Joseph Jackson says he is a “Winter Texan” rather than a snowbird.
As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after Christmas the retired newspaper photographer will hook up his 37-foot travel trailer to his Chevy Silverado pickup truck and head to south Texas for a couple of months, taking about a month to get there and a month to drive back to Madison.
“I just love it to death,” he said of the winter getaway, adding that he enjoys the leisurely journey as well as the destination.
His trailer has four slideout rooms for additional space, and a propane fireplace that takes the chill out of the cool winter mornings.
He and his wife, Linda, have been making treks south since 2008 and – judging from the recent rebound in recreational vehicle sales – they’re in good company. The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) expects overall shipments of RVs to be up about 68% this year from three years ago when the industry was mired in the recession.
“It’s not like the good old days, back in 2005, but it’s still an improvement,” said Kim DeHaan, owner of DeHaan RV Center in Elkhorn, Wis.
Experienced RV enthusiasts, many of them retirees, were among the first to return to the marketplace – if they left at all.
They’ve been followed by first-time RV users, many of them under age 40, with children at home, who are now a little more comfortable with their spending since the recession ended.
Banks have loosened up their lending standards, too, although the days of someone financing a $100,000 motor home with easy credit are largely over.
Now, travel trailers priced from $18,000 to $25,000 are the best sellers, according to DeHaan.
She didn’t order any new motor homes this year because they’re expensive to keep in inventory and too much of a financial risk for the dealership if they don’t sell.
Likewise, the most expensive travel trailers aren’t selling as well as they did before the recession.
“I think younger people, especially, are still gun-shy about taking on that kind of investment,” DeHaan said.
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Campgrounds and RV parks that cater to Winter Texans in South-Central Texas anticipate a stronger winter season than last year, thanks in part to the Eagle Ford shale oil pipeline project, which has brought scores of construction workers into the area, according to a news release from the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).
“Last winter was about the best we’ve ever had and we’re going to be about 20% ahead of that this winter, so we’re looking really good,” said Doug Shearer of Parkview Riverside RV Park in Rio Frio.
In addition to seeing the return of their Winter Texan visitors, campgrounds in the Texas Hill Country and other areas of South-Central Texas are filling up with construction workers involved in the Eagle Ford shale oil project, which is boosting campground occupancies during the fall shoulder season, Shearer said.
Other Hill Country campgrounds and RV parks also anticipate a strong winter season, including Hill Country RV Park & Cottage Rentals in New Braunfels. “We have a waiting list for both RV sites and park model rentals,” said Bryan Kastleman, the park’s manager.
Other parks are similarly upbeat.
“We did well last winter, but we’re doing better this winter,” said Teri Blaschke of Hidden Valley RV Park in Von Ormy. “People are making reservations further in advance, so we’re being able to tell sooner what our vacancies will be. I do have spots here and there for travelers, but our long-term sites are already booked.”
Blaschke added that she is putting in eight new campsites for the winter season and they are already reserved.
Further to the north, La Hacienda RV Resort in Austin is already booked solid for the winter season. “We’ve got a waiting list and we’re turning people away for the 2012-2013 winter market,” said park owner Ken Butschek, who added that his year-to-date revenue is up about 15 percent over last year’s figures.
La Hacienda RV Resort has a mix of sites that are owned by RVers as well as elegant park model cottages that are available for rent. The park also has about 30 sites that are available for overnight use.
“We have a loyal group of repeat Winter Texans. But we’re also seeing a lot of people who are trying out our park models,” Butschek said.
Further east, Rayford Crossing RV Resort in Spring and Timber Ridge RV Village in Tomball are already booked for the winter season, said Gwen Craig, who co-owns both parks. She said she has waiting lists for her seasonal sites, although she has kept a few overnight sites available for travelers.
“Every year we’ve outperformed the prior year in occupancy and revenue,” she said, adding that this year is again shaping up to be stronger than last year.
Thousand Trails RV Resort at Lake Conroe is also seeing a strong winter season, fueled both by Winter Texans as well as families from Texas that come to the park on weekends to take part in organized activities and special events.
