Pelland: Time to Look at the Big Picture for RV Parks and Campgrounds

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November 21, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

Peter Pelland

Editor's Note: Peter Pelland is the founder and owner of Pelland Advertising and several subsidiary ventures. This column comes from Campground Success and was recently published in Northeast InSites, a publication of the Northeast Campground Association. Pelland tells WCM: "This article is part of Chapter 1 in the new book that Evanne Schmarder and I are currently writing. The book is titled, “Unconventional Wisdom Works! 25 Strategies to Build Your Outdoor Hospitality Business… Today!” We expect to be publishing in late February or early March of 2012." Contact Peter Pelland at

As individual business operators and the industry as a whole, I believe that the RV camping industry is limited by too narrow a view of the role of family camping. We have our trade associations and industry advocates that promote this fine outdoor pursuit, but I think that we are sometimes handicapped by a set of blinders that prevent us from seeing family camping as part of a much broader concept of outdoor recreation.

I am willing to bet that most campground owners are not familiar with the Outdoor Industry Association or the Outdoor Foundation’s annual Outdoor Recreation Participation Reports. The family camping industry is one component of the overall outdoor recreation industry. To grow, it must embrace growing components of the overall industry in a much more active manner.

Before we go further, I strongly encourage you to download and digest the following PDF file: Outdoor Foundation’s Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report 2011. The 10-page document is a free download. You should also download and thoroughly read the Outdoor Foundation’s full 68-page Outdoor Recreation Participation Report 2010, another free download that offers far more details on the trends that have continued into 2011. These reports are the results of the largest ongoing surveys of Americans of all ages and ethnicities, detailing their participation (or lack of participation) in over 100 outdoor recreational activities – including family camping.

Both the 2010 and the 2011 reports outline the importance of engaging youth and minorities in outdoor recreation, also outlining the reasons for lack of participation among these demographic groups. If you want to grow your business, you simply must engage a broad range of participants who are not your existing guests. You must strive to appeal to younger campers because they are your future return guests and potential seasonals. According to the 2010 U.S. Census report, 16.3% of the American population is Hispanic or Latino; 12.6% is African-American; and 4.8% is Asian. How does this compare with the demographic makeup of your campground? My guess is that most campgrounds are not even approaching the point where they are getting their share of these vast demographic markets.

Back to the outdoor recreation reports, there are several crucial statistics that we all need to comprehend. First of all, 83% of RV campers participate in other outdoor activities (2010 report, page 29). According to the 2011 report, participation in RV camping declined by 9% from 2010 to 2011, after a modest gain of 5.6% from 2009 to 2010. The only bigger drop than camping was sailing, another form of outdoor recreation that typically involves a significant investment in equipment.

Compare this with some of the outdoor recreational pursuits that showed the greatest rates of growth from 2010 to 2011: Adventure Racing +23%; BMX Bicycling +30.8%; Boardsailing/Windsurfing +43.4%; Climbing (Indoor) +10.6%; Climbing (Outdoor) +19.8%; Kayaking (Salt Water) +21.1%; Kayaking (White Water) +34.6%; Running/Jogging +12.6%; Triathlon (Off Road) +39.5%; and Triathlon (Road) +63.7%. Notice that most of these pursuits that showed the greatest gains in participation rates are relatively inexpensive and are more exercise-based, rather than passive, activities. They also tend to appeal to a younger demographic.

If 83% of RV campers participate in another outdoor activity when camping, how are you capitalizing on this statistic? Clearly, you must offer more than campsites, either in your on-site amenities or in your partnering arrangements with nearby outdoor recreational businesses. Consider sponsoring events, serving as a designated lodging services provider. Offer discounts to nearby recreational attractions and provide their customers with discounts on camping. If people are traveling outside of their local area to climb, raft or bicycle, they are going to need a place to stay – and that place should be your campground. Try to concentrate on partnering with businesses that complement camping, that do not compete with you in providing lodging, and that are trending upward in popularity. Some of the hottest recreational pursuits do not yet appear on the recent reports, but they will certainly appear in the future. One of these would be zip lines – a very popular new recreational pursuit. If you have a zip line operator nearby, what are you waiting for?

These reports show that, despite the recent decrease in participation, camping remains one of the most popular outdoor activities for adults over the age of 25, third only to fishing and running/jogging, and only slightly ahead of bicycling. That is good news because many, if not most, campgrounds offer some sort of fishing, as well as trails for running and bicycling. Many more are in close proximity to bike trails and scenic roadways that are well suited for bicycling. The only glitch is that RV camping is showing a downward (-14.2%) three-year trend among youth ages 6-24, along with other recreational pursuits that the younger crowd identifies as “their parents’ style” of activities. By associating the camping experience with other activities that are more popular with the youth market, you will build your current customer base and be making a very sound long-term investment.

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