Summer Camping Signs Point Upward
Joe and Linda Febbrini aren’t happy about the price of fuel for their 45-foot motorhome, but they aren’t about to give up their traveling lifestyle, either.
Joe even uses his RV for long business trips. “We just won’t fly anymore,” he said. “Besides the prices, the experience makes you feel like an animal. Despite the price of fuel, RVing is still the way to go.” Last year, Joe and Linda spent the summer crisscrossing the country from Arizona to Canada before settling in for the winter at the KOA in Kissimmee, Fla.
The Febbrinis’ story isn’t unusual. Millions of campers across North America are once again getting ready to enjoy their favorite summer activity in the great outdoors, according to a release from Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA).
“Our advanced reservations for May are up about 2% for same camps across our system compared to last year at this time,” said Shane Ott, KOA’s president and chief operating officer. “We’re optimistic that we have a good chance to match the results of our record year in 2007, but it’s still too early to tell.”
With more than 450 locations in the U.S. and Canada, KOA is the world’s largest system of campgrounds, most of them franchised operations. One of those franchisees, Elena Johnson, owner of the Pueblo South/Colorado City, Colo., KOA, says her business is booming.
“We’re seeing dozens of groups make reservations, and we’re already seeing a lot of local families come in for two or three days, taking mini vacations,” Johnson said. “Business is up almost 35% so far this year, and it’s still early.”
Foreign Visitors Will Help Summer Season
Another bright spot for the camping industry is an expected upturn in foreign visitors – primarily Europeans – planning to visit the U. S. this summer.
“We’re getting many campers from Europe,” said Johnson. “We’re already seeing two to three Europeans a night, and last year we probably only saw a handful all season. It’s shaping up to be a big year for us all around.”
Craig Jenks, president of the Airline/Aircraft Projects Inc. consulting firm, reported in the Wall Street Journal April 22 that airlines are adding new flights to and from Europe to bolster trans-Atlantic capacity this summer. He said available “seat miles” will be up 6.4% this summer compared to last summer in order to meet the demand of Europeans heading to the U.S.
Also among the influx of foreign visitors will be Canadians flocking across the border to take advantage of the strength of the Canadian dollar.
“Because of the dollar’s value, Canadians are basically getting a discount to come down here to camp,” said Josh Daiss, manager of the Mt. Rushmore/Hill City KOA in the Black Hills of South Dakota. “Our state and regional tourism organizations are really targeting the foreign tourists this year, and we’re seeing the impact of that already. Overall, advanced reservations here are on a par with last year, and last year was fantastic.”
Survey Says Campers Still Coming
Despite an average U.S. fuel price of $3.60 for a gallon of regular gasoline in early May, most respondents to a recent survey of recreational vehicle owners said they still plan to camp.
Nearly 93% of the respondents to the annual Campfire Canvass survey, conducted annually by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) said they planned to camp as much as or even more this summer than they did in 2007.
“About 64% said the price of fuel would affect their camping in some way, but most said that affect would likely just be a tendency to camp closer to home,” said RVIA spokesman Kevin Broom.
KOA’s Ott said the company’s advanced reservations for May also show particular strength in its Kamping Kabin category, as well as special accommodations such as full-service Kamping Lodges.
“We’re up more than 10% in that sector,” Ott said. “That shows our campgrounds are continuing to attract families – many of whom may not have RVs or other equipment – but who still want to enjoy the outdoors.” Ott said many KOA franchisees are adding more accommodations like Kabins and Lodges to meet camper demand.
John McDonald, vice president of marketing and new business development for ReserveAmerica, said year-to-date reservations at the more than 4,000 parks served by Reserve America are up more than 14%. ReserveAmerica is one of the world’s largest online reservations booking websites, with more than 300,000 private, state and federal campsites in its inventory.
