Wednesday, June 16, 2021
Wednesday, June 16, 2021

RV park owner throws in the towel. The business has changed, even shockingly

By Andy Zipser

We’ve thrown in the towel.

Eight years and three-and-a-half months after taking possession of Walnut Hills Campground (in Staunton, Virginia), we’ve passed the baton to new owners — only the fifth in the campground’s 52-year history. That might seem like we lacked stick-to-it-iveness, but campground owners are like dogs, in a temporal sense. Each year spent catering to the RV crowd is equivalent to eight or nine years of a normal human’s. That’s an awful lot of living crammed into a short spell, and it’s exhausting. Small wonder that the average tenure for campground owners is only seven years before they decide to tackle something a little less strenuous, like sheep-herding or brick-laying.

Walnut Hills RV Park
Walnut Hills RV Park and its scenic lake.

Change happens

Short though our ownership might have been, it was, however, long enough to witness a sea-change in the business and in the industry overall. It’s all busier, bigger and more demanding than it was a mere eight years ago, from the amount and size of the traffic rolling onto the grounds, to the out-sized expectations of many campers for all the comforts they left at home, to the fraying of whatever “community” they may once have enjoyed.

The campground biz, as long-time campers already know, is becoming increasingly commodified: more corporate, more Disney-fied, less attuned to the very things that once separated camping from other forms of transient lodging. What is “glamping” if not a campground form of gentrification? What are the proliferating rows of “cabins”— really just downsized cottages — if not a suburbanized version of a Motel 6, one long building chopped up into individual units, at some campgrounds with just an alleyway between them? Slap on some faux logs and stick a fire ring out front and voila! It’s back to nature.

“Shenandoah Acres, a 522-site campground within spitting distance of Walnut Hills, sold last year to a holding company for $3 million—which then turned around and sold it this past February (that’s right—less than a year later) for $17 million.”

Does that sound bitter? It’s only meant to be descriptive, as seen from the vantage point of a campground owner who’s been watching these trends unfold for almost a decade. The truth is that the world of private campgrounds is rapidly following — no, charging — down the path already forged by the larger lodging industry. Thanks in no small part to the COVID-19 pandemic, but preceding it as well, the campground sector has become a hot investment sector and the big boys are charging in. If you’re a campground owner, this has become a golden moment to sell — and selling they are.

More local campgrounds have recently been sold

Shenandoah Acres, a 522-site campground within spitting distance of Walnut Hills, sold last year to a holding company for $3 million — which then turned around and sold it this past February (that’s right — less than a year later) for $17 million. The buyer is Sun RV Resorts, which already owns several hundred properties in the U.S. and Canada.

Cabins at Walnut Hills
Cabins at Walnut Hills

Small Country Campground, a 150-acre property about a 40-minute drive from us in Louisa, sold 18 months ago for approximately $4 million. The sellers, Bill and Ruth Small, built the campground from scratch starting 45 years ago. Our campground, a bit smaller at 43 acres and only 150 sites, nevertheless went for $3.1 million. That’s not $3.1 million going into our pockets, of course — there are mortgages and loans to pay off, not to mention a hefty tax bite — but there will be enough to see us through a modest retirement.


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So it’s carrot-and-stick. On the one hand, campground prices are attractive enough to tempt those of us who wearied of the long hours and crushing workload. On the other hand, the fun that made all that stress tolerable has been slipping away with each passing year, done in by the commodification mentioned above. One of the traditional selling points for prospective campground buyers has always been “the lifestyle” — work outdoors, no commute, enjoy the kinds of amenities unavailable to most people most of the time — but that increasingly is becoming a myth. In eight years, I doubt I had the opportunity to get into our swimming pool more than a handful of times.

Campsite costs going up

The thing is, as the few selling prices I’ve just listed will suggest, this also is becoming a business increasingly out of reach for the average mom-and-pop operator. There’s still room on the bottom rung for couples or families who can survive with a campground of 40 or 50 sites, but once you start looking at the mid-size universe of, say, 50 to 150 sites, the selling price becomes unattainable for most people. That’s where the corporate interests come in, with their deeper pockets and their capacity for at least some economies of scale — and as campers and employees soon discover, there is a world of difference between a family-owned operation and a corporate one.

