ARVC: Snow Birds Flocking to Sunbelt Resorts
Five years ago, Jim Harrison’s campground 30 miles northeast of New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Undeterred, Harrison spent his life savings rebuilding the park, only to have the economy pull the rug out from under him with the worst recession in decades.
But despite these calamities, Snow Birds have filled up Harrison’s 120-site New Orleans East Kampground in Slidell, La., this winter, and he expects to have his best winter season yet, according to a news release.
“We’re doing much better than last winter,” he said during an early February interview. “In fact, we’re running plumb full. I don’t think we’ll have any spaces left.”
The uptick in Snow Bird business isn’t unique to the New Orleans area. It’s happening in Sunbelt destinations across the country.
“Most RV parks and resorts that cater to snowbirds are reporting higher occupancies this winter than they did last winter,” said Linda Profaizer, president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) in Larkspur, Colo.
Profaizer attributes the surge in Snow Bird business to a variety of factors, including a stronger economy, moderate fuel prices, an improving stock market and a strong Canadian dollar. “Another factor in our favor,” she said, “is the fact that campgrounds, RV parks and resorts continue to offer the most affordable way for retirees to spend extended periods of time in the Sunbelt.”
And as Snow Birds search for affordable places to winter, she said, growing numbers of them are landing at private parks across the Sunbelt, from independently owned and operated parks to parks that are operated by major RV resort chains.
Rincon Country RV Resort in Tucson, Ariz., for example, has seen a 30% increase in winter visitors since November, said park owner George O’Leary, adding that his current winter business even exceeds his 2006 figures by 4%. “From November on,” he said, “occupancies have been running steadily higher.”
Shadow Hills RV Park in Indio, Calif., has experienced a similar surge in business, said park owner Paula Turner, who noted that her winter business is at its highest level since she purchased the park six years ago. “Our occupancy last January was only 75-80%,” she said. “This year, we have been running 97-99% since Jan. 15. We are completely booked in February and have been turning people away since the first of January.”
Chicago-based Equity LifeStyle Properties, the nation’s largest Sunbelt RV resort operator, has seen flat revenues for seasonal visitors at its Florida properties during the fourth quarter of 2009 and first quarter of 2010. However, the company is experiencing seasonal revenue increases of 16.5% and 23%, respectively, at its Arizona and Texas parks, compared to the same period a year earlier, according to company spokeswoman Pat Zamora.
Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Carefree RV Resorts, for its part, is seeing monthly revenue gains exceeding 11% at its 27 Florida RV parks during the first quarter of this year, compared to the same period a year ago, said company President Colleen Edwards. The company has not yet compiled estimates for its Texas parks. However, Carefree’s Texas parks have seen an increase in short-term visitors, Edwards said.
Meanwhile, La Jolla, Calif.-based SunLand RV Resorts, which owns and operates seven RV resorts in Southern California, is reporting a steady increase in business this winter. “We have seen a strong surge in new guests and many returns of people that skipped the 2009 season based on economic scares,” said SunLand Operations Manager Greg Sidoroff. “Canadian traffic is extremely strong with a strong Canadian dollar and overall great weather in Southern California. Deposits for future (winter) seasons are (also) going very well.”
Of course, not every park is experiencing an upturn in snowbird business this winter. Central Park of Haines City, Fla., is full “right at the moment,” said park manager Chris Long, but the park’s overall business for the winter season has been down compared to last winter.
Chris Freed, owner of Zachary Taylor RV Resort in Okeechobee, Fla., said his business is consistent with last winter’s figures, too, but those figures were down about 25 percent from normal.
Most Sunbelt parks, however, are seeing some improvement in their business levels this winter. Consider these examples:
- Anchors Aweigh RV Resort in Foley: Business levels are strong at this 112-site park near the Gulf Coast. But, then again, this park was sold out much of last winter as well. “I’m fully booked all the way to April,” said co-owner Anne Stephens.
- Bella Terra RV Resort in Foley: This is a relatively new motorcoach only resort, which opened just over a year ago. However, its occupancies are growing. “We reached 45% occupancy in January, versus 17% in January of ’09, and we expect to hit 50% in February, versus 26% last year,” said Operations Manager Courtney Fox.
- Desert’s Edge RV Village in Phoenix: This park has seen an increase in its Snow Bird business, both in terms of daily and monthly visitors. “I’m very excited,” said park owner Saundra Bryn. “For January, we were up 10% over last year. That’s wonderful for us.”
- Eagle View RV Resort in Fort McDowell: “Business is a lot better than last year,” said Merlin Jones, the park’s general manager. “We’re up a good 10%. We’re still receiving reservations for monthlies for February and March.”
- Equity LifeStyle Properties: This national chain of RV resorts is reporting a 16.5% increase in seasonal revenue for fourth quarter of 2009 and first quarter of this year, with noteworthy revenue gains at the following parks: Cactus Gardens RV Resort, a 430-site resort in Yuma, up 16.5%; Foothill West RV Resort, a 188-site resort in Casa Grande, up 26%; and ViewPoint RV and Golf Resort in Mesa, up 10.5%.
