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Aussie Caravanning In Schmarder's Eyes

October 14, 2014 by   Leave a Comment

Woodall’s Campground Management contributor and columnist Evanne Schmarder spent three months in Australia. Schmarder and her husband Ray headed to Australia’s east coast to explore and film the food and caravan travel culture for their 90daysdownunder TV/website series. Episodes can be seen on Rollin’ On TV as well as at RVCookingShow.com.

Here — and in October's WCM — she presents her first-hand view of the Australian caravan industry through the eyes of a North American RVer and campground-marketing expert. She provided some insights in the August edition of WCM and also in her Modern Marketing column.

Evanne Schmarder and her maui

Evanne Schmarder and her maui

We arrived in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, ready to embark upon our "90DaysDownunder: 2 Americans 1 Road Trip" tour, greeted by an upside down timetable and a parade of opposites attracting. On the other side of the world, May is autumn. With a chill in the air and the promise of dazzling fall colors, Australia’s gray nomads – what we call full-timers or Winter Texans – begin their winter migration – north!! – seeking warm welcoming climates. The majority of Australia’s population lives along the perimeter of the continent and for those living or traveling on the eastern seaboard, tropical northern Queensland is the desired destination. It’s much like Florida with lush vegetation, ample seashore, and a bit of humidity in the balmy winter air.

Rigs on the Road

They travel in an illuminating variety of vehicles with an extraordinary number of options coming from nearly 200 camper manufacturers. While similar in concept, they look a bit different. Expandas are everywhere, travel trailers with a soft-side pop-up roof. Travel trailers, called caravans – or vans for short – appear to be the most popular way to go. Much like home, vehicles with their own engines are called motorhomes – Class A, B, and C fall in this category with Class A motorhomes the least common of the three. Fifth-wheels lag behind and are seldom seen in abundance like they are in any US campground. My favorite set-up, however, is the Complete Campsite hard floor range (completecampsite.com.au), a wacky and wonderful tent camper that folds out from a short trailer. It tows behind an SUV, Jeep, or even a hefty car and seems a no-hassle way to take it all in.

Complete campsite towable RV

Complete campsite towable RV

Regardless of the RV or ‘van style, units in Australia are typically shorter and smaller than their U.S. counterparts. Slide-out rooms are uncommon, a sight to gawk at as you pass by. That being said, most park operators are looking to the future and the future looks bigger. Aussies want the larger, roomier rigs and aim to emulate the Americans, therefore, many are overhauling their sites to accommodate longer and wider units. Incredibly popular are screened rooms, or “annexes” as they call them. They come in front-only sunshades, two- and three-panel rooms. Left to their own devices, campers will add a room to both sides of their units as well as add an extra panel to the depth of the room. In some parks this is not only accepted but the order of the day. In others it’s a tight fit but everyone wants the extra room so it’s tolerated to a point.

Because the vehicles are driven on the right-hand side, the camper doors, awnings and site patios/slabs are on the left side of the vehicle, taking a bit of getting used to by this American camper.

As an overseas traveler, a campervan rental seemed to make the most sense. We worked with thl and their maui Motorhomes line and couldn’t have been happier with the product and experience. With four different types of units in their rental inventory sleeping from two to six, apartment-style kitchen and cookware, bedding, towels, cleaning tools, cords and cables, and 24-hour on-call assistance, it was as easy as getting in and hitting the road. Driving our two-person Ultima was an absolute pleasure. Many but not every place we visited was “RV-friendly” and the maui was small and nimble, allowing us to park in town or alongside the beach for a picnic stop.

Speaking of driving, the theme of the day (everyday)? Keep left. They drive on the left side of the street from the right side of the vehicle in Australia. Speed limits are posted in kilometers and are rather modest. 110km (66mph) is the fastest we’ve seen so far with 80-100km (48-60mph) being more the norm. They take their road rules seriously and speed cameras are more expected than a novelty.

Stay

Just like in the U.S., parks in Australia come in all shapes and sizes from modest mom-and-pops to award-winning mega-resorts. City or county parks are called council parks. There are a few park groups including BIG4, Top Tourist, and Discovery Parks and all have a wide range of inviting facilities, a variety of sites, and roofed accommodations. Included with our maui Motorhome paperwork was a BIG4 campground guide, a clever marketing partnership that helps not only the consumer but the park owners/operators as well.

For those not wanting, needing, or affording a holiday park experience, “free camping” abounds. In fact, there’s a full-blown association dedicated to the free camping movement as well as at least one national magazine. It’s not unusual to see RVs and caravans of all sizes and shapes set up for the night in rest areas, alongside rivers and lakes, or at gorgeous natural areas. This is a huge bone of contention with park owners and operators across the country, especially since many of the services — water, dumping, etc. — offered at free camps are subsidized by the government.

