The problem with camping for free becoming the ‘baseline’

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By Andy Zipser
Owner, Walnut Hills Campground and RV Park

Andy in his KOA garb, now gone along with his KOA franchise.

Reading the comments on this and other websites about boondocking, over-nighting in Wal-Mart parking lots and various other strategies to avoid putting money in our bank account,  I’m struck by the insistence that camping should be free — or if not free, at least really, really cheap. At such times, Oscar Wilde’s remark about “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” comes to mind.


Don’t misunderstand me. I spent many years camping in the most rigorous sense, backpacking into remote areas for up to two weeks at a time. I’ve not infrequently slept in the back of our minivan at rest stops and in parking lots, most recently en route to seeing the solar eclipse in Tennessee. I’ve thrown a sleeping bag and small tent onto the back of my touring bicycle and reveled in the utter sense of freedom and mobility they gave me. And just to be really, really clear, I have absolutely no problem with campers spending the night in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

WHAT BOTHERS ME is when these perfectly acceptable means of saving a buck or of “roughing it” become a baseline against which all other options are measured. Instead of being viewed as a trade-off between cost and convenience, the minimalist approach becomes the new normal and anything requiring actual spending is a rip-off. And so we have campers who complain about spending $40 or $50 for a site, or who try to argue that they should get a price break because they won’t use the cable/wi-fi/swimming pool/amenity of their choice, or who proclaim that next time they’ll camp at the state park down the road, where they can get a “real deal.”

Common headline theme these days.

Except we’re seeing how that’s worked out, with the penny-pinching “real deal” resulting in billions of dollars in deferred maintenance and crumbling infrastructure at state and national parks all across the country. Entrance and site fees everywhere are being jacked up because taxpayer support has evaporated, and how else will those expenses get covered? And so what was once a public good becomes a user-supported commodity, just as toll roads displace public highways and public museums charge “donations” for admission.

The fantasy that we can get something of value at minimal or no expense has many gradations, one of them being the public’s fascination with discounts. At Walnut Hills Campground, we announce right from the outset that the only discount we offer is for Good Sam cardholders, but that doesn’t deter the hard-core bargain hunters. I’m a senior citizen, some will persist, to which I reply, “So am I. And?” Others will play the military card, with its implication that this career choice is more worthy of a business’s recognition than those made by police officers, firefighters, inner city social workers or underpaid school teachers. The most extraordinary claim was made by a young Mennonite, who when asked why he should get the discount he was insisting was his due, replied, “Because we do good works.”

The park lake.

Old folks, soldiers, Mennonites and people from all walks of life do all sorts of virtuous things, but none of that pays our bills. And while it may appear that a campground offers little more than a flat (sometimes) piece of dirt on which to park your motorcoach or fifth-wheel, there are in fact dozens of costs that go into making that dirt serviceable, and dozens more to provide the amenities that campers demand. Our electric bill runs to more than $5,000 a month in season, our insurance bill exceeds a thousand dollars a month, and it costs $1,200 each time we have our septic tanks pumped out. Refilling the swimming pool runs to more than $2,000. Dredging our lake—on which we already spend a thousand dollars a month for algae control—will run to six figures, which is why we haven’t done it yet. Installing a new wi-fi system, which we did take on, cost us $20,000. And on and on.

YET THE DISCOUNT MENTALITY is hard to avoid. One of its most egregious promoters is Passport America, which periodically woos us with the pitch that we’re simply losing money by having sites sit empty, so why not offer them at a 50% discount to its members? An online couple of brokers specializing in RV parks also hypes the program, conceding almost parenthetically, “Of course, the only problem for the RV park owner is the giant discount. However, if the lot is vacant otherwise, does that really matter?”

Yes, actually, it does. For one thing, our operating costs don’t diminish when we lower the price of admission — that $5,000/month electric bill won’t get smaller in deference to our discounted price, even as bargain-hunting campers use just as much electricity as the ones paying full freight. For another, any discounted item or service raises a question of value: if we can afford to sell something at half price, does that mean the full price is inflated? More to the point, does that mean the customer who pays full price is a fool?