“We’re seeing younger crowds,” said Terry Munoz, resort manager of the 360-site park. “Even during the winter the locals come out on weekends, so long as we have mild weather. We do a lot of themed weekends and activities.”
RV park operators in the Rio Grande Valley say all indications point to a successful year for Winter Texan visitors, according to a report by The Monitor, McAllen.
At South Padre Island, there’s been a 10% increase in the number of inquiries from prospective Winter Texans reports Lacey Ekberg, director of the Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). The CVB has received 5,000 to 6,000 calls per month since July, with most of those calls coming from the Midwest and northern states, including Illinois, Ohio and Minnesota.
“Given the number of inquiries, we do not expect less Winter Texan visitors than the previous year,” Ekberg said.
Some parks are able to get a hint of the coming season’s success based on the previous year’s park residents who take advantage of “early bird” discounts, or make their reservations far in advance of their return.
Fun N Sun RV Resort in San Benito, for example, offers a rate of $75 for the month of October, park spokeswoman Janie Paz said. Paradise Park RV Resort, in Harlingen last year offered a 5% “Early Bird Special” discount for some visitors who paid by June for the next winter. Other parks’ discount offers vary from year to year.
Winter Texans are big business in the Valley, injecting millions of dollars into the local economy every year. For the 2011-2012 season, Winter Texans had a $751 million direct economic impact on the Valley economy, according to statistics compiled by the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center at the University of Texas-Pan American.
Winter Texans usually begin showing up in the Valley around Oct. 1, said Penny Simpson, a UTPA professor of marketing and associate dean of the College of Business Administration and director of the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center.
“It’s just a trickle in October,” she said of the annual migration of retirees. “When they come is tied to the weather. The health of the retirees also determines whether they will return to the Valley each year.”
Visits by retirees from northern states and Canada dropped sharply after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, but eventually returned to nearly the levels of earlier years. A biannual survey by UTPA this January showed some drop in numbers of Winter Texans in a January count of seasonal visitors from two years ago.
Simpson said 133,400 Winter Texans came to the Valley last winter compared with 144,000 two years earlier.
A lackluster economy, drug violence in Mexico, fewer people retiring early, and health concerns have caused a drop in the number of Winter Texans visiting Rio Grande Valley RV parks this season, park managers and residents say.
According to a report by The Monitor, McAllen, Texas, numbers are down as much as 25% at many RV parks at the start of the season that runs from January through February, they said.
“They were great last year, but this year they’re down,” Barbara North, manager of First Colony Mobile and RV Park in San Benito, said.
First Colony has seen a 15% decrease due to the nation’s tough economy and fear of violence in Mexico, North said. “The numbers have grown until this year,” she said.
In 2010, the number of Winter Texans reached a record high, with 144,000 driving to the Valley, said Penny Simpson, a professor who researches tourism at the University of Texas-Pan American. The 2010 season saw numbers slowly rebounding from the slump that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she said. Before 9/11, the numbers had peaked at 143,000.
A summer 2011 survey of 130 Winter Texans hinted numbers could drop about 5% this winter, Simpson said. “We were trying to get a feel if the numbers were down,” Simpson said.
The survey asked whether health, gas prices, the economy or violence and terrorism would influence Winter Texans’ decision to spend the winter in the Valley, Simpson said. In her survey, Winter Texans cited health as the top factor behind their decision to stay home this year, Simpson said.
The Winter Texan industry is a major driver of the Valley’s economy, Simpson said, adding that in 2010, Winter Texans pumped $802.5 million into the local economy.
Anita Pearson, manager of Park Place Estates RV park in Harlingen said, “They’re a little down from what they were last year,” about 5 percent lower than last year, when the 859-site park was at 85% capacity.
Pearson blamed the drop on a national trend that’s leading Americans to work past the traditional retirement age of 65.
“People are working longer. They’re not retiring as young,” Pearson said. “We’re not getting early retirees because people are not retiring as early as they used to. They’re doing other things, like taking cruises and time shares and not staying in one place for six months.”
Barbara Baumhofer, a retired factory supervisor from Mora, Minn., said hard times and illness among an aging Winter Texan population dropped numbers from 7% to 10% at Victoria Palms Resort in Donna.
