Sandy Mace counts her RV park as one of the fortunate ones. Mace said Villa Alameda RV Resort is small for a Yuma, Ariz., park at about 300 spaces, but it managed to hold steady for the winter visitor season – nearly full for the most part, in fact. According to a report by the Yuma Sun, she’s heard around her RV park peers, though, that wasn’t the case for everybody.
“We were one of the luckier ones,” said Mace, an office manager at Villa Alameda.
She’s certainly appreciative of the turnout – “We have no complaints.” But she’s noticed something that’s been trending lately: earlier farewells. Although Easter, a common season-closer for many, came at the end of March this year, Mace has seen people leaving for their northern homes sooner for at least the past couple of years, and she’s not sure why.
“I cannot believe all the people that have left this early in the year.”
It was a similar story at another smaller park, OG RV Resort Park. Manager Debbie Saunders said her 146-space community doesn’t have high turnover. (She credits word-of-mouth, resident-led activities and roomier individual spaces.) So while it’s quiet now, at the peak of the season she was at 100%.
“We were completely full. I was turning away people,” she said.
But Saunders was also hearing that not every park was as packed. RVers coming by to check out the park said they found other parks with more empty pads than usual. And Saunders, too, has noticed for a few years now that people are headed to their summer homes sooner.
“Folks, especially our Canadian friends, are not staying quite as long as they could,” said Saunders, who is herself a seasonal resident from Washington state and has been at OG for eight seasons. She’s headed back north in May.
“Most seasons end about mid-April or so, but a lot of them are going home now by the end of March.”
According to Yuma Stats, RV park occupancy was at least slightly down for the 2012-2013 winter visitor season.
In January and February, when part-timers historically reach their zenith, the parks were only about 81% and 86% full, respectively. In January 2012, the parks were 85% full; in February of last year, they were at about 91%. That’s out of about 15,000 spaces around the region.
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Three blasts from the air horn signaled the last of many goodbyes. With that, as reported by the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press, the 40-foot motor home with Bill and Marsha Rowe and German wirehaired pointers Dieter and Gretchen lumbered away. Destination: New Boston, southwest of Detroit.
“We’re all leaving: It’s just a matter of time,” said Dick Werning, a neighbor of the Rowes at San Carlos RV Park near Fort Myers Beach.
Werning and the Rowes are Southwest Florida snowbirds — that human species who help make the local economy purr between November and April.
This month, improving weather, family and business ties beckon them north. It’s a bittersweet time for many snowbirds — and for the local businesses who count on their dollars during “season.”
The week following Easter also marks the beginning of the end for local tourism’s “high season,’ when visitor demand is highest and hotel rates peak.
At stake: In Lee County, a $2.4 billion-a-year local industry that employs almost 43,000 people. In Collier County, a $1.4 billion industry accounting for an estimated 32,300 jobs.
By all accounts, Southwest Florida had a slam-dunk good season. Business leaders credit improving consumer confidence, decent weather here — and bouts of bitter temperatures in New England and the Midwest.
“Season started early, and stayed strong,” said Gary Locke, operations director for SunStream Hotels & Resorts’ six properties in Lee and Collier counties.
“We had an extraordinary amount of group business. And, our leisure business was up considerably over last year,” said Hunter Hansen, managing director of the Waldorf Astoria Naples.
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Florida Outdoors RV is readying its new site in Okeechobee for the annual influx of snowbirds, anticipating strong sales at the strategic location that was purchased in July.
“The store is located in south-central Florida and is a hotbed for snowbirds,” said John McCluskey, owner of the company’s flagship store in Stuart for the past eight years. “We had sort of a soft opening in July, which is our off-season, just to get everything in place and work out all the bugs. We felt it was a good time to buy. The economy is back and the environment is right to expand.”
McCluskey said the decision also hinged on a couple of other well-known real estate maxims, starting with “location, location, location.”
“The new store is right next to one of the country’s largest KOA’s, boasting 1,000 RV sites, a golf course, a couple of swimming pools and all sorts of other amenities,” he said. “It pretty much guarantees that we are going to get good traffic when the park fills up. We are also right along Highway 441, which is a major north-south artery in the state.”
And then there is good timing.
