Tuesday, January 18, 2022

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Will a new player in the campground franchising business change RVing?

We recently told you about the sale of Leisure Systems Inc. (LSI), the company that runs the Jellystone Park camping franchise, to Sun Outdoors. LSI includes about 75 parks in its franchised portfolio, and Sun Outdoors owned and operated about 175 RV resorts before the sale.

What’s it all mean to the average RVer? Probably not a lot, at least for now. After all, Leisure Systems has changed ownership at least four times in the past 30 years. In 1989 it was owned by Taft Broadcasting, then sold to Great American, then Park River Corporation, and now Sun.

In all those years, those 75-or-so Yogi parks have performed nicely, staying in their lane as primarily campgrounds for young families. There was always a guy in a bear suit wandering about handing out hugs, and tons of activities geared around the iconic Hanna Barbera cartoon characters. Most were good parks in desirable locations, and they’ve done a good job serving their niche customer.

LSI is a unique camping franchise that appeals to park owners who want to project a very specific vibe to campers. Buying into the Jellystone brand is a big change for the typical campground owner. It isn’t for everyone, and that has led to a slow, methodical growth for the company over the years.

What happens next?

LSI has long been the annoying little brother to camping franchise behemoth Kampgrounds of America Inc., or KOA. With about 520 KOA-owned or franchised locations in the U.S. and Canada, KOA is by far the largest camping company in North America. Leisure Systems Inc. has been in the second spot since both companies emerged from the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1980s.

But now Sun Outdoors can add Jellystone’s 75 franchised parks to its own 175-location portfolio. Instantly, they have become a major player in campground franchising.

Sun Outdoors, which already owns about a dozen parks in the Jellystone franchise system, has announced that it plans to leave the leadership team at LSI in place. That likely means current Jellystone Park owners and their campers won’t see any big changes right away.

But Sun Outdoors has a huge wallet, and they have demonstrated that they aren’t afraid to spend multiple millions to get what they want. The parent company, Sun Communities, is a huge multi-national, publicly traded corporation with hundreds of properties. Sun’s collection of brands now includes:

  • Sun Outdoors: The 175 family RV and camping resorts.
  • Sun Retreats: Sun’s seasonal and long-term stay resorts.
  • Sun Resorts & Residences: A collection of 55+ resorts.
  • Sun Uncharted: This is the glamping sub-brand for Sun, offering parks with everything from treehouses to tipis, as well as traditional glamping tents.
  • Jellystone Parks: Sun’s newest brand addition with 75 franchised locations.

Now tucked under Sun Outdoors’ wing, Jellystone Parks will no longer lack the resources to quickly help parks add amenities, provide more services to franchisees, and help Jellystone’s existing parks to quickly expand.

The evolution of the campground

You’ll note that the sub-brand list above includes some facilities that have little to do with “traditional” camping and RVing: Things like long-term park model communities (Sun’s original bread and butter), and specific glamping resorts.

KOA came up with it is own sub-brands several years ago (KOA Journey, KOA Holiday, and KOA Resort) in a similar effort to better define campground offerings for campers. KOA also recently opened its Terramor glamping resort at a former campground location near Bar Harbor, Maine – the first of likely many more Terramor facilities across the country.

Campgrounds have evolved in the past decade to include multiple accommodation offerings, and many now have some glamping facilities on site. It’s all an effort to open the outdoors to a wider range of camping guests, bringing new faces and new dollars to campgrounds.

The sale of LSI to Sun Outdoors is just the latest example of rapid ownership consolidation in the camping business. Expect more as 2022 comes along. The pandemic has made anything to do with the outdoors a very hot commodity, and hot commodities always bring in new investors. You’ll likely see a dizzying array of joint ventures, new construction, and existing campground expansions in the coming months.

Here comes the competition

Avid RVers often lament the loss of small “mom and pop” parks through buyouts and see the rise of “corporate” campgrounds as the end of camping as they like it. Sure, the “good ol’ days” of pulling into a campground at 4 p.m. without a reservation are likely gone forever. But the rise of a big player like Sun Outdoors can have an upside.

Sun Outdoors, KOA, and all the other smaller players in camping are definitely out to make a profit. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the American way. Keep in mind that camping rates at franchised parks are set by the campground owner, not the franchisor. Owners will continue to set rates based on their costs, amenities, local competition and what the camper market will bear.

As the tsunami of current campers begins to subside over the next year or so, expect to see a new level of competition for existing campers among the larger players. There will be more sites built with new amenities most campers say they want. This increase in competition could be good for RVers, bringing a return of a camper’s ability to pick and choose based on location, service, amenities and, yes, even price.

Increased competition is usually a good thing for consumers.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

##RVT1033b

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Travis
11 days ago

We used to stay at Yogi campgrounds when they where normal campgrounds. Now they are over priced tourist attractions. I do not like camping and being forced to help pay for your water park attractions. If I want to go to a water park then I will do so. A normal campground pool is all that is needed for camping. And actually I more enjoy a campground with a river close by so I can go tubing & fishing.

DENNIS J CHARPENTIER
11 days ago

Sun Resorts is a big player in the use of dynamic pricing. Use caution when using these campgrounds as a one night stopover.

Betty Vargo
15 days ago

It’s time all of us who camp STOP USING ALL THESE OVERPRICED camping parks…one would be better off cheaper,safer, staying in a comfortable motel..the sites are so small it’s a total rip off…35. A night is more than fair for ANY CAMPING SITE..we must come together and stop this gouging of RV owners…and why arent they required to have atleast 2-4 underground storm shelters??

Vincee
16 days ago

I am not sure, but from our past Spring travel to Florida, it seems to me that Sun, Encore, and the like go after CG’s in heavy tourist areas. We don’t see many of them in the Northeast, My guess is they aren’t interested in the mom and pop parks that are out in the country and a good drive from any more densely populated urban area.

Firefly
16 days ago

Well written, informative, and balanced. There is no byline but kudos to those that worked on it.

wanderer
16 days ago

Ha. Stayed in one Sun “Resort”. Took an hour to check in, then an hour to find an electric post that wasn’t faulty, then more time to get the computer to change my site. Junky sites, primitive laundry. Then they put you on their list for spam emails and calls.

The day may be coming when the find-a-campsite apps will let us filter out the campgrounds owned by these greedy chains.

G13
16 days ago

The new campground in San Diego(pictured) is very nice, though a three day, two nights will cost you in excess of $350 in the standard sites.