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.
As Florida heads into its peak winter season, many RV parks and resorts are reporting growing numbers of snowbirds who are showing up at the last minute without reservations, while others are splitting their time between resorts in different parts of the state.
“The Baby Boomers are coming now,” said Lynda Phelps, owner of Up River RV Resort in Fort Myers. And unlike snowbirds of years past, who would book sites for the whole season, Phelps said Boomers are more likely to book campsites at the last minute, often calling from the road.
“They are more tentative, probably because they are just getting their feet wet” in seeing what Florida has to offer, she said.
But even if they only make a reservation for one night, Phelps finds that her winter guests often wind up staying for a week or more, once they get an idea of her park’s amenities, which include a heated swimming pool and spa; a 9-hole non regulation golf course; tennis; bocce ball; and fishing and kayaking along the Caloosahatchee River.
Even though today’s winter visitors are more spontaneous, Phelps said her winter business levels are strong. “Our business is up over last year,” she said. “We’re having a good 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.”
John Parkhurst, manager of Holiday Travel Resort in Orlando, said occupancies at the 935-site park are consistent with last winter’s figures, though he is also experiencing a large influx of snowbirds who show up at his park without reservations. “We’re getting people who are staying longer,” he said. “They come in for a month and they stay longer.”
Carefree RV Resorts, which operates 28 resorts in Florida, is seeing growing demand for RV site rentals this winter.
While the company’s daily/weekly and monthly occupancies are flat this month compared to last January, daily/weekly and monthly RV site rentals are up 3% and 4%, respectively, in February, said David Napp, the company’s CEO.
Across Florida, business levels appear to be strongest along the West Coast, with parks in other areas of the state reporting business levels that are either flat or slightly down from last winter’s figures, said Bobby Cornwell, executive director of the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.
Chris Long, a general manager and partner at Central Park of Haines City, said occupancies are down 3% to 4% at his park this winter, which he attributes in part to “jumpers,” snowbirds who split the winter in different parks to see what the different regions of Florida have to offer.
But while his overall occupancies are down this winter, Long is seeing exceptionally strong demand for park model rentals at his park. “Either they have an RV and gave it up or they want to try it before they buy a park model or another RV,” he said, adding, “The rental market is strong.”
Bill Harvey, who owns and operates Cross Creek RV Resort in Arcadia, said his business is about 6% ahead of last winter’s figures. “The activity is very strong,” he said.
For more information about winter business levels at RV parks and resorts in Florida, please contact Bobby Cornwell at the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, at (850) 562-7151. The association is the Florida affiliate of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, the national voice of the outdoor hospitality industry. Visit their respective websites at www.campflorida.com and www.gocampingamerica.com.
Thirty years ago, Arizona’s snowbirds were a largely monolithic flock. They stowed months of supplies in their RVs and fled the cold Midwestern winters to soak up the sun at mobile-home parks in the state’s East Valley.
Most were middle-class retirees who launched their migration in the fall and created their own fleeting societies, venturing into nearby communities for food and fun. By May, their trailer courts were empty, the Arizona Republic reported.
Snowbirds, also known as seasonal residents, have since evolved into a richly diverse group. They arrive in the Phoenix area at different times, live throughout the Valley and vary by age, income, state or country of origin, housing preference, political impact and social habits.
Canadians, motivated by their suddenly strong dollar, are now descending in droves, many abandoning Florida’s sunny beaches for the desert landscapes and lower property taxes of the Southwest.
Baby Boomers in their 50s or even late 40s — at least those who can afford to buy second homes or condos — are a newer breed of winter visitor. As the Vietnam generation eases out the World War II generation, they buy property in favorable markets and gradually spend more time in the state as they near retirement.
Modern snowbirds have become somewhat invisible, easily assimilating into the neighborhoods around them, from age-restricted communities in the northwest Valley to affluent condo complexes in Scottsdale. Many are choosing to become permanent residents by their late senior years.
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Carefree RV Resorts in Florida are making an offer many snowbirds will find hard to refuse: free rent in November and December, provided they pay for January, February and March up front.
“This offer only applies to snowbirds who haven’t stayed with us before,” Stephanie Martin, a Carefree spokeswoman, stated in a news release. The special offer does not cover taxes and electricity charges.
Carefee is offering the promotion as part of an ongoing effort to step up its competition with other RV resorts in Florida that cater to snowbirds during the winter months. “We think this offer will help us entice snowbirds who haven’t stayed with us before,” Martin said.
Carefree has more than 25 RV resorts in Florida, including the Florida Keys. All properties have a wide variety of amenities including, clubhouse, swimming pool and planned activities programs. Some properties also have rental units, which can accommodate people who don’t have their own RV.
Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Carefree RV Resorts offers a wide variety of RV campgrounds throughout Florida, Texas, New Jersey, California and Massachusetts for every type of RV vacation. For more information, visit the company’s website at www.carefreervresorts.com.
