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Part 2: The New Dynamics of Pricing Your Next Campsite

EDITOR’S NOTE: Welcome to Part Two of RVtravel.com’s look at the effects of Dynamic Pricing models on the prices you pay for campsites. If you missed Part One of this series, CLICK HERE.

By Mike Gast
Theoretically, dynamic pricing isn’t always a bad thing.

Campspot, a current industry leader providing reservation software to more than 1,300 parks, is quick to tell campground owners that dynamic pricing doesn’t always lead to an increase in price to the customer.

“Dynamic pricing is simply an attempt to match your rate with the demand coming from your customers – whether increasing or decreasing,” Campspot’s information to campground owners says.

“Your overall goal as a business is to drive revenue. If you’re in the off-season and an upcoming weekend is looking sparse, would you rather charge your normal off-season rate and get one or two more last-minute reservations?” says Campspot marketing information. “Or, could you drop your price by five dollars last minute and encourage a few extra bookings that you wouldn’t have otherwise? Demand for what you offer can go up or down on a whim. To generate the most revenue possible, your rates should fluctuate, too.”

Increasing competition for available campsites is forcing campers to spend more time on campground websites searching for openings. (Campspot Photo)

Campspot Marketing Manager Haley Dalian claims dynamic pricing brings benefits for both park owners and RVers. “It’s a common misconception that dynamic pricing always involves an increase in rates,” she said. “Dynamic rates can also be used to lower prices during slower seasons and mid-weekdays to increase occupancy.”

That sounds good, in theory. But the recent explosion of interest in camping isn’t likely to lead to many downward adjustments, at least for the foreseeable future. But eventually, Dalian said, campers should be able to take advantage of price breaks as well as have more site inventory to choose from when “prices may be too high for others.” If you are willing to pay the price.

Campspot’s reservation software is currently in use at more than 1,300 parks in the U.S & Canada. About 250 of those parks currently utilize the system’s dynamic pricing feature.

Dynamic Pricing in the here and now

Campspot quotes a scenario whereby a campground sells out on its holiday weekend two months in advance while charging $50 per night for water/electric sites. In their example, the campground owner is missing out on two months of people looking for availability at their property who would have potentially paid $70 a night or more given the demand. Therefore, the people who have placed a higher value on the experience of staying at that campground are missing the opportunity, while the park also loses out on a significant amount of revenue.

There’s still a lot of uncontrollable variables when it comes to setting campground rates. You can’t control the weather, gas prices or a lot of other small things that impact demand. But the Campspot example is a good one when it comes to explaining the motivations of park owners.

In the past year, you’ve likely run into the “sold out” campground. According to dynamic pricing, being sold out early means you as a park owner aren’t charging enough. Dynamic pricing is based on the ability to quickly identify what a camper is willing to pay for what a park offers. It’s the age-old value equation. Parks that sell out at the “last minute” have played the dynamic pricing game to perfection.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that parks using dynamic pricing correctly might just have that “last minute” site available for you – but, again, only if you’re willing to pay the price.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at another Campspot model:

  • Campground ‘A’ with Static Pricing: For an upcoming 4-night holiday weekend, they sell out 100% a month in advance. Total revenue = $20,000
  • Campground ‘B’ with Dynamic Pricing: After achieving 50% occupancy for an upcoming 4-night holiday weekend, they increase their rate for every additional 10% of sites occupied and end up at 95% occupancy. Total revenue = $21,500

In this case, the campground using dynamic pricing (Campground B) has made $1,500 more despite not selling out. They also still have the opportunity to fill their remaining spaces for last-minute campers at a premium price. Repeat this example over the course of an entire camping season and you can see how campgrounds can realize a dramatic increase in revenue.

Dynamic pricing isn’t always a hammer swung haphazardly at your wallet. Park owners are well aware that they will eventually live and die by the number of satisfied guests they generate. They don’t want to lose too many customers due to higher pricing. They want to find that “sweet spot” balance of what a camper is willing to pay for the experience provided, and still leave the campground happy.

