Campground Industry's Mid-Summer Report Card
The campground industry drew a collective sigh of relief on July 7 as it recovered from the busy Fourth of July weekend and reloaded for the second half of the summer.
The mid-summer holiday is the busiest weekend of the year for many U.S. campgrounds and can serve as a barometer for the industry’s health.
“Not only across the state (of New York) but the country, the industry has been looking pretty good,” said Mark Anderson, owner of Lake Chautauqua Campground in western New York and chairman of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC). “Occupancy in the campgrounds has been reported at least as good as last year. Whether that changes now is anybody’s guess.”
At industry-leader Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), July Fourth weekend occupancy totals were down compared to the record numbers posted in 2007, reported Louise Everett, KOA’s vice president of franchisee services, “The holiday weekend occupancy rates reflect the softening of the market we’ve seen all year. Although, through aggressive rate management efforts, the KOA system saw a 4.2% increase in registration revenue.”
Indeed, a spot check by Woodall’s Campground Management revealed acceptable results across much of the U.S., with pockets of disappointment, in part due to horrific weather conditions, the economy, fuel prices and forest fires. Campers did not miss out on the Independence Day activities but they clearly stayed closer to home.
Here’s a region-by-region summary of WCM’s findings:
New York’s state park system was packed with campers over the holiday weekend. The state parks department said more than 90% of campsites and cabins were reserved in advance for the three-day weekend, surpassing last year's advance booking rate of 83%, according to the Associated Press.
For the 2008 season overall, campground reservations in the Empire State are up about 8% over last year. State agencies worked with the “I Love New York” campaign to encourage people to build vacations around the abundance of natural beauty in the state.
“Our numbers are off for the first time in 11 years,” said David Berg, owner of Red Apple Campground, a 140-site destination resort in Kennebunkport, Maine. “If I was a brand new owner, I would be concerned. I’m not and I’m not. We’re having a good year, but I’m used to having a great year.”
Normally, Berg would have turned away upward of 400 requests for campsites by the Fourth of July. This year, he was full on Memorial Day weekend and not sold out again until the day before the Fourth.
Like other campground owners, Berg is seeing campers coming from shorter distances but staying longer.
Up and down the state, business in May and June was disappointing, said Berg who sits on the boards of the Northeast Campground Association and ARVC.
However, along with the decline in demand, he’s finding a demographic shift in the numbers of campers who wish to become seasonals. He already has 100 seasonal campers but could have sold another 100 seasonal sites this year, even charging them a nightly rate, he said. “I could have rented a lot of sites if I had sites open for long-term. This told me a lot about the trends we are looking at,” he said.
He’s also noticing more campers in tents. “And we’re seeing more people driving a luxury vehicle camping in a tent or pop-up,” he noted.
The effect that high gas prices and changing RV use will have on Maine is hard to read, according to the Morning Sentinel, Portland, Maine. Fewer RV travelers are coming to Maine, but those who come are staying longer. And while there aren't as many out-of-staters coming to Maine, more residents are deciding to park their RVs at campgrounds closer to home. Tourism accounts for a $10 billion chunk of the state’s economy.
Pat Kosalka, who with her husband owns Sagadahoc Bay Campground on Georgetown Island, said her season started slowly as far as customers with RVs were concerned.
"We were down on the RV sites in May about 60%" from last year, Kosalka said, and June was off 30%. "The rest of July looks a lot better," she said.
Kosalka, who is president of the Maine Campground Owners Association, said there are far more Maine residents in many campgrounds, more people are arriving in cars and pitching tents, and cottage rentals are up. It's cheaper to drive a minivan or a station wagon to a campground than a recreational vehicle that gets eight or nine miles a gallon. RV drivers, she said, tell her they're putting off trips to Bar Harbor and Down East.
"Instead of going all the way up to the end of the state, they're cutting it short and coming to the midcoast," Kosalka said.
Some are cutting it even shorter.
She said there are fewer RVs from Connecticut, New York and New Jersey this year. Five customers from New York recently canceled summer reservations that they had made in February, when gas cost about $3 a gallon.
"It was gas," Kosalka said. "They didn't want to spend that money on gas."
This summer has been unpredictable, according to Deb Carter, co-owner of Buttonwood Beach RV Resort, a 537-site seasonal campground near Earleville, Md., on the state’s Eastern Shore and executive director of the Maryland Association of Campgrounds. She said that some campgrounds are doing well while some are not. Campers seem to be staying longer but not camping as often.
“As a campground owner, our business is very, very strong. Knock on wood, we are somewhat recession-proof,” said Carter, an owner since 1975. Many sites are sold on long-term lease. “People are here for their summer homes and they vacation elsewhere. When the economy is down, they vacation here.”
“I’m finding that most of our campgrounds in Maryland that are seasonal are doing well,” Carter said.
Carter also is finding that campers are more “edgy.”
“With an election, the economy, the war and gas prices, they are more demanding than they normally would be,” she said.
Campgrounds that offer and rely on waterfront access for boaters are hurting as boating traffic in the state is down 40%, she said.
Bad spring weather, coupled with Michigan’s poor economy and high fuel prices kept reservations way down until mid-June, reported Wayne Purchase, executive director of the Michigan Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (Michigan ARVC). Then, in the second half of the month, business picked up.
