By Mike Gast
So, I’m just going to throw this question out there. Is the demise of “mom-and-pop” campgrounds really such a bad thing?
Now, before you bring out the tar and feathers, hear me out. I’m not sure yet myself if the loss of small, family-owned parks should be decried or celebrated. I’m just bringing the issue out of the dusty topic closet for a little discussion. I’d really like to hear what you think on the subject.
What got me thinking along these lines was the column last Sunday by Andy Zipser, the former owner of the Walnut Hills RV Park in Staunton, Virginia. Andy recently sold his park to an up-and-coming corporate group that owns or operates more than a dozen parks.
I’ve known Andy for all eight of his campground-owning years since, for most of them, his park was a KOA and I was the vice president of Communications for Kampgrounds of America Inc. We didn’t cross paths often (mostly I heard from Andy when he rightfully pointed out a typo in some of my content). Even though we didn’t always agree, I have always respected Andy. He’s a smart fellow – smart enough to purchase a great campground that he undoubtedly left better than he found it and was able to reap the rewards of his efforts.
Andy’s story of campground ownership actually reflects the outcome most park owners seek. First, you buy a campground. Then you pour in your sweat equity and the improvements you can afford for a few years. In the end, you successfully cash out … sometimes to another family, but now it’s more likely – like Andy – you sell to a group or corporation.
So, back to my original statement. How can the demise of small, family-owned (“mom-and-pop”) campgrounds be a good thing?
Small mom-and-pop parks tend to grow slowly
Over the past two decades, I’ve watched hundreds of eager couples purchase “mom-and-pop”-type campgrounds. Most were mortgaged to the hilt to make it happen, although they were required to have at least a minimal amount of available operating capital to start their ownership experience.
Campgrounds – even small ones – do make money. But typically, the financial demands of debt service and other family expenses don’t leave a lot of cash to pour back into these smaller campground businesses (try as they might). Small, family-owned campgrounds certainly do add improvements and amenities where they can. It’s just a slower process.
That’s when corporate buyers can actually be a plus. They usually finance most or all of a campground purchase on their own and they have the cash needed for the quick improvements, added amenities, and campground expansions campers are now demanding.
Who’s to blame for fewer mom-and-pop campgrounds?
You can point that finger at yourself. Well, that might be a bit harsh. But in general, it’s the demands of the market that dictate what happens in any industry.
Campers today want more. More food services, more amenities, more sites and more space. The list is long. A small 30/50-site park, as my friend Andy pointed out, can’t afford to keep up with all of the current trends. Take a look at most campground reviews and you’ll see many complaints about poor WiFi, unpaved roads, and sites build in the 1970s that don’t fit current RVs sporting five slide outs. It all adds up and these are all issues that only cash can fix.
Like I said earlier, there is a lot of money to be made in camping, but it has to be done on a larger scale to really turn top dollar. Corporate buyers can afford to take a small park that comes with unused land and quickly ramp it up by adding hundreds of new sites and amenities to give campers just what they say they really want. Industries always react to market demands.
What’s happening now in camping isn’t new. Every industry evolves. The mom-and-pop 12-unit roadside motels that sprouted along the nation’s two-lane highways in the 1960s and ’70s gave way to the Motel 6’s and Super 8’s. They, in turn, had to share space with even larger motel chains as the interstate highway system bloomed.
The same goes for retail. Not many small-town hardware stores survived the arrival of a Home Depot. And you boondockers out there who are worried about the declining number of Walmarts that allow overnight camping probably won’t get much sympathy from the thousands of small local businesses driven out by Sam Walton’s behemoth creation.
The real downside of this evolution in camping, at least for us long-timers who remember it as it was, is that bigger parks with more investments in expansions and amenities will undoubtedly charge higher rates. Not only that, but more sophisticated operations will bring in “dynamic pricing,” just as Andy predicted last week. That means campsite prices will be handled just as seat ticket rates are managed in the airline industry. The price you pay will be determined by the day of the week, the camp’s available inventory, the demand for a certain type of site, even the time of day you try to reserve. It’s all driven by algorithms, and the factors are endless and automated. But it all leads to you possibly paying a lot more for the same site (or at least a very different rate) than your neighbor.
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about the future of national and state park campgrounds or private parks – be careful what you ask for. Endless surveys and reviews of post-stay comments clearly show that campers want more and bigger sites, more amenities, better WiFi, and sophisticated online reservation systems. And they want it all now. That takes capital, and that requires owners with more resources.
But don’t feel too bad for those remaining mom-and-pop park owners. They are well positioned for a big payday, just as they dreamed when they first purchased their campgrounds.
What comes next?
Expect to see more big-money players flow into the campground business in the next few years. You’ll also see a boom in new campground construction (that’s already started). Ultimately, the demands from the camper market will dictate how many campsites are added to the national inventory, the amenities that are offered, and what a night of camping will cost.
Is the end of the six-decade era of mom-and-pop campgrounds to be mourned or celebrated? I’m still not sure. Family ownership has been the bedrock of the camping business for 60 years. The vast majority of owners I dealt with in my career were wonderful folks. I’m sad to see them leaving the business.
I can remember early in my corporate KOA life when we called campgrounds “the last small towns in America.” I suspect corporate-owned parks might not be able to maintain that “Mayberry” feeling as campgrounds surpass the 500-site mark.
I guess we’ll have to wait and see if camping as we know it (or knew it) becomes just a fond memory.
Now it’s your turn. Tell me what you think in the comments below.