Revisiting Park Trailers and Destination Camping
Campground owners and operators for a long time have had a good handle on “destination camping,” a concept that evolved from the development of the recreational park trailer (RPT) in the 1980s and blossomed through the expansion of traditional travel trailers into much larger units.
Whether they are called “seasonals,” “annuals” or “snowbirds,” the buyers or renters of these units have become a significant factor for both campgrounds and the RV manufacturers.
To be sure, there has always existed a certain disconnect between the campground industry and the RV builders about destination camping, but that may begin to disappear. Destination camping is finally getting the attention it deserves from its chief beneficiary, RV manufacturers.
This attention became apparent at the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association’s (RVIA) Committee Week June 11-13 in Washington, D.C., where the trade group’s ad hoc Destination Camping Committee embarked on a strategic plan to identify the scope of this rapidly growing segment of the market.
Mike Atkinson, director of lodging for Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) and the lone campground representative on the committee, said this recognition by manufacturers is refreshing. “Having this melding of ideas is a great thing,” he said.
In the long-term, he sees campgrounds who purchase recreational park trailers or park models as rental units for their destination campers will benefit from the marketing dollars and governmental lobbying that RVIA will put into this segment of the industry.
Learning Curve for OEMs
In the meantime, RVIA is playing catch up.
While there is a variety of products that might qualify as destination camping types of accommodations, RVIA doesn’t really know how big this market is or how big it might yet get.
The concept of destination camping, which refers in part to “snowbirds,” RVers who keep their RV on one site all year or campers who rent an RV for a season at a single site, dates back at least to the 1980s and gained traction in the ’90s, according to John Soard, general manager for Fairmont Park Trailers, a division of Fairmont Homes in Nappanee, Ind. “The traditional concept of an RV being used on the road all the time is being circumvented by the customer parking their unit all the time,” he said.
“It’s taken the industry this long to recognize that’s a nice little market segment,” said Soard, who chairs the RVIA’s Recreational Park Trailer Committee and attended the Destination Camping Committee meeting, both of which were held during Committee Week.
Determining the breadth of that market is the focus of a survey the ad hoc committee commissioned through Precision Research, an Arizona-based firm that has done previous work for RVIA. Hard data is needed because everyone has an idea how big that market is but no one knows for certain, Soard says.
Many in the industry consider recreational park trailers as the major choice for destination campers. Soard thinks otherwise.
For his part, Soard contends, “I am on the higher end of what I think the total number of destination campers is. Of all travel trailers out there being built over 30 feet, I think 75 oversight of those are not being towed. I think they’re being delivered and parked in a seasonal site.” That distinction makes them “destination campers.”
The survey will reach out to 400 RVers and 400 non-RVers. Results are due back by the fall. They’ll also be looking to see how words like “seasonal” and “annual” and “snowbirds” fit with this new destination category.
When that RV, whether it’s a travel trailer, a fifth-wheel or a recreational park trailer, takes on a sense of permanence at a campground or elsewhere, it becomes a vacation home. “Part of the challenge is to figure out how to keep from becoming painted with the same brush stroke as housing, because they’re not,” he said.
Meeting Well Attended
The RVIA isn’t just paying lip service to the destination camping concept. The ad hoc meeting was well attended by RVIA staff, both public relations and legal, as well as representatives of the Pennsylvania RV Camping Association (PRVCA), the Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA), KOA and park model builders such as Kropf Industries Inc., DNA Canterbury RV and Cavco Industries Inc., among others.
Says RVIA President Richard Coon, “So the bottom line is we’re trying to determine the market size, the demographics of people who have created this destination camping – what they like, what they don’t like – and determine the best way to promote it.”
That’s a major deviation for the RVIA, according to Coon.
“And if you look at our Go RVing promotions, it is traditional RV. It’s geared where a person buys an RV, grabs his family and goes from place to place. It’s not really geared toward destination camping. So, we’re trying to get a handle on how fast is this part of the market growing. Their (the committee’s) challenge is to go to the market shortly with a research project to try to get a handle on destination camping. And once we get a handle on it, we’ll have to figure out how, if it is growing and if it makes sense to promote it, to promote it – whether it should be PR or national advertising or what.”
