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Is the demise of mom-and-pop campgrounds really such a bad thing?

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.

The downside

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.

##RVT1004

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Dave
4 months ago

By the way, please don’t get into KOA bashing. That’s not helpful here. Take your suggestions to KOA. I have no personal relationship to KOA. I have used KOAs many times and many are owned by mom and pops we love. For what it’s worth, I generally enjoy staying at KOAs. Stay where you want.

The days of $35 per night camping full service campgrounds are essentially over. Try Florida in peak season. Mom and pop campground rates around Yellowstone and Grand Tetons are already over $100.

wanderer
4 months ago
Reply to  Dave

And on what forum are we allowed to criticize KOA, if not here? My favorite mom and pop just bailed out of the KOA system, which, after much costly renovation to their park, insisted they press on to add more costly child-centered features that did not correspond to their own vision for their park. KOAs with amusement park features are fine for those that want them. But between the franchise fees and the pushing for extra features, they have pushed rents higher and higher. This ripples through the whole system.

There are plenty of rural areas where the cost of camping is still kept under $35, by mom and pops, and millions of us are desperate to keep it that way. I deeply resent as an American knowing I will never see Yellowstone because camping rates have been pushed up to whatever the wealthy will pay. Because some chains want to make every buck they can possibly make.

Dave
4 months ago

I enjoyed the article and think it was well written. I think we all agree about mom and pops, but many don’t want to admit that it takes SERIOUS money to build, run, and maintain a campground. Well-financed mom and pops can still own campgrounds. Throw into the mix government red tape. I hope more moms and pops will jump into campground ownership. Are we going to complain if mom and pop need to charge $100 per night to provide services we demand?

I love talking to farmers, small business owners, and campground owners/ managers. Wonderful people. It is amazing what they do and the stories they tell. Yet, we campers are talking from one perspective and they live in reality. This isn’t about mom and pop, but reality.

I have a suggestion. Let US “mom and pop” campers form a co-op and build non-profit campgrounds. Raise your hand to start the ball rolling, and I’m sure lots of readers here will jump in and offer money and labor to help. (My fingers crossed.)

Gary Ashmore
4 months ago

Mike. Your pride of working for KOA is surprising. They are grossly overpriced. Many are dumps. Always jammed in far to close to each other. I have stayed at 3 that I can remember and looked closely at others. No thank you. KOA is awful!
We always look for locally owned groomed camp grounds or state city county and COE campgrounds. Corporations are ALL about making a dollar with little to no concern for customers. Customer service is exempt in corporate America. Get over yourself Mike. You have helped to strengthen the monster. Those of you with the $400,000 motorhomes are not campers. Go stay in your concrete maze. Leave our nature experiences alone.

Jeff
4 months ago

Yes, I think it’s concerning about Mom -n- Pop campgrounds disappearing. The corporate big guys only care about how much money they can make and with the boom in RVing that we’re seeing nowadays, they’re gonna make us pay. I think the time is fast approaching, if not already here, where $100/night is going to seem like a bargain. That’s going to make it difficult for people like me, who can’t afford $100 or more per night.

Jenn
4 months ago

Let’s for a moment take a step back and say what about families that have young children that they want to have a permanent site a place to say let’s escape for the weekend/week and head down to the camper. Those children love riding their bikes and going crabbing off the docks, fishing with dad, taking a golf cart ride through the park. A place they can just get away from everyday life, can’t afford to go on big trips. But having a mom and pop campground they can just get a break to. What about folks like us. We pay our yearly rent for our permanent spot so we can indulge in a mini vacation. One that we can afford. Everything expensive isn’t affordable for everyone. But everyone deserves a place to get away For those just cruising around the country we are on a completely different level, why take the little pleasures we need away from us so we can’t have anywhere to get away and make memories with our children. Big money is out of hand. Ppl need to slow down save a place for the kids

Amy B Nicholson
4 months ago

I am making a documentary about the end of a 50-year reign of a mom and pop campground in Chincoteague, VA. (https://www.happycampers.film/) Yes, it was run down. Yes, it needed improvements. But having lived there for 3 years, I can safely say that the new campground (a Bluewater property) will never, ever be the same. Just the mention of a “fire experience” on the website illustrates the sanitizing that happens when corporations take over an activity that is the antithesis of “corporate.” Most of this is about real estate. Displacement is displacement, even if you soothe the wounds with the idea that the owners cash out (as ours did and we were genuinely happy for them.) If a “camper” wants to pull in a trailer with 5 slide-outs, they are not camping. That’s a house. The kids in our film went fishing and road bikes on unpaved roads – who cares about wifi? Hopefully our film will broaden this discussion to include the value the experience and what that experience encompasses.

