Bruce Hoster, president of Coast to Coast Resorts, the membership camping wing of AGI, said, “We think membership camping is due for a renaissance.” He cited a number of ways Coast to Coast is attracting new parks and members to the concept. As an aside, he observed that membership campgrounds are finding new revenue streams by developing storage facilities for their members’ RVs while they are not camping. For example, one membership park developed a 7-acre storage facility and realizes an estimated $1 million in revenue in annual storage fees. He reported that Camp Club USA, AGI’s discount camping club, “has come back strong after seeing a slight dip during the recession” with high renewal rates and is up to nearly 50,000 members. Coast to Coast, which has taken membership camping under its wing, sponsored a membership camping conference in February in Las Vegas and will sponsor another in February in New Orleans. He is working to make inroads with developers of hotel and condo complexes to consider integrating campgrounds into their projects, he said.
Pat Hittmeier, president of Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), Billings, Mont., said camping was “soft” over the winter, hindered by cold weather in its Southern campgrounds. But it’s taken off since May and was up 7% through Memorial Day. KOA is projecting an 8% increase through Labor Day, said Hittmeier, adding that use of the Internet to make reservations is up 12% over last year, a reflection of more business in general and the migration of campers to the Internet.
KOA has 4,000 units in its lodging pool and that business is strong, he said. Lodges make up 13% of the total KOA sites, but the company is aiming to raise that figure to 20% at 50% of its campgrounds. KOA also is looking to increase its first-time visits, which now make up 15% to 19% of its total guests.
ARVC loyalist Ian Steyn, owner of Jellystone Castle Rock Campground, Castle Rock, Colo., noted that his business is up 38% year-over-year, and 2009 was a good year for his business. He discussed an integrated approach to promoting the outdoors with other hospitality businesses in his community seeking to make it the epicenter for outdoor recreation in his state.
Larry Weaver, park model sales manager for CrossRoads RV, Topeka, Ind., briefly outlined the preferred park model program his parent company, Thor Industries Inc., has established with ARVC. Weaver stressed that campground owners should make sure they buy “ruggedized” park models for their rental units and refrain from features such as carpeting that will not hold up well under the rigors of long-term use.
Gilbert Brown grew up in inner-city Detroit and went on to a successful football career — 10 years as a defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers and one season as a Super Bowl champion.
Wealth, fame and “The Gravedigger” nickname he earned opened many doors, but Brown could never have predicted they would open one to … the joys of RVing, according to USA Today.
Brown, his wife and four kids, ages 1 to 16, love to load up their recreational vehicle, hit the road and camp. “I’m 39 years old, and I never knew what a S’mores was,” Brown says. “Growing up in Detroit, there is nothing really in that area as far as camping.”
He was introduced to recreational vehicles when his Gilbert Brown Foundation, which contributes to 144 children’s charities, partnered with the Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners (WACO) to raise money. Every time a campground hosted a fundraiser, he would go.
Brown now owns an RV and has inspired friends to do the same. He encourages people — especially those in urban areas — to at least try it once. “Get the kids outdoors instead of sitting in the house playing PlayStation,” he says. “Nobody’s got money to get four or five kids on a plane and go to California.”
Newcomers to fun
A new generation of Americans searching for ways to have fun in a wobbly economy is giving a boost to the 100-year-old RV industry.
Wholesale deliveries of RVs to retailers totaled 84,500 in the first four months of 2010, nearly double the total from the same period last year, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) reports.
Some RV camps and resorts are seeing double-digit percentage jumps in occupancy and in new faces, according to Linda Profaizer, president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds (ARVCs. “It had been mainly the 55-plus,” she says. “The fastest-growing segment is the younger market — 35 to 47 … younger people entering the market with families.”
Reasons: affordability, a return to simple pleasures and a desire to get kids outdoors and away from electronic screens.