That is a hard balance to attain right now, when there are 10 campers eager to reserve a site at the higher price for every one disgruntled RVer ready to throw in the towel.

What’s an RVer to do?

You already know how much planning your camping trips has changed. Gone forever are the days of pulling in at 4 p.m. without a reservation and finding your next site waiting. Also in the rearview mirror are set site rates that vary little throughout the season. Dynamic pricing is here to stay.

You may think that making an online camping reservation has “gone to the dogs.” But if you’re persistent, stay flexible, and use all available tools you can still find those elusive sites.

No doubt we’ll see an increasing number of third-party services rising up to help RVers find the best site prices at the best times. Services like Kayak already attempt to do this “comparison shopping” for the air travel consumer.

RVers need to be sure that they are taking advantage of every tool available to find a site where and when they want it. That means continuing to book as early as possible. But there are a few other tools to consider:

  • If a campground or camping chain has a loyalty program, join it. They often offer special discounts and deals.
  • Check reservation sites for ”hot deals” or coupon offers for special weekends or events.
  • Get your name on site waiting lists when they are available. Sometimes waiting lists are part of the automated process, but it’s OK to call the campground and ask.
  • Be kind to the front desk workers. Unless it’s the owner, the park worker had nothing to do with setting your rate, moving your site, or fixing the parameters of the dynamic pricing algorithm.
  • If you do get the perfect site you were looking for, you might want to ask about any available “site lock” fees. Campspot says 95% of campers want to be able to choose their exact site and are willing to pay for a guaranteed spot. In 2020, nearly half of the campers at Campspot parks paid a site lock fee ranging from $5 to $100. One park owner said he made an additional $6,000 in site lock fees in their first year.

One final tip. Accept the inevitable and be patient. Dynamic pricing works well for owners. Campspot is so confident in its product that it gives park owners a “more revenue or it is free” guarantee.

Campground owners certainly want to increase their profits each year, but they also closely monitor their camper satisfaction scores. They are in the business for the long haul, and that means they’ll always need satisfied returning guests. Over time, we can all hope owners see the wisdom of investing in improving the camping experience with many more sites, more and better facilities and amenities, and higher levels of service.

As campsite inventories eventually grow and the meteoric growth in campers subsides, dynamic pricing may even bring a few great deals for campers in the know.

But it’s going to be a while before the demand curve swings back in favor of the RVer.

DID YOU MISS PART ONE OF THIS SERIES? CLICK HERE.

##RVT1006b

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Lisa Wood
1 month ago

We recently had multiple stays at KOA due to having some mechanical issues with our truck that needed extensive work. 98% of our travel time, this is not our situation. We have stayed at 3 KOAs on our trip and during our stay for repairs. We are now paying $70/night to stay in a dump. Unlevel sites that don’t have enough gravel as a result, once this is over KOA is off our list – permanently.

Vincee
5 months ago

My guess is most fellow campers are like me in that they have a ceiling to just “how much” they are willing to pay for a given campsite. That is one reason I do not look at KOA, Sun Resorts, Encore, or any of the other national campground chains. I feel companies like these don’t market to the serious campers but more to young families looking for on-site entertainment like multiple pools, games, and more.

Dynamic pricing will lead to more traveling campers opting to stay at Walmarts and Cracker Barrels for overnight stays leaving campgrounds close to interstates losing the easy money from fast overnight stays.

Like any industry, I believe that there is a tipping point of just how much the real campers, not the fly-by-nighters that we are seeing now because of Covid, will be willing to pay.

With fuel costs up more than a dollar a gallon since the current administration took office many new campers already may be finding out they can’t afford camping after all.

CLeeNick
5 months ago
Reply to  Vincee

I agree. My wife and I were boondocking in Colorado a couple weeks ago and took a drive out to some National Forest campgrounds about 20 miles away just to check them out. Nice spots, but priced $20 per night for essentially “dry” camping, with picnic tables and pit toilets. Not much for your money. We saw a lot of sites in these campgrounds that were overgrown/unkempt and appeared to have been unused for quite some time. There were many others “boondocking” in free spots along the way. It appeared to me that exactly what you describe is true: Serious “campers” will only pay so much for minimalist dry camping..and $20 per night is just too much.

