RVing headed into a confusing place

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By Chuck Woodbury
EDITOR
Keep your eyes open for ads and commercials for KOA, the large chain of mostly franchised RV parks. Chances are better than even, I’d guess, that the ads will feature images of cabins — often luxury ones like you see here in this ad for a park near San Francisco.

KOA has found that renting cabins has opened up a huge new audience of potential customers — “glampers” — Gen Xers and Millennials who enjoy some sense of camping, but without roughing it. They don’t need an RV.


Most KOAs are run by couples who work very hard. They may love what they do, but it is, above all, their livelihood; if they can earn more, they are very receptive to how to do it.

The CEO of KOA is a very smart young woman and marketer. She is doing what she is supposed to do — help the company and its franchisees (who give 10% of their gross sales to the company) earn a good income. Nothing wrong with that.

IF YOU OWN A KOA and you believe you can earn more from renting a cabin than an RV space or two, why wouldn’t you level the RV sites and plop down a cabin? I would.

But here’s the problem as I see it: For every cabin or luxury cottage KOA installs, they remove RV spaces. This is at a time when 400,000 new RVs are being sold each year — all of which will need a place to stay.


From Friday’s Woodall’s Campground Management
‘Royal Gorge Cabins in Cañon City, Colorado . . .has been abandoning its RV and tent sites in favor of creating a glamping resort that will soon be comprised exclusively of canvas glamping tents and luxurious rental cabins.’


So what’s good for KOA (increased profits) is not necessarily good for you and me as RV sites disappear. Even if you never stay at a KOA, some RVers do, and each time they do it leaves a space for you at another park.

And it’s not just KOA. Across America, other RV parks are replacing RV sites with cabins, luxury cottages, tee-pees, treehouses, yurts, cabooses and covered wagons!

If the RV Industry Association really cared about you and me beyond our money, its executives would get off their bureaucratic behinds and realize there’s a problem — and do something. As is, the association runs commercials showing campsites on beautiful beaches or right along a mountain stream. But the reality is that for every RVer camping at the beach or by a beautiful mountain lake there are 10 times more holed up in a crowded RV park or a Walmart parking lot.

And, yes, new RV parks are being built. That’s good. But have you noticed that more often than not they’re luxury resorts where you “buy in” for $250,000 or pay $150 a night to stay?

RVing is a headed into a very confusing place!

##RVT929

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JBC

State Parks are putting in cabins too. Charging $80/night for roughing it (just a sleeping cabin with electricity. No water, no bathroom). Biggest problem is the noise generated by the cabin environment/mindset. The glampers see it as a true extension of their home. Inviting friends to stop by to party, kids running all over . . . there is no sense that anyone else exists. In one instance the cabins were built on a hillside above the campground. By all appearances it looked as if it would not have much impact on the campsites below. Until you realize the noise from above drifts down into the whole campground. Really bad at night. Insensitive, bad RV neighbors are always a fear but now it’s the glamping concern too. Lots of respectful RVers & cabin users out there but the few really impact the many.

Cere

As an RV park owner, I think Passport America and other clubs offering deep discounts have been a detriment to RV parks. If you don’t take the card, the customer will just drive on until they find someone who will. But if you do take it, you won’t make much money. RVers are pretty demanding nowadays and it’s hard for parks to make a buck. For example, we are getting more and more big rigs that are fully electric, with 3 AC units, several televisions, a full size refrigerator, heaters, ovens, cook tops, etc. etc. It truly is a home on wheels. Add to this they have 3-5 devices that log on to the park’s wifi (which is fully expected to be available inside their rig, strong and free!) We have added cabins to our park’s sites that didn’t make much revenue. Trust me, parks DO have business plans and we DO know which sites make money and which don’t. Then we DO seek out ways to make money off those lower income sites. We aren’t taking anything away from anyone. We simply can’t sit here with a few sites that only enjoy a 20% occupancy rate in case an RVer wants it one day. We have BIG bills to pay – unlike days of old. Electricity is through the roof. High speed internet service for a business costs big bucks. Insurance and taxes. Employees. Maintenance. Etc. Etc. It’s a lot of work for us to make sure that you have a site at your disposal when you need one. Please don’t blame us for what is happening in the business overall. We’re doing the best we can … and it’s not the easiest way to make a living.

Ron Seidl

I to don’t like the idea of RV parks full of “full timers”, and the resulting shortage of places for RV’ers to stay. I predict the future for recreational RV’ers will be more natural parks and sites with few if any amenities. Places that are beautiful to see and enjoy with little or no attraction for “full timers” Give me just an open spot on a bluff overlooking the ocean and I am happy.

Robert Heacock

We stay at the KOA north of San Francisco that Chuck cites in his article. They have a storage lot in the back where we keep our rig when we’re not traveling, so it’s real easy to take it out of storage and drive it a thousand feet to a campsite.
We know the owner well. Yes, he’s adding more cabins. His “marketing” is to appeal to the young, wealthy crowd in Silicon Valley. That’s where the money is. And every cabin site used to be an RV site. it’s not “camping” in the traditional sense that we did, first in a tent then in an RV. He’s also ‘upgrading’ what were previously tent sites into RV sites. And he recently spent a fortune upgrading all the 30 amp sites to 50 amp to accommodate all those massive rigs with three air conditioners and residential refrigerators. And, to top it all off, he’s taking what used to be two RV sites and turning them into 100 foot pull-through sites for those driving a 45 foot million $$$ rig and towing a 30 foot trailer with all their stuff. I won’t mention the astronomical cost per night, or month, for these sites, but for people like that, who cares?
Nowadays, out of necessity, we do more boondocking, and if we want to stay in popular places like the Oregon coast, we have to plan waaay ahead because there’s almost no public land on the Oregon, Washington or California coast. Boondocking takes more planning, but the rewards are there. We’ve learned that we can do without the swimming pool, hot tub, and convenience store at the campground.