Don’t own an RV? They can be rented and delivered to a campsite at any of the 14,000 RV camps and resorts in the U.S. and Canada. About 8,000 camps are privately run. The rest are in public parks.
Campgrounds and resorts are adding amenities to offer more than simply a site to pitch a tent or park a pop-up camper. Their goal is to keep city slickers entertained and comfortable.
“We have a class of individuals looking to enjoy all the comforts of home without necessarily having to pay the price of a resort,” says Rob Schutter, chief operating officer of Leisure Systems Inc., franchiser of 75 Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp Resorts.
The industry targets niche segments — from hardcore outdoor enthusiasts and snowbirds to urban families who may no longer be able to afford plane tickets and hotels but still expect amenities.
“I call it ‘glamping,’ ” says Kenny Johnson, recreation director at Campland on the Bay, a San Diego RV resort that has a sandy beach, skateboard park, cafe and game room. “It’s like a city inside a city.”
“It’s unbelievable,” says Aaron Justice, 35, who joined RVing friends at the camp. “It has an arcade, market, laundromat. You really never have to leave here.”
Justice, who works in construction and lives in Temecula, Calif., usually flies to visit family in Tennessee. “Times are tough, so it makes sense to come here,” he says.
A range of activities
What camps offer:
- Fun. Giant water slides, skateboard parks, wine tastings, zip lines, restaurants, carousels, swimming pools and playgrounds are among an expanding list of amenities. Geocaching, a high-tech treasure hunting game that uses GPS devices to locate hidden treasures, is popular. Some want to get away from it all and seek camps out of range of cellphone towers. Others want wireless access. “We’re in the entertainment business, the experience business,” Schutter says. “We can still cater to people who desire a rugged experience or a true family experience, sitting around the campfire and cooking S’mores.”
- Comfort. “Park models” that look like cabins but can be moved like an RV have become popular rentals. Higher-end models offer bathrooms, kitchenettes, separate bedrooms and real beds. Cheaper units are more primitive.
- Proximity and cost-savings. Parks within 150 miles of a metro area are in demand because they can be reached in a couple of hours, says industry consultant David Gorin, who owns the Holiday Cove RV Resort in Cortez, Fla.
Robert Franz likes to vacation near his home in Berryville, Va., in case he is needed at work. His family goes to Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resort in Luray, about an hour away.
His five children love the swimming pool and slide, he says. “If my kids went to Disney World, they’d be bored,” he says. “Here, the boys will go from the paddleboat to the basketball court. … I can turn them loose.”
Brown, the former football star, recalls his introduction to RVs. “It was eye-opening,” he says. “Once you experience something like that, it’s contagious.”
The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) is considering changing some of the duties of association and CEO after the current president and CEO, Linda Profaizer, retires at the end of this year.
“Our current president and CEO has vast responsibilities and we may consider some realignment of duties going forward,” said ARVC Chairman David L. Berg. “We are looking at all staff positions and responsibilities within the organization and may restructure some positions.”
Berg talked about staffing and other initiatives underway at ARVC in an address to members of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO), who had gathered at Guadalupe River RV Resort in Kerrville for TACO’s annual spring meeting and convention. Their convention began Sunday and ends today (May 18).
In a subsequent interview, Berg cautioned that no final decisions have been made about the approach ARVC will take to replace Profaizer, who retires Dec. 31. “We want to make sure that our selection process enables us to recruit the best possible candidate for this position,” he said.
In his address to TACO members, Berg also said that ARVC is heavily promoting the GoCampingAmerica website with both print and online advertising initiatives.
He also said ARVC is continuing to take steps to improve communication with its state affiliates and that the national association hasn’t given up on the idea of having TACO become an affiliate of ARVC once again. “We’d like to have you back in the family,” he said, adding, “We (ARVC) need to improve our communication and treat the states as equal partners.”
Berg also lauded former ARVC Chairman Jeff Sims, also in attendance at the meeting, for his volunteer work reaching out to non-ARVC member parks to educate them about the merits of ARVC membership. As of mid-May, Sims had personally visited more than 400 parks at his own expense.
