RVIA: Million+ Snowbirds Head South
Snow in 49 of the 50 states is good news for the sun belt. Campgrounds in southern California, Texas, Florida and Arizona are seeing a boom in occupancy for December-March with travelers seeking a respite from this winter's ravaging snow and plummeting temperatures.
The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) reports that more than one million RVers will use their RV this winter to head to warmer climates, spending on average 12 weeks at campgrounds throughout the sun belt, according to a press release from the RVIA.
"RVing has always been popular in the winter months but this year has been exceptionally successful for campgrounds. Every segment of traveler is discovering that RVing is affordable, easy and most importantly, flexible," said Richard Coon, RVIA president. "RVers can stay at a campground for as long as they would like or travel throughout the season without worrying about any long-term commitments, an option not afforded traditional seasonal rentals. If you want a new view, just pick up and go."
The most popular sun-belt state for snowbirds is Florida, with campgrounds seeing an ever-expanding demographic of travelers who will spend the winter months working while escaping the cold weather.
"We are at 100% occupancy for February and March and up 20% for April over last year. This winter has been great for us," said Tim Deputy, general manager of Sun-N-Fun RV Resort in Sarasota, Fla. "We're seeing the retirees that you would expect to be snowbirds, but also a growing number of younger folks who are telecommuting. With technology, you can really work anywhere, so why not spend the winter on the beach if you can?"
However, campgrounds are doing more than just relying on good weather and warm beaches to attract the competitive snowbird market. They're adding amenities that rival traditional hotel resorts. Two years ago, Sun-N-Fun (which was profiled in January's issue of Woodall's Campground Management) opened an 18,000-square-foot spa and wellness center with an indoor swimming pool, infrared sauna and steam room. They also offer an onsite masseuse and sports therapist. Perhaps the most unique aspect of this campground is the Neurogym, equipped with computer programs and equipment that helps people learn how to reduce their stress and improve their mental well being.
"One of our programs is called Peak Brain Happiness," said Deputy. "It's designed for golfers and tennis players. We also have programs that help people quit smoking and reduce weight, too." While such extensive health and wellness facilities may seem like extreme investments, Deputy said the resort is trying to be responsive to the needs of its guests, who range from single working professionals and families to empty nesters and retirees.
"Many of our younger guests are interested in physical fitness, while many of our older guests are looking for tools to help rejuvenate themselves, both physically and mentally," Deputy said.
Services and amenities are increasingly more important for a campground to compete with other snowbird accommodations. The Golden Village Palms RV Resort in Hemet, Calif., has garnered a reputation for outstanding entertainment seven days a week with tribute bands, jazz performances and dinner shows. They also cater to the pet-friendly traveler with a dog park and weekly Bark & Wine parties.
A significant portion of the snowbird community has always been RV travelers but a new trend is growing. Park model RVs are cabin-like homes built on RV chassis and are perfect for people who don't want to or can't own an RV, but still want the luxury of a home-away-from-home for much less than a seasonal condo or apartment rental. Park models now outnumber other RVs at the Sun-N-Fun RV Resort, with 600 RV sites, 810 privately owned park models and 105 park-model rentals.
Kathi and John Volger have traded in their fifth-wheel RV and bought a park model that they keep at Sun-N-Fun. "We had snow in New Jersey before Halloween this year and it was dark by 4 p.m.," Kathi Volger said. "We did a lot of sitting around complaining about the cold and couldn't wait to get to Florida for the winter." Because the Volgers own their park model, they can leave everything they want behind when they return home at the end of the season.
Arizona-based Carefree RV Resorts, which offers more than 10,000 RV and park-model sites throughout the sun belt, expects to see a 6% increase in revenue over last winter. "The snowbird business is stronger than ever. The convergence of a steadily recovering economy, the demographic bulge of baby boomers who embrace travel and leisure, the ease of connectivity for travelers, and the growing appeal of RVing as a vibrant lifestyle will likely fuel growth for decades," said Colleen Edwards, president of Carefree RV Resorts. "What's particularly encouraging is that the snowbird season is extending every year with many of our guests, who have traditionally checked out in March, staying through April."
Texas has seen a particularly robust season this year as well, with parks from the central part of the state, known as the Texas Hill Country, to the southern border of the Rio Grande Valley reporting a year-to-year increase ranging from 5%-37%, that is credited to the severe winter weather in the north. But it's not just the campgrounds that are benefiting from this winter's frigid temperatures and record-breaking snow.
"According to a University of Texas Pan Am study of snowbirds, they spend nearly $100 a day when visiting Texas; so the economic impact to the whole community is significant," said Brian Schaeffer, executive director and CEO of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).
Helping fuel this boom is the strong performance of the RV industry that is surging back from the great recession. 2013 shipments hit a four-year high of 321,127 units – up 12.4% over 2012 totals and nearly double the amount of RVs shipped in 2009 at the depth of the recession for the industry.