“Florida Outdoors RV is a Route 66 dealership, and at our annual meeting it was announced that we had gone into a joint promotion with KOA that gives their members 10% off on parts and accessories at our store,” McCluskey said. “Needless to say, we’ve had some discussions for co-marketing the dealership and KOA.”
Florida Outdoors RV is operating in an existing 20,000-square-foot facility that formerly housed another RV dealership.
“Because of the proximity with KOA, there used to be four dealerships in the area,” McCluskey said. “But they all went under when the economy dumped.”
The Okeechobee store, located on five acres, is a full service dealership, retailing gas motorhomes and a full range of towables along with operating parts and service departments. Currently 10 people are employed at the location.
“So far sales have been what we expected,” McCluskey said. “We know it’s going to be a seasonal store. But we’re very excited about the opportunities and are geared up for strong sales from the snowbirds this winter.”
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RV resort operators across Southern California anticipate a strong winter season, with reservations and occupancies running ahead of last winter’s figures.
“Reservations are looking very strong this winter,” said Daniel Wright, general manager of the Springs at Borrego RV Resort in Borrego Springs, which added 53 RV sites last winter to accommodate rising demand.
But even though Wright increased the size of his park by 60%, he still has more snowbirds than he can accommodate. “We are already in a waiting list situation for February for stays of 30 days or more,” he said.
Paula Turner, who owns and operates Shadow Hills RV Resort in Indio, said her park would be filled up with snowbirds this winter. “We’re completely booked,” she said, adding she’s also gearing up to accommodate guests attending the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals in the spring.
Winter bookings are also up at Newport Dunes RV Resort in Newport Beach as well as Campland by the Bay in San Diego. “We are way up at both properties,” said Michael Gelfand, who manages both resorts. “2012 has been approximately 5% better than 2011 and (winter) reservations at both parks are up over 7%.
La Jolla-based SunLand RV Resorts, which owns and operates seven RV resorts across Southern California, also anticipates a strong season. SunLand’s properties include Golden Village Palms RV Resort in Hemet and Emerald Desert RV Resort in Palm Desert.
Park operators throughout Southern California attributed the growth in business to improvements they’ve made to their parks as well as the growing array of activities that are now available at many RV parks and resorts that are frequented by snowbirds.
Golden Village Palms, for example, recently added four pickleball courts and remodeled its exercise room and equipped it with new exercise equipment as well as a large flat screen television.
Springs at Borrego RV Resort has added a large amphitheater to accommodate large outdoor events. The resort is also offering massages for couples as the latest amenity from its on-site spa and wellness center.
“Over the summer, our pool and spas were completely replastered and the pool deck was resurfaced, so the pool area is like brand new,” Wright said, adding that he is also adding a propane fire pit near the pool area that will create a cozy gathering place on chilly winter evenings.
“Another thing that some RVers may be interested in is the configuration of our new ‘Fairway Sites,’ which border right on the 2nd and 5th fairways of the golf course,” Wright said. “These ultra-deluxe 40-by-80 RV sites are double-loaded, meaning power, water, cable TV and sewer are located on both sides of the 18- by 70-foot concrete slab, allowing folks to park a motor home headed in or backed in, their choice.”
There already have been sightings of vehicles in Yuma, Ariz., with out-of-state license plates from places like Washington, Oregon and other northern climes.
They herald the start of the annual winter season, when thousands of people from up North migrate to Yuma to bask in the sunshine, preferring shuffleboard for their activity of choice over shoveling snow, the Yuma Sun reported.
Last winter, slightly more than 80,000 winter visitors descended on Yuma. That’s fewer than in some years but still a big temporary increase to Yuma’s population and an infusion of an estimated $600 million to the local economy, Jon Heidrich told the audience at the Oct. 18 meeting of Know Yuma Inside and Out.
Heidrich, who owns and operates Shangri-La RV Resort with his family, was one of the speakers for the monthly business forum that focuses on various elements of the local economy.
The typical winter visitor is a retired blue-collar worker or farmer coming to the Southwest to get out of the cold, Heidrich said.
“We fondly refer to them as the Old Guard. They’re happy to get a reasonable place to stay and sunshine.”
But things are changing, he said.
