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Ex-RV park owner has no regrets for selling: Stress was too much

By Andy Zipser
The last time I wrote for RVtravel.com, in early June, it was to explain why after eight years my family had just sold our campground. Four months later, I’m writing to say that not only have I had no regrets, but that the wave I caught has grown only larger and more powerful and made me grateful that we caught it when we did.

The numerous stress factors that drove us out of campground ownership have grown more potent; the amount of investment capital chasing after RV parks and campgrounds shows no sign of abating, and the end result, alas, will be a much diminished experience for the RVing public.

Stress factors 
Most RVers have already experienced the reservation crunch. As widely noted, the days of being able to start looking mid-afternoon for a campground site that evening are, with rare exceptions, long behind us. That’s stressful for campers, of course — but it’s also stressful for campground owners, who get confronted by the full spectrum of negative human emotions from RVers desperate for a spot to land that night or next weekend.

There’s a lot of pleading and guilt-tripping, with fanciful stories (some of which may even be true) of medical emergencies or deaths in the family; there’s a lot of brow-beating and threatening; and there’s wheedling and conniving, with site requirements such as length of unit or power needs magically changing in search of a workable combination.

Ironically, one of the industry’s biggest vulnerabilities in this regard has been its growing reliance on online reservations, which require campers to enter information such as whether they have a fifth wheel or a motorcoach before showing what sites are available. None available? No problem — the camper simply fudges the variables until something works, “reasoning” that if there are no sites for a 35-foot unit, surely they’ll be able to squeeze into one that’s only 30 feet. Guess whose fault it is in when they arrive and don’t fit?

Yet while the number of campers has exploded, the number of campground employees not only hasn’t kept pace but is down sharply from two years ago. This past week I spent a couple of days at the Virginia Campground Association’s annual meeting where the same story was repeated across the board: no one has enough employees, and it’s not for lack of trying. And just as significant swaths of the fast-food industry have responded to the same problem by limiting hours, menus or types of service, campgrounds are cutting down on the amenities they offer, from eliminating organized activities to leaving buildings shuttered.

For the long run, however, everyone recognizes that these are only stop-gap measures. At some point, campers who have tolerated a reduced menu of services because they’re excited just to get out of the house will start pushing for the other activities and resources that they associate with camping. But it’s not just their needs that are being neglected. Short-staffing in the context of increased demand means physical plants are not getting the care and upkeep they need. Deferred maintenance is becoming a huge overhang throughout the industry. Campground owners know that, and the knowledge is oppressive.

Investment capital
While campground and RV park owners are feeling overwhelmed by a tsunami of camping interest unleashed by the pandemic, the people with money who are always looking for the next big thing are seeing the same dynamics — and for them, this smells awfully much like opportunity. And they are piling on.

Campgrounds selling fast
The roster of campgrounds sold or about to be sold this year in Virginia keeps growing, and now includes not just Walnut Hills, Shenandoah Acres and Small Country — all mentioned in my June article — but Misty Mountain, Gloucester Jellystone and a mega-park on the eastern shore. Meanwhile, the buyers keep sniffing around — it’s rare that a quality campground in Virginia has not had an inquiry — and the number of groups seeking to add to their holdings keeps growing. Moreover, this is by no means a Virginia-centric phenomenon. An outfit called Spacious Skies has made local inquiries, but it’s based in New England and its website forthrightly declares that it is “actively buying campgrounds of all shapes and sizes in most locations along the east coast.“ Similarly, the outfit that bought the Gloucester Jellystone is Texas-based but has also acquired a number of properties in the mid-Atlantic region. Other buyers also are nosing around.

Given the pressures they’re facing, it’s not surprising that campground owners who once thought they were looking at many more years of being in the business are suddenly receptive to the overtures they’re receiving. But a change in ownership, while presumably meeting the needs of buyers and sellers, does not by itself address the underlying market trends that made such a transaction possible in the first place. It won’t, for example, miraculously expand the available labor pool — and may, in fact, diminish it, further increasing the stresses within the industry.

The consequences of this dynamic, which I’ll explore here next week, unfortunately are not dissimilar from those within the RV manufacturing sector, and that’s not good news for the RVing customer.

Next week: A diminished campground experience, but higher prices ahead.

In the four months since he sold the Walnut Hills RV Park and Campground, Zipser has written a book about his family’s experiences. It goes on sale Oct. 11, priced at $4.99 for the ebook version and $14.95 for the paperback. Look for Renting Dirt at your favorite bookseller (including Amazon) to pre-order or order the discounted paperback edition at Zipser’s new website and blog, renting-dirt.com, where you can also keep up with his other writing on the campground world.

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Cere
16 days ago

After almost 12 years of ownership, we recently sold our family-owned small RV park, simply due to the bull market demand for parks and the fact that selling afforded us a chance to retire. When we first bought the park, it was in bad shape. With a lot of sweat and love, we brought it to a place where it is quite honestly, a unicorn – a gem of a small park according to our reviews. We lived through the very bad and scary economy of 2010-2012 along with sky-high gas prices, and pinky-promised to sell if there was ever a hot market wave to ride. Well, we never dreamed of a market like today’s. We were under contract in two weeks and closed in two months to a small “corporation” (business people, not RVers) looking to build a sellable portfolio. We have never felt such relief! Running a campground is an indescribable amount of work – and as others have said, finding decent help (who get along!) is one of the most difficult tasks. Miss a lot of people but happy to have sold.