Susan Metaxotos-Hughes
4 months ago

I agree 100%
My heart aches because of the loss of inlet view 48 years of having a place to go just to relax and leave the hustle and BS Behind! And now WHAT???

M.Diane
4 months ago

Lets first distinguish between “Campgrounds” and RV parks. A campground is about being in nature, as a guest, blending in, and leaving the site relatively unchanged when you leave. RV parks are for people who want to travel and bring their home with them. We need to separate the two. I believe there is a market for both but would like to see more “Campgrounds pop up that allow only tents and small vehicles such as pickups,suvs’, and minivans. Tents and RVs, are rarely compatible.

Kamwick
4 months ago

Yes, they do charge higher rates. In San Diego, SunRv just opened a park and charges$3500 per month! Exorbitantly high. Looked at the site spaces online and I have to say they are so-so at best. Basically reaming the customers.

Bob P
4 months ago

I will answer your questions by asking questions, Camping World, Good Sam Club, Gander Mountain were very friendly companies, very customer oriented, very RV friendly towards their customers. Now that Marcus Lemonis owns all that have they gotten better? IMHO NO! When big business takes over it’s no longer about building lifetime customers, it’s about how much they can make today and we’ll worry about how much we will make tomorrow when tomorrow comes.

Pierre Woody
4 months ago
Reply to  Bob P

Marcus Lemonis. Oh, I recognize that name but who is he? Anyone here were Trailer Life and Motorhome magazines readers that now read RV magazine? Or is this the wrong place to ask?

Mark Generales
4 months ago

The RV park industry is going to boom? Where? When? Blackrock is now buying single family homes at absurd prices forcing many to rent as they can’t afford the prices. Is that the future for RV parks. $100/night going to become the norm?

We all know corporate RV parks. You know – the ones with the tiny pool, postage stamp sites and minimal space. The formula for the investment banker/private equity owner is antithetical to the entire outdoor experience. Yet in today’s world with so few choices of where to stay – we can expect this corporate version of outdoor nirvana to proliferate.

When do taxpayers start pressuring congress and state legislators to build new campgrounds. It isn’t as if they don’t spend trillions on garbage! It is time we gain a voice. After all, even though they don’t believe it – it really is our money.

Jeff
4 months ago
Reply to  Mark Generales

As more and more campgrounds get gobbled up by the corporate big guys, it’s only a matter of time before $100/night will seem like a bargain. In my neck-of-the-woods, it’s almost at that price now!

Bill michael
4 months ago

Campgrounds are changing dramatically and for the basic camper wanting to get away and enjoy the great outdoors, the changes are and have ruined the camping experience. Beyond the increasing costs, crowded conditions, swimming pools, fancy showers and restrooms, non-outdoor related activities and forced reserving months ahead of time, they have ruined the actual outdoor experience. Many of the folks driving these changes need to go stay in a hotel, eat at restaurants and go to the theme parks or quit whining that the campground doesn’t feel like city living. I might as well put up a tent in the backyard vs going to the new and improved campgrounds.

It’s just sad what we are doing to our kids, they are growing up with very little actual outdoor experience and appreciation for the great outdoors.

KellyR
4 months ago

Pony express went out of business because of trains. Trains out of business because of Interstates. Sears catalog because of Amazon. Diners because of McDonalds. Downtowns because of Malls. Malls because of Walmart. Small farmers because of MONSTER Ag corps. Land lines because of cell phones. People fighting in the streets because we no longer meet face to face. Once life is found on Mars, Amazon will go to Mars, leaving us with nothing and we will have to start all over again with Mom & Pop stores. Thank God that I will not live to Methuselah’s 969 years. Oh, I do not like seeing Mom & Pop campgrounds going under.