Monday’s TACO meeting also included a presentation by Bob MacKinnon of Murrieta, Calif.-based GuestReviews. “Texas has strong participation in the (GuestReviews) program,” he said, adding that Texas parks had an average score of A-minus in overall guest satisfaction.
Monday’s activities included a tradeshow with roughly 40 vendors, including Topeka, Ind.-based CrossRoads RV, Phoenix, Ariz.-based Cavco Industries Inc. and Athens Park Homes of Athens, Texas, each of which had park models on display.
The day’s activities also included a seminar on Wi-Fi marketing by Frank Drew of Austin, Texas-based TengoInternet and a seminar on “Expanding Your Park” by Kathy and Tony Palmeri of Jellystone Park Camp-Resort in Estes Park, Colo,. and Leisure Systems Inc.
The campground business has been the most resilient sector of the travel and tourism business throughout the recession. But it’s not just because campgrounds offer the most affordable vacation option, according to The Daily Exchange, Waterloo, Ontario.
“Campgrounds increasingly offer rental accommodations, so they’re no longer solely dependent on tent campers and RV owners,” said Linda Profaizer, president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), adding that roughly a third of America’s campgrounds now offer park model rental accommodations.
But most campgrounds aren’t building their own rental accommodations from scratch. In most cases, they are ordering factory-built cabins and cottages, which are being delivered to their parks just in time for the camping season.
Many of them look like miniature log or cedar-sided cabins. But these 400-square-foot units are actually recreational park trailers or “park models,” and are technically classified as recreational vehicles.
“They’re completely turnkey,” said William Garpow, executive director of the Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association (RPTIA), which represents park model manufacturers. “All the campground owner has to do is hook each unit up to the utilities and they’re ready to rent.”
And, perhaps best of all, since “park models” are technically classified as recreational vehicles, they do not require building permits in most jurisdictions, so campgrounds can literally order them over the phone and have them delivered to their parks within a matter of weeks.
“Manufacturers construct these units in factories to conform with approximately 500 safety requirements contained in the National Safety Standard for recreational park trailers,” Garpow said.
Industry insiders see the campground industry’s increasing investments in park models and other rental accommodations as a shrewd business move, particularly given rising fuel costs and the dramatic decline in towable and motorized RV sales in recent years as a result of the recession.
“To a certain extent, the campground industry has insulated itself from the economic downturn by installing rental units,” Profaizer said.
Indeed, by providing rental accommodations, campgrounds are drawing not only tenters and RVers, but anyone who would normally stay in a hotel or motel while they travel.
“With park model cabin rentals, we can appeal to families who don’t have to worry about going out and purchasing an RV or having a tow vehicle or whatever the case may be. They can just get in their car and come to one of our parks,” said Rob Schutter, COO of Milford, Ohio-based Leisure Systems Inc., which franchises Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts.
Campgrounds have been gradually investing in park model cabins and other rental accommodations for many years. But the focus on rentals has intensified in recent years.
In fact, the competition for campground business has become so fierce that park model manufacturers are facing increasing competition from RV manufacturers, who are now marketing some of their own products as rental accommodations for campgrounds.
For more than 13 years, in fact, the Breckenridge Division of Damon Corp. in Nappanee, Ind., was the only Thor Industries Inc. subsidiary that produced rental accommodations for campgrounds. Now there are four Thor subsidiaries vying for a piece of the campground rental business, with Topeka, Ind.-based CrossRoads RV, Goshen, Ind.-based Keystone RV Co. and Jackson Center, Ohio-based Airstream Inc. each competing for a piece of the campground accommodations business along with Breckenridge.
Some of the major campground chains, for their part, are busy working out exclusive arrangements with leading park model manufacturers, which are building custom-designed rental units for their parks.