“We’re seeing the front end of the baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1965. There’s 78 million of them … 35% of the U.S. adult population. It’s a huge segment.”
And they’re reaching retirement age by the millions every year. As they do, they want it all, Heidrich said.
They want a busy and active lifestyle from swimming and tai chi, to hiking and scuba diving. They want to be entertained and they’re very much into volunteering, Heidrich said.
And if you think shuffleboard is a game for the “Old Guard,” think again, he said. Four couples who stay at Shangri-La helped put on an international shuffleboard tournament in Seattle that drew people from 11 countries, with a whole division for those 17 and younger.
The challenge for Yuma is how to attract the emerging winter visitors to Yuma and then get them to stay, Heidrich said. They’re on the Internet, and a Facebook presence is a must for park owners, he said. And good service is key.
“The first thing,” said Mac McCann, director of operations for Palms RV Resort, “is get to know your customer. The ‘boomerbird’ is different from the ‘snowbird’ with their demands and expectations.”
They have every intention of enjoying their retirement, and many of them are getting a head start with long vacations in the cold winter months, he said.
They’re also a more affluent group. McCann noted that last year, 50% of the Palms RV residents were in motorhomes valued from $150,000 to $2 million.
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Southwest Florida tourism is touting one of it’s most successful seasons to date. Still, some business owners fear the season won’t stretch due to the unseasonably warm weather across the country.
WINK News reported that Sanibel Island’s Kona Kai Motel & Cottages started off the season stronger than ever.
“January and February were complete sell-outs. I did at least 30-40% more than last year,” Kona Kai owner Brenda Cosentino said Tuesday.
But as unseasonably warm temperatures blanket much of the country, the phone isn’t ringing quite as much this month. Online inquiries for the motel are down dramatically, causing management to roll out spring specials early.
“I’m a bit anxious about April, because it’s spring up north. No matter how much I pray for blizzards for Minnesota, Chicago, and New York, they’re not coming!” Cosentino laughed.
Still, some snowbirds say they’re staying put. Wisconsin-native Bob Dineen is parked at Sanibel’s Periwinkle Campground. Despite the warmer weather back home, he and friends aren’t cutting their stay short.
“I’ve got friends at home calling me and saying it’s 78, 80 degrees. They’ve been saying that for the last month! Why am I in Florida? My only response is because we have palm trees in Florida,” Dineen chuckled.
According to Naplesnew.com, many Southwest Florida RV parks and resorts are reporting warm winter in the North had little effect on their businesses.
“Year to year, most of our clients leave the last two or three weeks in April, and it hasn’t been any different this year,” said Diane Eager, owner of Cottage to Castle, a Naples home watch services company. “In fact, one of the services we provide is an airport drop-off or pick-up, and during those last few weeks in April we are going to be very busy.”
Naples RV park resorts such as Neapolitan Cove and Harmony Shores reported that “a few” northerners left early, but that overall, business was up.
“Some of our people have left earlier than usual, but not very many,” said Wanda Dearth, manager of Neapolitan Cove RV Resort. “I think our occupancy is still even higher than last year. We were booked up the entire time.”
Winter visitors seem to be staying longer in Casa Grande, Ariz., this season, partially because high gas prices have kept them from moving around, TriValleyCentral.com reported.
According to three RV park managers in Casa Grande, located between Phoenix and Tucson, a number of factors are contributing to the prolonged stay of some.
“I’ve noticed a lot more people are staying longer,” said Sally Johnson, manager of Sundance 1 RV Resort on Thornton Road. “I’d say the cause is that gas prices are getting up there and the weather here is much nicer than back home.”
Wendell Johnson, general manager of Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort, agreed, saying, “Our longer stays are up 20% this year. They seem to be coming for longer periods of time — three to five months.”
Johnson attributed this phenomenon to rising gasoline prices and residents of his park embracing the community. “RVers are used to moving around and staying different places,” he said. “But gas has prohibited that this year. They seem to be staying here longer instead.
“One of the reasons our residents come to Casa Grande is for the small-town feel,” Johnson said. “The longer they stay, the more they become a part of the community.”
Casita Verde RV Resort manager Kathy Wallick noted that the Canadian visitors in her park — which she said is roughly half — are the most active. “The Canadians are great,” she said. “They want to be a part of everything in the park and in the community.”