Paul
5 months ago

“Dynamic pricing isn’t always a hammer swung haphazardly at your wallet.” No, it’s a scalpel, applied to surgically remove as much money from our wallets as possible. And it provides a way for campground owners to demand higher fees for doing and providing less. And there’s no transparency with the algorithms, they operate secretly in the background. If you’re so proud of them bring them out where we can see them.

Bobby
5 months ago

Rotten greed at every turn today. I will avoid such campgrounds and seek somewhere else. Example is Hinckley Casino pulled this crap last year going as high as over $200 for a 3 night weekday stay. Now back to around $40.00 a night during the Sun-Thursday period. We never stayed there again last year at those prices. I just hate staying anywhere on a weekend with higher prices and the idiots who are there. Screaming kids, throwing balls hitting windshields, RVs, endless barking dogs, and campfire families with bon fires and talking loud until 2:30 in the morning. Can’t wait for some of these inconsiderate to get tired of the poor quality RVs they bought, the fixes, problems and sell their units and don’t come back. (Not to mention towing them over loaded and dangerious at 75 MPH on the highway)

Steve C
5 months ago
Reply to  Bobby

In other words, the dynamic pricing is working perfectly. You have the flexibility to stay away on weekends when they are fully booked (and therefore the most expensive), and then return when they actually need the business if you want. Mission accomplished.

Gail Wagner
5 months ago

Seems counterintuitive to us older folks, but we will gladly take it! As I see it, this demand model means those weekdays when things are quiet and there is actually space between campsites are looking even sweeter. In this scenario, my preferred times/locations will be even cheaper since more seniors — i.e. a majority of those available for weekday camping — are getting out of camping vs. just getting into it.

I do feel sorry for those younger families who work and have no choice but weekend camping; they will be forced to pay the higher rates when many can ill afford to do so.

KellyR
5 months ago

Are we not worrying just a little too much about the future of RVing? Are we not just in another housing market episode that will pretty soon crash? Is not this new generation buying on what their income and credit cards will support on a monthly basis? – and with 20 year loans on the RV? And the knee-jerk reaction to Covid? How many, that are waiting a year or more for their RV, change their minds before it gets here, when they find they can motel and fly again? As to dynamic pricing – has that not sort of been going on all along with weekend prices being higher anyway? When newbies start dropping out, how “dynamic” will it really be? And the “dynamic” computer programs have to be an added expense to the park owner. I just don’t see how the existing situation can fully support itself for the long haul. I do like Mom & Pop campgrounds rather than McDonalds and Walmarts same-o same-o. I really do not like the big boys buying things up. Camping will then go the way of Glamping.

David Lastoria
5 months ago

“Dynamic pricing”……. a concept created by money hungry snobs who are taking the affordability of quality family time, keeping kids away from the garbage in today’s world, keeping families away from bonding, growing closer together, through old fashioned values and outdoor activities, making exercises more enjoyable by hiking, camping, swimming, just pure enjoyment. I still remember those days as a kid, where my family did those things every chance we had. It was something that I’d never give up, and still do it once in awhile. So sad that the old fashioned mom and pop owned campgrounds are getting gobbled up by the large chains. Mom and pop campgrounds showed care and concern for the family, at least most of them did. I highly doubt if the big chains will. Kinda like Camping World. All they care about is the almighty dollar, while presenting a false facade of care and concern. Maybe boycott campgrounds using this kind of Dynamic pricing..I know that I will!

Steve C
5 months ago
Reply to  David Lastoria

If Mom and Pop campgrounds had used dynamic pricing, they MIGHT have actually been profitable enough not to sell out to the larger firms. You can’t have it both ways. Campgrounds are not charities……

Diane Mc
5 months ago

Well, more depressing news. Glad we are on the back end of our traveling days. When it becomes all consuming and a hassle to find places to stay or figure out the pricing games, to do something that we love and find relaxing, we are done. Getting close. BTW, I do not begrudge campgrounds trying to make money. They aren’t charitable organizations. Just don’t need the aggravation at this point in our lives.

