Is Virginia Compromise An Industry Trend?
A new law in Virginia could become a model for the entire outdoor hospitality industry.
The law mandates a closer working relationship between public and commercial parks and other interested parties with regard to state park master planning.
Bill Small, owner of Small Country Campground in Virginia and a key instigator behind the new legislation, is very pleased by the bill’s passage. He told Woodall’s Campground Management (WCM) that the relationship between the state’s public and private parks had been “contentious,” but not anymore. The new law removes most of that animosity.
In general, the new law, which goes into effect July 1, mandates the Department of Conservation and Recreation, in considering public comments on Stage 1 and Stage 2 master plans, to make a reasonable effort to solicit comments and to provide timely notice of the comment period to trade associations and private businesses within a 10-mile radius of the park that offer similar services, including private campgrounds, marinas and recreational facilities.
The law is in SB909, which passed both House and Senate with zero no votes and was signed by the governor on Feb. 22.
There’s also language in the legislation that would reinforce the need to base state park rates to a degree on those of privately operated area facilities, taking into consideration the unique challenges state parks sometimes face in servicing the general public.
The notification as part of the planning process will make a big difference, Small predicts. In the past, too often private parks learned of public park expansion only after it was too late to intercede. Now, the privates can be part of the planning process, which Small called “a major step.”
Likewise, the new fee schedule is a big concession to Small, a 37-year veteran of the campground business, and his colleagues.
If the compromise can work in Virginia, it can work elsewhere in the U.S. where contentious relationships exist, Small contends.
“I think it is THE way to level the playing field between the privates and the state parks,” he told WCM. “It wakes up the state parks and helps them understand whether they should build based on occupancy needs. I can be a model for other states. I think it will bring the state parks closer to us because they will have to start working with us.”
“Virginia Loves Campers,” or at least that’s the motto that state-run and private campgrounds in Virginia will operate under. The new initiative is designed to unite the two sides that haven’t always worked together.
David Gorin, executive director of the Virginia Campground Association (VCA), says the Virginia Compromise for the most part is good for both sides of the campground equation. The compromise is a result in part from a supportive study by the Pamplin School of Business at Virginia Tech University with which many park operators take issue.
“The Virginia Campground Association has excellent relations with the state parks,” says Gorin, who’s also known today for his stewardship of the Best Parks in America marketing network. “As a matter of fact, we have six state parks that are full voting members of the Virginia Campground Association and ARVC. And we hope over the next couple of years, as state park budgets allow, that additional parks will join. We are working with the state parks on some grants for joint marketing at major RV shows on the East Coast. We are also working with them on referrals so that when somebody calls the state parks for reservations and they’re full, they now refer those people to our website to look for parks in nearby areas.
“In the past,” adds Gorin, who has served as VCA’s director for 11 years, “they used to just refer them to the nearest state park that had space. Now they refer them to the nearest private parks. So, the relationship is a great one. They come to our conventions and so forth. Our objective, frankly, is to make Virginia the best place for campers. It’s also the Virginia State Parks’ objective. The motto we’re all working under is ‘Virginia Loves Campers.’”
Bill Small Fuels Continued Debate
If the dispute in Virginia sounds like a broken record, that’s because it was, in a way. Small, owner of a 220-site campground in Louisa, Va., has long endured a burr under his saddle with the state parks. He refueled the debate in 2011 with a petition drive, calling on the governor to halt expansion and construction of all campgrounds, cabins and other facilities that compete with private industry. Further, he asked that economic and needs studies be done prior to any future construction of these facilities at state parks.
The new legislation meets Small’s demands.
He refueled the debate late in 2012 as he revisited the issue of public parks undercutting the private ones.
At the time, Small and his backers felt that Virginia’s 24 state parks that have campgrounds compete unfairly with private parks.
The state’s share of the camping pie appears to be growing at their expense. In 2012, Virginia’s 35 state parks set a new attendance record of 8.37 million visitors, 4% higher than the previous record. Many of these 2012 visitors were campers.
Most state-run campgrounds are open from March 1 through the first Monday in December; primitive sites are available year-round.
Virginia State Parks provide low-cost overnight accommodations, with 260 climate-controlled cabins and more than 1,700 campsites, ranging from primitive sites to developed sites with electric and water hookups. Many cabins are available year-round.
The Pamplin Study: Fact or Fiction?
A factor in the current discussion was a 24-page study produced by Vincent Magnini, a tenured associate professor and undergraduate program coordinator in Virginia Tech University’s Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management housed within the Pamplin School of Business. Magnini is currently ranked as one of the top 12 most prolific hospitality researchers worldwide.
Magnini reached several conclusions based on his research. Among his findings:
- Because campers possess varying motivations in their camping experiences, particular customer segments are prone to be attracted to certain types of campgrounds that best match their motivations. In other words, a campground cannot be all things to all people. Instead, the motivations of a particular camping occasion cause consumers to gravitate to a particular provider to fulfill the wants sought in that occasion.
- Price is only one of many selection criteria used by campers when selecting a campground. Stated differently, campgrounds are not price-based commodities.
- Lower prices often do not equate to increased demand. Because price can be a signal of offering quality, higher (lower) prices sometimes stimulate (reduce) demand.
- The number of offerings in a marketplace will often be positively correlated with the size of the customer base in that market. Specifically, increasing offerings in a given market often increases the number of customers drawn to that market.