WCM Examines Alcohol Use at Campgrounds

March 30, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

Intoxicated campers.

Most public and private park operators have run-ins with them from time to time. Despite posting rules and regulations warning that intoxicated and unruly guests will be thrown out, of course, they still show up, regardless of whether a park sells alcohol or not.

The problems can become even more complicated – and bring potential insurance liability exposure – if the intoxication occurs as a result of alcoholic beverages purchased at the campground store or offered to guests at a campground-sponsored event. Liquor liability coverage can provide critical coverage in these kinds of situations.

Fortunately, for the mainstream RV park and campground arena, such incidents are relatively rare. But when guests become inebriated – more than just a little silly – they not only pose various insurance risks, but they may also disturb other guests with their behavior or, worse yet, pose life-threatening risks or threats of bodily harm to campers and park managers alike.

The most notable incident last summer involved a fatality at a campground in Minnesota when a woman backed a vehicle over a tent on July 5 at Beaver Falls Park in Renville County, killing 3-month-old Whyatt Sander and injuring his 21-year-old mother. The driver pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide – causing bodily harm while under the influence of alcohol.

Other recent news reports highlight the kinds of alcohol-related problems park operators and guests experienced over the past year:

  • A drunken 40-year-old New Yorker who threatened managers at Rip Van Winkle Campground in Saugerties, N.Y., was arrested and charged with harassment, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
  • A 5-year-old girl who was struck by a golf cart at Kittawa Camping, a seasonal campground in Ottawa, by a man who was charged with criminal negligence causing bodily harm while driving a motor vehicle.
  • A naked and heavily intoxicated 18-year old Lebanon, Ind., man who started several fights at the Green Acres Campground in Noblesville, Ind., and was so cantankerous that it took up to 10 officers to subdue him. He charged officers as they exited their vehicles and continued struggling even after being bitten by a police dog and hit several times with a stun gun. Officers believe the young man had ingested a combination of alcohol, cocaine, PCP and psychedelic mushrooms. He was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting law enforcement, criminal mischief and striking or interfering with law enforcement.

Equally striking, as you might suspect, are alcohol-related incidents that don’t make headlines, like the night last summer when a drunken 6-foot, 3-inch, 250-pound biker stormed out of the West Yellowstone KOA camp store after park owner Steve Linde refused to sell him beer. “We have a rule that we don’t sell alcohol after 10 p.m.,” Linde told Woodall’s Campground Management.

Miffed at Linde’s refusal to bend the rules, the drunken biker then jumped on his Harley and revved it up several times, disturbing the slumber of more than 1,000 people at the 360-site campground. When Linde confronted the biker about the noise, he became so hostile that Linde had to douse him with pepper spray. “He was very apologetic when police arrived,” Linde said.

Sometimes, Even Off-Duty

Cops Can Become Unruly

During a family reunion at the same park last summer, three off-duty police officers got so drunk – and noisy – that Linde had to call the police to have them removed from the park. The drunken officers were part of a family reunion involving 50 to 60 people, many of whom were also drunk. Several of these guests later retaliated by posting negative comments on and other websites saying that Linde’s park was “too strict.”

Linde, however, has no apologies. He claims that park operators have no choice but to remove drunk and unruly guests from their parks. “If you have got 1,000 people sleeping at your campground,” he said, “two guys making noise are not worth it.”

In fact, excessive noise is the No. 2 complaint involving campgrounds and RV parks nationwide, right behind complaints involving the condition of the campsite or rental unit, said Bob MacKinnon, a consultant and former Disney Company executive who runs the GuestReviews online survey program for the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds (ARVC).

While “excessive noise,” as defined in the GuestReviews surveys, is not solely attributable to alcohol-related noise, noise complaints can also involve loud vehicles, parties or simply people talking too loudly. In any event, MacKinnon said it’s safe to conclude that alcohol is a factor in many noise-related complaints.

Fortunately, incidents of guests becoming both drunk and unruly are relatively rare in good, professionally run parks. And complaints of any kind are relatively infrequent. In fact, of the 50,000 guest surveys MacKinnon has collected during the past two summers, fewer than 4,000 guests reported problems of any kind during their stay.

And while it’s tempting to say ‘Beware of bikers and off-duty cops,’ park operators say it’s dangerous to stereotype anyone because alcohol-related problems can involve anyone. “Sometimes, the problem is with Grandma and Grandpa and not four or five college age guys with surfboards,” said Clint Bell, who owns the KOA campground in San Diego, Calif.

Linde, who has worked at campgrounds since he was 9 years old, encounters only one or two alcohol-related incidents per year at his family park in Montana. Other park operators contacted by WCM also said incidents involving drunken guests are rare at private, family-oriented campgrounds as well as at upscale parks that cater to seniors.

David Gorin, a campground industry consultant who owns Holiday Cove RV Resort in Cortez, Fla., and promotes upscale parks through his Best Parks in America marketing network, sees a correlation between the caliber of park and the type of guests they attract. “I think the problem is directly related to the type of park, the pricing and resort quality,” he said. “It sounds like stereotyping, but the nicer the park in terms of facilities, amenities and landscaping, the tighter the restrictions on unit types and the higher the fees, the better the clientele and the (fewer) behavior problems of all kinds.”

