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Insiders: Membership Camping on a Rebound

July 16, 2013 by · Comments Off on Insiders: Membership Camping on a Rebound 

Rushmore Shadows, a Midwest Outdoor Resorts campground in South Dakota. 

After a prolonged downturn that began well before the Great Recession, membership camping seems to be on the rebound.

Major players in this oftentimes misunderstood segment of the outdoor hospitality business tell Woodall’s Campground Management (WCM) that they are upbeat about the recent past and more so about the immediate future as regular campers as well as newcomers discover the appeal of membership camping.

That appeal revolves around the individual beauty of the member parks, the security that they afford every camper and the relative affordability in an era of ever-rising camping costs elsewhere in the public and private sector.

Under membership camping, members pay an upfront membership fee that is good for, say five to 10 years, or perhaps a lifetime, which allows members to access one or more resorts, if the resort is part of a network.

“We have seen the last five years, even with the economy upside down, we have had our best year, year after year. When life gets hard, people go camping,” said Mike Pournoury, CEO and majority owner of Texarkana, Texas-based Ocean Canyon Properties, a growing system of eight privately owned, membership resorts in the Southeast that offer spacious RV campsites, comfortable vacation cabins, cottages and condos along with a wide variety of private resort amenities. “The industry as a whole has been weak due to the fact that it is so fragmented, but if you talk to each company like ours, business is great, seriously. Several companies our size are just thriving in this industry. I have a real positive expectancy for the future of the membership industry.”

Bruce Hoster (left) of Coast to Coast Resorts and Mike Pournoury of Ocean Canyon Properties

Gene Addink, general manager and CEO of Midwest Outdoor Resorts, which owns and operates three resorts in South Dakota and Minnesota, agrees with Pournoury’s take on the business.

“Even in bad times, we were successful,” said Addink, who has been in the membership camping business since 1984 and led the team that founded Midwest Outdoor Resorts in 2000. “There was a little bit of a downturn in 2008-2009 but when the economy was at its worst, even then we were successful.”

Addink, whose company operates resorts near Rapid City, S.D., and two in the greater Minneapolis area, is looking to add a fourth resort this year, either in northern Minnesota or northern Wisconsin.

Pournoury and Addink say their companies are typical of the more than 50 membership camping systems that operate in the U.S. and Canada. Both maintain systems of upscale campgrounds that appeal to seasoned campers as well as newbies and also employ expert sales staffs that can walk prospects through the intricate concept of membership camping.

“It’s not like going to a KOA,” said Addink. “If you’re going to a KOA, you know what you’re getting. With membership camping, the concept has to be explained to people one on one. It is usually not a product people shop for. They have to be shown how it fits in their lifestyle. It’s a very misunderstood concept in the public’s eye.”

Gene Addink, CEO of Midwest Outdoor Resorts

Each membership camping system has its own set of rules, pricing and reciprocal agreements. The concept requires a full explanation before purchase.

“It takes a proactive marketing group that can find people who fit your demographic and then convince them to come to a presentation to learn about the program,” Addink said. In his 30 years in the business, he doubts whether more than five clients ever literally walked in off the street and purchased a membership without first undergoing a formal sales presentation.

Thousand Trails Zone Pass

The industry’s leading player, Thousand Trails, affiliated with Chicago-based real estate giant Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc. (ELS), has enlisted the ranks of the RV industry to help it sell memberships for its far-flung system of 80 RV resorts in 22 states and British Columbia. Today, more than 100,000 member families and guests enjoy its parks. Formerly only open to lifetime members, Thousand Trails has introduced the Zone Camping Pass, which provides a low-investment way to enjoy the benefits of resort-style camping on an annual basis.

An ELS spokesman was unavailable to speak with WCM. However, in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) at the end of 2012, ELS had these comments on its membership camping business.

“In the spring of 2010, Thousand Trails introduced low-cost membership products that focus on the installed base of almost 8 million RV owners. The company began offering a Zone Park Pass, which can be purchased for one to four zones of the United States and required annual payments in 2012 of $499. Beginning on Feb. 1, 2012, the required annual payments increased to $525.

