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.
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.
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.