- Leaf Verde RV Resort in Buckeye: SnowBird traffic is up about 3% at this park, according to park manager Randall Hendrickson.
- Mesa Spirit RV Resort in Mesa: “We’re pleasantly surprised this year,” said Jim Beach, general manager of National Mobile Development, which owns the park. “We’re not phenomenally up. But we’re up a couple of percent.” About 60% of Mesa Spirit’s RV sites are allocated for transient RVers, with the balance being by Snow Birds who spend the winter in park models.
- Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort in Casa Grande: “We’re doing extremely well. We’re up about 16.5% in terms of occupancy,” said General Manager Wendell Johnson. And while some Snow Birds arrived early, others have booked extended stays well into spring. “We’ve gotten a sizeable number of three month reservations for February, March and April,” he said.
- Bernardo Shores RV Park in Imperial Beach: “We’re doing pretty well,” said park manager Ted Smith. “(The surge in business) just started a heck of a lot later. Usually by Thanksgiving we’re full. We were down at least 50% back then. But once all these storms over Christmas and the beginning of the year hit across the country, then the people started coming.” And now, he said, several of his guests are planning to stay longer than normal. “Usually, March and April are the transition months, when people start to leave. But this year we’ve got reservations for March and April that we haven’t seen before. We’ve also had a couple of people checking their weather back home and they’re already asking to stay another month.”
- Fountain of Youth Spa in Niland: “We’re doing a little better than last year,” said Jolene Wade, the park’s managing partner. The Fountain of Youth Spa has about 450 sites that are available for rent each winter season.
- Happy Traveler RV Park in Palm Springs: “We’re full,” said Diane Marantz, who owns the 130-site park.
- Sam’s Family Spa Hot Water Resort in Desert Hot Springs: Occupancies at this 173-site park are running “about the same as last year, maybe a little bit more,” according to park manager Debbie Matas. “We’re getting lots of Canadians,” she said.
- Sunland RV Resorts: This La Jolla-based RV resort company, which owns seven parks in Escondido, El Cajon, La Mesa, San Diego, Hemet and Palm Desert, has seen “a nice increase for the season as a whole,” said Greg Sidoroff, SunLand’s operations manager, adding that company’s Emerald Desert RV Resort property in Palm Desert is nearly sold out this month.
- The Springs at Borrego RV Resort in Borrego Springs: Spaces at this 90-site park were sold out in January, February and March of last year and are “essentially sold out” again this winter, said park manager Dan Wright, adding that he regularly has to turn people away for lack of space. “We have multiple people per day that call and say, ‘I’d like to book a site for the rest of the winter.’ But the waiting list is now so long it’s becoming problematic for them,” he said.
- Cross Creek RV Village in Arcadia: This 520-site park is experiencing slightly higher occupancies than last winter, according to park owner Bill Harvey.
- Equity LifeStyle Properties: While this RV resort chain is reporting flat seasonal revenues at its Florida parks overall compared to last winter, several of the company’s Florida parks have experienced increases in revenues this winter, including: Breezy Hill RV Resort, a 762-site resort near Fort Lauderdale, up 2.5%; Pine Island RV Resort, a 363-site resort near Fort Myers, up 10.3%; and Royal Coachman RV Resort, a 546-site park near Sarasota, up 7.4%.
- Holiday Cove RV Resort in Cortez: This 115-site park is seeing strong business levels consistent with last winter’s figures, said park co-owner David Gorin. “Camper nights and occupancy will be about even with last year for January to April, but revenue will be up based on price increases,” he said, adding that the park is fully booked through the winter season.
- Sandy Oaks RV Resort in Beverly Hills: This family owned park, which was full last winter, has since added another 50 campsites, boosting the park to 150 sites, and it’s full again this winter, according to Anne Armstrong, the park’s office manager. “Our business has been consistently strong, even with our growth in campsites,” she said.
- Pontchartain Landing in New Orleans: Occupancies at this park are 30% ahead of last winter’s figures, said Nate Gaarder, the park’s general manager. “Every year has been better since 2005,” he said, adding, “Our Mardi Gras numbers this year should tie pre-Katrina figures.”
- Equity LifeStyle Properties: This company’s parks in the Rio Grande Valley are reporting seasonal revenue gains of about 23% during the fourth quarter of 2009 and first quarter of 2010, with notable revenue increases at the following parks: Lakewood RV Resort, a 301-site resort in Harlingen, up 45%, with an occupancy increase of 36.5%; Sunshine RV Resort, a 390-site resort in Harlingen, up 34%, with an occupancy increase of 27%; and Tropic Winds RV Resort, a 531-site resort in Harlingen, up 40%.
- Hatch RV Park in Corpus Christi: Winter Texan business is up about 5% at this park compared to last winter, according to park manager Randall Henderson.
- 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.”
- 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 1st.” 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.”