Some campground owners, aware of this dynamic, play the game by inflating their base rates, then offering every possible kind of discount to ensure that almost everyone qualifies for one or another. The camper feels he/she got a deal, the campground owner gets what he needs, and everyone is happy. Other campgrounds may leave the base rate at an uninflated level and offer the usual discounts, but tack on all sorts of ancillary fees that quickly drive up a camper’s overall bill so it more than offsets the discounts. Either way, the campground is going to get what it needs—or it won’t, and the long-term result will be the kind of deterioration our state and national parks are experiencing.

As the country’s RV fleet keeps expanding, the number of added new RV campground sites is hardly keeping pace. You might think market economics would change the balance, with supply rising to meet demand, but the fact is that those spaces cost a lot to build—anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 a site if added to an existing campground. Build a campground from scratch and you’re looking at $25,000 to $30,000 a site for a Jellystone Park, while KOA advises prospective campground builders to budget $1.8 million to $2.25 million for a campground with 75 RV sites.

That’s a bunch of money to spend on a business vulnerable to an increasingly volatile climate, and anyone who makes the investment is going to expect a reasonable rate of return. One way to do that is to offer a quality experience and charge what it’s worth, notwithstanding the complaints about high prices and refusal to “make a deal.” Or there’s always the “budget” approach: build cheaply, jam in as many sites as possible, forgo maintenance, hire too few employees and pay them rock-bottom wages—and ignore the complaints about dirty facilities, surly workers and inoperative amenities.

It’s true that you don’t always get what you pay for. It’s also true that you’ll get what you’ve paid for if you’re paying next to nothing.

The Walnut Hills Campground and RV Park gets five stars from RVtravel. It’s one of the nicest campgrounds we’ve found in our travels around the USA. To be clear, the park does not comp our stays or advertise with us. We rate the park highly because we feel Andy and his crew should be commended for their dedication to providing an exceptional customer experience.

 

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Walt

I understand the author’s overall message – he has to make a living and is worried that cheapskates are the new normal (newsflash – they aren’t new).

But his attitude kinda sucks. As I said earlier – maybe lay off the caffine. LOL

bob farabaugh

we stop at a campground near Roanoke Rapids NC that has a row at the front where you can pull in and spend the night for 25$. Much better than 50. You have to be out at 9am. We actually do have hookups too. Dont use amenities other than the bathrooms. Its a nice place with pool hot tub and clubhouse. Since we are going thru at the end of December these things are closed anyway. I’m happy to pay a reduced rate and not park at Walmart. Never done that.

Kevin Hogle

I sent a link to Chuck a year or two ago regarding this park. At that time my son and family lived fairly close to this park. It’s called pricey land and high taxes. The thing is, this place sells out.

Should give sticker shock to some of the commenters.
https://www.newportdunes.com/

R Mathews

If I’m going camping I don’t mind paying the $40/night. However, when I’m on the road heading to a destination and need a layover for just the night I would appreciate having a safe place to park. I think campgrounds should have at a minimum a parking lot or open lot for travelers to park overnight when passing through the area. No hookups or restrooms, just a safe place to park. Charge a modest $10 fee (which would be all profit for them) and allow only one night. (In after 6pm, out by 9am the next morning)

Darrel

We carefully selected our rig with large generator, water tank, and sewer tanks. After that we added 1440 watts of solar. Added both Verizon and ATT internet capability, with a booster in fringe areas. It gives us OPTIONS on where we stay.

In campgrounds we have no use for campground/public restrooms, showers, pools, hot tubs, campfires, social centers, Wi-Fi.

All we personally desire in a campground is stable correctly wired 30/50 amp electric, a level space, safe potable water, sewer connection, and a place for trash. Since that is all we personally use, we seek out parks where we do not pay a premium for things we never use.

I understand those things WE do not use are what some other RVers seek out. However, we do not, and don’t wish to subsidize what others use. Freedom of choice. Many options out there for all of us.

OUR choice is we will not pay extra for a “resort” , with resort amenities we will never use tacked onto the price of the stay if other decent choices are available nearby. We fulltime, and are not on vacation.

As to discounts, we have Passport America, Good Sam, Escapees, FMCA, where offered senior citizen (never been offered that by the way except at National Parks and COE with a pass), and where offered a military discount. Then there are parks that offer discounts for booking for a week or a month versus night by night.

