Camping Surge Chronicled in Michigan
A slowing economy, predictions of a temperate summer and long-term gas price concerns are prodding consumers to look toward their tents, pop-ups and recreational vehicles to get away from it all for a lower-cost family vacation, The Detroit News reported.
Advance reservations at state campgrounds are up 23 percent over last year, the second straight year of increases after a long decline, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). State parks are on track this year to break 1 million camp nights, a level the state has not experienced since 2005, state officials said.
Campgrounds and retailers specializing in camping gear say they had a booming Memorial Day, the traditional start of the camping season. That bodes well for the summer months, travel forecasters said.
"In surveys, RV owners say gas prices would have to hit $8 (a gallon) before they would consider skipping their outdoor vacations," said William G. Sheffer, director of the Michigan Association of Recreation Vehicles and Campgrounds (MARVC), a trade association based in Okemos.
Singles, families and baby boomers are targets for an industry hungry for a comeback. Stores, trade groups and others are investing in emotional marketing campaigns, such as REI's sponsorship in the "Great American Backyard Campout" effort. Its website promoting today's event extols, "Remember that magic moment when you put up that tent all by yourself?"
Stores including Summit Sports, a small chain with two stores in Metro Detroit that began selling camping gear this year, also are promoting high-tech, lightweight gadgets options. One is Coleman's LED Quad Lantern, a bright single unit that separates into four separate lanterns for those late-night bathroom treks.
There is an emphasis on easy-to-use gear and in-store instruction, said Fidel Carino, manager at Summit Sports in Brighton.
"We're not going to send you out there without knowing how to use the equipment," Carino said.
Public and private campgrounds also are adding amenities such as Wi-Fi, knowing the difficulty some people have going offline.
Some are offering comfortable rental RVs, cushy and untraditional camping entertainment options. Besides singing songs and roasting marshmallows, for example, campers can check out the new zip line, outdoor bowling and sand lagoon at the Flint/Holly KOA campground on Grange Hall Road near Flint.
Camper Programs Are Successful
These amenities are needed to hook first-time campers and convince former campers to try it again, said Mike Ebach, a Gander Mountain store manager in Traverse City and a partner in the state's First Time Camper program, which loans camping gear for $20.
"So many people switched from a $150-per-night hotel room to a $25-per-night campground," Ebach said. "Now those people who camped last year and had such a great time are now trying to recruit their friends."
Most people go camping because a week-long trip can cost under $300 — compared with $3,000 and up, for example, for a week at Disney. Harold Herta, chief of resource management for the Parks and Recreation Division of the Michigan DNR, credits the rise in advance reservations to the relatively inexpensive cost of camping.
The state's Recreation Passport program — which allows drivers to pay an annual $10 fee when they renew their license plates instead of paying a daily or yearly park fee — and related discounts from participating businesses have given camping a boost.
"Much of that increase (in park use) is attributed to the success of the Recreation Passport program, which lowered the annual park access cost from $24 to $10," Herta said.
Smaller families, an increasing dependence on technology and changing attitudes toward what constitutes a vacation have hurt the $1.75 billion camping equipment market nationally, according to Fiona O'Donnell, senior lifestyles and leisure analyst for Chicago market-research firm Mintel Inc. Camping's future has potential as long as new groups are brought in to offset the perceived inconveniences that accompany such a vacation.
"Camping has waned in popularity among would-be campers who may consider camping too much of a hassle for a typical family vacation. To bring growth back to the camping equipment market, a younger generation of parents must be inspired to take up the activity with their children," O'Donnell said in an April report.
Longtime backpacker Holly Willson, her husband Alek and their two children will venture out this month for their first family camping trip, the Grosse Pointe Farms resident said. But instead of setting up a tent, the group of family and friends plan to stay in the slightly more upscale cottages on site.
"For us, it's a vacation to get away from stress and to get away from technology. It's about putting away the phones and laptops and really connect with one another," Willson said.
Statewide, there are more than 950 licensed private RV parks and campgrounds with more than 111,000 licensed campsites, according to the DNR. And there are about 160 county or government-operated campgrounds with another 14,700 sites.
Paul Pastelok, AccuWeather senior meteorologist, says this summer should be ideal for camping and other outdoor activities.
Pastelok said the next three months will be slightly warmer than normal.
That should translate into a "very strong year" for the state's tourism, which is predicted to rise a healthy 6 percent this year, according to a Michigan State University report.