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.
Attendees at the 46th Annual Northeast Conference on Camping and Trade Show March 18-20 in Springfield, Mass.,“Recipe for Success 2010″ were encouraged by incoming reservations for the upcoming season, according to show sponsors.
The trade show attracted 126 representatives from over 70 companies, which filled the third floor of the Sheraton Springfield Hotel.
“Those in attendance were impressed by a program packed with quality seminars, fun events, time to listen and learn from others in the industry, and three state meetings for Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts,” said Cyndy Zbierski, Northeast Campground Association (NCA) executive assistant.
The conference began with four technology seminars conducted by SkillPath covering everything from “Computer 101” in Technology Basics to “Getting the Most of Microsoft Excel” during Technology Plus. The entire day’s seminars were sponsored by Evergreen USA and that evening a winner was chosen for a new Acer laptop.
The next two days provided seven CPO qualified seminars ranging from “Accounting for Campgrounds,” presented by Don Bennett, CPA, CPO and the president and CEO of Campground Owners of New York, to “Management Secrets of a Large Campground That Can Be Used By Any Size Park,” presented by Peter and Barry Brown of Lone Oak Campsites, Connecticut.
All 11 state associations that make up the NCA were given the opportunity to share their individual state’s legislative issues, which included drastic reductions in state tourism budgets, new taxation rates on campsites and continued departments of environmental protection concerns, according to Zbierski.
NCA Executive Director David Tetrault and wife Pat received the Curtis Fuller Service Award during the Awards Luncheon of the conference. The award, established in March 1986, commemorates the unselfish contribution made by Curtis Fuller to the furtherance of camping throughout the United States. The award is in recognition of service given to camping in the northeast over an extended period of time. The service can take any number of forms but shall be unselfish, done in a manner to reflect credit upon the association, and be meaningful in accomplishing the aims of the association.
There are no plans for Tetrault to retire as executive director. He began on Oct. 1, 1990, replacing retiring Gerry Harrison. Pat will continue working with her husband and daughter, however for fewer hours allowing her time to enjoy a bit of free time.
During the board of directors meeting held during the conference a number of new marketing ideas were discussed to continue promoting camping in the Northeast, Zbierski said.
“The board voted to continue several successful NCA marketing ventures, such as NCA’s participation in the Tampa SuperShow in January 2011, the production of an NCA Rack Card listing all 11 states’ contact information and the NCA ad in Camping Life magazine,” she said. “Something new that will soon come out of the Northeast Campground Association’s office is the offer of banner ads to its member campgrounds on the CampNCA.com site and to its business members on the member site CampNCA.org.”
In addition, two $500 scholarships were awarded from the NCA Robert A. Hartford Memorial Scholarship Fund during the Friday awards luncheon. The parents of Cortney Goodale, of Mineral Springs Campground, Connecticut, and Zachary Fulton, of Rest N’ Nest Campground in Vermont accepted the awards for their children.
Special guests included Cheryl Smith, CPO, National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) education director; David L. Berg, CPO, Red Apple Campground, Maine, and the current ARVC chairman and Region 1 representative, and also past president of NCA; Marcia Galvin, CPO, Normandy Farms Family Camping Resort, Massachusetts, ARVC second vice chairman and Region 1 representative; Donald Bennett, CPO, Conesus Lake Campground, New York, ARVC at-large delegate; Norman Boucher, LCN Outdoors, Connecticut, ARVC Supplier Council representative; Janet Keen, CPO, Keen Lake Camping, ARVC Council of Delegates secretary; and Randy Packard, CPO, Pine Acres Family Campground, Massachusetts, ARVC Foundation board of trustees.
Officers elected were:
- President Michael Irons, Ole Mink Farm Recreation Resort, Thurmont, Md.
- Vice president Roger Druck, Pine Cradle Lake Campground, Rome, Pa.
- Second Vice President Judy LaPorta, Little Oaks Campground, S. Seaville Cape May Courthouse, N.J.
- Treasurer, Mark Wright, Terrace Pines Campground, Center Ossipee, N.H.
- Past president David L. Berg, Red Apple Campground, Kennebunkport, Maine.
The next NCA event will be the “2010 NCA Great Escape” hosted by the state of New Hampshire at Danforth Bay Camping Resort in Freedom, N.H., Sept. 14 –16. Contact information can be found at http://campnca.org/greatescape.htm.
Between 2000 and 2005, as real estate prices rocketed to unprecedented levels, developers pulled out their wallets and encouraged owners of RV parks and resorts to sell their properties because they wanted to replace them with shopping malls – all more lucrative uses of these properties, or so they thought.