Linda Hagan
5 months ago
Reply to  Diane Mc

My husband and I were just talking that this year or next will be the last of our RVing because of the difficulty of finding sites and the rising cost. Miss the days of traveling without a plan and stopping where we could, or making reservations just a couple of days earlier, or being able to extend a stay because the area had so much to offer.

Don B
5 months ago

After a detailed review of both the new and used RV market it appears that the RV manufacturers and dealers are also currently practicing Dynamic Pricing. I think it’s called free enterprise, or the free market, refers to an economy where the market determines prices, products.

Renee Burton
5 months ago

In the end, it all comes back to greed. There is a good deal on this topic in the Bible and the sin that it is.

Steve C
5 months ago
Reply to  Renee Burton

So…..someone risking his/her capital to build a campground to provide a place for you to stay is somehow greedy? I suppose you worked your entire life without a salary, and somehow managed to earn a living through magic?

Skip
5 months ago

I think dynamic pricing is a forced hand. And for every 10 happy RVers you’ll have 1 disgruntled. Really it will be a 1 to 1 ratio more likely. Camp ground owners should be setting their own pricing and figure where the should be. I would not book that vacant spot if it were last minute to pay the top price. I believe a protest to camper grounds using dynamics pricing should be boycotted and at the end of the years let’s see financially where they stand. I’ll definitely reduce my dependency on camp grounds and more boobdocking, state and federal parks and book 1 or more years ahead. If booking almost 2 years advance and continue book out each I’ll be good. So MS Haley keep squeezing and it and we will see camo grounds close. But this is how you make your money. So camp ground owners purchase the product. State has their hand out collecting more taxes and the feds want their cut. So how much was really made.

Kamwick
5 months ago
Reply to  Skip

Unfortunately, in corporate-driven America, boycotts and protests don’t really seem to work much. Like you, I think a good idea is to look at all options, including boondocking, planning ahead and using state and federal parks (although federal is rapidly becoming difficult as well). Being retired or perhaps full-time while working in the rig may give more leisure to search out the best deals.

Jim S
5 months ago

I’ll stay with using the state parks, USFS and the National Parks. More hiking, kayaking and forests all around me. I have always been able to reserve 5-6 months ahead for sites. Being retired now, we do a lot of 2-3 week trips to maybe 2-4 different state parks within a 100 mile section of a state. Our state ( Ohio) offers residents 60 and over 50% off Sunday thru Thursday night stays in the state parks.

Eli
5 months ago

One thing you missed to mention is the cost of the service to the campground. In your example $1500 could have been eaten up by monthly service fees. We lose and owner is only slightly ahead.

Jim S
5 months ago
Reply to  Eli

In this new “Greed” based pricing plan, do the campground owners think it may p*ss off some customers, you might never see again. I’ll stick with my state parks.

Steve C
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim S

In other words, the dynamic pricing accomplished its goal…….

mike henrich
5 months ago

Another name….price gouging. Something happening now in and around Pa, the eastern part for sure, is that campgrounds are adding a “booking fee”. There are some campgrounds that charge $100 if you want a certain spot. Is this happening all over the country?

Marie
5 months ago
Reply to  mike henrich

It is in NH. I’m reading about people paying anywhere from $25 to $100 to be guaranteed the site they want.

Steve C
5 months ago
Reply to  mike henrich

So…..a campground that has to pay all expenses on a year-round basis, but is only profitable during a few months of the year is somehow greedy for trying to maximize revenue when they CAN be profitable? Which, of course, allows them the revenue to make improvements to their parks?

