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Park Industry Needs to Stay On Its Toes, Keep Its Guard Up

July 19, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

David Gorin

It’s a wickedly crazy world out there today. We all know about the real big stuff business owners everywhere are contending with today — erratic gas prices, the almost weekly ups and downs of consumer confidence and spending, the seemingly impossible-to-deal-with unemployment levels, an international monetary crisis that threatens economic markets around the world, Middle East unrest and the natural disasters that seem to be occurring more frequently with greater devastation and consequences.

These dark clouds hang over the general American economy and business community and are substantially dampening consumer and business enthusiasm across the board.

These are daunting issues big enough to make grown men and women business people wonder why they are trying to win in business. While the park industry needs to watch and respond to changes in these global issues, it also needs to stay at the top of its game, on its toes, with its guard up and attention levels at Level Orange. Being caught flat-footed is not a good idea. Nimbleness and attention to all circumstances will be rewarded; heads in the sand will be punished.

Here are a few things to think about:

The U.S. Department of Interior has announced with great fanfare that the National Park Service (NPS) will build and operate a new campground in Brooklyn, N.Y. with as many as 600 sites. If the NPS can pull this off successfully, I’m wondering, where to next? Is the RV park and campground sector about to be facing a new and expanded era of public land campgrounds being built in national parks and tilting the competitive balance between public and private sectors that has grown into perhaps what is best characterized as a peaceful co-existence over many years?

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the state parks in Florida are fast-tracking the proposed private development of as many as 56 new state park campgrounds. I may be missing something here, but in a state like Florida with literally hundreds of RV parks and campgrounds from one end of the state to another – with rampant unemployment and an eroding tax base — why would they want to add maybe thousands of campsites into an industry that is already facing a shorter season and falling occupancies due to the fact that many winter Florida visitors are reducing their lengths of stay to compensate for higher prices and the poor economic picture?

And, on top of this, the last time I looked, development of new anything in Florida was pretty close to a standstill. I’d love to see the feasibility study done by the Florida state parks that indicated that there were private individuals out there ready to invest in building a new campground under the thumb of the state government. Either the development levels will be so low as to maybe make financing construction doable, or any private investor/developer will not find construction financing that will work in today’s economic environment. And cutting too many corners will lead to an inferior product that won’t sell at market prices or anywhere near market.

Just announced this week, in turn, is the fact that the Obama administration has created the Federal Interagency Recreation Council to develop and provide increased access for Americans to public lands and parks. It’s a laudable goal no doubt and likely to be perhaps a valuable new program for the RV park and campground sector. Yet, I find it worrisome that the federal government – yes, the federal government – in austere times is now toying with advocating and promoting recreation on public lands.

While I understand the connection between recreation and public health, this is a stretch in terms of governmental activity. Who will be the beneficiaries of the work of this council? You can be sure it will be the snowmobilers who will secure more and more trails on public land. It will be the rock climbers, mountain bikers and hikers who will have improved access and trails on which to pursue their hobbies. It will be the horseback riders, the motorcyclists, the crosscountry skiers, etc.

So, too, will the RV manufacturers benefit by seeing an increased number of campgrounds on public lands — a longtime objective of the RV industry — fully capable of handling RVs of almost any size and with utility hookups at each paved site, while the existing campgrounds in gateway communities will experience declining occupancy in face of this very difficult competition.

Recently, the Virginia Campground Association (VCA), in finally recognizing the fact that the Virginia State Parks were actually operating their parks on a commercial business model, extended an invitation to the state parks for a full voting membership in the association. All 24 state park campgrounds were invited to become voting members of the VCA (with which I am affiliated) and the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC). Their response? Citing a lack of funds and budget, they agreed to enroll maybe three parks as members. Sounds curiously like what we sometimes hear when talking to owners of private parks – “Oh, I’d like to join but I just don’t have the money.”

And the new America’s State Parks Alliance that is promoting state parks as attractions and overnight venues as people travel across America? Competition from state parks across the U.S. is not coming, it’s here now.

And here’s another indication of where things may be heading: The Kentucky Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet announced that the state agency plans to apply for a liquor license to sell alcoholic beverages at five Kentucky state parks.

Other reminders of why we have to remain nimble? Lazy Days, one of the nation’s largest RV dealerships, just announced that it is laying off 50 employees – not what Florida needs at this time. And John Bleakley Motor Homes, operator of three RV stores in Georgia and formerly the largest Blue Bird dealer and one of Monaco’s top 10 retailers, announced that it’s closing its doors. And not long ago, Altman’s Winnebago, a major RV dealer in California, closed up his stores.

Trust me, the purpose of this article is not to assume the title of Downer Dave, but to simply point out that, as I said up front, staying nimble, informed, alert and on your toes every day is very important in today’s world. And, most of all, keep in mind that in the worst of times, the best opportunities may be found.

David Gorin, former ARVC CEO, is president of David Gorin & Associates, providing management consulting services to the outdoor hospitality industry. He’s also a partner in King & Gorin, specializing in Washington representation for associations and businesses in travel, tourism, transportation, recreation and public lands. Contact him at (703) 448-6863 or at dgorinassociates@aol.com.

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