“The Zone Pass replaced high cost products that were typically entered into at properties after tours and lengthy sales presentations. The company historically incurred significant costs to generate leads, conduct tours and make the sales presentations. A single zone ZPP requires no upfront (additional) payment while passes for additional zones require modest upfront payments.

“Since inception, ELS has entered into approximately 22,000 Zone Pass agreements. For the year ended Dec. 31, 2012, the company entered into approximately 10,100 Zone Pass agreements, or a 36.5% increase from approximately 7,400 for 2011.

“In 2012, the company initiated a program with RV dealers to feature the Zone Passes as part of the dealers’ sales and marketing efforts. In return, the company provides the dealer with a Zone Pass membership to give to the dealers’ customers in connection with the purchase of an RV.

Since the inception of the program with the RV dealers, the company has activated 1,289 Zone Passes and recorded approximately $140,000 of revenue through the end of 2012, ELS reported.

Travel Resorts of America

One of the cabins at the Travel Resorts of America campground in Gettysburg, Pa.

Another major membership camping player is Travel Resorts of America, based in Southern Pines, N.C., which operates six resorts in the eastern half of the U.S. Sycamore Lodge near Pinehurst, N.C., was its original resort, followed by Gettysburg Battlefield Resort “which with the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address is our busiest this year,” noted David Petsolt, director of marketing. “We have three resorts in Ohio, Wally World Riverside Resort, Rocky Fork Ranch Resort and Pymatuning Adventure Resort, each providing a different experience. Finally, there is Twin Lakes Resort in Florida.”

The company’s expansion has been driven by two factors.

“First, although most are within an RVer’s drive time of each other, each is in a diverse geographic areas and easily accessible from major metropolitan areas,” Petsolt said. “Secondly, we seek properties where we know we can create a top-tier experience for our visitors – the resorts have to have the right ‘bones.’ Our goal is to ‘Wow’ our visitors with something unexpected and provide the backdrop for them to create unforgetable memories. The Mohican Riverbanks at Wally World, the History of Gettysburg, the rich outdoor activities at Rocky Fork Ranch, the waterslides at lake at Pymatuning Adventure, the great fishing at Twin Lakes, and the world-class golf surrounding Sycamore Lodge (Pinehurst #2 is home to the 2014 Men’s and Women’s Opens) – each of our resorts has something unique to offer our visitors, all with a focus of fun.”

While the firm does not have any immediate plans for further expansion, it is always on the lookout for the next opportunity – “but it has to be something special,” he stressed.

Coast to Coast

Bruce Hoster, president of Coast to Coast Resorts

The turnaround has been very noticeable at Coast to Coast Resorts, an affiliate of Good Sam Enterprises LLC. Coast to Coast does not own any of its own parks, however, it maintains reciprocal agreements with 208 member parks which allow people who buy memberships through Coast to Coast to visit any of the affiliates’ resorts.

“People see the value in this. That’s why the business has come back,” explained Bruce Hoster, president.

Of the 208 resort firms, approximately 50 are active sellers of memberships, Hoster estimates. “A lot are older resorts now owned by homeowner associations or they just don’t sell new memberships,” he said.

Besides Ocean Canyon Properties, Midwest Outdoor Resorts and Travel Resorts of America, Hoster identified Outdoor Adventures, based in Bay City, Mich., and Colorado River Adventures, a network of eight resorts on the West Coast and based in Earp, Calif., as active and growing in the membership camping market. Indeed, Outdoor Adventures with its five resorts in Michigan has been the top seller of Coast to Coast memberships for many years, he said.

“Coast is showing some nice growth the past two years and is setting some records this year with our new Premier product,” explained Hoster. “Membership camping (finally) seems to be making a comeback, and it’s (finally) fun working on Coast to Coast. It’s always nice when the numbers are good.”

Hoster, who has headed the Coast to Coast network since 2007, attributes the rebound to RVers seeing the value in memberships compared to other ownership positions.

