ELS Low Key U.S. Park-Owning Powerhouse
Publicly held Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc. (ELS), a Chicago-based real estate investment trust (REIT) that operates Encore and Thousand Trails RV parks and membership resorts as well as ELS manufactured home communities, is a national powerhouse in the camping business.
Yet, ELS, which generated $475 million in revenue in 2009, retains a rather low profile for a company of its stature within the RV park and campground sector.
Joe McAdams, ELS’ outspoken and sometimes flamboyant president, is about to change all that by better promoting the overall brand of ELS, which predominately owns and operates resorts in Sunbelt states and near major East Coast metropolitan areas.
”One of the biggest problems I have is a brand name problem because people don’t know how good I (ELS) am,” McAdams told Woodall’s Campground Management. ”People have been coming back to Tropical Palms (Orlando, Fla.) resort for 30 years because they like the park. They don’t care who owns it – that it’s part of ELS. They are coming back to Tropical Palms.
”We are a national-scope company. We are going to promote ourselves on TV where you have to have brand identification – a national identity.”
McAdams estimates that more than 750,000 people last year spent time at ELS properties – under names such as Encore, Sunburst, Outdoor World Resorts and Mid-Atlantic Resorts – that serve the RV resort and membership campground communities.
A newspaper and magazine publishing veteran, McAdams himself has been guiding ELS for two years. He joined Adams Publishing in 1987 as president of a group of small Michigan newspapers and from 1989 to 2003 was president of privately held Affinity Group Inc., owner of the Good Sam Club, Coast to Coast Resorts, the Trailer Life and Woodall’s directories and a group of RV, powersports and boating-related magazines that include Trailer Life, MotorHome, Highways, RVBusiness, Boating Industry, Powersports News and Woodall’s Campground Management.
A dynamic talker with a thick Arkansas accent, McAdams in 2004 joined the board of Manufactured Home Communities, which subsequently changed its name to Equity LifeStyle Properties. In 2006, while serving on the ELS board, McAdams bought the Thousand Trails membership resort chain. He was hired in 2008 as ELS president while continuing to operate Thousand Trails resorts, which ELS purchased eight months later.
A change in emphasis that already was underway when McAdams signed on to lead ELS has escalated since his arrival. ”When I came here in ’04, we were primarily a manufactured home community,” McAdams said. ”We looked around and thought that RV resorts are better. They’re more sticky, they’re younger, so we started buying RV resorts.”
In 2003, ELS had 128 manufactured home properties and 14 RV campgrounds and resorts. By the end of last year, ELS had increased its RV resort inventory to 88 Encore and 80 Thousand Trail properties with 64,000 sites while still owning 136 manufactured home communities.
”In effect, we have shifted our business from being a trailer park company to being an RV company – a lifestyle company,” McAdams said. ”Where ELS had been getting in trouble is that the average age of people in the manufactured home communities is something like 72 years old. They were throwing the keys at us because they get too sick to be in Florida and they have to go back to Elkhart to be with their grandkids because somebody’s got to take care of them.”
Encore parks are open to the public, while Thousand Trails is a nationwide membership resort system. ”The majority of our resorts are within a 45-mile drive of major metropolitan areas,” McAdams said.
To get a better handle on the latest news at ELS, Woodall’s Campground Management Publisher Sherm Goldenberg recently visited in downtown Chicago with McAdams and new Senior Vice President Seth B. Rosenberg, the former president of ReserveAmerica and general manager of ActiveOutdoors. Here are the highlights – on the record – of that fascinating visit.
WCM: ELS serves more than one market, doesn’t it?
McAdams: We go after two market segments – the RV and outdoor enthusiast and we’re also focused on the senior retiree. In the economic retirement community, there is nobody like us. And frankly, in the upper-end RV resort destination, we are unique. We are a solution company to both of those – the economic retiree as well as the RV guy.
WCM: How have your various properties performed lately?
McAdams: The RV segment of our business has shown consistent growth in spite of this recession. RV people have a passion for the lifestyle and they have invested in the vehicle. The housing side of our business has really been hurt by the inability of people to finance (manufactured) homes and the inability of people migrating to our markets to sell their (primary) houses. We have addressed that by renting our inventory. That gives us occupancy and helps the growth on that side.
WCM: Even though they are separate markets, they converge at some point, don’t they?
McAdams: We like both businesses because they sort of compliment each other. The RV guy from Ann Arbor, Mich., goes there. He likes the surroundings. He starts going down there for the season and then decides to buy a home from us. Our product flexibility allows us to do that. We start out with a lot of customers renting something from us. And then they may become a member, and if they see what they want to buy, they can turn their membership in to us as a trade-in and they can buy the house or the park model or even the RV site.
WCM: We should point out that ELS has been succeeding during a recession when RV sales have taken their worst hit in more than 30 years.
Rosenberg: The key is the installed base. There are eight million RVs on the road. We are not relying on new sales. New sales are wonderful and help absolutely, but there are eight million RVs on the road today. Campers want more amenities; they want a cleaner experience – that literally can mean less dirt.