KOA’s Atkinson anticipates that as RVIA digs deeper into the concept of destination camping and the role that park trailers play, that segment of the RV industry will benefit from RVIA lobbying efforts.
For example, many state and local governments do not recognize the recreational park trailer as an RV and thus make it difficult or even impossible for campground owners to incorporate them into their parks. Major legal challenges to park trailer placement have been mounted this year, most notably in Maine and Wyoming.
Atkinson said he thinks RVIA will take “a more proactive approach to make sure park models are an accepted unit” for campgrounds. This new recognition on behalf of the RVIA will help close the “disconnect” that has long existed between the RV manufacturers and the campground industry, Atkinson contended.
Park Trailer Meeting
The meeting went well and in many ways exemplified the (re)melding of park trailer and RV constituencies. In fact, this atmosphere carried over into the Park Trailer Committee meeting, chaired by Fairmont’s Soard, where members, heretofore affiliated with the Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association (RPTIA), expressed their strong enthusiasm in reunifying with the RVIA.
At last count, 18 park trailer manufacturers, representing approximately 95% of the nation’s park trailer production, had joined RVIA, according to Matt Wald, the RVIA’s park trailer executive director.
Tying into RVIA’s proven track record of national advertising was a strong come-on to affiliate with RVIA, Wald said, but the park trailer makers have a host of other concerns as well. Starting July 2, park trailer manufacturers affiliated with RVIA will have their plant inspections conducted by RVIA inspectors, not third-party inspectors as they had through the RPTIA. The manufacturers anticipate better representation on issues relating to the ANSI code, Wald said, and expect their handbook to be kept up to date so they have the proper guidance on codes.
RVIA inspectors spent three days in Reston, Va., in June reviewing the ANSI standards. “They are 100% prepared,” Wald stated.
In addition, inspectors conducted a mock inspection at a park trailer plant in Elkhart, Ind., at the end of June to review their guidelines before assuming their new duties on July 2, he noted.
The committee recommended – and the RVIA board subsequently approved – that RVIA formally adopt the 2009 edition of the ANSI A119.5 and also the 2011 edition of the National Electrical Code (NEC) instead of the 2008 NEC that is currently referenced within ANSI A119.5.
The RVIA board also named two park trailer representatives, Curt Yoder of Kropf Industries Inc. and Dick Grymonprez of Athens Park Homes, to the two newly added Recreational Park Trailer seats on the board.
The added benefits do not come without a higher price, and some park trailer makers may undergo temporary “sticker shock,” Wald conceded.
The lowest level of RPTIA membership – those firms with less than $1 million in annual sales – was $1,500. It’s now $2,040 with the RVIA.
Most of the builders fall within the $3 million to $10 million sales level. For them, their dues jumped from $2,000 to $6,000.
Perhaps most significantly, the Park Trailer Committee recognized the marketing potential of RVIA membership. The committee recommended that the RVIA recreational park trailer seal price be set at $150 to include a $75 association fee as well as a $75 market expansion assessment that will be collected and held for future promotional efforts. The RVIA board approved the request.
The voting members of the committee are: Soard; Grymonprez; Yoder; Atkinson; Denise Walsh, Breckenridge; Tyler Steele, DNA Canterbury; Joe Follman, Chariot Eagle; Tim Gage, Cavco Industries Inc.; and Larry Weaver, Dutch Park Homes.
Any other RVIA member is eligible to participate in the RPT Committee as an informational member.
“This was a great introduction to the support team at RVIA,” Soard concluded at the end of Committee Week. “Working with Matt has been a true blessing. He’s the right guy for what we need. He understands the challenges we have as park model manufacturers. RVIA really worked hard and put this together well. They pulled it off in a spectacular way, a herculean effort. That said, we’re just getting started. There will be a slight learning curve.”
The Destination Camping Committee is scheduled to hold its next meeting in October at a campground in the Nashville, Tenn., area to review the survey results. The Park Trailer Committee will meet at the same time. Atkinson is in charge of booking the campground for the meetings.