Coast to Coast offers three types of memberships, classic (entry level), deluxe and premier. The latter, filled with benefits and relaunched in summer 2012, has been key to Coast to Coast’s rebound, Hoster maintains.

Member parks have made considerable investments in recent years to either upgrade their parks or add new ones, thus giving campers more camping options.

For example, Ocean Canyon Properties announced in April extensive renovations totaling $1 million have been taking place to improve members’ camping experiences at six of their resorts.

This map shows locations of Coast to Coast Resorts in U.S.

Not Just for RVers

And membership camping is not just for RVers.

“We look for people who enjoy the outdoor lifestyle, probably age 35-plus and can afford the product. But you don’t need a camper to buy our product,” he noted.

Addink estimates that more than 50% of Midwest Outdoor Resorts members do not own their own RV. Instead, they rent RVs or covered shelter such as cabins and lodges at the resorts.

The love of the outdoors may be the crucial requirement for prospective membership campers. Minneapolis has a high percentage of RV owners, but even more so, it has a high percentage of people who enjoy the outdoors, Addink said. That’s why his company has a sales office in Minneapolis and operates two of its three resorts within an hour’s drive of there. It also makes for an easy trip to show prospects.

Pournoury’s Ocean Canyon Properties are strung out across the Southeast, making the sales presentation more problematic.

“There is no national ad campaign, no media advertising for membership camping,” Pournoury noted. “I’m sure if there was, there would be a lot more people coming to membership camping. Since the industry is so fragmented, the news does not get out.”

Still, he adds, “There are a lot of good operators in the industry that know how to market and how to cultivate their memberships. There is not much growth as far as new resorts joining membership camping because of that. It is a very tough field to master the marketing, the sales effort, the administration and the operations end.”

“It’s not just like opening an RV park and waiting for customers to come in. You have to go after them and grab the right kind for your product. If it is done the right way, it has a lot of rewards. Every company that is in the business and selling upward of 300 or 400 memberships a year is profitable and has been so for many years.”

 

Conference to Boost Membership Camping

November 10, 2010 by · Comments Off on Conference to Boost Membership Camping 

Feb. 21-23 conference is in New Orleans.

In planning for the 2011 Coast to Coast Membership Camping Conference to be held in New Orleans, organizer Bruce Hoster, Coast to Coast Resorts president, wanted to give attendees some new angles to ponder during the three-day convention.

So, when conferees gather Feb. 21-23 at Harrah’s Hotel & Casino, they’ll find not only some familiar themes in marketing membership camping but also some new wrinkles, such as a virtual sales tour, a trade show and a presentation on off-site sales centers. A half-day has been added to the conference, giving attendees two full days of presentations, on top of the opening night reception.

The theme for the conference is “Driving Profits in Private Membership Camping.”

“We’re still working against our objective we outlined last year: to share best practices in sales and marketing in the membership campground business. That’s the secret sauce that makes our industry tick,” said Hoster.

There will be some of the same topics, such as “Turning Tours into Sales,” “Successful Marketing Strategies” and “Developing A Winning Sales Team,” he said “But there are some new things we’re introducing. I don’t want to have the same meeting every year.”

“We are pulling our speakers from our most successful resorts and the most successful sales and marketing folks,” Hoster said. “Most of our sessions are panels with two to three industry experts and time for questions and answers. All sessions are back to back. No concurrent sessions. If somebody wants to attend all the sessions, they will be able to do that.”

Bruce Hoster

The private membership camping business faces many of the same operational issues faced by other privately owned campgrounds, so there is great value for owners to attend regional or national association meetings and join 20 Groups, Hoster said.

But there are some unique sales and marketing challenges and opportunities facing private membership campground operators that aren’t being addressed by conventional means, thus the need for the Coast conference, he said.

Virtual Park Tour

That being said, Hoster has taken a page out of the playbook of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) and created a Virtual Campground Tour for the Coast conference.