Our buyers were Land Lease America (LLA), a relatively young company run by a couple of relatively young guys who are smart, personable and ambitious. When we started discussing our possible sale, LLA managed a handful of campgrounds — all KOAs — that they didn’t own, and also owned three campgrounds outright. By the time we reached closing, May 17, they had already doubled their ownership portfolio and were talking about acquiring as many as 10 campgrounds in 2021 alone. Their impact on Walnut Hills is already being felt, sometimes shockingly so.

Demand pricing at an RV park — just like airlines and hotels

For campers, for example, there’s the adoption of demand pricing, which many readers of this site have misunderstood. Demand pricing is not having one set of rates for in-season and one for off-season, or one set of rates for weekdays and one for weekends. Demand pricing is, first and foremost, dynamic: The cost of the same site for the same date will change from day to day, depending on when you make your reservation and how many similar sites are being sought by other campers at the same time. It’s what airlines do, and it’s why you will no longer be able to get a set answer to the question, “What does a water and electric back-in site at your campground cost?”

That means there are no rate sheets (ever try to get one of those from Delta?). It also means that if you stay on a site Tuesday and Wednesday and then swing by the office to see about extending by a day, you may end up paying a different rate — even though Thursday, under more traditional pricing schemes, was just another weeknight.

Employees are also affected

Employees are just as liable to get buffeted by corporate practices, such as the sudden switch from a weekly payroll to a bi-weekly one — with a week’s delay in getting paid because paychecks are being processed at a distant corporate center. That meant that the employees we last paid on May 16, for the workweek ending May 15, are getting their very next paychecks this weekend. That’s a three-week hiatus that people getting paid at or minimally above minimum wage can have a difficult time weathering.

More changes, for campers and employees alike, are sure to follow. Some may be for the better, especially if some of those corporate dollars are reinvested in the property or in higher wages. I suspect, however, that the overall trend will continue in the direction already set: Camping will be ever more crowded, more expensive, and more insulated from the outdoors it ostensibly exists to embrace. We feel lucky to have gotten a taste of the good old days, feel bad that we’ve contributed our small share to this slippery slope — and feel fortunate to have the opportunity to move on to new ventures.

Thanks to all who camped with us in the past, and safe travels, everyone!

Related:

RV park owner Andy Zipser: My park’s open, but campers are angry!



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119 Comments
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Suru
4 days ago

Hmmm, so the author bought a business. Then he found out when you own a business it usually entails having a “crushing workload” plus dealing with unreasonable people. Also, most business owners usually work 60-80 hour weeks, nothing new with this, it comes with the territory of being a business owner. Then after only 8 years of hard work (most business owners work 30-40 years at their businesses), the author sold his KOA to a big corporation and now has enough money to see him through a “modest retirement.” You would think he would be celebrating.

Diane Mc
5 days ago

Reading comments & find myself getting depressed by it all. Why some of the commenters are on this site is puzzling. It is “RV” Travel as in recreational “vehicle”. Sorry, didn’t grow up in a family that camped. Dad was self employed as a tailor, 5 1/2 days a week. Took 2 wks in summer to visit our relatives 1500 miles away. Went by car as time was of the essence. Tried tent camping once at 20. Liked nature, not the camping. Rented an RV w/first husband in 80’s for 6 wks w/18 mo old son. Loved it. 2nd husband & I have been RVing since we met in 96. 300k miles. Can live in my own “home” while seeing this beautiful country, going on hikes, sampling different cultures, food, etc. Travel 3/4 months out of the year. Most CG’s we’ve stayed at run by families or very friendly “company” workers. Haven’t had negative experiences described by many here. Just got home. Wish we were back on the road. Not going to apologize for enjoying how we choose to travel.

Tammy Holdcraft
7 days ago

So sorry! In all my camping trips I have only spoken to the owners or attendants, while checking in and checking out! I liked my tent and now my camper to be a little “glampy” but that had nothing to do with the attendants. If I don’t like the amendments I choose a different place. Of course electricity, water and a view are what I prefer, so if I can’t blow up my float or wash atleast my face I would find someone. But for the most part I don’t want to talk to anyone. Just friends, fun, food and a few cocktails.

