Editor’s Note: The following story and photos concern a recent promotion conducted at the California State Fair by the California Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (CalARVC). Story and photos appear in the current issue of CalARVC’s Wednesday Morning Coffee Talk & Updates.
Kids tossed balloons, families challenged each other to ladder ball games, and friends raced to fill gallon jugs with water…..all games to be played while camping. In the meantime, fairgoers swarmed through the Slingshot RV donated by CrossRoads RV & Happy Daze RV Sales.
Visitors to the display shared their most memorable camping experiences or talked about their upcoming trips. Many people asked for resources on camping information. Passersby snapped their heads as they caught a view of the racks of camping guides and turned around to pick one up.
Long time member, Marble Quarry RV Park, gave away discount coupons.
Park owners, Bill & Karann Milligan of Rancho Los Coches RV Park, Dana & Brian Busch of Canyon RV Park, Aaron Funk of Klamath RV Park and Esther and Janine Osborne of Marble Quarry RV Park worked tirelessly throughout the day sharing their passion about camping. Others came for a day: James Urquhart, Larayne Jeffries from Angles Camp RV & Camping Resort, Meaghan & Rebecca Bertram of The Vineyard RV Park, Liz Johnson & her managers from Kit Fox RV Park. Colleagues shared stories about their parks and operations with each other and created lasting friendships.
Camper Rick was in his element running the games, giving away free camping certificates (the most popular prizes) sharing the value of camping and making family memories.
Diana Legro and her family were thrilled to win a one week El Monte Rental Vacation.
Did we encourage Californians to camp? Did we get kids excited and asking their parents to take them camping? Did we remind families about the benefits of a camping vacation? You bet we did….in spades!
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.”
Before joining Thor Industries Inc. as its director of campground relations last year, Shane Ott spent 23 years with Billings, Mont.-based Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), working his way up to president and COO of the company.
But during an address to private park operators attending the ReV up in Reno convention and tradeshow in Sparks, Nev. last month, Ott said the multi-week, long-haul family vacations that many of us grew up with are a thing of the past.
And while recent increases in fuel costs certainly encourage families to camp closer to home, that’s not the only factor.
Most families, he said, no longer can afford time off work to take extended vacations of two weeks or more, as they had in years past. In most cases, both parents are working, and many find it difficult to leave work for more than a few days at a time. Their kids may also have sports practices and other extracurricular activities, which further complicate efforts to escape for a lengthy trip.
As a result, he said, people are taking shorter trips, and they’re camping closer to home. And while there will certainly always be some people who have the ability to take long-haul, multi-week RV and camping trips, Ott said the phenomenon of families taking shorter trips closer to home is “a macro trend that is here to stay.”
But while this may seem like an ominous development for private park operators, campground operators have found that they can broaden their guest base by investing in park model rental accommodations, which are perfect not only for people who don’t have a tent or RV, but for time-deprived families who want to have a quick and easy weekend getaway without having to worry about packing tents and sleeping bags, let alone setting up and taking down camp.
Rental accommodations are lucrative, often generating three times as much as a typical RV site. Park models are more lucrative than RV sites not only because they generate more income per night, but because they tend to be booked more often and have higher average occupancy rates than RV sites.
“To some extent,” Ott said, “campgrounds have insulated themselves from dependence on RVs by investing in park models.”
This is one reason why several Thor subsidiaries have partnered with the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) to provide campground operators with special pricing on rental accommodations, including park models manufactured by Breckenridge Division of Damon Corp. and CrossRoads RV as well as travel trailers manufactured by Airstream Inc. and Keystone RV Co.
During an interview with Woodall’s Campground Management, Ott said the park operators were directly involved in helping the Thor companies develop their respective rental products. CrossRoads RV, the latest to join the ARVC-Thor promotion, has several features, including:
- 5/8-inch pine plank tongue and groove interior paneling instead of ¼ inch paneling or gypsum board.