“A few areas, such as California, are substantially higher than that,” McDonald said. “We even set a single-day reservation record on Feb. 1, processing over 19,000 reservations for more than 76,000 camper nights.” There are currently 267 KOA campgrounds booking reservations through ReserveAmerica.
Another indicator of a strong interest in summer camping is KOA’s annual Come Camp & Care With Us Weekend May 9-10 at 370 participating KOAs throughout North America.
“The second weekend in May was traditionally a very slow weekend for camping,” Ott said. “But due to this great event, the second weekend in May is now one of our top 10 camper registration weekends of the year. It’s a time when our campgrounds get warmed up for the season, train their staffs and prepare their parks. It’s also a great lead indicator of how the summer will go. This year’s event is on track to be on par with last year’s event, and that was our best ever.”
KOA’s May event isn’t the only special activity geared to helping Americans rediscover the outdoors. The American Outdoors Coalition is sponsoring 100 local events for National Get Outdoors Day on June 14. The public events, held at various locations in every state, are intended to shine a spotlight on outdoor recreation, helping families reconnect to great outdoor activities and programs. Go to www.getoutdoorsusa.org for more information.
It’s The Nights, Not The Miles
Ott said while fuel prices are always a factor, most RVers define their lifestyle by the nights they camp, not the miles they travel.
“We expect campers to continue to stay a little closer to home and take shorter, more frequent trips,” he said. “They may visit fewer places, but we expect them to camp nearly as many nights as before.”
Linda Profaizer, president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), agrees with Goodall and Ott.
“The summer’s looking pretty darn good,” Profaizer said. “I’ve talked to a lot of our campground owners, and most say that reservations for the entire summer are running nearly five percent ahead of last year.”
Budgetary pressures on federal, state and local governments are resulting in the closing of many public campgrounds, bringing even more families to private campgrounds. According to its website, the U.S. Forest Service's fiscal year 2008 budget totals $4.13 billion in discretionary appropriations, a $64.25 million decrease from 2007.
“Campers may find that there are less campsites available at their favorite national park, or that Forest Service campgrounds have been closed completely,” she said. “But there are still wonderful privately owned campgrounds surrounding national and state parks that offer campers full services and amenities. There are still super places to stay close to these wonderful parks.”
Ott’s summer projections are also supported by Bob Calderone, vice president of marketing and business development for Cruise America, North America’s largest provider of rental RVs.
“Summer 2008 projections for us look good,” Calderone said. “It may be even better than last year. Traveling domestically by RV is still considered an economical vacation by most Americans, compared to that trip to Europe or Hawaii.”
Calderone said Cruise America will also be impacted by international business, fueled by foreign visitors flocking to the America this summer to take advantage of a weakened U.S. dollar. “We’re just a better deal right now for Europeans on holiday,” he said.
Strength of Euro Bringing
Foreign Tourists to U.S.
Jessica Harris, general manager of Sun Trek Tours, said the lowered value of the U.S. dollar compared to the euro has led to a 55% increase in Sun Trek advanced reservations by Europeans compared to 2007.
“My biggest problem now is doubling our staff of tour guides for this summer,” said Harris, who uses KOA campgrounds as stops for Sun Trek group tours. “Our tours are really full,” she said. “We’ll have 100 vans full of foreign tourists traveling around the U.S. all summer.” She said the “hot tour” is expected to be a three-week trip through the Southwest U.S., with stops at several KOAs.
Even recreational vehicle dealers are finding positive things to say about this summer’s season.
“Reservations for our rental RVs are up as much as 60%,” said Gerry Piccioni of Pierce RV in Billings, Mont. “We rent about 50 units, and my biggest worry is that we have enough to serve the demand.”
Pierce RV Center is one of the leading providers of rental RVs for both domestic and foreign travelers heading for Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
“Sure, fuel costs are high,” he said, “but it’s still the cheapest way there is to see a place like Yellowstone National Park.
“About 60% of our rentals are from out-of-staters and foreign tourists, and they are coming in droves.”