Phoenix, Ariz.-based Cavco Industries Inc., for example, is building units for Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), while CrossRoads RV recently landed an agreement to build custom designed park models for Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts. Another RV resort developer, Memphis, Tenn.-based RVC Outdoor Destinations, is working with Athens Park Homes in Athens, Texas, to furnish its resorts with park models.
But while some see the growing demand for rental units in campgrounds as a result of rising fuel costs and declining RV sales, it also reflects significant sociological changes taking place across the United States, Profaizer said.
“Families are increasingly time deprived and the dynamics of the summer vacation have changed,” she said. “People are camping closer to home because they don’t have as much time off to take extended trips across the country. Oftentimes, both parents are working and their kids are often involved in extracurricular activities, which limit their ability to travel.”
In addition, she said, many families are finding that it’s easier and more convenient to rent a cabin for a weekend getaway than to spend their limited free time packing, setting up and taking down tent camping equipment. For others, she said, having a cabin rental gives them an opportunity to experience camping in the great outdoors even if they don’t have an RV.
Schutter of Leisure Systems said campgrounds are also finding that park model rentals are particularly appealing to women, especially mothers. “In our particular system,” he said, “one of the major decision makers is Mom. And Mom finds all the comforts of home in these units. That’s a big selling point.”
Thomas Heneghan, CEO of Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc., also said park model accommodations have wide market appeal. “In today’s economy,” he said, “the park model extends the outstanding value and experience of the outdoor lifestyle to families who are either unfamiliar with tent camping or RVing or who prefer the conveniences offered by staying in a park model.” He added that park models “allow one to have all of the comforts and conveniences of home with the ability to have a change of scenery and reconnect with family.”
Park model manufacturers, for their part, find it behooves them to pay attention to campgrounds and their growing accommodations needs.
“Many of our manufacturers are literally racing to get these units in place in time for the summer camping season,” said Garpow of RPTIA, adding that the pre-summer rush can be a nail-biter for campgrounds, many of which have already booked the park models they have ordered for this summer.
Such is the case at West Glacier KOA in Glacier, Mont., which just received six park model cabins in late April. “We’re hooking them up to septic and electric utilities right now,” said park co-owner Theresa McClure, adding that five of the six units are already booked May 14, when the park opens for the summer camping season.
“It’s just crazy,” McClure said of consumer demand for park model cabins, which KOA markets as Kamping Lodges. “We could probably put in 12 and they’d all be booked.”
The National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds (ARVC) is launching a major advertising effort to heighten business awareness and support for the GoCampingAmerica website, according to a news release.
“We’re going to be targeting REI and other big retailers and telling them why they need to be partnering with ARVC on GoCampingAmerica.com,” said Marc Cramer, a Florida-based advertising consultant who has signed a two-year contract with ARVC to set up and manage a national website sales operation for the association.
While Cramer’s initial campground industry experience involved designing and developing advertising support for CampGulf.com, the website for Camping on the Gulf in Destin, Fla., he has worked on advertising campaigns for prominent clients, including Microsoft Corp. and Major League Baseball and has designed more than 600 websites along with the associated advertising programs to support the websites for virtually every industry during the past 12 years.
Cramer’s contract was approved by ARVC’s Executive Committee during a series of meetings in late March.
ARVC President and CEO Linda Profaizer said Cramer’s work is the first major advertising effort involving the GoCampingAmerica.com since its redesign was completed last year.
“With the addition of Marc Cramer as our national sales director on an independent contractor basis, I am looking forward to building the traffic to GoCampingAmerica.com for our members and increasing the advertising sales income to the association to help offset costs of running the website,” Profaizer said. “Marc brings a wealth of capabilities and experience to aid and increase our efforts.”
In addition to helping consumers locate campgrounds by state and by city, GoCampingAmerica.com has an advanced search function that allows consumers to search for parks that offer nearly 40 different types of activities and outdoor recreation, from biking and bird watching to hunting and fishing, golfing and kayaking. Links to information about outdoor recreation, festivals and special events in each of the 50 states are also provided on the site along with helpful information for first time campers, such as “What to Pack” lists and recipes. Links to the state affiliates of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds are also provided.
