By Mike Gast
About 20 years ago, shortly after I had ditched a newspaper career to become the Vice President of Communications for Kampgrounds of America, Inc. (KOA), I stumbled across a phrase I loved in an old New York Times travel story. The story said campgrounds were actually “the last small towns in America.”
In the intervening two decades, a lot has changed. I’ve retired from KOA and am off doing my own thing, and campgrounds now look a bit more like the suburbs than the quaint streets of Mayberry.
Campgrounds – commercial parks as well as national and state-run facilities – are seeing an ever-increasing number of guests. Even before the pandemic, longtime RVers could read the writing on the wall. The days of freely roaming about the country, never knowing quite where you’d end up by dark, were likely over.
Then COVID-19 lockdowns made families across America long to breathe free in the Great Outdoors. That desire cleaned out dealer lots everywhere and made finding an RV site – even on a Wednesday – a bit like searching for a place to get your vaccination.
So, what’s a dedicated RVer to do? Here’s some advice. Take it or leave it.
Camping is still a wonderful thing, if you plan ahead
While you may find it more difficult to partake in your favorite outdoor lifestyle, don’t let the hassles and changing “learning curve” of RV travel ruin the experience. At the end of each day, you’ll still find yourself in your favorite camp chair, staring into a crackling fire with old friends as well as new. Don’t forget why you started RVing in the first place.
Embrace reservation systems, and always plan ahead
KOA was the first company to unveil a process for “real-time online reservations” more than a dozen years ago and now it’s the norm at nearly every park. Just like hotels, campground owners need to manage their inventory of sites, and know what’s available and when. You wouldn’t think of just showing up at the airport and expecting your desired flight to have seats available. Ditto for a hotel stay. Advanced planning is everything. Also, different campgrounds have different reservation systems. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the basics of the ones you use most.
Experienced RVers have an advantage
If you’ve been RVing for at least a few years, you know it’s getting busy out there. You also know that the sooner you make your travel plans and reservations, the better. A brand-new RV owner may still think it’s possible to wait until Memorial Day to make their campground reservations for the Fourth of July weekend. You know better. Play your advantage by planning ahead and making all of your summer camping reservations ASAP. Also, acknowledge that circumstances (weather, breakdowns, illness, etc.) might force you to switch up your plans along the way. Build some funds into your budget for reservation change fees or the occasional cancellation penalty.
Midweek is the new weekend
The summer of 2020 was a period when the available midweek RV site disappeared. Many campground owners reported that they were full every single day from mid-June to the end of their summer season. Don’t assume campgrounds will have “walk-up” site availability this summer. Camping is a commodity. Availability and price are always going to be driven by supply and demand. Many campgrounds are currently expanding the number of available sites or have plans to do so. Unfortunately, it takes a lot longer to build a site than it does to build a new RV. It’s going to take a while to substantially increase site inventories.
Show campground owners a little love
There’s never been a better time to own a campground. But that success comes with a burden. More campers mean more work. Stellar guest service is harder to maintain. My experience is that owners have a lot of pride in their parks and try very hard to hire and train the right people. Most really do all they can to take great care of their campers. But running a campground isn’t easy. Campground owners are really the mayors of their own small towns (who likely also clean the toilets). Owners are up before the first campers, and usually don’t hit their own pillow until the last campfires go out. When things go wrong with your stay, cut them some slack. They might just reach the solution you’d like a little faster.
Is the influx of new campers a passing fad?
Data for 2020 shows an unprecedented number of new campers. Since many made a substantial investment in RVs and other equipment to get into camping, it’s likely they’ll be around for a while. Remember that the new study by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association reports that there are now 11.2 million RV-owning households in the United States. And 9.6 million more households are expected to purchase a new RV in the next five years. RV factories lost two months of production in 2020 and still produced 430,300 new RVs, surpassing 2019 totals by 6%. Some of these new folks might ultimately decide it isn’t for them, but many will likely love RVing for the same reasons you do.
Over time, everything changes … even RVing. Hopefully, the core of what you love about the lifestyle is still there. Maybe you’ll even learn to adapt to both the frustrations and the benefits of advanced reservations, mixed-use parks with unique accommodations, and those RV newbies who don’t know which lever to pull when it’s time to dump the tanks.
Take a deep breath, plan ahead, and keep picturing yourself staring into that crackling campfire.
Mike Gast was the Vice President of Communications for Kampgrounds of America, Inc. for the past 20 years. Now, he’s on to new adventures, helping others tell their stories through his freelance company, ‘Imi Ola Group. You can reach Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org.