“We would love to take all the conferees to four or five resorts and walk them through a sales presentation, but we physically can’t do that,” Hoster said. “So, we’re doing the next best thing, taking everyone on Virtual Sales Tours. We visited our top sellers with Outdoor Adventures, Travel Resorts of America, Midwest Outdoor Resorts and East Coast Resorts this year, took photos and, working with the sales people there, followed them on a typical sales tour. We’ll take the audience from the start when a couple walks in to the front desk, to a tour of the park, and back to the office to try to close the sale. We examine what people see and say during each step. We think it will be a tremendous value to people attending the conference.”

Another new wrinkle at next year’s conference will be what Hoster calls a “What’s New in the Industry” discussion.

“One of the new and exciting things in the industry is off-site sales centers. We’ll look at how they do it,” he said. “It’s done well in the time share business and some of our developers have done it right in our industry.”

Instead of expecting potential clients to visit their parks, some developers are taking their programs to major population centers and pitching their sales presentation via videos, brochures and posters, he said.

For example, one park owner is successfully promoting park model rentals for non-RVers (the other 90% of the population) via a display in the parking lot at a nearby Camping World store, he said.

The first-time trade show will be a small but highly visible part of the conference, said Hoster, who is soliciting vendors to participate. The show will be held in the same room and concurrent with breakfast and breaks both days.

Another new twist to the upcoming conference will be a presentation by Woodall Publications on its unique rating system used in Woodall’s North American Campground Directory. To be eligible for Coast to Coast affiliation, campgrounds must maintain at least a 3W rating.

“We will have a session to talk about Woodall’s rating, how to go from a 3 to a 4 or a 4 to a 5. We’re lucky to have several resorts with perfect 5/5 ratings,” he said.

As at the first conference, conferees will have plenty of time to network with their colleagues over meals, between sessions and after hours, Hoster noted.

Renaissance Underway

The membership campground part of the industry was a lot bigger in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but it has shrunk,” Hoster acknowledged. “However, we see a lot of renewed interest in it. We see a product that is very right for the times. It’s affordable, a product that is easy to use, especially if the resort is located within a couple of hours of your house. I think membership camping in particular is due for a renaissance.

“For Coast to grow, we have to invest in this industry and have to do what we can to help this industry grow. It will pay back many times over for us. Membership camping has suffered due to a lack of awareness and lack of enough people promoting and selling it. We see a lot of good things on the horizon for the industry. Even this year, there are a lot of new parks. From where I sit, I believe we will see this industry grow in the next year or two. I think it will be a lot of long-term growth. There are a lot of underlying factors in travel and tourism that favor this industry.”

Not to be overlooked is the conference’s setting: New Orleans. “It’s always a great venue, great food and great music,” he said.

Affinity Group Inc. is parent company of Coast to Coast, Woodall Publications and Woodall’s Campground Management.

For more information on the Coast conference, visit www.coastconference.com or call (800) 833-9183, ext. 429.

Coast Conference: February in New Orleans

September 2, 2010 by · Comments Off on Coast Conference: February in New Orleans 

The 2011 Coast to Coast Conference, Feb. 21-23, in New Orleans, will educate registrants about that right camping-related product. And, according to Bruce Hoster, president of Denver-based Coast to Coast Resorts, an affiliate of Affinity Group Inc., the time is now and that product is membership camping.

“It’s a product whose time is right and is due for a renaissance because so many people are putting a high value on leisure time,” he says.

Building on 2010’s conference in February in Las Vegas – a first-time event that generated a good crowd and a flurry of activity – planners for the upcoming 2011 conference were challenged to add new ways to share best practices in sales and marketing.

Now, they think they’ve come up with the right solution. “We thought it would be great to take a virtual sales tour of some of our successful membership parks,” says Hoster.

Consequently, attendees — without leaving the comfort of their conference seats — will see first-hand what happens at check in, during a park tour, in the sales process. Four of Coast to Coast’s leading resorts will be featured: Outdoor Adventure Resorts in Michigan, Travel Resorts of America in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, East Coast Resorts in New York, and Midwest Outdoor Resorts in South Dakota.