David Anway
7 days ago

Sounds like state parks, COE RV parks and BLM land is the best place to camp !

Linda
8 days ago

We live in Texas and try to go to a cooler climate for the summer months. Husband ( after chemo and radiation for colon cancer) cannot tolerate heat and hates having to stay in the house, therefore spent a lot of years in Colorado, Northern California two summers (last summer,the fires forced us out) and one summer in Alaska. Will hopefully make it back to Alaska for another summer.

Reva Madison
8 days ago

A Sad state of affairs. We have owned three separate small pull trailers, with accommodations for 4-6 people, plus a pickup in which three of us could pack into , and a 5 bed motor home, all in the past 50 years. They allowed us to travel coast to coast, plus 7 years in the British Islands. Why? Much less expensive over-nighting, and getting closer to nature than moteling. We enjoyed the sites, especially those with plenty of trees, and swimming. Even rivers running thru them, we could pop the canoe in for a nice trip floating along. I guess we saw this coming, 10 or so years ago. Got rid of the camper, and the few trips we took, just cruised along looking for low to mid-priced motels. Even our one small camp-site here in the county has turned away from tourism, and its all up-grades for permanent, to semi-permanent sites now. Half million dollar “campers”. Sigh.

Tony Yabasa
8 days ago

Ever hear of a tent? Sheesh. Bigger and uglier as usual….people seem to have lost their appreciation for the simple things, like sleeping under the stars.

AJ Fletcher
8 days ago

Unfortunately with so many newbi’s entering the “camping” market, most haven’t a clue on campground etiquette plus they are dragging around huge RV’s that they do not know how to drive.

Dane Lee
7 days ago
Reply to  AJ Fletcher

I’m sure you were an expert when you got started.

C J
7 days ago
Reply to  Dane Lee

Yeah. Kind of. It just took some common sense. Don’t walk through a camp site you didn’t pay for; be quiet, especially after hours; pick up our trash; leave the dog at home etc etc. You know, the simple, logical, and reasonable stuff.

Jon
8 days ago

BLM is Bureau of Land Management

Paul G
8 days ago

Soon they will only be gated playgrounds of the rich and infamous!

Gail Wagner
9 days ago

Well written.

I believe the same shift from small business to corporate overseers will create a change in the boots-on-the-ground staff. The change in staffing will jack up rates, pushing more campers out of the picture.

Social media sites for work campers frequently focus on how to calculate a fair work camper pay. Many posters believe their compensation for living the dream life should be calculated on the same basis as the smothering corporate life they left. (Likely the same kids who got a trophy for sitting on the bench).

While these privileged workers demand more, volunteers are becoming more and more disillusioned and many will be leaving. Just this year, three couples with whom we spoke said that they would not be returning as volunteers and the reasons sound familiar.

So be it. My calculations show that with higher campground prices, RV payments, insurance, gas, etc. I can finally build my little cabin in the woods.

Methinks Andy will have a lot of followers.

Kamwick
9 days ago

We just started fulltiming in what I call our ‘bigazz’ 37′ fifth wheel and bigazz diesel truck. We only did this because here in SoCal, it was time to sell our bigazz house because the value finally increased beyond the original price we paid in 2006. Plus, we’re retiring and have some health issues to deal with. The size of the unit is also to accommodate three spoiled felines. Because prices are so high here, we choose not to buy a smaller place as of yet. This ‘bigazz’ unit is what we would call ‘transitional housing’.

We are under no illusions that what we are doing is actual ‘camping’. That said, we are currently in a beautiful campground here until October. There are many other fulltimers here. When health allows, we will try to travel again.

Kamwick
9 days ago
Reply to  Kamwick

When looking for longterm spaces here in SoCal, we ran across a ‘new’ (refurbished) SunRV Resort that charges $3500/month for a basic parking lot space with some trees. Close to the ocean, but really? Someone mentioned ‘gentrification’ and that is absolutely correct.

Very sympathetic with the author of this article for selling his park given the inflated prices. That’s exactly what hubby and I did that enables us to also enjoy a ‘moderate’ retirement.

I’m in agreement with those that advocate leaving traditional campgrounds for vans, tents and very small rvs. Forget the glamping cabins and large spaces. If we were simply going camping and able to leave the felines at a house, I’d definitely go for a van. It’s too crowded out there otherwise, and vans allow for stealth overnight stays if needed.