The sense of community among winter visitors has been a growing trend, said Greater Casa Grande Chamber of Commerce CEO Helen Neuharth. “Our winter residents support our local businesses by spending money here, but they also have an overwhelming sense of community. They have been volunteering at the chamber more and more.”
Wallick said that while gas prices may be affecting winter visitors who come out in RVs, the media coverage has been making it worse. “Yes, the prices are going up, but when you hear about it all the time it just keeps reminding everyone.”
What worries Wallick, she said, is if the prices continue to rise. “What I’m concerned about is if the gas goes up as high as they say it will — up to $5 per gallon — what next season will be like.”
A generational change is under way in the nation’s snowbird population. According to a press release, sounds of the “Big Bands” are increasingly being replaced by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Foreigner.
And while Sunbelt RV resorts still have plenty of bridge tables, today’s health conscious snowbirds are more likely to engaged in water aerobics or water volleyball, playing tennis or bocce ball or riding their bicycles or hiking on nature trails.
“The Baby Boomers have arrived,” said Paul Bambei, president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), the Denver-based trade association that represents the outdoor hospitality industry. “And RV parks and resorts are responding by providing a greater variety of activities and entertainment. Some have even established health and wellness centers.”
Art Martin, activities director for the Fountain of Youth Spa and RV Resort in Niland, Calif., has seen the generational change unfold before his own eyes. “When I took over as activities director 15 years ago,” he said, “we had 20 activities a week. Now we have 86 activities a week.”
This winter, Golden Village Palms RV Resort in Hemet, Calif., is offering more than 200 different activities, plus a greater variety of activities and entertainment than most small towns, including dances, dinner shows and every flavor of musical entertainment
“We are getting a lot of new RVers because of the concerts and events,” said resort manager Michael Carle. “They definitely want to be active.”
Some RV resorts are also offering on-site spa and wellness center services.
Consider the Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course in Borrego Springs, Calif. Three winters ago, the resort opened a wellness center led by Anna Morris, a holistic health practitioner and expert in Ayurvedic massage who trained with Deepak Chopra and Dr. Vasant Lad, two of the nation’s premier experts in holistic health medicine. Morris is joined by Amy Baay, a licensed massage practitioner, and Betty Patterson, a licensed acupuncturist who also does herbal medicine and teaches classes in Qi Gong, an energy building exercise with slow body movements.
The growth in activities and entertainment is helping many RV resorts to increase their occupancies this winter season.
Tim Deputy, general manager of Sun N Fun RV Resort in Sarasota, said his business is way up from last year’s figures, with a 20% increase in RV site rentals and a 27% increase in park model rentals. He said the park is “fully booked” for February and March.
He attributed the increase in part to the resort’s new indoor pool and wellness center, which was completed in time for the winter season. “It’s just insane,” Deputy said. “I’ve never seen so many people working out in the resort.”
More snowbirds are rolling down to Southwest Florida in a winter house-on-wheels this year, providing a boost to area RV resorts and campgrounds idled by the recession.
According to the Bradenton Herald, it’s still not quite like the boom days, when reservations were needed a year in advance and visitors would stay for the entire spring. But with Florida in the midst of its peak tourism season, RV resorts say business is accelerating.
Many snowbirds are coming down with no notice. Others are splitting time between resorts in different parts of the state.
The trend has been driven by Baby Boomers, more spontaneous and energetic than full-time retirees, who now are catching up on the trips postponed during the downturn.
“We’re definitely seeing an uptick,” said Bobby Cornwell, executive director of the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds. “The parks really rely on winter season to get them through slow times. Luckily, the snowbirds and Baby Boomers are coming.”
Cornwell said tentative consumers, still wary of the economy, have changed their travel habits. They’re not taking those extended stays at luxury hotels, and that bodes well for Florida — especially RV resorts along the Gulf.
The state’s 800 RV parks are coming off two years where occupancy held relatively steady around 60%, according to the association.
Park operators predict rates this year to climb closer to 80% for high season, which generally runs from late January to Easter.
Most of the snowbirds are driving their RVs from Canada and the Great Lake states, with about 5 million RV campers expected to visit Florida in 2012 — lifting revenues at gas stations, attractions and restaurants.
