Recessionary Times Are Changing the RV Park Landscape
Public sector campgrounds have long posed serious competition for many commercial RV parks and campgrounds in certain areas of the country. Whether federal, state, county or municipal campgrounds, these facilities have often been underpriced and unaffected by regulations governing the operation of commercial campgrounds. They sometimes have different public signage rules and generally don’t collect or pay taxes.
In recent years, however, federal, state and local budget reductions due to diminishing tax receipts in the Great Recession have fallen heavily on these parks and public agencies. And public entities at all levels have threatened or actually closed parks, reduced services, deferred maintenance or taken other steps to live within their government-provided means.
Public facilities have raised fees to make up the shortfall. In the private sector, when we raise fees, it’s not uncommon for the consumer to raise their expectations. And raised expectations lead the operator to try to raise the level and quality of services to meet these higher expectations.
We’re seeing that in 2009 and 2010. There is a clear and obvious trend among public parks toward higher fees accompanied by campground improvements ranging from larger sites to full RV hookups to a full range of on-site activities.
Several years ago some observant recreational industry leaders began to talk about how outdoor recreation for people of all ages can be a part of the health care solution. Outdoor recreation is good for both mental and physical health, combating obesity (a major cause of many diseases), and providing the necessary activity that promotes good health. Want to reduce the cost of medical care? Healthier people incur fewer costs and, therefore, lets encourage better health.
One way to do that is to promote the outdoors as a source of physical activity.
So, here we are in 2010 and where’s this leading us?
There’s about to come into existence the National Parks Promotion Council, a group of interested parties who want to promote increased visitation to the national parks. They note that visitation has declined in recent years and it’s time to get Americans and international visitors into these national treasurers.
Certainly, for the campground industry, more national park visitors will equate to more on the road travelers and more visitors to gateway communities around the parks. And for years, the sizzle of buying an RV and going to visit the national parks has been the motivation for numerous RV purchases. So, let’s get behind this new group and get travelers out to the parks.
One thing to note here: The primary promoter of the Promotion Council is the National Park Hospitality Association (NPHA), a trade association headed by Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition (ARC), one of the first advocates of promoting outdoor recreation for healthful objectives. NPHA is comprised of concession companies that operate the hotels, lodges, stores and other facilities in the parks. Although campgrounds in the parks remain primarily under the management of the park itself, as visitorship increases, as demand grows for upgraded RV and camping facilities and services, it’s likely that the company operating the hotel will move into operating campgrounds – and adding cabins where they aren’t currently available is sure to follow.
A second development has also caught my attention. The National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD) has recently announced the creation of America’s State Parks Alliance to promote state parks as wonderful venues for healthful outdoor recreation and as a major economic force in creating jobs and tax revenues wherever they are located. The alliance anticipates funding from private sector companies that share the values of the state parks and plans to “engage in national partnerships with corporations for stewardship programs.”
The alliance’s key sponsors are Imperial Multimedia of Wisconsin, a company that provides information kiosks and other Internet and online products to many state park systems and Government Solutions Group of California that specializes in creating linkages between government and private sector companies.
If you keep up with the relevant industry news sites, you can’t help but notice the trends among state park campgrounds – threats of closure or cutbacks caused by declining public funding leading to higher fees to keep the campgrounds open, then improved amenities to attract more users and then increased fees for operations.
Over the winter, the U.S. Forest Service proposed lowering the discounts for seniors and for those purchasing annual passes. Partly behind the proposal was pressure from concession companies operating campgrounds and day-use areas. However, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced March 17 the discounts would stay in place. After considering many pulic comments, Tidwell determined the proposed changes are not the best way to address growing challenges regarding services provided by private businesses at forest service recreation facilities.
There is a new and changing landscape out there in the campground public sector and campground industry leaders are likely to address all this at the ARVC Public Affairs Committee meeting in late March and at the April 27-28 ARVC National Issues Conference in Washington, D.C.