Jenifer
8 days ago
Reply to  Kamwick

Good choice. I see some of these huge campers and they are a huge waste of gas to lug around. If you are going to stay in the same camp ground and stay there every year for the summer I can see it but you see these huge campers in state parks and most of these parks were made in the 1930’s and were never for huge 30 ft campers. Some of these campers are as big as a 18 wheel truck. Q

Firefly
9 days ago

Why are you even mentioning Small Country Campground? Bill Small stopped doing maintenance the last few years. He sold to a multi-generational family, not a corporation. That family was hard at work catching up on all of the deferred maintenance when we stayed there last year. They are exactly the kind of new owners we need.

Judith Ferris
9 days ago

In 2018 I had such a horrible experience with RIvers at several USForrest Service campgrounds in Colorado that I wrote to them and suggested that they differentiate themselves from the rest of the glamp sellers by making their facilities off limits to. RVs and trailers limit to tents and vans. For the huge market that still wants that real nature experience. Also replace contracted management with rangers again who can teach those eager campers about earth stewardship. Until our government takes a stance people will just use camping as an avenue to destroy nature as usual.

John Dixon
9 days ago
Reply to  Judith Ferris

so as long as you are comfortable nobody else matters? You are better than other people since they do not do things your way. Let me explain to you that it is not the type of camping or the rig or anything related. It is the people. I have camped in every situation you can think of including a top notch RV. Nothing wrong with any of them as long as people appreciate and act as they should. The problem is entitlement and laziness.

Bill
8 days ago
Reply to  Judith Ferris

We had a great experience at astute campground in Colorado. They had actual State Rangers who helped us find a space after we found the one we selected wasn’t big enough. He couldn’t have been more helpful.

Last edited 8 days ago by Bill
Queue Tee
9 days ago

Looks like I’ll be doing a lot more boondocking in the future….

Judith Ferris
9 days ago
Reply to  Queue Tee

In Colorado you need a gun and dog to protect yourself from other boondockers. Its the wild west the law wont help and its so crowded theyre burning down the state. Boondockers need to go further north to have the real experience

Suzanne
9 days ago

I was going to share with what these very people think they have a good reason to complain. These people that were only distant thots of others who wnted kids. Well, this certainly isn’t teaching much to ur kids from wht I hear and see in pics. Fishing? How many of you tell ur kids, Find a long stick, they ALL come back helping to drag half a dead tree to camp. Well tht attracts a few curious camp dads n moms to come see. Of course sites were NOT on top of each other, so word of mouth brought the curious. Guess wht happened? They guys w the little guys started to make it happen. Families came to know each orher, recipes swapped and pics went up to add to many on the board. This became a tradition there. Kids went to sleep dirty, went swimming the next morning. And smiles n wonder of all the next day over breakfast cld be heard now n then from the next camp a ways away. We were ALL the best kids ever. And I say Amen.

Wj Miles
9 days ago
Reply to  Suzanne

Sorry no idea what you say

Timbo
9 days ago
Reply to  Suzanne

Ummmm….. WHAT?

Eileen L Rogers
9 days ago
Reply to  Suzanne

100% Suzanne

dcook
8 days ago
Reply to  Suzanne

I think I’ll try reading it backwards???

Doug W
9 days ago

These stories are a mixed bag. The industry needs some growth as more of us reach retirement age and we hit the road there will need to be more parks built. When I read about large corporations buying up place at these prices it scares me they are going to have to raise prices to pay for there expense and paying prices like this its a sure bet that prices are going way up.. We bought a 13 foot teardrop camper 2 years ago and found sleeping on a full size bed with a 43 pound dog to be more then we bargained for and would like to buy a 20/22 foot unit to make our camping experience better. The problem is that I see the crowded camping and wonder if I should even stay in camping with prices raising like they are. I could keep what I have it does work but many RV resorts are designed with self contained units and I need to be near a bathroom. We also retired on a modest income typical of an average American with the price of units and camping going way up we may decide to go back to moteling.