Bonnie Klaver said she hasn’t seen as many younger retirees at Texas Trails RV Resort in Pharr.
“The younger people aren’t coming down as much,” said Klaver, a retired farmer from Webster City, Iowa, who has spent 11 winters in the Valley. “They aren’t RVers. They probably don’t have the money to do it yet.”
For decades, the All Valley RV Show has been a top attraction for Winter Texans, but numbers have dropped from peak years in the mid-1990s, when attendance hit about 15,000, said Warren Kininmonth, the event’s chairman.
“This economy is affecting everyone,” said Kininmonth, who said he was counting on numbers to rebound from 8,000 last year. “It’s everywhere.”
License plates in the parking lot at the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show grounds in Mercedes, Texas, on Thursday (Jan. 12) ranged from Michigan and Wisconsin to Ohio and Illinois.
The Mercedes Monitor reported that Winter Texans and RV enthusiasts turned out in droves Thursday to inspect the latest in RVs and RV accessories at the All-Valley RV Show.
Luke and Sally Davis, from St. Charles, Mo., said they already own an RV, but have enjoyed coming to the show for the past few years to check out the latest models and technologies the industry is offering.
“We came here to see what kind of new products they got coming out,” Luke said. “We also just come up here for parts. I buy my fuel filters here and my air filters here.”
The show, which is the second-largest in Texas, features motorhomes, travel trailers, fift- wheels, campers and park models in addition to more than 90 booths of parts, supplies, services and travel and tour agents. Representatives from various campgrounds, resorts and other related organizations are also on hand.
Bill and Sharon Maginot, from Terrell, east of Dallas, came to the show for much the same reason as the Davises.
“We’re just window shopping,” Bill Maginot said.
Bob and Pam Johnson, who have an RV at South Padre Island for the next couple of months, were out enjoying a nice day.
“We’re not thinking about buying anything. It’s just a pretty day outside. So we’re just walking around and checking it out,” Bob Johnson said.
As morning turned to afternoon and clouds dissipated, making way for sunlight, more and more people arrived at the show.
All-Valley RV Show spokesperson Warren Kininmonth said the show usually draws about 10,000 visitors.
Last year, a bitterly cold “blue norther” and a flood affected attendance and only about 8,000 visitors showed up. He hopes this year to get back to the normal crowd.
“The weather hurt us a bit today,” he said Thursday as a cold wind blew. “But it picked back up, and we’re hoping to have about 10,000 visitors by the end.”
In addition to a plethora of RVs, motorhomes and related items, there will be live entertainment on the H-E-B Hot Spot stage throughout the show, which is a first. There also is will be a drawing for $500 that RV show visitors can enter.
Texas Campground operators, hurt by the state’s hot, dry summer, are anticipating a rebound this season because of “winter Texans,” those out-of-state residents who migrate to the warmer parts of the Lone Star State to avoid the coldest weeks back home.
“Many of our affiliates are reporting much higher bookings for the winter season than they experienced last year,” said Brian Schaeffer, executive director and CEO of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).
According to a report in the American-Statesmen, Austin, this summer’s drought hurt many RV parks and campgrounds, particularly those located on lakes or rivers.
“Last summer was the worst summer I’ve had in years due to the drought,” said Doug Shearer, owner of Parkview Riverside RV Resort in Concan, near Uvalde. “But our winter is looking good.”
Shearer said reservations were running 10% to 15% ahead of last winter.
Bryan Kastleman, managing partner at Hill Country RV Resort in New Braunfels, said his bookings are up because of more than just winter Texans. He said the surge in the San Antonio economy is creating a need for workers to find temporary places to stay.
“It’s looking really strong,” Kastleman said of the winter bookings.
Teri Blaschke, who co-owns the Hidden Valley RV Park in Von Ormy, just southwest of San Antonio, said she’s expanding because of temporary workers looking for housing.
“We’ve been full for the month, and there is no end in sight, which is wonderful,” she said.
RV parks that have park models are attractive to temporary workers.
Park models typically are 300 to 400 square feet, with the option of an additional 150 square feet of loft space for children. Some come with porches. Decks can be added once the model is anchored, its trailer hitch detached and its underside carriage hidden by skirting that matches the building’s exterior.
