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.”
Texas has had its share of cold snaps this winter. But that hasn’t stopped Parkview Riverside RV Park in Concan from having its best winter since it opened a decade ago.
“We’ve had a few people who have left early because of the colder weather. But it really hasn’t cost us because it’s cold all over,” said park owner Doug Shearer. “Our bookings going forward now through May are well ahead of last year.”
Shearer, who also serves as president of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO), added that private campgrounds and RV parks across the Lone Star State are having a good winter. “We had our board meeting two weeks ago and everybody is reporting excellent winter business,” he said, particularly in the southern parts of the state.
Here’s a sampling of what Texas parks are experiencing:
- Hidden Valley RV Park in Von Ormy: “We’re doing great,” said park co-owner Teri Blaschke. “Last year we were 70% full from December through February. This year so far we’re 80% full.”
- La Hacienda RV Resort in Austin: “We’re doing better than last winter,” said park owner Ken Butschek, adding that his park is rebounding from the recession. “In 2007, I only had 60 sites and we turned away about 175 winter reservations. So then we added 188 sites,” he said. Then the market fell into a hard recession. But despite the downturn, Butscheck had a net gain of 30 winter visitors last year and 45 winter visitors this year. “Despite the recession, we picked up a net gain of 75 winter visitors,” he said, adding that he has doubled the park’s gross revenue.
- Rayford Crossing RV Resort at The Woodlands: “It’s very, very busy right now,” said park owner Gwen Craig. “We are sold out to April 1.” Craig said some of her guests have also reserved sites as far out as 2014.
- Surfside R.V. & Resort in Port Aransas: “We’re doing real good,” said park owner Charles Rhea. “I’m just as busy as I was last winter and my reservations are looking really good through April. Today, I even made two reservations for summer.”
- Winter Haven Resort in Brownsville: “Business is as good as it always is,” said park manager Rosie McGowan. “We expect to be full through March.”
For instance, Parkview Riverside RV Park, a 95-site in the Concan-area Hill Country, has seen a 25% increase in advance winter bookings compared to last year at this time, said park owner Doug Shearer, who also serves as president of the Texas Association of Campground Owners. And because many RVers show up without reservations, Shearer believes his winter occupancies may ultimately be up 25 to 30 % compared to last winter’s figures.
“Reservations for the remainder of the year are strong with a full park of ‘Winter Texans’ expected for the months of November through April,” said park owner Gwen Craig of Rayford Crossing RV Resort at The Woodlands. “We have witnessed a very healthy increase with our Winter Texan bookings and have also seen a surge in local residents selling their home and trying out the full-time RVing lifestyle.”
The management of 50-site Sunset Point RV Resort in Marble Falls is equally upbeat about the upcoming season, according to TACO. “One hundred percent of the Winter Texans we had in 2008 are returning and we continue to take reservations for additional sites,” said park manager Ed Robinson.
“My winter months will be very busy,” adds Charles Rhea, owner of 45-site Surfside R.V. & Resort in Port Aransas. “January to April 15 are booked for monthly sites. Only a few nightly and weekly sites are still available.”
And while he isn’t convinced that the worst of the recession is behind us, Rhea is still moving ahead with improvements to his park, including an $8,000 bathroom renovation project, which he hopes to complete before his winter visitors arrive. “I’m eager for them to see the upgrades,” he said. “They will appreciate me putting money back into the park, back into them.”
Meanwhile, Winter Haven Resort in Brownsville, which includes 525-seasonal park model sites and 29 RV sites for nightly rentals, is completely booked up for the winter season, said Juan Estrada. He added that cold weather up north has already prompted some Winter Texans to return to the park.