Roy Craft
4 months ago

We search out “mom and pops” as well travel in our 45′ motorhome. I prefer to support them instead of corporate facilities. I also shop local when I can and will buy at the local Ace hardware (or True Value) rather than HD or Lowe’s – why? because most of the local/small businesses provide better service

JW Eibeck
4 months ago

Sadly, many of the mom & pop campgrounds that we have stayed at over the years have simply been let go, maintenance-wise. And I’m not referring to WiFi or Cable TV amenities, by the way. No, I’m referring to keeping the grass mowed to a reasonable height, gravel filled into potholes within the campground roads, electrical boxes in usable condition, clean showers / restrooms, etc. Because of this, we have begun to stay more at both state parks and Corp of Engineers campgrounds.

David Toll
4 months ago

This in many ways is repetition of Thor buying up a very large proportion of the RV manufacturing business (remember Fleetwood owned more than 20% of the manufacturing capacity and went out of business). Further Camping World is buying up dealerships nationwide – is this good?

Mike Welch
4 months ago

Why would you want to lose your family owned camp grounds to big corporate owned camp grounds?? Think how well it worked for all of us when we gave up our small town business for the big box store!!!! So WHY WOULD THIS WORK ANY BETTER ??????

Carson Axtell
4 months ago

Of course, we should be concerned about the disappearance of Mom & Pop operations in America. Family owned businesses tend to be focused on simply earning a livable income, and the proprietors tend to be sensitive to customer satisfaction and retention. Corporate owners are focused on profit maximization, and customer satisfaction just gets relegated to a statistical consideration where it is dealt with in aggregate rather than individually. Corporate and investor ownership of RV facilities is just an offshoot of the larger pattern of the general real estate market in which individual houses, as well as entire housing developments, are being scooped up for the rental market, often at 50% premiums to going market prices, thus forcing housing prices beyond the reach of retail buyers. Only if we are fine with being at the mercy of large, impersonal, profit-seeking entities should we be indifferent to their ownership of RV facilities.

Mark Mccabe
4 months ago

Just as how you drive down the interstates from town to town, and each one you pass is pretty much Everytown USA” with the same big box stores and the same chain restraunts and total lack of any individualism defining them, I fear campgrounds (or as they are all called these days regardless of the state of repair or disrepair, RV Resorts) will soon become “EveryRV_Park USA.
Don’t get me wrong, I stay at lots of KOA’s because of the pretty much standard services and amenities they offer, and I often stay at huge corporate owned facilities such as are found in Palm Springs, CA.
That said, I also frequently stay at smaller private parks because of their individualism related to services and themes.
But alas, time and so called progress marches on and sooner or later all RV parks will become same ole same ole corporate owned bemouths with no stopping it. That diverse set of parks will be missed by me

Kenneth
4 months ago

Seems to me that no one is recognizing the need for just a park and sleep site similar to a rest stop, now that some RV units are becoming more self contained with solar. There are a number of places where free overnight parking is difficult and not very safe. Additionally adding more charging stations would also expand the service for hybrid/electric vehicles.

Mark Mccabe
4 months ago
Reply to  Kenneth

Yes, building a no frills overnight waystation park with decent slabs, full hookups and a decent shower facility for folks just passing through while charging reasonable rates for the overnighters that would typically arrive after say 6:00PM and be on the road again by say 9:00AM the following morning would be wonderful. Seems it would be a good investment along the interstates and bigger highways. I would much prefer to do a quick overnight stop in one of these places as opposed to a truck stop or store parking lot.

Andy Mobers
4 months ago
Reply to  Mark Mccabe

YES !!!!

we dont always want to pay more for the pool and laundry etc.. just a safe place to rest

David Jones
4 months ago
Reply to  Mark Mccabe

Yes, I agree. If traveling across the country, we really only need or desire the extras every every few days or even once a week.

Pierre Woody
4 months ago
Reply to  Kenneth

YES! We pay for a lot of services that we don’t want or need.

Brenda
4 months ago

Personally I love the mom and pop campgrounds. I find the mom and pops hospitable. I’m not into resorts.