Snow in 49 of the 50 states is good news for the Sunbelt. According to a press release, campgrounds in southern California, Texas, Florida and Arizona are seeing a boom in occupancy for December–March with travelers seeking a respite from this winter’s ravaging snow and plummeting temperatures.
The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) reports that more than 1 million RVers will use their RV this winter to head to warmer climates, spending on average 12 weeks at campgrounds throughout the Sunbelt.
“RVing has always been popular in the winter months but this year has been exceptionally successful for campgrounds. Every segment of traveler is discovering that RVing is affordable, easy and most importantly, flexible,” says Richard Coon, RVIA president. “RVers can stay at a campground for as long as they would like or travel throughout the season without worrying about any long-term commitments, an option not afforded traditional seasonal rentals. If you want a new view, just pick up and go.”
The most popular Sunbelt state for snowbirds is Florida with campgrounds seeing an ever-expanding demographic of travelers who will spend the winter months working while escaping the cold weather.
“We are at 100% occupancy for February and March and up 20% for April over last year. This winter has been great for us,” Tim Deputy, general manager of Sun N Fun RV Resort in Sarasota. “We’re seeing the retirees that you would expect to be snowbirds, but also a growing number of younger folks who are telecommuting. With technology, you can really work anywhere, so why not spend the winter on the beach if you can?”
However, campgrounds are doing more than just relying on good weather and warm beaches to attract the competitive snowbird market. They’re adding amenities that rival traditional hotel resorts. Two years ago, Sun N Fun RV Resort opened an 18,000-square-foot spa and wellness center with an indoor swimming pool, infrared sauna and steam room. They also offer an onsite masseuse and sports therapist. Perhaps the most unique aspect of this campground is the Neurogym, equipped with computer programs and equipment that helps people learn how to reduce their stress and improve their mental wellbeing.
“One of our programs is called Peak Brain Happiness,” said Deputy. “It’s designed for golfers and tennis players. We also have programs that help people quit smoking and reduce weight, too.”
While such extensive health and wellness facilities may seem like extreme investments, Deputy said the resort is trying to be responsive to the needs of its guests, who range from single working professionals and families to empty nesters and retirees. “Many of our younger guests are interested in physical fitness, while many of our older guests are looking for tools to help rejuvenate themselves, both physically and mentally,” Deputy said.
Services and amenities are increasingly more important for a campground to compete with other snowbird accommodations. The Golden Village Palms RV Resort in Hemet, Calif., has garnered a reputation for outstanding entertainment seven days a week with tribute bands, jazz performances and dinner shows. They also cater to the pet-friendly traveler with a dog park and weekly Bark & Wine parties.
A significant portion of the snowbird community has always been RV travelers but a new trend is growing. Park models are cabin-like homes built on RV chassis and are perfect for people who don’t want to or can’t own an RV, but still want the luxury of a home-away-from-home for much less than a seasonal condo or apartment rental. Park models now outnumber RVs at the Sun N Fun RV Resort, with 600 RV sites, 810 privately owned park models and 105 park model rentals.
Kathi and John Volger have traded in their fifth-wheel RV and bought a park model that they keep at the Sun N Fun RV Resort. “We had snow in New Jersey before Halloween this year and it was dark by 4 p.m.,” Kathi Volger said. “We did a lot of sitting around complaining about the cold and couldn’t wait to get to Florida for the winter.” Because the Volgers own their park model, they can leave everything they want behind when they return home at the end of the season.
Arizona-based Carefree RV Resorts, which offers more than 10,000 RV and park model sites throughout the Sunbelt, expects to see a 6% increase in revenue over last winter. “The snowbird business is stronger than ever. The convergence of a steadily recovering economy, the demographic bulge of Baby Boomers who embrace travel and leisure, the ease of connectivity for travelers, and the growing appeal of RVing as a vibrant lifestyle will likely fuel growth for decades,” says Colleen Edwards, president of Carefree RV Resorts. “What’s particularly encouraging is that the snowbird season is extending every year with many of our guests, who have traditionally checked out in March, staying through April.”
Texas has seen a particularly robust season this year as well, with parks from the central part of the state, known as the Texas Hill Country, to the southern border of the Rio Grande Valley reporting a year-to-year increase ranging from 5% to 37%, that is credited to the severe winter weather in the north. But it’s not just the campgrounds that are benefiting from this winter’s frigid temperatures and record-breaking snow.
“According to a University of Texas Pan Am study of snowbirds, they spend nearly $100 a day when visiting Texas; so the economic impact to the whole community is significant,” says Brian Schaeffer, executive director and CEO of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).
Helping fuel this boom is the strong performance of the RV industry that is surging back from the great recession. Shipments in 2013 hit a four-year high of 321,127 units – up 12.4% over 2012 totals and nearly double the amount of RVs shipped in 2009 at the depth of the recession for the industry.
The chill of a 40-degree morning did not deter friends Sherry Bryant and Mary Vanderkooy from putting on their swimsuits and jumping into the outdoor Jacuzzi at Sunflower RV Resort this week.
“It’s not cold at all,” said Bryant, 65, a snowbird who has driven her RV to Surprise, Ariz., for the past six winters. “I love it here.”
As reported by the Arizona Republic, Bryant and Vanderkooy, both from Colorado, joined thousands of seasonal visitors who came to the West Valley last fall.
Although snowbirds have become increasingly difficult to count, this year appears to be the strongest for winter visitors since the Great Recession ended. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to stay in metro Phoenix this winter for up to six months, including a rising number of Canadians.
The annual snowbird trek leaves a substantial mark economically and culturally on the West Valley. The seasonal residents, often retirees, buy homes, fill restaurants, shop and visit Arizona tourist sites.
Snowbirds are vital to the West Valley economy, said Lorraine Pino, director of the Glendale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“They take in the local sights that local residents might forget to do,” Pino said. “This is their home away from home,” she said, noting many who have a home base in Arizona become “staycationers” during the winter.
Snowbirds typically are described as visitors who spend at least a month in the Valley.
In the West Valley, snowbirds make up close to a third of Sun City’s 38,500 residents, according to the Sun City Visitors Center. Real-estate agents say out-of-state Baby Boomers and Canadian snowbirds have been buying up homes and condominiums around the Valley that might have remained empty during the Great Recession.
Yet, traditional havens for winter stays — the mobile home and recreational vehicle — are thriving.
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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.”