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.
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.
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.
For more articles like this be sure to sign up to receive the free RV Travel Newsletter, posted every Saturday and Sunday. In our 20th year. Learn more and/or sign up. No spam. Easy unsubscribe if you aren’t impressed.
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!