Let me guess–do you also whine about run down parks or a lack of available camp sites?

billyd
5 months ago

We are retired and have the luxury of camping Sunday thru Thursday. Don’t care for the weekend crowds and that is fine with us. We don’t use the pool, game room, bathhouse, etc. Yet to have a campground tell us they are full on these days. We go out every two weeks within fours hours of our home base. Does dynamic pricing mean campgrounds will be reducing some of the costs to accommodate folks like us? Would they rather have these sites empty early in the week or have them occupied at a lower rate. BTW – we are in NC and can reach several states within four hours.

Steve C
5 months ago
Reply to  billyd

The whole goal of dynamic pricing is to help shift demand for those who have the flexibility to change dates, so that it maximizes occupancy AND revenue. Since you have the ability to avoid weekends, you can take advantage of the lower prices available during the lower occupancy periods. When they know they are going to sell out, they try to maximize revenue so that they will have enough profit to maintain their parks during those slower times when they won’t have as much revenue.

Bill T
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve C

You don’t need something like Campspot to do that. Any campground controlling their own website can do their own and probably have been doing their own, trend monitoring for years. Why would any local business people want to pay others thousands of miles away and have some algorithm tell them something local business already knows.

CLeeNick
5 months ago

As long as RV’ers “roll over” for “dynamic pricing” and silently pay, it will continue. Call it what it is: Price Gouging. There is also such a thing as “customer goodwill”. I know as a small businessperson that I’d rather have more customers feel good about my products and services, and spread the word, rather than go for short term profits and have a certain percentage feel they got fleeced and never come back (and spread the word), while a certain percentage don’t do business with me to begin with because they are driven away by a high price (and spread the word!). Our area lost an HUGE rodeo event that brought in millions of dollars to the area because motels and RV parks used so-called “dynamic pricing” and doubled and tripled their rates just for the event. The organizers finally had enough, and moved the entire event elsewhere. RV’ers should stand up for themselves and do the same. Perhaps an online database of price-gouging RV parks to stay away from is in order.

Steve C
5 months ago
Reply to  CLeeNick

So I guess you only charge the bare minimum in your business to cover your costs? No room for profit, or future growth? Because if you actually seek a profit, isn’t that “price gouging”?

Bill T
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve C

Changing the price daily, for the same piece of ground, especially with the same poorly maintained power pedestals and other hookups that haven’t been updated since they were first installed, is the definition of “price gouging.” Corporate profiteers who swoop in and use AI systems like Campspot, have no intention of real infrastructure upgrades to the parks they take over, only cosmetic ones like adding a few WiFi hotspots et al.

Jeff
5 months ago
Reply to  Bill T

“Supply and Demand” as long as demand out-strips supply (regardless of the condition of the campground/campsite), campground owners big and small are going to squeeze every penny they can from the consumer, some places more than others! It’s a win-win for the campground, but not for the weekend camper who can’t afford the Dynamic Pricing.

CLeeNick
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve C

Your “guess” would be, of course, incorrect. I charge competitive, fair market prices that include a stable profit. I don’t seek to make a larger profit based on the calendar. If I want to make more money, I make an effort to sell more. That’s called “growing a business”. Anyone who thinks simply making a fair profit is akin to “price gouging” doesn’t understand the free market system.

Dan
5 months ago

Is the author of this article employed by Campspot, or have some interest in it? It sounds like it is written to get Mom & Pop into their system so they can get a piece of the pie It’s bad enough that our state parks use Reserve America’s difficult website to get a spot. If that’s the trend, I think we’ll be looking more at boon docking. Years ago, my parents owned a Mom & Pop resort in the Lake of The Ozarks where they never had problems filling up during the season. All of the resort and campground owners worked together, for free, to keep their places full by referring customers to others when they were full.

Mike Gast
5 months ago
Reply to  Dan

Dan, sorry to disappoint, but I’m not employed by Campspot or anyone else. I’m retired, and write for RVtravel.com just for the satisfaction of providing readers with accurate information about what’s happening in RVing. That’s my only motivation.

Bill T
5 months ago
Reply to  Dan

Exactly. Making something more cumbersome so third party profiteers can be rewarded on the back of others, trying to make a living and provide decent services to travelers, is the end game here. I hope for all the mom and pop small businesses, that they stay strong and ride out this incessant wave of millennial minutia and continue to provide places to stay for folks who enjoy camping and RV’ing without all the need for “Hilton” or “Four Seasons” spa services and other techno crap.