Last edited 15 days ago by Cere
Jessica
20 days ago

This is a good article and poses many questions and challenges we will see over the long term. I am curious to see how these investment companies manage the parks and then what will happen when the shift in camper demand changes.

Snayte
21 days ago

Get ready to say goodbye to your boondocking areas. These big corporations will have lobbyists all over DC to get them shutdown so they do not cut into their profits.

Robert Adams
21 days ago

My wife and I sold our park this past February after 15 years in a high traffic tourist location. Other than missing some of the interaction with customers we have not looked back…

Mark Mack
21 days ago

The current campground owners are doing what’s right for them. Cashing in a lifetime of work while the market is hot.

The new investors see an opportunity. We all complain about a shortage of campgrounds. Double the prices and the shortage goes away.

One risk of these fad-driven investment groups is what happens when the music stops.
When the market inevitably cools as other vacation and entertainment options reopen and the new campers realize the realities of RV life, the investment groups will cut their losses and either sell or close surplus campgrounds that aren’t profitable enough.

Jessica Rider @jessica_l_rider
20 days ago
Reply to  Mark Mack

That is the challenge that few are looking at these days.

dennis beal
21 days ago

Camping and van life have gone NUTS. Some want to travel in modified vans and Huge conversions & others to live in them. The high end camper vans are so da*n expensive you might as well buy a cheap House for the same price.

Jdp
20 days ago
Reply to  dennis beal

Problem is, there seems to be few cheap houses available anymore .

JPN
21 days ago

Nice thing about it I belong to a camp ground association 86 camping spots 33 ft max on RVs, in Washington state, own our lot since 2003, water to lot, no power, showers, bathrooms, dump station, polebarn, fishing, camp fires, 4th of July firework and a lake stocked every year.. And everyone knows each other.

Rex Deaver
21 days ago

The solution to many of these problems, just as it is elsewhere in the hospitality sector, is higher wages, reasonable hours, expansion and more investment in general. The realignment of the industry is going to happen, it has to to meet the changing market.

Rcl
22 days ago

Sad reality….has one simple equation, to many dam people with is tied to every single other problem on this planet

Rving
20 days ago
Reply to  Rcl

Are you one of these dam people?

Vincee
22 days ago

As more and more younger families enter into the RV’ing lifestyle you are seeing an expectation of more amenities being required. Case in point, my 41-year-old son and his wife
with three great kids ages, 13 down to 3 1/2 asked if I could post up our DP at a local Jellystone campground. Nightly site rental came out to be about $130 per night, to me totally outrageous, to them, cheap! Why, well a cabin rental per night was $300 plus. I did and they had three great nights.

So what’s happening in the RV/Camping industry based on the last statistic I’ve read is about 38% of new campers purchased today, or about 151,000 units have been bought my young millennial families entering into the camping lifestyle. These new campers are more looking for “babysitting” campgrounds that have a host of activities to keep the young’ens occupied so mom and dad can eat, drink, and be merry with friends and other families.

They don’t care or are interested in the price per night at Widget Campgro

Donald N Wright
23 days ago

I am surprised campgrounds do not charge by weight, not size. Tow vehicle, RV and towd.

John Koenig
22 days ago

Way to go Don. I DON’T see how this would improve things or make more RV sites available. Let’s have campgrounds pile on more fees without providing more services.

Bobbi
23 days ago

Your statement about “menu of services” hit a nerve. Why do people need the campground to provide “activities and resources?” Whatever happened to doing things themselves, enjoying nature and being on your own? If you need someone to provide you entertainment go to Disney.

Andrew
22 days ago
Reply to  Bobbi

If you want to go camp “in nature” don’t go to a campground. And don’t bring an RV. Better yet, don’t gatekeep and tell people how they should enjoy their time. This is another major problem with the RV industry.

Echo
14 days ago
Reply to  Bobbi

Just being outdoors makes me feel alive again!

Bwodom
23 days ago

We have camped for over 30 years, have managed an RV resort. Now retired, we volunteer our time at state and national parks.

The biggest change I see in camping is the reason for camping; I sincerely believe that individual motivation drives behavior. When people camp because they love and respect the solitude and beauty of nature, you get campers who also respect the environment and fellow campers who share their motivation.

When people camp because it’s the newest thing to do, to get out of the house due to COVID, or to find a place where they can let the kids run wild while they relax with a beer, then you get behavior relevant to that mindset.

Unfortunately, guess which camper will decide to find other venues?