“That’s going to be worth the price of admission,” says Hoster.

Abe Libitz of Liberty County, Texas, got his money’s worth when he attended the 2010 Coast to Coast Conference. He and partner Judy Miller were pondering how to best utilize a campground property they’d purchased. “It was probably the No. 1 reason we went to the conference,” he says. “It was an eye opener of what it would take from a business standpoint for us to convert to a membership campground.”

“At a conference like this, you also get to talk to other developers and get a pretty good idea about what you’re about to bite and chew,” he adds. “If you understand that on every element, it helps you decide how to run your business better, plus you have the backing of Coast to Coast.”

Since the 2010 conference, their property, the Liberty Lakes Resort, is now a Coast to Coast Resort and the partners are already reaping the financial benefits.

“We have people coming to us who want to convert to a membership park, so we started Project Renaissance,” says Hoster. “Fabian Russell from East Coast Resorts put together a six-step process to take them from where they are today and walk them through the steps.”

For more information about creating a renaissance at one’s own park, Hoster suggests attending a session called “Resurrecting the Resort and Project Renaissance.”

Conference attendees, who are likely to draw inspiration from the can-do attitude of the people in the New Orleans region, will also rub shoulders with park owners and developers who are already working successfully within the Coast to Coast network.

“Pooling our individual efforts is a powerful force, which can be fun and informative,” says Hoster. “In another session, we’ll break into teams with a set of questions about how we can work together nationwide to promote awareness of and grow the membership camping industry.”

To register and get more information about the various sessions, visit www.coastconference.com.

Coast’s First Membership Camping Conference

March 11, 2010 by · Comments Off on Coast’s First Membership Camping Conference 

Bruce Hoster (left), president of Coast to Coast Resorts, goes over confernence materials with Mike Pournoury, president of Ocean Canyon Properties, Texarkana, Texas.

Market conditions are ripe for a resurgence of the North American membership camping industry. That was the message broadcast by speakers at the 2010 Coast to Coast Conference Feb. 16-18 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nev.

”We feel there are a lot of factors in favor of growth in (the membership camping) industry,” said Bruce Hoster, president of Denver-based Coast to Coast Resorts, an affiliate of Affinity Group Inc. (AGI), who spoke to about 90 park developers and others during the opening session of the first-of-its kind conference.

Coast to Coast, an affiliate of Affinity Group Inc. (AGI), Ventura, Calif., is committed to growing the membership campground industry, not only to the benefit of Coast to Coast but to the industry in general, Hoster said.

”We need more (resort) developers selling in this industry and we need more sales from our current developers, and mostly, we need more awareness and promotion of membership camping,” Hoster said. ”We are very serious about this mission and it’s a mission that we definitely can accomplish.”

Helping to boost that awareness is retailer Camping World, another AGI unit, which has begun promoting Coast’s membership camping parks by allowing local resort owners to set up kiosks in Camping World stores and promoting the industry in its publications.

”We are trying to help educate the Camping World customer base on the concept of membership camping, the value it brings to our customers and hopefully drive customers to the membership camping developers,” Mike Siemens, Camping World vice president of membership services, told RVBusiness. ”It’s always been a good program for customers like ours who want an opportunity to camp around their home, but also when they are on the road.”

Generally, membership campgrounds are privately owned with all or a portion of their sites set aside for use by RVers who pay an initial membership fee and annual maintenance fee to cover operating expenses. Members, in return, receive varying levels of access to the resort they join and reciprocal access to other parks in the network.

The average cost of an initial consumer membership is about $5,000, Hoster reported, adding that while Coast to Coast has 250 member resorts, only about 20% are selling new memberships to consumers.

”If people leave this conference and they are more excited about the opportunities and learned a few things they can take home, it can translate into better business,” Hoster told the assembled attendees. ”The measurement will be more over the long term.”