As the real estate market has tumbled, however, many developers have not been able to get very far with their plans, and several of the RV parks and resorts they acquired have not only survived, but prospered during the current economic recession, according to a release from the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC).
In fact, one lesson that developers have learned is that high quality RV parks and resorts are more economically resilient than hotels, shopping malls or condos, particularly when investments are made to improve these parks.
“Camping is a recession-proof business,” said David L. Berg, ARVC chairman, adding that most of the nation’s campgrounds, RV parks and RV resorts have reported stable to slight increases in income this year, despite the recession.
Berg cited his own campground as a case in point. The park, Red Apple Campground in Kennebunkport, Maine, scored an 8.5% increase in business compared to last year, while hotels and motels in his area saw their business drop by as much as 25%. “Camping is more family oriented and more reasonably priced than other travel and tourism options,” he said, adding, “The state of affairs of our economy has not hurt the camping business at all.”
Developers, on the other hand, have mistakenly assumed that land is always more valuable when it’s used for hotels, shopping malls and condominiums. While this kind of thinking may apply to poorly maintained RV parks, in resort destinations, high-quality RV parks and resorts remain economically resilient, even when times are tough.
Consider the story of Emerald Desert RV Resort in Palm Desert, Calif., one of the top winter vacation destinations in the country. Several years ago, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taylor Morrison bought the park with plans to replace it with high-end housing. But the recession pulled the rug out from under the real estate market before Taylor Morrison could finish its project. And while Taylor Morrison had converted portions of the RV resort to housing, the rest of the resort remained standing, including all of its RV sites, clubhouse and other core buildings, which prompted the company to put the RV resort back on the market.
La Jolla, Calif. based SunLand RV Resorts bought Emerald Desert last summer and plans to keep as a resort. “I’ve had my eye on this property for 20 years,” said Reza Paydar, SunLand president and CEO. “It is very valuable. There is nothing like it.”
SunLand, in fact, has already invested more than $1 million in improvements to the 251-site property and plans to operate it as a year-round luxury RV resort. It’s newly designed 1,200-square-foot lobby features a custom designed floor mosaic and reception desk with inlayed stone. Luxury furnishings are also being added to the newly designed fitness center and swimming pool area.
Meanwhile, the economic downturn has given La Pacifica RV Resort in the San Diego, Calif. suburb of San Ysidro a chance to assert its economic resiliency. An investor purchased the property several years ago with the idea of re-selling it to a housing developer. But as the real estate market tanked, the investor’s plans evaporated and he wound up selling the property to another investor, Bart Thomsen, who plans to make improvements and keep La Pacifica as an RV resort.
“The park is in very good condition already. But we’re absolutely intent on making it an even better place,” Thomsen said. “We’re putting money into fixing up the bathhouse and clubhouse and investing in better utility pedestals and making improvements to its streets. We’re planning on it being an RV park for the long haul.”
Developers’ plans to convert RV parks and resorts to other uses have not only been put on hold by the recession. In some cases, local residents and businesses and city officials have discouraged them from replacing RV parks and resorts, which they value as important pillars of a tourism economy.
Consider Holiday Cove RV Resort in Cortez, Fla. A few years ago, the property was purchased by an owner who wanted to replace it with condominiums, but the developer ran into opposition from local residents, businesses and city officials. “They claimed the plan was out of character for the community and they were concerned that residential use wouldn’t support the local businesses that are geared primarily to the tourist and vacation business,” said David Gorin, who recently purchased park from the developer. “The previous owner was simply unable to get the zoning and planning commission to approve his plan. He fought with them for five years and then gave up and sold the property to us.”
Gorin and his business partner have since invested $1.4 million improving the property and making it into a high quality RV resort.
These investments in RV parks and in RV park improvements are paying off because camping and RVing enthusiasts have shown a consistent willingness to pay for parks that offer high quality facilities, amenities and service, said Linda Profaizer, ARVC president and CEO. RV parks and resorts are also aided by the fact that they offer the nation’s most affordable vacation option, she said.
John Grant, owner of San Diego-based Park Brokerage Inc., said growing consumer interest in camping and RVing is also helping RV parks and resorts to retain their real estate and business value during the worst recession since the Great Depression. “RV parks are holding on to their value because people are downsizing their vacations, taking their RV or tent and going camping,” he said. “This translates into higher property and business values for parks.”
By anyone’s standards, 2009 has been a tough year for the U.S. economy.
But while most Americans have tightened their budgets in response to job losses, difficulties obtaining credit or simply because of economic uncertainties, campgrounds and RV parks have remained economically resilient, according to a news release from the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC).