Kathy Niemeyer
23 days ago

I am one of those people that filled out an online reservation and my unit didn’t fit. The website asked what size was my unit. I truthfully put 32 feet. We got there and it barely fit and there was no place for my tow. My Class C is 32 feet and we tow a 4 door Jeep Wrangler which makes us with tow system at around 52 feet. This particular campground didn’t have sites for units that need 52 feet. We went ahead and stayed there and parked our Jeep near the office. This would not have happened if the online reservations had ask about our tow. If it had we would not had stayed there as we didn’t fit. This could have been a campground owner wanting to keep his sites full and purposely did this. I spoke with others at this campground and they too said they would not have stayed there because of the confusion of the website.

Andy Zipser
23 days ago
Reply to  Kathy Niemeyer

I have a slightly different take on this from “bull’s” answer, and that has to do with the basic insufficiency of on-line reservation systems and why I always preferred that reservations be made by telephone. One problem is a lack of shared definitions: what is a “unit,” and what should a site be expected to accommodate? If a site is 40 feet long, can one put a 40-foot travel trailer on it–or is that adequate only for a 20-foot trailer plus a tow vehicle? Is it unreasonable to expect an RVer to park her tow vehicle in a visitor parking lot? Etc. etc. These and other issues can be ironed out over the telephone, but online reservations–while convenient in many ways–work best if everyone has a shared understanding of key points.

Cere
16 days ago
Reply to  Andy Zipser

If the site is 40′ long, then it is 40′ long. It’s up to the camper to know their total length (including their tow). Don’t read anything else into it.

tom
23 days ago

“Now Hiring” is the most common sign along the highways and byways. Even very rural blue roads, companies are looking for workers.

Kristen Campbell
22 days ago
Reply to  tom

What is a blue road? I’ve driven on black roads(asphalt) and tan roads (concrete) but I’ve never driven on a blue road. Please don’t tell me this is some kind of politicization of roads?

MHobbes
22 days ago

Nothing political about the term – it refer to small, forgotten, out-of-the-way roads connecting rural America, which were drawn in blue on the old style Rand McNally road atlas, in the days before the GPS.

Storm
21 days ago

There is a book from back in the day called ‘Blue Highways’. As mentioned, it is the secondary roads marked in blue on a paper map.

geb
21 days ago
Reply to  Storm

I guess not very many people use paper maps anymore. 🙂 i still do. Thanks for the clarification

Larry Bunch
44 minutes ago
Reply to  tom

We went to Virginia City Nevada from Reno. On our way back we went through Carson City the Bunny Ranch Brothel had a help wanted sign hanging below their sign. I guess good help is hard to find.

Roy Frazier
23 days ago

As most of your articles indicate, we need more campgrounds! This article seems to indicate you are discouraging campground ownership. Not helping the overcrowding situation. ??

Thomas Boltik
23 days ago

We’ve stayed at that campground. It is on our list of weekend getaway campgrounds. In honesty, I haven’t been back since the sale. I’m saddened to see these large corporations take over campgrounds, because I am sure they mean well, the motivation behind their moves is not campers enjoying the experience, but giving them “just enough” so the shareholders show a profit. Service will no longer be from the heart to give a family a good experience, but will be what can raise the bottom line.

As far as these “Campground Ownership-based corporations, I have two words: ” harvest host”. This campground is beautiful. I love staying there (site 63 was awesome!!) But will it be the same next spring? Time will tell.

I know I had zero influence on the decision to sell. I cannot slight someone for getting out when they no longer loved it because customers have changed. Get out while the getting is good. I got that. But each time a tiny slice disappears, its doubtful that it will get better.

Snayte
21 days ago
Reply to  Thomas Boltik

They do not mean well, they mean to make a profit. That is the only motivation here.

Michael
23 days ago

Industry consolidation has been going on for a long time. How many mom and pop office supply stores are there compared to 30 years ago? How about hardware stores? Restaurants? Airlines? Auto manufacturers? Hotels? What makes RV parks immune? Capitalists’ goal is to make money. Sometimes the customers benefit. Sometimes they don’t. Whether they do or not is secondary to the primary goal of making money.

Dan.H.
23 days ago
Reply to  Michael

Thanks Michael. You are exactly right. Our little slice of the world changes everyday. The older generation of campers can’t accept the change and the entitled generation want everything handed to them without any hassle.

Thumper Simpson
22 days ago
Reply to  Dan.H.

on target

Kip
19 days ago
Reply to  Dan.H.

I agree DAN. Im a geezer and have been camping solo or with family over 60 years. In days of yore it was a real treat to get a site that was reasonably level, so we always had various devices to fix that problem. All part of the camping experience.

Early mornings yielded the smell of Campfires, coffee and bacon. And most likely an early stroll would get you invited to join perfect strangers for coffee and maybe even breakfast. And occasionally one of those encounters would turn into long term friendships.

Not so much anymore. Seems it to be more about RVing, not camping.

And it seems more and more are bringing a small apartment with all the comforts of home.

I’ve co-hosted 3 rallies and you wouldn’t believe the complaints and lack of cooperation by so many. In days gone by, most everyone at the rally was also a participant. Not just somebody that showed up.

Not hard to understand the stress factors of private campground owners and why they are bailing out while they can.