Ken Butschek, who owns La Hacienda RV Resort near Lake Travis, said his park models are attracting winter Texans who don’t want to drive their RVs over wintery roads.
“I’m getting a lot of people renting my park models this winter because they don’t want to rent an apartment or sign a lease,” Butschek said. “Here they don’t even have to turn on utilities. They just bring their clothes and food, and they’re good.”
Butschek said he is considering adding eight park models next year to his stock of 21 because of the winter traffic.
“It’s a market I didn’t plan on,” Butschek said.
City commissioners in San Benito, Texas, Tuesday (Dec. 6) agreed to consider revising a new ordinance that charges a base water and sewer fee to RV parks for empty spaces and for vacant apartments.
Winter Texans packed City Hall to protest the law that some warned would force small RV parks to shut down, the Valley Morning Star, Harlingen, reported.
Commissioners said they would also consider amending the ordinance’s clause that allows the city to charge a $10 base water and sewer fee for every vacant apartment unit.
Commissioners took the action a day after the city’s utility board voted 3-1 against changing the ordinance.
Commissioners would have to determine how to calculate the number of empty RV spaces and vacant apartment units if they agree not to charge them, Pete Claudio, chairman of the utility board, told commissioners.
Commissioners could rely on occupancy reports from RV parks and apartment complexes or assign a city employee to determine the number of empty spaces and vacancies, Claudio said.
“Be fair,” Bonnie Dominguez, manager of Fun N Sun RV Resort, said after the meeting.
Under the new ordinance, the city charges Fun N Sun $168,000 a year for the park’s 1,400 spaces, Dominguez said.
But as many of 300 of those spaces remain empty year-long because they are too small for bigger, late-model mobile homes and RVs, she said.
“It’s dead space,” Dominguez said. “There’s no toilet, no building, no unit. There’s nothing there but a meter and a sewer pipe.”
Winter Texans returned to City Hall on Tuesday to protest the new ordinance they warned would drive up rents and lead some park residents to move out of town.
“That $10 will be coming back to me and all of us with permanent homes there,” Alice Nash, a Fun N Sun resident, told commissioners.
The new ordinance that charges $10 for about 2,900 park spaces and apartment units in the city will generate about $348,000 a year to help boost city coffers amid a national recession that’s driven sales tax revenues to six-year lows, Claudio has said.
Monday, utility board members argued the ordinance makes RV parks and apartment complexes shoulder part of the burden of high water rates that have climbed since 2004. Single-family homes bear the brunt of average monthly base water and sewer fees of $49.68, they said.
A tough economy, high gas prices and violence in Mexico didn’t stop RaNay Elm from driving to the Rio Grande Valley to join Winter Texans whose numbers rebounded to hit a record last year.
According to a report by the Brownsville Herald, the Valley’s low cost of living helped lure her here, said Elm, a retired retail store manager from Topeka, Kan., who pulled into Fun N Sun RV Resort with her husband Marvin early this month to spend her first season as a Winter Texan.
“Price was a very big factor,” she said.
Winter Texans came to the Valley in record numbers last year after a decline that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, said Penny Simpson, a professor who researches tourism at the University of Texas-Pan American. “We’re back up to the (pre-Sept. 11) level,” she said.
But Mexico’s drug violence could cut numbers this year after news hit the Midwestern states that most Winter Texans call home, Simpson said.
Numbers hit a peak of 143,000, generating $329 million in 2001, before dropping off following the terror attacks that shocked the national economy, Simpson said. By 2005, numbers had fallen to 127,000.
But last year, 144,000 Winter Texans came to the Valley, setting a new record and pumping $802.5 million into the local economy, Simpson said.
“I think people are getting their confidence back,” she said.
Lon Huff, the manager at Sunshine RV Resort in Harlingen, said this year’s numbers are up. The park filled 89% of its 1,027 spaces last year, he said.
“We’re definitely ahead of last year, which was a very good year,” Huff said.
But at Country Sunshine RV Resort in Weslaco, Mexico’s violence is keeping some Winter Texans away, manager Melissa Cortez said. This year, bookings are down about 30% at the park with 377 spaces, she said.