Everybody, with the exception of the state’s Upper Peninsula, where Purchase said business was “terrible,” seems to be content with their level of business.
The 239-member association hired a PR firm this year to negate expected counter-productive press from the state’s AAA office, Purchase said.
In years past, AAA would announce before the holiday that all the state park campgrounds were filled for the Fourth, he said, and the message campers heard was “so don’t go camping.”
The PR firm alerted the public to the numbers of private campgrounds with openings and the results were successful, he said.
At Purchase’s campground in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula, “We anticipated less than a banner Fourth of July and we ended up with a spectacular one,” he said.
Destination campgrounds are doing well in Ohio this summer, but parks that rely on overnight travelers are hurting, according to Vicki Cole, co-owner of the Shelby/Mansfield KOA and president of the Ohio Campground Owners Association.
Reservations are up 20% at her 194-site park, and she has a list of a dozen or more families waiting for any of the 80 seasonal sites to open up yet this year, They’ll likely have to wait until 2009, she surmised.
The Great Plains
Mary Arlington, owner of High Plains Camping in Oakley, Kan., has given up trying to figure out the 2008 camping season.
“When I went into this season, I braced myself for a very rocky year. But when the end of May came along and I did my accounting review, I was flabbergasted (by the results). I shrugged my shoulders and said I would go with the flow,” she said. It’s been her second best year since buying the park in 2002, even with the damaging hailstorm that pelted her campground in the spring.
Other ARVC members in her state told her they were very pleased with their occupancy rates, given the price of gas, she said.
“From Kansas’s perspective, we are very fortunate to be located between the Rockies and Branson and places of interest like those,” she said.
However, Arlington, who is second vice chairman of the national ARVC board, remains concerned about the numbers of campers who choose to overnight in free places.
Elsewhere in the Great Plains, conditions are less encouraging.
“I hear a lot of the flooding and weather issues shave created quite a mess for our member parks in Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota and Texas,” she said.
At least five private campgrounds in Iowa and many more Army Corps of Engineer campgrounds were flooded by rampaging rivers in June. The closures of I-80 and I-380 due to flooding affected many other parks because campers could not easily reach campgrounds in the northeast and east central part of the state.
“Business went away for five days” while the interstates were closed, reported Beth Saxton, president of the Iowa Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds and co-owner of Colony Country Campground in North Liberty, Iowa. Her campground escaped the flooding but many others didn’t fare so well.
By early July, most campgrounds were drying out and reopening, but some campers are reluctant to camp in brown grass that still reeks of the floodwaters, she said.
Since the flooding, many Iowa campgrounds have been inundated with out-of-state relief workers to help with the cleanup effort. “The rainbow has come at the end of the flood. Many private campgrounds that normally wouldn’t be full are (full) because of flood workers,” she said.
The Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO) is seeing a dramatic shift in the origin of campers at its 410 member parks, according to Brian Schaeffer, TACO’s executive director.
Upward of 70% of the campers over the Fourth were from in- state, he estimated, compared to the historic 50-50 mix. He’s not sure if or when out-of-staters will return en masse. But in the meantime, TACO is marketing its member parks to the state’s campers and figures if it can keep them in state, campground owners can be successful.
A pre-Independence Day survey found that 55% of in-state campers expected to make no changes in their camping plans, while 42% expected some modification. The survey found that 31% planned to stay closer to home because of fuel prices, 52% said they would camp closer to home and a little less often and 15% said they would camp as usual.
“Those are pretty telling,” said Schaeffer, “It says people are still getting out and a good percentage are doing what they want to do,” he said.
TACO members are hopeful that Winter Texans will look past fuel prices and make their annual return to the state later in the year.
Campgrounds like the Premier RV Resorts are seeing a shift from predominately overnight guests to more long-term ones, said Terry McMullen, director of operations for the chain of five upscale resorts in Washington, Oregon and California. “We pretty much filled up with as many as we can take and still handle our overnight business. Either you shift with it or you don’t do well,” he said.
The shift requires a different management style, but the trade-out replaces one kind of income with another, he said.
All of Premier’s parks were filled over the holiday, and from then until Labor Day is traditionally very busy. “It will be interesting to see what the next six weeks bring,” McMullen said.
Well more than 50% of the campgrounds responding to a survey in early June by the California Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (CALARVC) indicated that their seasons were better or the same as last year, said Debbie Sipe, CALARVC executive director/CEO.
And then the forest fires hit the state, starting on June 21.
In the subsequent three weeks, some 1,780 separate fires – most caused by dry lightning strikes – had burned across 960 square miles of Northern California, closing national forests and threatening countless RV parks and campgrounds, Sipe said. The fires drew 20,000 firefighters, and the California National Guard was mobilized to help fight the fires.
Sipe had no reports of fire damage to private parks, but she was certain occupancy rates suffered. Holiday fireworks were canceled in many communities due to the fire hazard, as approximately 300 fires still burned.
“What’s really scary, we usually aren’t in this situation until September and we were facing this already in June,” she said. “Everybody is concerned about the fire season for the rest of the summer.”
Before the forest fires struck the north, Sipe reported that “of those parks that have seen a slowdown, only seven parks indicated that gas prices were a factor. While I would assume that there is a significant number of campers who are changing their vacation plans based on fuel prices, I would say that it is having a relative small impact on our members. In fact, we know of several parks throughout the state which are significantly up this summer season."