Michael Hinz
9 days ago
Reply to  Doug W

I often think about doing the same as I’m retired and then start thinking of the cost of a camper trailer and the storage during winter months. An upgrade in towing vehicle and wow that’s a lot of hotel rooms. Northern Wisconsin has tons of cabins to rent just 4 or five hours away.

Judith Ferris
9 days ago
Reply to  Michael Hinz

Right idea!

Judith Ferris
9 days ago
Reply to  Doug W

Your retirement dream is obsolete. Take a class on how to conserve not pollute with gas guzzling glamp equipment. Stay in a cabin or hotel or at home. If you’re cramped in a teardrop you don’t want to camp. Super 8s are what you want.

C j
7 days ago
Reply to  Judith Ferris

Cool. Luckily your line of thinking is not only irrelevant, but was never a thing to even be considered out dated. Move along Karen.

Jenifer
8 days ago
Reply to  Doug W

I go camping about 8 weekends each summer and I know I would never use that camper for it to be even worth the cost to store it. If I had room for it, it would be one thing but camping in a tent is so much cheaper and with a proper cot, mattress it works out fine. You can still get a electric site and use a little electric heater or mini air conditioner or fan in your tent if needed) I belong to a meetup group so we go to camp areas together and get our own site and meet up for hikes, kayaking and the fire at night. We have a few people with campers so of it rains we can go there to play cards or whatever. But being disabled the last thing I need to deal with is trying to hook up a trailer and even though I have a suv I would need to buy a new car to tow it. . But I am someone who would rather go to one area and really see it then spend hours on the road to get to some park just to move somewhere else. Also tent sites are much easier to get. I loved Europe youth hostel system. We Biked in the Netherlands and since we were biking they found a place for us to sleep even when the hostels were full. We had a great time and never had too worry about traffic since bike trails connected towns so we hardly ever were on the roads. Meanwhile people camping today will get tired of camping and the camper ends up in a landfill eventually. Camping use to be about going back to nature and not about carrying your 2nd home behind your truck or SUV.

r teuscher
6 days ago
Reply to  Jenifer

Jennifer, you are one of the few that makes sense. This pandemic will be over very soon and you will see changes in the costs of goods and services through higher prices. The government is throwing money up in the air and people are swarming to get it. As people realize that the money they are spending to camp isnt worth it, RV site owners will be affected big time. The only people camping will be the people who have lost their homes because they couldnt afford the costs of owning a home. The smart people who want to camp will rent an RV and plan carefully to make the experience worth while.

David Dougherty
9 days ago

Such a  shame.  I stayed in 51 twice in June, coming and going, and it was OK.  I guess I’ll look elsewhere for my next trip.

Randy
9 days ago

You are a fantastic writer!

rvgrandma
9 days ago

I worked two summers at an RV park in Prosser, WA. The owners sold it to the owners of the Best Western. They bought to take advantage of the wineries in the area which are a big draw. They did away with long term and changed their pricing to be more like the hotel pricing. I would never stay there with the pricing like they changed it but those with fancy RVs that want all the perks of a high class resort do. When they have special events in the area they almost double the prices requiring 3 or 4 days paid in advance.

No thank you. Give me a less fancy park. I do need cable and internet but I don’t use the pool or hot tub.

Judith
9 days ago
Reply to  rvgrandma

Camping is about getting away from cable and internet. Let’s concentrate on definitions. RV and trailers and conversion vans are houses on wheels for people who want to waste money on gas pollute nature and for don’t like hotels or cabins for traveling. These parks are parking lots for houses on wheels and profit from offering hotel and cabin services. The word camping is not part of that usage.

JanineC
9 days ago
Reply to  Judith

I understand how you see camping as a complete back-to-nature experience and can appreciate that. However, I also think back to the 70s when I was a kid. If we had not borrowed our friends’ RV our family would never have been able to go camping and traveling all around the country, and I would have missed many great experiences. My mother would never have been able to camp in a tent and live with no amenities at all. She had some limitations that would have precluded her from going. There is a place for RV camping. I do think too many people are overdoing the comfort requirements nowadays, but not everyone can camp with the bare minimum either.

C j
7 days ago
Reply to  Judith

Cool. You don’t get to define anything though, Judith, an unknown random person. You also don’t get to define moral or virtuous actions.

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