If they spend $250,000 on a motorhome, they want to park on cement, not drive in on a dirt road, and when they get there they want a store and a pool and someone there who is happy to help. That’s why you’ve seen the privately owned parks incredibly well positioned to go where we’ve all shifted to over the last five or 10 years. It is things as simple as having Wi-Fi and whether the signage to the park is great and whether there is a professional staff. People want a higher end experience than they did five years ago.
McAdams: The first thing that a family or a senior wants is safety and security. That’s why you’ll see us with gated communities. That sets us apart from a lot of the state parks who have to cut the budgets. They don’t even have a gatekeeper.
WCM: Are you still committed to the membership business? The membership business has, at times, been a tough niche, and people tell us that Thousand Trails is not as interested in it as it once was.
McAdams: We are not committed to the traditional sales membership. We believe there is value in a membership and we will market a membership, but it will be based on usage, time, need. It will be a customer-valued proposition, not the old time membership – the traditional sale of the perpetuity membership and overselling what the membership needs. We are not into that.
WCM: Think you could elaborate a bit more on that?
McAdams: Everybody has disdain sometimes for membership. We are starting to change the whole membership concept because we determined that a guy only wants one park. So we can sell it to him for $499. He pays his dues and if he wants to add another park and go up to the North, he can add it for a year. They are only one-year products. There is not any more of this selling in perpetuity – get them under the ether and sell them something forever. Then the guy gets mad and so does his wife, and they start fighting. We are not in that business. But it’s taken me a long time to change that business metric.
WCM: OK, you’re not going to oversell. But why only one year?
McAdams: What we try to do is get a guy to come there; he sees the activities that we have – whether it’s golf, or tennis or a one-day university, a fishing tournament. Once we get him there, we say, ‘Would you like to come back next season?’ And a majority of those people say they are coming back next season. The RV customer, you can’t fool them. They are discerning value shoppers. That’s why we’ve tried to change our pricing compendium and value proposition to take care of that.
WCM: You mentioned that you’re altering your approach to the manufactured housing communities as well. Why?
McAdams: Last year things got so bad that we shut down the majority of our home selling operations. We started renting homes. We are trying to keep the demographic to that guy that we know will rent and convert to an owner. And we will let him take some of the credit from his rent. But a lot of these guys couldn’t sell their houses in Detroit or Des Moines, yet they want to be in Florida. So we started this rental program. That’s where we are getting our velocity right now, but we need a lot more velocity. The key to homes is bringing the prices down. They are really nice, but if you get down to $60 a square foot, you become a viable opportunity.
WCM: Of course, you’re well aware of the recent shift from motorized to towable RVs within the RV arena. In fact, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) says 7.8% of units shipped in 2010 will be motorized. How are you coping with that? What can people in your position do to serve a market that is swinging this heavily to towables?
McAdams: That’s a tough question. We are aware of the shift. We see it. We know the kinds of vehicles that our customers have. We are going to have the same amperage, the same amenities, the same clubhouse. We see it as price. If we can get the price of our manufactured homes down low enough, we have a lot more market entrants. By the same token, I believe that’s why the guy is buying the towable. These are guys that love the lifestyle, but can’t afford the motorhome. So, they are shifting to the towables. I see it as great for my business.
Rosenberg: Or they want more flexibility within the lifestyle. There are two different price points. You buy an RV and then you’re towing a car, and the reason is that when they get to our property and you want to go to the major metropolitan area, you’ve got a car to drive. For some people it’s the best of both worlds. And some people like the idea of leaving their towable at the property all summer; even all year is common.
WCM: ”Cabins” and ”lodges,” these types of sedentary accommodations, are gaining traction in many RV parks these days. Are they doing the same in some of your parks?
McAdams: Yes, they are. I don’t have a figure for you. It could be as much as 15% of our sites today. We see it as an accommodation to our customers. A lot of customers who are staying with us don’t want to make the drive anymore. It’s too far or they’re too old, but they still want to come to our resort. It’s a good business for us.
WCM: Looking at the financial side of things, how is ELS doing from a profitability standpoint?
McAdams: Because this is a public company it needs steady, predictable revenue. Investors want to know how much dividend they are going to get. We average 2% to 3% dividend each year. But we are showing them sizable growth. Since 2004 this stock has doubled, with all the rest of the market going down. The average yield is 15% to 20% a year. But they want to make sure that it’s steady and predictable. It’s got to be there every year.
WCM: Back on that branding question you mentioned early on, would you care to comment any further on that?
Rosenberg: That’s one of our top three priorities right now – determining the brand going forward. Is it going to be ”Sunshine Key, an Encore Resort?’ Or is it going to be ”Thousand Trails, part of Encore Membership Resorts?” That kind of concept is actively being discussed right now.
McAdams: It’s even deeper than that because long term in our strategy, we would love to have mixed-use RV resorts. We would love to have open-to-the-public X-amount of sites, membership X-amount of sites and a home community because that’s how the customer migrates.
WCM: All in one entrance way?
McAdams: In one place. Like Marriott. If you go to Marriott, they’ll have a Marriott Hotel, they’ll have Marriott vacation ownership and they’ll have whole ownership for people that want to come there all the time. We would love to be able to do that.
Rosenberg: There’s a great opportunity. It’s an amazing platform that has the growth potential with only small changes in the end. We’re not reinventing the whole business here.