That’s not to say that higher quality parks have no problems, Gorin said, because behavioral problems occur throughout society. Whatever type of park it is, he suggests, parks should have policies and procedures in place to deal with these kinds of situations so as not to negatively affect other guests’ experiences.

Make Sure You Have

Alcohol Policies in Place

Many, in fact, do have alcohol policies in place, which are often posted on park websites along with their rules and regulations. But park owners also say it’s not enough to simply have policies in place. Robert Adams, owner of Gettysburg Campground in Gettysburg, Pa., also said one cannot assume that lower-priced parks are more likely to have alcohol-related problems, either. “There are many fine campgrounds that do not charge a lot and are great family places to be,” he said.

“If you have policies, you have to enforce them actively and quickly,” Adams said.

Parks that consistently enforce their alcohol-related policies will get a reputation for doing so, which can only help them in the long-run, explained Kelly Jones, director of franchise development for Milford, Ohio-based Leisure Systems Inc. (LSI), which franchises Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts.

Park operators and consultants have tactics they recommend, in fact, to keep alcohol-related problems to a minimum:

  • Being mindful of how you market your park: “We certainly do our best to represent our park as a family-friendly environment,” said KOA park owner Bell. “If you read our website and look at the photographs, you’ll see we use a lot of photographs of kids doing activities, such as tie-dye T-shirts and watermelon-eating contests. We try to make our public appearance very family-oriented and that helps to sort out a little bit of the (drinking) clientele.”
  • Carefully screening your guests: Ask prospective guests if they’re looking for a quiet place to camp or a place to party, suggests Missy Hearnden, park manager of Redbeard’s Ranch in Lebanon, Mo. “We tell them we are a quiet, family-oriented campground and that if the next campsite can hear them, they are too loud,” said park manager Missy Hearndon. “Sometimes, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I’ll call you back.’ And we never hear from them again.” Hearndon said the strategy initially cost the park some business, but over time they’ve gained a clientele that appreciates management’s efforts to maintain the park as a quiet, family oriented place to camp.
  • Limiting the availability of alcohol: Linde used to sell alcohol at his store until 11 p.m., but found that many would rush the store just before closing to stock up on alcoholic beverages for the evening. By moving the time up to 10 p.m., he found he was able to make a significant dent in the amount of late night drinking at his park. Other park operators find they can control behavior by limiting times when alcohol is available. “At certain park-sponsored winter events or adult-only summer events, we provide water, soft drinks, wine or beer, but the park always controls the amounts provided and limits the time of availability,” said Gorin, who concedes there have been some instances in which guests have had “one too many,” However, he added, “their friends or spouses generally take care of it.”
  • Hiring night security guards: “We have a night security guard who makes the rounds at midnight,” said Josh Daiss, general manager of the Mount Rushmore KOA, adding that the park has often had success using retired law enforcement personnel for this purpose.
  • Being visible and making lots of rounds: “Check in with folks in a friendly manner so you can ascertain what their behavior is or what it might become,” Bell said, adding that it’s often helpful to suggest they start getting ready for bed. MacKinnon, for his part, said, “I found that the biggest deterrent to bad behavior is simply to have a campground (staff) person out there and visible. They don’t have to be mean and gruff, but they need to be visible.”
  • Encouraging frequent staff communication involving potential problem guests: If guests are observed purchasing noticeably high quantities of alcohol, that information should be communicated among staff members. “Sometimes it’s a non-issue,” Bell said. But better to communicate and be aware of what’s happening than to be caught off-guard by a problem. “We make it all work with two-way radio communication. We always keep each other informed,” he said.
  • Nipping emerging problems in the bud: “The best time to take action is to nip something in the bud before it becomes a huge problem,” MacKinnon said, noting that problems occur when park owners don’t adhere to their own rules. “The approach I have always tried to take is to tell guests, ‘We want everybody to have a good time, but not at the expense of somebody else.’ The real judgment call is when it’s time to stop being courteous and start being forceful.”
  • Enforcing quiet hours: “We tell every camper when they come in that quiet hours start at 10 p.m.,” Linde said. Other park owners require their staffs to be proactive in enforcing quiet hours. “You start enforcing quiet hours at 9:50, not 10:30,” Bell said.
  • Ensuring that campfires are out at midnight: In addition to having quiet hours at 10 p.m., Mount Rushmore KOA requires all campfires to be extinguished by midnight. “We don’t want people sitting around the campfire until 3 a.m.,” said Daiss, the park’s general manager.
  • Making sure you have liquor liability coverage: Parks that sell alcohol need to offset their liability exposure by purchasing liquor liability insurance, said Chris Hipple, vice president of Leavitt Recreation & Hospitality Insurance Inc. in Sturgis, S.D. Most, but not all, states require liquor liability coverage before a liquor license can be issued. That’s not the case in South Dakota, however. “In South Dakota,” Hipple said, “you don’t have to have liquor liability insurance. But if someone gets injured, your standard liability coverage is not going to protect you.”


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