Consumers can also use GoCampingAmerica.com to quickly find parks that are affiliated with major campground chains, such as Equity LifeStyle Properties, Kampgrounds of America (KOA) and Leisure Systems Inc., which franchises Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts, as well as the many parks that offer AAA, AARP, FMCA, Good Sam and other popular discounts.
GoCampingAmerica.com has had more than 616,000 unique visitors and 3.2 million page views since it went live last fall.
Leisure Systems Inc., the franchisor of Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Parks, has temporarily waived its franchise initiation fees as part of a strategic move to expand the company’s presence in the family campground business, according to a news release.
The promotion, which is being offered as the 75-location Jellystone-park chain celebrates its 41st anniversary, is being promoted as Peter Yesawich and other travel industry experts forecast continued growth in demand for family friendly vacations.
“Travel industry research shows continuing strong interest in family travel, and we believe that modifying our franchise offer will be an effective way to encourage high-quality, family-oriented campgrounds to leverage our brand name and business model to grow their businesses,” said Rob Schutter, Leisure Systems’ COO.
Five independent campgrounds have already signed agreements to join the Jellystone Park chain in time for this year’s spring and summer travel season, and more are expected to sign on later this year, Schutter said.
The newest Jellystone Parks are located in the following cities:
- Bloomington, Ind.: Cedar Ridge Camping Resort, a five-year-old former private membership resort, will reopen April 16 as Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park at Lake Monroe. The park, which features 92 RV sites, 12 cabins and forested areas for primitive tent camping, is currently undergoing $200,000 worth of cosmetic improvements.
- Burleson, Texas: Rustic Creek Ranch, which recently doubled its size to include 248 RV sites and 37 fully furnished luxury cabins, will become the North Texas Jellystone Park.
- Donalsonville, Ga.: The park, formerly known as Trail’s End Resort & Marina, will join the Jellystone Park chain on April 1. The park, which is currently undergoing an expansion, will feature 39 RV and tent sites, nine cabins and six floating condos on Lake Seminole, which is popular with bass fishing enthusiasts.
- Forsyth, Mo.: Shoal’s Bend RV Resort will officially join the Jellystone Park chain on April 1. The park has recently undergone more than $80,000 in improvements, including larger campsites, upgraded campsites with patios and outdoor chimineas, new landscaping, remodeled bathrooms and a new dog walk. A 20- by 60-foot outdoor pavilion is also expected to be completed by April 1.
- Swansea, S.C.: River Bottom Farms RV Resort & Campground will become the first Jellystone Park in South Carolina. The 43-acre park on the North Edisto River has five stocked fishing ponds and 70 campsites.
Schutter said the franchise promotion is available to private campgrounds and RV parks that meet Leisure Systems’ facility requirements, which include a swimming pool, pavilion and playground.
Private campgrounds and RV parks have proven themselves to be the most vibrant segment of the travel and tourism business in 2009, with most parks reporting surprisingly stable revenue and occupancies figures, despite the recession.
The nearly 600 private park operators, vendors and industry officials who attended the annual InSites Convention and Expo in Orlando, Fla., this week learned that 2009 was also year of multiple successes for the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC).
ARVC, in fact, used the recession as a news hook to promote camping in a national media campaign that scored positive story placements in some of the largest media outlets in the country, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune.
ARVC also completed a major redesign of its GoCampingAmerica website with interactive Google maps; stepped up its communication efforts with members with the ARVC Report in Advance, a bi-monthly e-newsletter, and monthly and bimonthly conference calls with state campground association executives; and launched a new pricing program with Thor Industries Inc. for specially built park models and travel trailers that are designed for use as rental accommodations.
