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.
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.