In terms of electrical service at campsites, 240v/15amp power is the norm and is comparable to 120v/30amps in the US. Water is available at most sites and a small drain for gray water dumping, called sullage, is onsite as well. Unlike what we’re used to, most rigs in Australia use a cassette toilet rather than a black tank. Either way, parks offer a convenient dump point for black water and, like in the U.S., tank chemicals are an environmental issue.

Bathhouses are called amenities blocks. That’s where you’ll find the (rather expensive – $4-$6AU to wash, $1AU for 10 minutes of drying) laundry rooms and communal clotheslines as well as community dish sinks.

Limited and often unreliable Wi-Fi access is available, occasionally free, other times for a fee. This is quickly becoming unacceptable by the camping public thus forcing changes at the park level.

Play

Two fun and fabulous differences we’ve discovered downunder are en suite sites and camp kitchens. For just a few extra dollars, campers can stay on sites that have their own private bathhouses (en suite) complete with a shower, sink, and toilet. In addition to en suite sites, Northstar Holiday Resort and Caravan Park in Hastings Point, New South Wales, offers additional private bathrooms — complete with bathtubs to accommodate parents with small children — in their bathhouse buildings, again at an additional charge. It should come as no surprise that these sites and bathrooms book up fast and first.

Camp kitchen

Camp kitchen

The camp kitchen is usually an open-air structure and almost always consists of free barbecues – but not barbecues like we know them. You won’t find grills but more along the lines of flat griddles, usually propane-driven. You’ll also find a refrigerator where it’s safe and acceptable to store your refrigerated goods as long as you tag them with your name, a toaster, microwave, electric water kettle, and sometimes an instant hot water dispenser. At first we only looked at them but once we began using the camp kitchens we really grew to enjoy them. Surprisingly, most folks are very considerate. What are not available at each site are picnic tables. Campers come equipped with their own outdoor seating set up and no one seems to think twice about it.

Like in the U.S., parks making a play for the family market offer a plethora of activities and facilities for their guests, most often free of charge, included with the site fee. Day visitors to these well-endowed parks pay a small fee, usually around $15-ish, for use of the facilities.

Cabin Culture

Talk with almost any park operator in Australia and you’ll learn that roofed accommodations are critical to their survival. In fact, I had the opportunity to visit with the owners, Geoff Olholm and Jenny Tonkin, of what many consider one of the top holiday parks in Australia, Northern Queensland’s Cairns Coconut Holiday Resort. I learned that while they have 220 sites and 120 roofed accommodations, they earn 80% of their income from the roofed accommodations. If the campsite business faded away they would still be wildly profitable. That’s one reason that making the right hire and providing adequate training is critical. Geoff mentioned that it’s not unusual for a reservation agent to take a $4,000 booking. Hitting all the right points on the call is a must — every time, every inquiry.

From basic cabins to high-end penthouses, most roofed accommodations have dishwashers and televisions, some have fireplaces, all have kitchens and cookware, and the more successful operators wouldn’t think of charging a linen fee or asking the guests to bring their own. Bathrooms are usually a beautiful affair with large showerheads, toiletries, beautifully folded towel animals on the foot of the beds, and some even have full glass-enclosed showers. In Australia you’d be hard pressed to find a faux log cabin. Roofed accommodations – luxury villas, condos, holiday units, lodges, and penthouses – in holiday parks are serious vacation accommodation contenders, in the same company as resort hotels and even cruise ships, when it comes time for mom to begin selecting vacation lodging.

Service First

While Wi-Fi might be an issue at the park, make no mistake, Australians are savvy when it comes to sharing and reading reviews. Park owners/operators keep a close handle on what’s being said about their parks and respond to the good, the bad and the ugly. They train their staff, working side-by-side with them in many cases to assure the proper level of service is delivered. Case in point, Jenny at Cairns Coconut strives to deliver seven “wows” to each guest before they arrive at their site or villa.

There are so many wows at Cairns Coconut but here’s a reasonable track of seven wows: The open-air registration area is beautiful, tropical and feels like paradise, wow. The staff is perky, knowledgeable, and knows my name, wow. Every checkin receives an escorted tour of the park, wow. In a Nemo or frog topped cart, wow. Guests walk across a bridge during the tour and see a number of beautiful fish, wow. They’re given the busy recreation schedule for the week – all activities are complimentary, wow. They’re escorted to their site, wow. Every single touch point is anticipated and staff are trained to go the extra mile and make the guest feel special. Wow.

Same but Different

Traveling the Prince’s Highway from Melbourne, Victoria, to Port Douglas, Queensland, provided plenty of interesting insight, some ah-ha moments, and the knowledge that even though we’re a world apart in miles, some things are universal: Families want a safe, fun-filled environment to play together and bond, outdoor recreation is balm for the soul, friendships can be kindled simply by sitting outside and welcoming the world as it goes by, campers talk and share their views on destinations and experiences, and dogs love to play ball with their owners on the beach. It’s really that simple.

 

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