T.Helms

We have a RV and do travel with it. But, rarely stay at KOA’s any more. They are to crowded and expensive. But, we use to do a lot of motorcycling and KOA’s with cabins are great for that. Obviously things have changed if they now are offering Luxury Cabins, as the cabins we stayed in were just 4 walls with a door and a platform for a bed. You had to bring every thing else, which was ok, because i like my own sheets. It was a nice change from staying in a tent or hotels. As now we pull our motorcycles in a trailer behind the RV and travel from there. I guess we are just getting old, and the times are a changing.

Ron Schmitz

Chuck,
Yes KOA’s are adding cabins like so many other camp sites, but we have stayed in 3 KOA’s in the past yr & they were great places to camp. Staff in all 3 were very friendly & all 3 had great facilities. They are more expense then other camping places, but they are cleaner & well run. We choose to be KOA members because 2 places we went last yr the KOA’s there were close to where we wanted to be, so being a member saved us some money. KOA Indy we booked way in advance, & couldn’t figure why the first 3 days were $100 a night, until we got there on Indy race weekend. We travel with 3 dogs, so going in are MH, no matter the price of fuel and rv park prices beats hotels & kennels for pets. Yes we would like to stay in nice cheaper rv parks, but we will always consider KOA’s as a place to stop. And except for that race weekend in Indy all 3 KOA’s had many places for overnighters without reservations.

Kat

As I was reading your article my thoughts drifted back to my childhood. My family tent camped nearly every summer. My dad did not like parks that accepted RV’s. He liked to “rough it.” I think he felt “RV people” were soft and not willing to experience the true joy of nature “up close and personal.” I also know, at the time, he could have never afforded an RV. (In his later years he did buy a nice truck camper, took it to Alaska and other places, and enjoyed it immensely.)

I remember the joy of digging trenches around our old green army tent as torrential rain poured down on us at the Grand Mesa, drying out soaked sleeping bags, sleeping in our clothes and waking up freezing cold because tents aren’t heated; using ice chests to keep our food fresh, cooking with my mom on a Coleman stove on frigid mornings, boiling water to wash dishes, sitting around the picnic table at night playing cards with Coleman lamps for lighting and more. At the time I hated it. I would have loved to be in a comfortable RV but the funny thing is, I look back and those memories are so special. I really miss my dad and mom.

Times certainly change don’t they? Hang onto the old memories and hold them dear but remember, no matter what you are experiencing now, the memories of today will someday be precious, not because life was easy but because of the people you hold dear to your heart were there to experience them with you. Thanks for the memories Chuck….

Don Boldman

Chuck, your editorial reminds me of traveling with my parents when I was a kid and staying in “tourist courts” which sometimes had little garages attached. If these places had added campsites some of them may still be around.

David Howard

A few months my wife and I took the longest road trip yet, with our little 19 foot travel trailer. After six weeks on the road, and 7,000 miles under our belt, I am less and less sure that this is a better alternative to staying in motels. Yes we get to sleep in our own bed each night. Yes we get to eat our own meals rather than have to go to restaurants three times a day. And yes, we get to have our dog with us. But more and more often the places we stay for the night are either RV parking lots where I can barely lower my awning without hitting the next door RV, or are semi-slums full of run down RV’s lived in by permanent residents, neither choice making for pleasant “camping”. I’m starting to feel that my real choices are to buy a bigger RV, with a generator and greater tank capacity so that we can boondock for more than a night, or sell the trailer and go back to fast travel and motels each night. We did find a few nice places to stay, but in some cases could not extend our stay past the single night we had made a reservation for, because they had other reservations to honor and we had to move on. And although we have only been doing this for a few years, it seems the whole culture of RV’ing is changing and changing fast. More often than not we do not find the informal comradarie that we used to encounter in most campgrounds. Maybe its because more and more of the folks at those campgrounds are not really RV’ing so much as just living there in cheap accommodations. I can only imagine what traveling by RV will be in the next few years. Good luck to those of you that hit the road.

Jim D

Not clear to me the RV manufacturers will really care until they feel enough economic pressure. When they realize that specific generational groups they are counting on for growth can get their “outdoor experience” fix by renting cabins while totally avoiding all the joys of owning an RV, maybe they will do something. The land owners absolutely have the right and obligation to their families to maximize their income. I’d expect to read at some point in the future manufacturers agreeing at a conference all of this reasons are factors in sales declines….

It stuns me that the RV industry can’t see the inherent risk in their business model: market like crazy to the most digitally forward generations and expect they won’t get called out for crappy quality and the inescapable reality of stuff happens with the normal use of RV’s. There is an old phrase from the early days of social media that applies here. Happy customers tell three friends, unhappy customers tell 3,000 people.

Chuck – thanks for what you do and the years of perspective.