Membership resort organization such as Coast to Coast serve two different audiences. ”One, obviously, is our members, but secondly, our developers as well,” Hoster said.

The depth of the recent economic recession has caused consumers to change the way they spending their leisure time, Hoster noted.

”While RV manufacturers and dealers struggled, campgrounds were full,” Hoster said. ”That’s because a lot of people looked at campgrounds as a more economical way to take a vacation. They might not have been able to fly somewhere and stay for a week in a condo or go to Disney world, but they were able to go camp.”

Participants at the recent Coast to Coast membership camping conference include (from left) Joe Daquino, senior vice president and group publisher, Affinity Media; Mike Siemens, vice president of membership services for Camping World; Bruce Hoster, president of Coast to Coast Resorts; and Michelle DuChamp, vice president of sales and business development for Interval International.

So-called ”staycations” also have changed the travel landscape, and should play into the membership campground sector’s hands, he maintained.

”They are the perfect solution — being able to pick up Friday for a long weekend,” Hoster said. ”We hear from a lot of our developers that people aren’t taking the traditional vacations — the one-week or two-week vacation. ”It’s more the three- and four-day getaways. Having a membership in a resort nearby certainly takes advantage of that trend.”

Those trends, coupled with a decreasing number of high-end campgrounds, makes membership camping more attractive, he added. ”There really is a shrinking supply of quality campsites vs. growing demand,” he added. And there are more and more Baby Boomers that are entering our industry and buying RVs.”

Mike Pournoury, president of Ocean Canyon Properties, Texarkana, Texas, with resorts in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia, spoke during the opening session on ”Unlocking the Value of Your Resort.”

”It all revolves around getting back to the basics’ Pournoury said. ”Everybody’s going to know everything that I bring up here. The only twist to it is the simplicity of it. Sometimes we take a good program and complicate it for ourselves.”

Pournoury said that key to Ocean Canyon’s success is its relationship with RV dealers who refer new owners to Ocean Canyon properties, which, in return promote the dealership when it comes time for the consumer to buy a new RV.

”Then you become one team,” Pournoury said. ”He sends a good customer to the resort where you sell a membership … and three or four years later, (the member) goes back and buys another RV from the same dealer.”

Consequently, he said, park owners should attend RV shows to show dealers that they want to be actively involved.

By the same token, he noted, membership parks should establish referral programs that reward current members for promoting the park. Ocean Canyon gives $500 to members for referrals resulting in sales.

”The referral program is the lowest-cost marketing and the most profitable program that we’ve got in our organization,” he said.

Upgrade programs for existing members also add to the bottom line, he said. They are easier to market because the customer already has bought into the resort and adding a few extra days or access to more amenities doesn’t cost a lot.

”Last year was hard, but one of the areas where we really excelled was our upgrade program,” Pournoury reported.

”When times are hard, you can’t leave any stone unturned.”

Seminars during the conference included:

  • ”Successful Marketing” by Annette Bruzewski, marketing manager for Outdoor Adventures, and Pam Nelson, director of marketing and resort operations for Midwest Outdoor Resorts.
  • ”Tour and Sales Presentation” by Greg Penrod, COO of Durango Riverside Resort, Durango, Texas, and Charles Youngren, director of sales for Midwest Outdoor Resorts.
  • ”Gaining Efficiencies with New Technologies” with Pournoury and Peter Graffman, Ocean Canyon executive vice president and CFO.
  • “‘How to Market to Non-RVers” by Penrod, Gene Addink, general manager of Midwest Outdoor Resorts, and Greg King, president, Outdoor Adventures.
  • ”Hiring and Developing Successful Salespeople by Robert Topci, sales manager, Travel Resort of America-Gettysburg Battlefield Resort and Youngren.

Subjects of half-hour breakout sessions during the three days included ”Project Renaissance: Restarting Sales at Non-Selling Resorts,” ”Partnering With Camping World,” “Other Revenue Sources,” “‘Creating Positive Members Satisfaction,” “Financing and Closing the Sale” and ”Off-site Selling.”

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