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RV industry convention ends: RVers’ future is conflicted

If the annual convention of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) is any indication, RVers can look forward to more tech, higher prices and, somewhat paradoxically, a lot more messaging from campground operators about “the experience” they’re being sold.

The good news for RVers frustrated in their search for campground sites is that there are a lot more RV campgrounds in the pipeline. The bad news is that prices are rising and will continue to increase, boosted in no small part by the growing adoption of dynamic pricing.

Those were among the major takeaways from ARVC’s four-day annual convention, held in Raleigh N.C. this past week after a one-year hiatus. Thronging the Raleigh Convention Center, a largely maskless 900 or so campground owners, vendors and prospective campground owners from around the country attended a series of workshops and panels on subjects ranging from reservation systems to workplace practices to profiling customers. Here are some of the high points most relevant to RVers:

The future is electric

The kick-off session Monday, galvanized by enormous advance orders for the Ford F-150 Lightning, the roll-out of Tesla’s new electric pickup truck and announcements from General Motors that it will deliver an electric Silverado and Hummer next year, led to predictions that this marks the beginning of “another evolutionary upgrade for RV parks,” on a par with cable TV and WiFi over the past couple of decades. “The big question is, are you going to be ready?” ARVC executive director Paul Bambei asked the audience.

Although acknowledging that there are still many unsettled variables – including lack of a standardized plug design or placement of charging ports on electric vehicles – campground owners were urged to start planning for charging stations at their longer pull-through sites. “Entrepreneurs have to seek out what’s new and what’s next, often before knowing whether it’ll be profitable,” said Gene Zanger, owner of a California campground and winery that already has nearly two dozen charging ports.

Josef Hjelmaker, chief innovations officer for Thor Industries, reinforced the point by citing the overall trend toward younger RVers, a recurring theme throughout the convention. Roughly 60% of first-time RVers in 2020 were 40 or younger, he observed, “and they’re the ones buying electric vehicles.”

The future is online

The two largest groups of vendors at the convention were, hands down, online reservation systems and online trip planners and booking agents. And the universal message they all promoted was that RVers – and especially Millennials (born after 1981) and Gen Zers (born after 1997) – are tech-savvy and prefer to do transactions online. But moving reservations online, they stressed, creates several opportunities for campgrounds to increase their profitability – which is another way of saying that RVers can expect to pay more.

Non-refundable deposits?

Shawn Corden, head of product development at online booking agent RoverPass, predicted that RV parks increasingly will move to non-refundable deposits unless campers want to pay an additional premium. Moreover, he added, deposit amounts will increase to at least 50 percent of a stay up front, with a demand for 100 percent payment due before the non-refundable deadline. According to Corden, a minimum of 90 percent of all campground bookings will be made online within the next three to five years.

While Corden said he is not a big fan of dynamic pricing, because in his experience the algorithms driving such programs are still “not very good,” when a fully-attended general session was asked how many campgrounds are already using dynamic pricing, roughly half of the room raised hands. And unlike past conventions, when dynamic pricing would prompt some pushback from campground owners, this year there was none heard. As summarized by Adelle Rodriguez, marketing manager for reservation software provider RMS, “If it works and people are willing to pay more, then why not?”

The future is conflicted

The above section notwithstanding, there are countercurrents that suggest not everything is quite so cut-and-dried.

One notably contradictory statistic was turned up by a first-time generational report on campers commissioned by ARVC and underwritten – ironically – by RMS. Although one of its leading findings was that an unsurprising 76 percent of campers go online to research campgrounds before making a reservation, only 46 percent said they prefer to book online, while a significant 32 percent want to speak to “an actual human being” when doing so. The finding surprised both RMS and ARVC, not least because it cut across all generations, leading Rodriguez to conclude that it shows people must be given various options without being boxed into just one approach.

Emphasizing online experiences – either before arriving at a campground or after – also ran counter to the somewhat muddled message delivered at two “master class” sessions at the convention. “You are in the marketing and consumer service business,” Ron Rosenberg, a small business marketing coach, assured his audience in a session headlined, “Get Customer Focused: Dominate Your Market NOW!” But “providing customer service is not good enough – customer service is a waste of time,” contended John Formica, a former Disney executive, in a session titled “Enhancing the Guest Experience the Disney Way.” “Customer experience is the next competitive battleground.”

What does it all mean?

As a close reading of all of the above might suggest, what the RVing future holds depends on the background and vested interests of those speaking: online providers think it’s all digital, amusement park providers think it’s all about the wow factor, and so on. What’s important for RVers to recognize, however, is that when campground owners try to understand how to meet market needs, those are the loudest voices in the room. And when they keep hearing the same messages again and again, they start responding, as the steady adoption of dynamic pricing illustrates.

The other, less obvious lesson is that the campground industry continues to suffer from a lack of reliable data. The generational survey that surprised ARVC with its finding that 32 percent of the camping public wants to connect with “an actual human being,” while reassuring for some, is highly questionable because of its small sample of just 500 respondents. That same survey, for example, concluded that campers spend an average of $500 a day per family of four in the communities they’re visiting. Intended as a talking point for campground owners appearing before zoning or planning commissions in communities resisting such change, those thin claims may do more harm than good when facing serious scrutiny.

****

Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park. The fascinating book, recently published, is available at many large bookstores and at Amazon.com.

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Scott Holzwarth
11 days ago

I’m a lifelong camper/rv guy. Not driving a million $ coach, though. I guess people like me will increasingly find ourselves on the outside looking in. If I could spend $500/day (on top of equipment & travel expenses), I doubt I’d be traveling by RV.