“We are very grateful for the level of business we’ve had,” said Jayne Cohen, president of Adventure Bound Camping Resorts in Center Harbor, N.H., which owns and operates nine RV resorts in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Arizona. “When we closed down our November numbers, we were even with last year in revenue.”
That’s a significant accomplishment, Cohen said, not only in this economy, but given the fact that most of her company’s parks are located in areas that suffered unusually cold and wet weather last summer. “We strongly feel that if we had not had bad weather, we would have been ahead of last year’s figures,” she said.
Most of the nation’s campgrounds, in fact, reported business levels that were stable or slightly ahead of last year’s figures, and most private park operators expect their business levels to remain steady or experience continued growth next year.
“I’m very optimistic and very grateful for how we finished out this year,” said Mark D. Anderson, president of Camp Chautauqua Camping Resort in Stow, N.Y. “Our reservations are looking very good for next year. We’re already just about full for Fourth of July weekend. And to be almost full at this time of year is pretty good.”
Across the country, Harriette Groth of SunBasin RV Park in Ephrata, Wash., said she is already receiving reservations for Memorial Day weekend next year. “Two groups have already called in for reservations for Memorial Day weekend. We feel that’s encouraging,” she said.
David L. Berg, ARVC chairman, said he is also optimistic about the level of consumer interest in camping next year. “I think we’re looking across the country to an improved camping season next year,” he said. “The state of the affairs of our economy has not hurt the camping business at all.”
Revenues at Berg’s own park – Red Apple Campground in Kennebunkport, Maine. – were up 8.5% this year, compared to last year, and Berg expects the upward trend to continue.
“Our reservations for next year are at least as strong right now as they were a year ago,” said Jim Ozburn of Falcon Meadow RV Campground in Falcon, Colo. “I really think the camping business is going to get better. As long as gasoline and fuel behave, those who do the most traveling will still do it.”
Ozburn added that he, too, is already receiving reservation requests for next year, which he finds encouraging.
Carolyn Strong, co-owner of Sundermeier RV Park and Conference Center in St. Charles, Mo., is also receiving reservations for next year, including reservations from large rally groups. “We had a tremendous increase in business this year,” she said, adding that as of mid-December her park was already running about 10% ahead of its business levels in both 2007 and 2008.
Some Sunbelt parks are also reporting strong reservation levels for this coming winter. “Right now, we just finished the best November we’ve ever had, and our advance bookings from now through March are probably 20% over last year,” said Doug Shearer, who opened Parkview Riverside RV Park in Concan, Texas, in 2001. He expects this winter to be the best winter season he’s ever had.
Some park operators remain cautious, however.
Bruce Aljets, who owns Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resort in Sioux Falls, S.D., experienced a 17% jump in business this year, despite the recession. “I don’t know what to expect next year,” he said. “Being in South Dakota, we generally lag behind the rest of the country. But I’m going to hope for the best.”
Cohen of Adventure Bound Camping Resorts, for her part, said her company is optimistic but cautious about the future. “We’re very enthusiastic and we’re very pleased with the results of this year. But we’re not taking anything for granted, either.”
Editor’s Note: Here is some background on David Berg, newly elected chairman of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC). Information courtesy of ARVC.
Together with his wife Jane, now starting their 13th season, David Berg owns and operates the Red Apple Campground, a 140-site park in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Their park is highly rated, and is one of only four parks in Maine to achieve a “W W W W W” rating from Woodall’s for park appearance, and is the only park in Maine to receive a perfect “10” from Trailer Life for park appearance, and only one of two parks in Maine with a 10* rating for their bath house facilities thus ranking in the top 300 parks overall of the 12,000 parks nationally that Trailer Life rates. TL rating: 8.5 -10* – 10.
The Bergs received the 2003 Campground Owners of the Year Award, as well as the 2007 Richard Hartford – Kenneth Griffin Award for Outstanding Contributor to the Camping Industry from the Maine Campground Owners Association (MECOA).
Berg is a past president of MECOA and continues to serve on its board of directors. He currently is president of the Northeast Campground Association (NCA), and now in his second term on the ARVC board, previously serving on the executive committee as second vice chairman and secretary.
Berg has been a management labor relations consultant for the past 18 years, representing various public sector employers in all facets of labor relations, with 10 years as an officer with a public sector union as an employee representative prior to starting his own consulting business.
He also has served on the Maine Tourism Association board of directors, as well as on various local elected community boards and committees. He currently serves on the local zoning board of appeals. He also worked in law enforcement as a part-time police officer for over 20 years. He currently serves on the board of directors of the Blue Knights Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club, Maine Chapter II.
The Bergs spend their winters in a Naples, Fla. park, in an RV, of course!
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.”