- No carpeting. Instead, the floors are covered with Beau Floor linoleum, which is easy to clean and more resistant to furniture scratching and cracking due to cold weather than other floor coverings.
- No curtains because the materials used in draperies can tear and hold odors. Instead, CrossRoads uses miniblinds, which can be easily cleaned and replaced as needed.
- Residential-style refrigerators. Guests prefer them over compact RV refrigerators because they hold more and work better. They can also be easily replaced as needed.
- Custom designed deck plans. CrossRoads has provided Lowe’s with architectural drawings for patio decks that it designed specifically for its rental units. So whenever park operators want to install a patio, they can simply contact Lowe’s, which will provide them with the deck plans as well as the lumber and other supplies they need.
Esther Osborne of Marble Quarry RV Park in Columbia, Calif., in California’s famed gold rush country, told WCM she has seen evidence of the trends Ott described at her park, which her father has owned and operated for 32 years. She said the park has invested in cabins in recent years to broaden its market base and the results have been significant. “It used to be more clubs and older people that came in here,” she said. “But now (with the rental accommodations), we’re getting a huge mix with a lot of families with children.”
In fact, Osborne was so impressed with the CrossRoads RV unit on display at the Cal-ARVC convention that she bought the unit, and hoped to have it ready for occupancy before Memorial Day weekend.
The convention was sponsored by the California Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (CalARVC) and the associations of several neighboring states.
At the Battlefield KOA Kampground in Gettysburg, Pa., you can catch up on e-mail at your campsite, take in an evening movie on a 9-foot inflatable outdoor screen, lounge by the pool, play a round of mini golf or try your hand at Extreme Hunting, one of the arcade games in the game room. There’s live music on Saturday nights and pancake breakfasts on weekend mornings, and if you don’t feel like cooking, you can have dinner delivered to your RV door, tent flap or what-have-you.
Heck, you don’t even have to really camp at this wooded 25-acre site, thanks to its growing inventory of air-conditioned cabins, cottages and lodges – essentially, tricked-out trailers done up to look like hand-hewn log dwellings, according to USA Today.
“So much for getting away from it all,” owner John Bergeron says with a laugh.
But getting away they are. By many accounts, business is brisk this summer at campgrounds nationwide. The sinking economy may have put the brakes on taking the Grand Tour, but many Americans still want to get away. And with relatively low gas prices, more people are pulling into campgrounds.
All Metrics Point Up
Campground reservations through ReserveAmerica.com, which books campsites in most national parks, are up 8% over last year in the first six months of 2009.
Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), a network of 460 commercial campgrounds, reports a 5% increase in June occupancy. REI, an outdoor-gear chain, says sales of family tents were up 17% in June over last year. The retailer also saw double-digit increases in sales of related products, such as air mattresses and campground stoves.
A recent survey by the Outdoor Foundation, a non-profit group that promotes outdoor activities, indicates camping’s popularity rose 7.4% in 2008 after a decline the year before. Overnight backpacking grew by 18.5%, the group reports.
“People are returning to simpler lifestyles – the ‘less is more’ ethic,” says the foundation’s Christine Fanning. “And everyone is searching for vacations that fit with today’s economy.”
Indeed, ForestCamping.com, a comprehensive guide to U.S. National Forest campgrounds, where campsites go for $10 to $15 a night, has seen a spike in hits. Bookings for reservable Forest Service campsites were up 11% through May.
“When the economy goes down, camping goes up,” says Suzi Dow, who with her husband, Fred, runs the site.
David Berg, owner of the Red Apple Campground in Kennebunkport, Maine, echoes the sentiment. “I believe camping is a recession-proof business,” he says. “When people can’t afford $200 or $300 a night for a waterfront cottage, they dust off the pop-up (camper) or get out the tent and spend $50 a night on a campsite and maybe still go out to good restaurants.”
