Sunbelt Parks Reported Good Winter Business, and Vacationers Are Already Making Plans for The Fall
Every campground owner would like to have the problem Mike Johnston had this past winter at 95-site Prospector's RV Resort in the desert city of Lake Havasu City, Ariz. "We had 110% occupancy about 75 nights," Johnston said. "Some of the overflow we ran power to. Others just dry camped until a spot opened up."
With a majority of sites rented for the full winter by snowbirds, Johnston said he fills vacancies as they occur. "Our average stay is about 4 1/2 months," he said. "We don't dedicate sites for seasonals. They just get here, pick the spot they like and we use the transients to fill in."
For those who want to visit several times during the winter, Johnston allows units to be left on site for $85 a month and then charges nightly rates for the period of time they are in the campground. "That's so they don't have to pull a trailer back and forth," said Johnston, adding that he will as an added service turn on their fridge and air conditioning if they call ahead.
As a variation on the cabin theme, Prospector's has six short-term rental apartments connected to a 15,000-square-foot clubhouse. "During the winter season, we've had customers who can't RV anymore, but still like to come to be with their friends," Johnston said. "'Since we have the apartments, we don't lose them as customers."
The key to Prospector's winter success, in Johnston's view, was that he didn't raise his rates like several nearby campgrounds and resorts. "With the economy and all that's going on, that helped a lot," he said.
And next season already looks bright. "For next year, we only have a dozen sites left without a deposit," Johnston said.
Dean Ventura, manager of Desert Springs Spa and RV Park in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., noticed an uptick in first-time customers this past winter. With 77 sites on 7 1/2 acres, the park's relatively small size and focus on its customers is part of the reason, Ventura figures.
"Several people told me they were tired of spending their money at a big park and being given nothing more than a map to their site and no help setting up," Ventura said. "We do more than that here and the weather always is good."
Indeed, the weather is a factor. Ventura described the winter season at the 38-year-old park as "'very good." That meant turning away 25 to 30 rigs a week between October and the middle of February. "And I'm already almost booked for next year," he said. "We didn't raise our rates like some parks did."
Nonetheless, the 2008-2009 winter season wasn't normal. "We had a lot of cancellations before the season because of the economy and the price of fuel," Ventura said. "But when the season got here, activity picked up substantially.
Ventura recently took six reservations from a group of motorhome owners from Holland who brought their own rigs to the U.S. "They stayed with me last year," he said. "They brought them in through Canada and came down here. They put them in storage for 3 1/2 months while they went back to Holland."
In the Texas Hill Country 45 miles east of San Antonio, Lloyd and Linda Randall, managers of Pioneer River Resort in Bandera, reported that the park began to fill up with "Winter Texans" in October foretelling a "'very good" season," Linda Randall said.
"We had more visitors this year than we did last winter, and we were full January through April 1," Randall said. "Each year we get more and more people, and we were really, really full this year. People mostly were staying anywhere from two months to six months."
Although the park gets little overnight business, those that do stay for short periods typically are heading to the warmer Rio Grande Valley. "We still get a few cold days – down into the 30s – around here," she said.
Although the Medina River runs through the heavily wooded, 170-site park, the area has been experiencing a drought since the middle of 2007. "With the drought, the river is very low," Randall said. "We had some showers in March, but they didn't do much of anything. The river raised, but after it crested, it went back down about as fast as it came up."
The park doesn't draw many families, but rather fans of Texas-style honky tonks. Bandera, a community of about 10,000 people, has five saloons, all of which feature live bands. "Bandera is a party town," Linda Randall said.
Nonetheless, Pioneer River sometimes becomes a place of recreation for the community. "We have the only swimming pool in town," she said, noting that those not registered at the park can have pool access for $3.
In New Orleans, Robert and Debbie Bossenmeyer sold 46-site Jude Travel Park, five miles east of the French Quarter after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the city.
"We were totally wiped out," she said. "We lost the guesthouse, all the trees, and the laundry room ceiling fell in. We couldn't get back in for eight weeks and it took us five months to put in new water and electrical boxes and rebuild the park.'
Then, they bought the park back two years later.
"I say that we took a two-year vacation," said Debbie Bossenmeyer. "The fellow who bought it just didn't have the knack to operate it. My husband and I are 'people people.' We have a lot of fun with our customers. He never could connect with them."
Since their return and repurchasing the park that they bought initially in 1976 when it was a small hotel with a few cottages, business hasn't been what it was before the storms. "But things haven't been bad," she said. "Business has picked up some. We are getting more tourists all the time and the construction people are still here working on bridges and roads."
The winter season at Carver Cove RV Park 15 miles south of the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., was busy, according to manager Truman Jones.
"We had a real good season," Jones said. "We were full from Dec. 1 to April 1. We lost three campers after that but three more are coming in. You lose some, gain some."
The 40-site park, open since mid-2006, drawing seasonal campers from up and down the East Coast, has developed a clientele more quickly that Jones imagined. "I figured it would take three to five years to fill up," he said. "We've done a lot better than I anticipated."
With the local economy not doing very well, visitors aren't in short supply, even if they aren't spending a lot of money. "There's good weather all the time," Jones said. "Where else can someone sit in shorts and T-shirts in the dead of winter and watch all the pretty girls walk by and not worry about a thing," he said.
With several major construction projects nearby, the off-season Jones said also is shaping up to be "pretty good."