Weather trends both here and up north also will play a deciding factor in that tally, said Pat Vamora, spokeswoman for Equity LifeStyle Properties, which owns 180 resorts across the country, including 10 between Manatee and Sarasota counties.
“We’ve seen some strong activity in our Sunbelt states,” Vamora said. “It’s still an affordable option for a customer coming from the East Coast who doesn’t want to endure that winter.”
The recession forced many of the industry’s mom and pop operations to close, with mega corporations buying out the small players. But those companies have reinvested in new amenities, which has actually brought more RV travelers to Florida.
Carefree RV Resorts, which operates 28 parks in the state, including three in Manatee, has seen monthly RV site rentals grow 4% from the same time last year, said David Napp, the company’s CEO.
The trend is mostly consistent throughout the 28 registered parks in Manatee-Sarasota area.
“Things are picking up a little bit, and we’re hoping each year gets better,” said Sharon Chastain, property manager at the Winter Quarters Manatee RV Resort in Bradenton. “It’s not the same snowbird season we had eight years ago. We’re filling up, but not to the point where we’re parking people everywhere to squeeze them in.”
Interest in RVs is growing among baby boomers nearing retirement. Many are renting a rig first to test the waters. Lending also has become more accesible for those intrested in buying.
Generally the larger parks that offer more activities and amenities have seen the strongest rebound, with business at its best along the state’s West Coast, said Tim Deputy, general manager of the Sun-N-Fun Resort and Campground in Sarasota.
Sun-N-Fun has seen a 20% increase in RV site rentals and a 27% jump in park model rentals from a year ago. The resort is fully booked for February and March, Deputy said.
He attributes the gains largely to the resort’s new indoor pool and workout room. Improvements in the economy haven’t hurt.
“It’s definitely a good season,” Deputy said. “This time of year snowbirds are the business. The whole industry has seen an increase.”
RV parks and resorts in popular snowbird destinations across Arizona are reporting occupancies consistent with last winter’s figures, with some parks experiencing slight increases in occupancies over last winter.
“I think that, if anything, we see a little comeback in the economy. Even 1 or 2 percentage points is a little bit of a boost in the economy,” said Jo Ann Mickelson, executive director of the Arizona Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.
“We are having a very good year,” said Jim Beach, general manager of National Mobile Development, which owns the 1,800-site Mesa Spirit RV Resort in Mesa. “Our reservations were up 2% to 3%, but my sense is we’re up a little bit more than our reservations told us we were.”
Wendell Johnson, general manager of the 1,863-site Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort in Casa Grande, said his occupancies are also up. “I would say that right now we’re about 3% over last year, and we had one of our best years last year,” Johnson said. He added that Palm Creek will be filled to capacity or very close to it by the middle of February. “That’s when we hit our maximum,” he said.
Saundra Bryn, who operates Desert’s Edge RV Village in Phoenix, said her business has also been trending upward in recent years, though last year was especially busy at her park because her winter snowbirds were supplemented by insurance adjusters, roof and dent repair specialists who spent several months at her park after the city experienced a major hailstorm.
Further south, winter business levels are also in sync with last winter’s figures at the two Rincon Country RV Parks in Tucson, according to park operator George O’Leary. He added that the winter snowbird business remains strong in southern Arizona, particularly at parks that are continuing to improve their facilities and amenities.
Parks in the Yuma area are also having a good winter, including Rolle’s Lynda Vista RV Park. “Things are busy,” said park manager Ruth Conti. “I haven’t had a cancellation in years.”
Mickelson, for her part, owns J and H RV Park in Flagstaff. But even though northern Arizona is in the midst of winter’s grip, she’s already receiving reservations for the coming summer.
“I’m having lots of reservations and inquiries coming in every day now,” she said. “That’s a good sign. That’s what we want. I feel people are thinking about what they want to do, whether it’s for the winter months or the summer.”
For more information about winter business levels at RV parks and resorts in Arizona, contact Mickelson at the Arizona Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, at (602) 493-6196. The association is the Arizona affiliate of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, the national voice of the outdoor hospitality industry. Visit their respective websites at www.gocampinginarizona.com and www.gocampingamerica.com.