Milt and Kay Olson spend every Christmas in north central Wisconsin with their children and grandchildren, enjoying a meal together, sharing stories of Christmases past and exchanging gifts, according to a report in the Wassau Daily Herald. Then they take down the Christmas tree, load up the fifth-wheel trailer and head south to escape the below-zero temperatures and snow.
The Olsons, who live in the town of Weston, are some of the more than one million “snowbirds” in the U.S. and Canada who flee winters in colder climes for Florida, Arizona, Gulf Shores, Ala., and other refuges. Snowbirds flee the frozen north to live in retirement communities, RV parks and condominiums where they walk the beaches, play golf and participate in other social activities while Wisconsin residents count the days until summer.
The Olsons stay in Wisconsin longer than most snowbirds, who typically are getting ready to hit the road right about now — as leaves turn and temperatures drop near freezing at night. The recession, high gasoline prices and a struggling housing market haven’t slowed the migration.
Milt and Kay Olson, for example, retired in the early 2000s from jobs at Northcentral Technical College. They decided it was time to go someplace warm, but they weren’t content on picking just one place. They bought a fifth-wheel trailer and a pickup and alternate among Arizona, Texas and Florida, staying at RV parks for three months and seeing sights throughout the area.
“In the grand scheme of things, the price of fuel is the biggest factor,” Milt Olson, 65, said. “It adds a couple hundred dollars, but you don’t decide to stay home for that.”
Tracking the number of snowbirds is difficult because studies are inconsistent and dated. A University of Arizona State study found that more than 300,000 winter residents were living in Arizona at the height of the 2002-03 winter season. A University of Florida study showed that 818,000 people spent the winter of 2005 in that state.
Stefan Rayer, a researcher for the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at UF who conducted the 2005 study, said the economic downturn and high unemployment likely have caused that number to drop slightly in recent years.
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As gas and diesel prices climb past $4 per gallon in Southern California, some snowbirds in ecreational vehicles say the rising costs could keep them closer to home, Palm Springs’ The Desert Sun reported.
They include Larry and Vivian Wiebe, who drive each year to the Coachella Valley from Alberta in their RV and are parked at the Palm Springs Oasis RV Resort in Cathedral City.
Fuel prices have risen about a dollar a gallon since the couple spent $579 on gasoline in November to make the 1,500-mile trip. Now, they’re faced with paying considerably more to get back home.
“It’s a strain. (But) we have to get back,” Larry Wiebe said.
If prices stay this high, the Wiebes said they may visit the Coachella Valley every other year instead of annually.
The price spike came late enough last year that it didn’t hurt local RV park occupancy, operators say. But they’re watching those prices closely and are worried that gloomy predictions of $5 gas will lead many RV owners to leave their rigs in the driveway.
“Are we concerned? Yes,” said Greg Sidoroff, vice president of Sunland RV Resorts, which operates Emerald Desert RV Resort in Palm Desert. “We just hope that our great guest service and marketing efforts will carry us through.”
Thousands of RV enthusiasts escape cold, cloudy hometowns each year to relax at the 20 or so parks from Desert Hot Springs to the Salton Sea. They spend money at local shops and restaurants, and provide cities with transient occupancy tax.
But driving homes-on-wheels that get 10 to 12 miles per gallon makes most RV owners extremely sensitive to fluctuations in pump prices.
“We’ve had a few cancelations across the system, but not a great panic as the last time,” Sidoroff added, referring to 2008, when prices at some California gas pumps hit $5 a gallon.
That $5 mark is the “psychological barrier” that keeps many RVs off the road, he said.
Sonoma County resident Roland Mellor agrees. He drove his RV to Cathedral City in March with his wife, Bev, for an annual gathering with friends. The couple usually visits Arizona, too, but gas prices prompted them to limit the trip to the valley.
“We look forward to the sunshine,” Mellor said. “Arizona lost out, Palm Springs made it.”
But if diesel prices were closer to $5, he’d consider canceling the trip altogether, he added.
Some RV enthusiasts are dodging the gas prices by avoiding the drive home entirely. Shadow Hills RV Resort in Indio just “had our best year ever” thanks in part to a new offer that allows visitors to store RVs on site for six months, said Paula Turner, the park’s co-owner.
“It’s cheaper for them to fly down and store it for six months,” Turner said.
For the return trip to Alberta, the Wiebes plan to prepare meals instead of spending at restaurants along the way to help offset costs.
“We won’t be eating, we just have to buy gas,” said Anna Calvert, also of Alberta.
It may be the first week of December, but 80-degree temperatures persist in Tucson, Ariz.
That’s exactly why hundreds of people up North pack up their things and head to the desert for the holidays. But, in a rough economy with controversy surrounding the state’s immigration law, some tourist industry workers were worried about this season, KGUN-TV, Tucson, reported.
Cactus Country RV Park manager Dan Workman admits he was worried amid talk of boycotts and gas prices, but as the season begins, he’s pleasantly surprised.
“The tourism is good for us this year,” he said, “The whole thing about boycotting Arizona has not affected us here at the park so that’s a good thing for us.”