At Yellowstone National Park, lodging bookings are down this year, but campground stays are up, says Rick Hoeninghausen, marketing director for Xanterra, which runs the park’s concessions.
“This is an interesting summer because, even in April, reservations were trailing last year. Then it kicked in in May. There’s more last-minute decision-making this year than I can ever remember.”
As in other segments of the travel industry, campers are staying closer to home, but they’re also staying away longer. At KOA campgrounds, for instance, average stays are 2.5 nights, up from 1.7 nights three years ago.
RVTravel.com editor Chuck Woodbury has been traveling through Western parks this summer, and says he’s struck by the number of rental RVs on the road. “It’s families, it’s couples, it’s everyone,” he says. “RV’ing has become much more accepted. It’s not just Grandma and Grandpa’s playhouse anymore.”
Campgrounds Expanding Services
Nor are today’s campgrounds necessarily like the ones you might remember as a kid. Food delivery, concierge services and skate parks are among innovative additions at some private facilities. In Columbia, Calif., the Marble Quarry RV Park features on-site gold panning. At Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Hill Country in Canyon Lake, Texas, laser tag is all the rage. At Kamp Klamath RV Park and Campground in Klamath, Calif., the alder-smoked salmon served at the park’s restaurant has won prizes in several competitions.
At Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Camp-Resort & Water Playground in Wisconsin Dells, owner Brent Gasser has gradually expanded what began as a campground with basic tent sites to a “camp resort” with a four-level water playground, boat and golf cart rentals, themed weekends (think Christmas in July), and 51 rental units that go from $39 to $299 a night.
“The traditional camper has been requesting more and more accommodations that they’d find in a hotel,” Gasser says. “And since we’re in an area with many hotels, we have to compete.”
And at the Red Apple Campground, the annual $25 Maine lobster fest sells out two years in advance. This summer, bookings are up 9%, and the average stay has stretched from 2.5 to 4.5 days.
“You have to be more creative to get people in your park and get them to come back again,” Berg says. “Today’s customer wants it all. In the majority of campgrounds today, we have Wi-Fi and concierge services. There are (waterfront) campsites in Maine that go for over $100 a night. And they sell first.”
But the constant buzz of organized activity can be a bit much, even for avid campers such as Brian and Michelle Gillespey of Brownstone, Mich.
“They’re on the PA making announcements about putt-putt golf and the ice cream social at 3 p.m.,” she says.
“There are too many activities at some of these places,” he says. “To me, it’s not relaxing.”
America’s ‘Last Small Town’
What many campground denizens say they do like is the camaraderie of the camp. KOA president Jim Rogers calls campgrounds “the last small town in America. They’re a live community, a social beehive. You’re interacting with strangers and allowing your kids to.”
“A woman stepped onto our site to avoid a passing car last night and ended up staying until midnight,” says Lynn Boozel, a camper at the KOA in Gettysburg. Boozel and his wife, Rhonda, of McVeytown, Pa., are wrapping up their seventh annual week-long visit here. “We came for a weekend and got hooked,” Boozel says.
The couple, with their two young daughters and a granddaughter, are sleeping in a six-person tent, which puts them in the minority among the Hitchhikers, Wolf Packs and other RV models that occupy most of the sites.
Across the way, Valerie and Bill Stack of Donora, Pa., have just arrived in their Ford pickup pulling a 12,000 pound, 38-foot trailer. This is one of five trips they’ll make here this summer.
“Once you’re addicted to this, you can’t stay home,” Bill Stack says. “You come back and say, ‘Boy, did I have a great time,’ and they ask, ‘What did you do?’ and you say, ‘Nothing.’ “
The trailer has a gas fireplace, queen-size bed and flat-screen TV, among other amenities. They’ll spend the weekend swimming in the pool and maybe play some putt-putt golf.
“But we’re here for nature,” Valerie Stack says. “If I lost everything tomorrow, I’d go out and buy a tent.”