ARVC also secured an 84% membership renewal rate. In fact, nearly half of ARVC’s Texas members renewed their memberships, despite a decision by the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO) to loosen its affiliation with the national association.
And the association saw a 30% increase in the number of parks participating in the GuestReviews online survey program, which is offered to private parks as an ARVC member benefit.
In their joint presentation in a ballroom at the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando, ARVC Chairman Mark Anderson and President and CEO Linda Profaizer provided updates on the association’s successes, while also sharing positive news about the camping and RV industry’s expected performance in 2010.
“It seemed like people were giving camping a try this year,” Anderson said, adding that many snowbird parks are also projecting a good winter season, with advance reservations running slightly ahead of last winter’s figures.
The RV industry is also experiencing a gradual rebound. Anderson quoted a recent report from University of Michigan economist Richard Curtin, who forecast 185,000 RV shipments by the end 2010, a 27% increase over this year’s figures. Granted, the numbers are still a long ways from the 396,000 shipment figure recorded in 2006, he said, but they are headed in the right direction.
Profaizer told InSites attendees she was particularly pleased with the performance of Jeff Crider, a Palm Desert, Calif.-based public relations consultant and longtime Woodall’s Campground Management contributor who ARVC hired to lead its media outreach campaign.
“Our PR campaign has really scored tremendous successes with more than 220 story placements in newspapers, magazines and broadcast media in the U.S. and Canada – and I think that’s really only the tip of the iceberg,” Profaizer said. “The top 30 newspaper placements alone generated more than 15 million positive impressions about the affordability of camping and the improvements underway in private RV parks and campgrounds across the country.”
“ARVC was quoted as an expert source by USA Today three times this year, (and) one member park that participated in a radio interview said they’ve had inquiries from coast to coast and around the world as a result of the interview.”
As a result of its successful media outreach efforts, Profaizer said reporters are now regularly contacting ARVC for suggestions on story ideas and industry trend information.
In his remarks to InSites attendees, Vic Nolting, vice chairman of Milford, Ohio-based Leisure Systems Inc. (LSI), expressed a sense of relief over the relative strength of the private park business compared to other segments of the travel and tourism business.
Citing figures from Smith Travel Research, he noted that hotel occupancies were down 8% during the third quarter, despite a 10% reduction in room rates.
Las Vegas, in fact, had suffered a 6% drop in overall visitors and a 30% drop in its convention business despite a 24% reduction in room rates, Nolting said, citing Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau statistics.
Nolting said the hotel industry’s malaise is further compounded by the fact that the hotel industry is adding even more inventory.
Amusement parks, meanwhile, have suffered similar malaise. Attendance is down 14% year to date at Universal Studios, while Disney has suffered a 24% drop in its net profits. Nolting said there was a chance Disney could rebound somewhat during the fourth quarter holiday season, but even Disney has been discounting its rates in an effort to boost sales.
“They are discounting the Holy Grail to get people into their parks,” Nolting said. “That is unprecedented.”
But while the hotel and amusement park industries have suffered during the recession, campgrounds and RV parks have held their own. “By and large, people are saying, ‘Up a couple.’ ‘Down a couple.’ Yogi has had a very good year. KOA has had a good year.”
And, unlike the hotel industry, “Our inventory is shrinking and we’re not having to promote and discount our life away,” Nolting said.
Several InSites speakers indicated they expect a slight increase in business levels in 2010.
KOA, for example, is predicting a one-half percent increase in camper nights and a 3.8% increase in rates for its 450-park system, according to COO Pat Hittmeier. “The recession is not quite over with,” he said, adding, “We’re sort of crossing our fingers to see what’s going to happen in December, January and February.”
On the other hand, the long-term outlook is very good, he said, adding that 90% of campers who participated in the latest KOA survey indicated they planned to camp as much or more often during the next five years as they are now. In fact, 45% of survey respondents said they planned to camp more during the next five years, while only 10% said they planned to camp less.