“My numbers are a bit down this season,” Cortez said. “The publicity we’re getting because of the Mexico issue has really hit us hard. A lot of them don’t know they can still go to Progreso and it’s OK.”
High gas prices have led many Winter Texans to drive down in their cars and rent RVs at the park, Cortez said. “That’s a trend,” she said.
But gas prices didn’t stop Roy Ridlon from driving his 41-foot motorhome to Sunshine RV Resort in Harlingen. From his home in Embarrass, Minn., about 30 miles from the Canadian border, it cost nearly $1,000 to fuel up for the trip, said Ridlon, a retired operating engineer.
“To heat your home in the Snowbelt would cost more than the drive down here,” Ridlon said.
Returning Winter Texans Bill and Judy Zorrer are not letting the national economic slowdown and reports of border violence in Mexico affect their plans to travel to the Rio Grande Valley this winter, the Brownsville Herald reported.
“It’s something that appears very scary on the news,” Bill said about reports of kidnappings and shootings. “But we feel that (Nuevo) Progreso is still relatively safe.”
The Zorrers have made the Fun N Sun RV Resort in San Benito their winter home for the past three years. This year they plan to stay in the Valley until April.
“We sold our home and travel for a living now,” he said. “We can’t let the economy or anything else get in the way of the way we live our lives.”
They said that when they go to Mexico, they make sure to travel in a large group and only travel during daylight hours.
“To tell you the truth, (low) prices are what keep us going to (Nuevo) Progreso,” Bill said.
Fun N Sun office manager Bethlee Huff said she receives many calls from Winter Texans who are concerned about travel to Mexico and the safety of the park. Still, the park’s daily count sheet states that 280 RVs have arrived there so far this season, a number that is on track with other years.
“We don’t promote travel to Mexico,” Huff said. “But a lot of people call and ask us about the state of the border. Ultimately, they do end up going to Nuevo Progreso, because many Winter Texas have gone without any problems.”
Huff explained that Winter Texans arrive daily; many of them have taken part in the early bird special, which entices the Winter Texans to arrive early and stay later, at reduced rates.
“To qualify for the early bird, they must have booked by the end of March the previous season, and spend four or more months at the park,” Huff said.
Fun N Sun’s discount is $75 for October, compared to the park’s regular price of $362, Huff said. It also charges $99 for November and April, she said, adding that the regular price for those months is $469 and $428, respectively. The prices include water, cable TV plus the park’s amenities.
In Harlingen, Paradise Park manager Dan Pearson said he expects about 1,000 Winter Texans and 500 RVs to return this year, a number that is holding steady with the previous year.
“Winter Texans aren’t greatly affected by the economy like other groups,” Pearson said. “A lot of them have pensions, or money saved up.”
Pearson also supported the attitude that despite border violence, Winter Texans will still migrate here when the weather turns frosty in northern states.
“There really is no competing with the Valley,” Pearson said. “The climate in Florida is basically the same, and for a couple of thousand dollars cheaper, Winter Texans can come and enjoy all the Valley has to offer.”
Penny Simpson, head of the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center at the University of Texas-Pan American, believes that the number of Winter Texans staying in the Valley will continue to grow, unless an unforeseen national tragedy occurs.
“The only time Winter Texan numbers have diminished was after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11,” Simpson said. “The effect border violence will play in their decision to visit the Valley is not available yet, but it will be interesting to know if it’s going to play a role.”
Simpson has been researching the impact of Winter Texans on the Valley since 1986, and according to her findings, an estimated 144,000 Winter Texans pumped a total of $802.5 million into the Valley’s economy, during the 2009 season.
Simpson’s 1986 study found that a total of 77,000 Winter Texans were present that year and that each Winter Texan household spent an average of $2,500 during their stay.
Twenty-one years later, for the 2009 season, Simpson reported that the average household spent $10,700 during the winter season.
Huff and Pearson both cited gas prices as a concern for some returning Winter Texans. As a result, last year Fun N Sun kept an estimated 82 RVs in storage and Paradise Park held 30, the park managers said.