Workman’s 284 lots are 80% full, and booked solid after Christmas. He also credits the failure of a popular rival RV park, Beaudry RV Resort, this Fall.
“When Beaudry did shut down, those guests actually started flooding area parks,” he said, “and we did take quite a few Beaudry guests in and they’re still coming in at this time.”
One of those was Suzie Nations, a first-time Arizona visitor from Texas.
“We pulled into the parking lot there and found that it was closed down,” she said, “That was a real shocker so we needed to find a place for the night and the next day we ended up here.”
For other winter arrivals this year, no boycott, bankruptcy or bad economy could stop their stay. Ed and Helen Niederhuth from Iowa have been married for 56 years, and they’ve been wintering in Tucson for the past 33.
“We just enjoy this beautiful weather and not shoveling snow,” said Helen, “it’s like a second family, so we come back and they come back and it’s a great time.”
Justin’s Diamond J RV Park has been operating for the past 3 years in Tucson. Management says they’ve been growing in visitorship each year, and expect to do so again.
While representatives from Crazy Horse RV Park say so far they’re seeing fewer visitors, they have high hopes for a post-December rush.
For all the oil spill claims and cleanup work by BP, retirees from the North may be the best survival bet for some Gulf Coast resort towns this winter, ABC News reported.
After a disastrous summer tourism season and a slower-than-normal fall, Northern and Midwestern visitors known as “snowbirds” already are flocking along the Gulf for the winter, filling up condominium parking lots and campgrounds with cars and RVs from states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana.
This annual migration of the AARP set is worth millions to the coastal economy and typically serves a financial bridge for tourist-dependent condominiums, restaurants and stores between the holidays and the start of spring break season, when business picks up again.
This year, snowbirds are critical for the companies and property owners who have suffered for months because of the BP oil spill. Without the snowbirds, some businesses teetering on the edge of solvency may not make it until the weather warms up again.
“You take that away when they didn’t have anything to start with and you start a whole new tier of desperation,” said Tony Kennon, mayor of this beach town on the Alabama-Florida border.
The local tourism agency is advertising in the Midwest, inviting snowbirds to return to the coast. Winter rates always are far less than summer prices, with many condominium owners renting out their units to Northern visitors for months at a time. Some condominiums and motels are offering even lower prices than normal this year, with prices reduced by two-thirds at a few.
At the Gulf Breeze RV Resort in neighboring Gulf Shores, workers didn’t know whether snowbirds would be scared off by images of oil hitting beaches during the summer. Would they go elsewhere this year, perhaps to the East Coast or farther south into Central Florida?
Julie Kenney, who works at the RV park, was relieved to see campers from the Midwest begin arriving earlier than normal in late October. The resort’s 250 sites are now about 80% full, and it’s completely booked after Jan. 1 without any spill-related discounts.
Several California RV parks and resorts that cater to snowbirds are reporting stronger advance bookings for the upcoming winter season than last year at this time, according to an informal survey of private park operators.
“Business is looking up,” Debbie Sipe, executive director of the California Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (CalARVC) said in a news release. “Several of our affiliated parks in Southern California are reporting very strong bookings for the upcoming winter season.”
Of course, not every park is seeing an upswing in business. Campland on the Bay in San Diego and Rancho Los Coches RV Park in Lakeside both anticipate slight declines in their winter business compared to last year. But their experiences appear to be more the exception than the rule. Here’s what other park operators are seeing:
- Happy Traveler RV Park in Palm Springs: “We’ve been booked (for the upcoming winter season) since June,” said park owner Diane Marantz. She said the park has 125 to 130 sites and that the same people come back year after year.
- Fountain of Youth Spa in Niland: “Our rental units are booking up nicely,” said Jolene Wade, the park’s managing director, adding that the park’s winter RV site rental business is “on par or a little stronger than last year.”
- Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort and Marina in Newport Beach: Andrew Theodorou, the park’s general manager, says he anticipates his winter bookings to be “flat to a slight increase over last year.”
- Rancho Los Coches RV Park in Lakeside: This park’s winter business is expected to be down slightly from last year’s figures, according to park operator Bill Milligan.
- Shadow Hills RV Resort in Indio: “It’s unbelievable how we’re doing right now,” park owner Paula Turner said of the 120-site park. “We’re already at 93 (advance reservations) for Jan. 15 and 108 for Feb. 15.” Turner added that she has seen the pace of reservations accelerate at her park even though she has raised her rates. She attributes the increase to new snowbirds who have never come to her park before as well as her park’s dog friendly atmosphere. “We are very dog friendly,” she said. “I would say about 50% of our guests have dogs.”
- Sunland RV Resorts, which owns and operates RV resorts in Palm Desert, Hemet, San Diego, El Cajon and La Mesa: “We’re going to have as good of growth as we had last year and double digit growth at some of our facilities,” said Greg Sidoroff, operations manager for the La Jolla-based RV resort chain.
- The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course in Borrego Springs: Spaces at this 90-site RV resort are sold out for the January to March period with a waiting list of roughly 100 people, said Daniel Wright, the park’s general manager.