Hook n' Haul 789
5 months ago

Sounds to me like putting lipstick on a pig. Mike Gast sounds like a salesman for Campspot. While the campground owners profit – too bad for the RVer. Prices may decrease? Yeah, in comparison to the government will lower my taxes. Maybe the younger still employed camper can afford to pay more on demand, but those of us on fixed income like SS won’t like to pay more for the same service just because of the timing of the reservation. Let the campground owner continue to decide how much his/her “product” is worth and then stick too it.
And as an aside, how can camping Directories like Good Sam’s list “Last years price”, so you have an expectation to plan around?

Steve C
5 months ago

When’s the last time you were on an airplane or stayed in a hotel? Those companies have been doing this for years. I have flown from Denver to Tampa for as little as $138 r/t before, because I was able to fly when the airlines needed the business. It’s a win-win. When I HAD to travel at peak times, I have had to pay as much as $600 for the same flight.

Not greed–smart business.

Bill T
5 months ago

I can understand the need for business growth, but I hope those increasing projected profits, flogged by the Campspot snake oil salespeople, actually turn into real upgrades to site maintenance and park cleanliness and not just end up lining the pockets of the giant faceless corporations that are buying up all the mom and pop operations. In my travels I have personally witnessed the absolute junk sites at the “Kash-on-Arrival” that haven’t improved a bit since the rebranding to journey, holiday or resort. All they have done is put their hands deeper into my pockets, regardless of what Toby and her ilk profess.I don’t mind paying a little extra for a clean, well spaced spot with an updated and well maintained power pedestals and hook-ups, but not for the same 1960’s trash.

Paul T
5 months ago
Reply to  Bill T

Bill T, probably not going to happen. When the existing parks are bought, they now have a debt to be serviced from the revenue stream. Add to that the requirement to make a profit, and I don’t think there’s much left for upgrades and improvements. In addition, as more and more of us baby boomers retire and travel, to say nothing of the last year of record RV sales, and don’t forget the number of people living in RV parks now, it’s going to be a seller’s market. My wife and I retired in 2019 with dreams of traveling the country with our truck and 5er. LOL. It’s gonna be interesting to see if that works out over the next few years.

Bill T
5 months ago
Reply to  Paul T

Hi Paul. Agreed. My wife and I retired in 2018 with plans to travel with our motor home. I don’t mind making plans to make sure I have a place to land at the end of the day, but it is getting harder all the time. I am hoping that the upsurge in sales due to COVID will dwindle away and more spaces will become available. I like to believe that not all mom and pop operations will sell out to corporations and I also don’t believe every campground out there will buy into programs like Campspot. Campgrounds have been operating for years without AI driven dynamic pricing and I hope that camping and RV’ing in general, can ride out this “flavor of the day gen Z millennial nonsense”.

Mark Generales
5 months ago

One more reason to sell the RV and visit Marriott. RV parks want to play the price game like the airlines – we’re done.
And with Thor cranking out more and more junk, newbies with little respect for the outdoors destroying the experience – why bother?
Been the best experience ever for for most of our lives – but it is sadly going the way of cancel culture and BLM.
Pay up because of demand for what? We are close to done.

Dave G
5 months ago
Reply to  Mark Generales

I agree and feel the same as Mark does. After 21 years of Rving, our first none camping trip in 21 years will be this September. We are full timers and have been in one campground for the last 15 months due to the pandemic. We want to continue our travels, but we don’t like what we are hearing and reading about post pandemic camping conditions. We also are close to finding something else to do with our leisure time.

Steve C
5 months ago
Reply to  Mark Generales

Uh……as someone who has worked in the hotel industry for over 30 years, Marriott is one of the PIONEERS of dynamic pricing……….and one of the worst offenders……

Why do you think most hotel chains no longer produce rate cards, and if you look at their web sites, they list prices “FROM ____”?