The spike in gas prices, which averaged around $4 per gallon in 2008, made it more economical for some Winter Texans to leave their RVs here, rather than tow them to their summer homes, Huff and Pearson said.
“During the gas crunch of 2008, many Winter Texans opted to leave their RVs in storage, because gas prices were incredibly high,” Huff said. “But if gas prices stay the way they are now, we won’t be seeing that in the coming year.”
For Donald and Barbara Seiwald, the choice to leave their RV behind last season was purely for convenience.
“We won’t be driving to the Valley until later this week,” Barbara Seiwald said from her home in Independence, Mo. “This is our fifth year leaving our RV at Sun N Fun, and it’s just a lot easier not having to worry about the drive, especially for older individuals like ourselves.”
She said that when they arrive, their RV would be sitting in their lot, prepped and ready for them.
“It saves us a lot of time and effort,” she said.
Driving from Urbana, Ohio, Judy and Kenneth Batterton said their return to the Valley took two days.
Judy Batterton said that this was their second year in the Valley and that hospitality and friendliness brought them back.
“The Valley and Florida are fairly similar,” she said. “But Floridians aren’t as friendly as Texans.”
The Battertons arrived only days after the Valley made national headlines when a Mexican investigator’s head was delivered in a suitcase to the Mexican military in Miguel Aleman. The investigator was looking into the disappearance of David Hartley, a case that has attracted national attention.
“That’s horrible,” Judy Batterton said. “We weren’t aware of the new developments in that case, but we still believe that traveling to specific parts of Mexico, like (Nuevo) Progreso is safe.”
Still, some Winter Texans like Jan Valdenna, who has been coming to the Valley with her husband Chuck since 1995, are concerned about traveling to Mexico.
“I will not be going as much,” Jan said. “It’s really unfortunate, because Mexico is such a beautiful place. I know couples limit their time in Mexico due to the violence.”
Huff and Pearson both expect the number of returning Winter Texans to remain strong and predict December through March to be peak season.
“They’re rolling in on a daily basis,” Huff said. “And that’s going to continue until we reach our peak.”
An online survey by Texas Campgrounds.com has confirmed what many park operators are reporting: There are more Snow Birds or ‘Winter Texans’ this winter than last winter, and they’re staying longer, according to a news release.
The survey found that 52% of Winter Texans plan to spend as much time wintering in Texas as they did last winter, while 35% plan to stay even longer. Only 13% of respondents were planning shorter stays, according to the online survey, which drew 1,250 responses in December and January.
“I was impressed with the fact that 87% of Winter Texans plan to spend as much time or longer wintering in Texas than last year,” said Brian Schaeffer, executive director and CEO of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO), which markets campgrounds, RV parks and resorts through TexasCampgrounds.com and TexasCabinRentals.net.
“I think you can attribute a lot of those longer stays to some bounceback in the economy,” he said, adding that colder than normal weather in Texas and other areas across the Sunbelt hasn’t deterred retirees from coming to the Lone Star State because it’s a lot colder up north. “All temperatures being equal,” Schaeffer said, “50 is 50 and 5 is 5.”
But the survey also revealed that many Winter Texans are cutting back other expenses in an effort to spend the winter in Texas. In fact, 37 percent of respondents said they were cutting expenses because their income had been reduced, while 52% said their income was the same as it was last winter. Eleven percent of respondents said their income had increased.
The survey also produced some unexpected findings, namely, that only a fraction of Winter Texans spend the season in the Rio Grande Valley. According to the survey, 38% of Winter Texans spend the season in the Hill County, with another 38% staying in parks along the Gulf Coast. Only 24% of respondents said they spend the winter in the Rio Grande Valley.
“This survey pretty much shatters the stereotype of where people spend the winter in Texas,” Schaeffer said. “It also suggests that younger winter visitors are coming into Texas and they’re exploring other areas of the state.” In fact, the survey found that only 26% of respondents planned to stay at one park for the whole season, with 74% of winter visitors planning to travel from one park to another throughout the winter season.
“This survey shows that ‘Winter Texans’ are much more mobile than they were in the past,” Schaeffer said. “This is a group that often travels and is increasingly spontaneous about where they go and how long they stay at each park.”