MikeinAz
11 days ago

Personally, I’m much more concerned about what the current administration’s ridiculous go green policies are going to do to the RV industry and the use and enjoyment of our RV’s.

MrDisaster
12 days ago

The survey data is thin… well then the industry has to do a better job of gathering and analyzing the data. It must differentiate between resort (or high demand areas) and non-resort areas. It also must show the differences for in and out of season. There are a lot of variables that must be surveyed and accounted for to make the data meaningful and useful.

Bill T
11 days ago
Reply to  MrDisaster

True. Analytical data can be cherry picked to skew just about any narrative. All smoke and mirrors and slight of hand tricks to separate folks from their money. Due mostly to COVID, RV’ing is currently in the cross hairs of the consumer flavor of the day. I believe most people know what they are looking for in a campground during their travels and certainly don’t want to pay for amenities they have no desire to use. A good place for the ARVC to start is for private and government campground booking sites to block “bots” from booking all the sites seconds after the booking window opens and to charge full price payable at the time of booking to reduce speculation. One more thing, I agree with Doug’s comment below, boomers are tech savvy too and are more than capable of booking online as well as knowledgeable of internet and smartphone applications. We are not all “working from home” and need to stay in areas for months at a time, some of us do like to travel and support local economies.

Bob M
12 days ago

I don’t know where they get $500 a day for a family of four. My wife and I don’t even spend $50. Maybe they’re talking about camping at Disney.

Doug
12 days ago

1) Boomers are every bit as tech savvy.
2) yes, a human person is better than a bot as I can probe for quality of sites, or special needs for site that its difficult to program into a bot.
2) While Disney is near extortionist with pricing, they do provide an “experience” and not mere “customer” service. Amusement parks pre-Disney had the very bare minimum of service. Disney’s success and its emulation by major amusement parks upped the standard for what is expected. In camping terms: service = pay the fee, get a basic site with standard hookups and maybe a few amenities. Experience: RV resorts, full services: laundries, pools, club houses, dog parks, even lakes with watercraft rental, uniformed employees, even daily trash pickup, WiFi that works, and more. A site for a fee is not going to cut if for commercial campgrounds anymore.
3) Great way to show impact of $ campers spend in community: have them spend first $100 in cash as $2 bill. The influx of $2 bills makes it clear.

AMC
12 days ago

Please consider rewording the title and subtitle of this article, and the link that leads to it in your daily newsletter, so it doesn’t include the word “schizophrenic.” First, it appears to be quoting someone (the title has it in quotes) but nowhere in the body is anyone quoted saying that. Second, “schizophrenia” is not only a serious mental illness, but it DOES NOT mean “dual personalities” as I believe the author is trying to imply. (FWIW, it means a split between reality and fantasy where the sufferer can’t tell what’s real and what is an hallucination.) As a mental health professional it is grating to see terms like this get bandied about incorrectly and carelessly.

Last edited 12 days ago by AMC
John Irvine
12 days ago
Reply to  AMC

Agreed, schizophrenia is a tragic disease.

Admin
RV Staff (@rvstaff)
11 days ago
Reply to  John Irvine

Thank you, John and AMC. The title has been revised. We apologize for using an inappropriate term. –Diane

Edward
12 days ago

I say load up on Vaseline to make the experience more tolerable. Campers are going to need it.

Micheal Whelan
12 days ago

Interesting report. If the true direction is to go with non refundable I do not see me and many I know to be willing to accept that. Due to COVID our trip south last year found me cancelling all of our reservations. One of the reservation companies attempted to only refund 50%. A call to the owners of the RV park resulted in them sending a check to us. This year I called them direct and made an extended reservation as a thanks for taking care of their customers. The owner commented during the call that they no longer use that company. People tend not to like being forced to pay for services or goods they do not receive, I think that may even be illegal in some instances. But maybe that is just me.

MrDisaster
12 days ago
Reply to  Micheal Whelan

2020 was an anomaly for the industry. A robust cancellation policy that must be agreed to before booking is part of the future of the industry. During 2021 several campgrounds we stayed at had open sites because of cancellations. When the CG charged the credit card the person disputed the charge and it was reversed. All 3 were small “mom and pop” operations and did not have a cancellation policy displayed or that had to be agreed to during the reservation process. All 3 said they were changing their policies for the 2022 season.

Linda
12 days ago

“If it works and people are willing to pay more, then why not?” What! So dismissive and opportunistic. Who is the arbiter of what people are willing to pay? I would like to see all deserving campgrounds do well, but it’s a bit early to behave like they have the upper hand on the camper. I must say, I am a fan of a change in deposit returns. That may hinder some of those who reserved a site “just in case” and take it away from serious reservations.

As to the “Disney Experience” I wouldn’t follow that. It has soured greatly in recent years. Their money grabbing, pay additional for popular rides, is pushing people from feeling like guests to feeling like exploited customers.

Bill T
12 days ago
Reply to  Linda

Well said. I especially like the “Disney Experience” comment. It’s all about fleecing the customer out of every dime they can in this current wave of consumerism. Statistical analysis only serves those business who are trying to sell you something and data can be skewed to serve their purpose. When the industry bubble bursts (and it will again) and bottom falls out of the current fad with all those 2020/21 new RV buyers are scrambling to dump their rigs and move on with the next “keeping up with Jones” initiative, the industry will once again shift its focus to the next big fleece. I hope the mom and pop operations can hold out through all this foolishness because I bet that most RV’ers, older and younger, still only want to relax with at a campsite and spend time with friends and family, not go to “Disney”.

Dorothy
12 days ago
Reply to  Bill T

Yes!!!

Dan
12 days ago
Reply to  Linda

Maybe that’s why he is ‘former’ Disney executive.