We take those discounts (where offered) into consideration when we book RV parks. We stay in places with NO discounts, and places WITH discounts.

Reading RV Park Reviews and other review sites help us choose which park we will use.

“Andy” will never get our business due to his attitude. I don’t care that he offers no military discount, I do however care about his snide comments on discounts in general, military in particular, and overall entitled attitude. . Bad move Andy to insult potential customers.

Andy, I hope your business is a success with those you cater to and don’t look down on. I wish you no ill, but you lost our potential business.

Paul

Well said, Andy! I hope to read more articles from you in the future. I think $40-50 sites are a bargain these days and I’m happy to pay that. However so many want large level sites for their $100k+ rigs, FHU, lightning speed Wi-Fi etc etc etc for pennies a night . Well guess what – it’s not 1975 any more. Around here a “state” or national park with no hook-ups will cost well over $30/night. Taxes, insurance, utilities etc are all going up in price. People continually complain about the lack of camping sites, but then aren’t willing to pay for them.

Vic

I have a friend staying in a campground located in northern Washington. She is paying $50 a night with no hookups and they charge her .50 cents for a 3 minute shower. Who is taking advantage of the situation this time?

Mike Sherman

One factor not mentioned. Government taxes. Especially in California. I work in a small well-kept campground. The owner is required to charge a 14% “occupancy tax”. 14% adds a chunk to your nightly camp fee…..same rate the government charges motels/hotel. We rent dirt, you bring your residence, yet soaked for more because they can. But then, it is California…..which has already run off the rails! The owner could level the land and building a hotel and make 3+ the amount from the campground, but it’s been in his family since 1964 and loves providing a clean, well-maintained campground in a beautiful area.

Philip H. Wood

It costs in the neighborhood of $21-$24 /day to for the site. The owners have to show a profit or go out of business. The day of making it with overnight/vacation type business is history or at least it is in my neck of the woods. You have to have a mix of long term and short term business to maintain your cash flow. I have done several financial analysis for parks mostly for financial institutions. The RV park business can be a good business but I have observed many with real problems and these are the ones that give us a bad name in many communities.

Jim

I am sorry, but, I too have a problem with demanding a military discount for anyone under sixty years of age. You volunteered and chose your line of work. For the ones over 60, I am guessing 98% had no choice but for military service. And then when they got home they were spat upon because of it.
Yes, I do appreciate your service and thank you and everyone I see. But I just get tired of people demanding everything because of their choices.
I am sorry for running off topic.

livingboondockingmexico

National and state parks have become what they were exactly meant not to be. Now they are Disneylands, filled with pavement, buses, trains, laundromats, video game rooms, concessions, well the list goes on.

I don’t mind paying entrance fees but prefer to boondock outside of the park. Eliminate discounts, everybody gets one nowadays to the point that someone has to make up the difference.

Do as the hotel industry has done. Create parks that fit the needs of the population. Motel 6 style RV parks. I’ve never understood why an RV park couldn’t provide dry-camping spots for a much-reduced price. Electric can be metered, pay as you go. There are even coin-operated meters.

We’re boondockers and we prefer to be out on our own but it’s not about money.

frater secessus

Mr. Zipser,

Blaming customers (or non-customers) indicates one has unrealistic expectations of a market. RVers are not entitled to a space in a park at their preferred price and park owners are not entitled to customers at the asking price. Both parties have to see themselves as better off from the transaction or it will not occur.

Boondockers see more value in a $0, zero-amernities boondocking spot than a paid RV park spot or they just wouldn’t be doing it. A capitalist who wants to sell to those people will find a way to provide value to them. The first step would be to ask what would make them want to stay in a park, at least sometimes. What do they want? What would they be willing to pay for? A subset of more primitive facilities might also attract less-established young folks one might grow into premium-paying guests in the future.

Chiselers and discount-seekers will do what they do. Having a lower-tier service to offer them for their desired price point may help with that conversation.

As for me, I have zero desire to be near loud, smoking, drinking people with outdoor entertainment systems blaring, dogs barking, and feral children yelling. I wouldn’t take that deal if it were free. And I have no interest in underwriting amenities I will never use.

BTW, I played the military card by enlisting. I don’t know how other people do it.

Rory

I have a question, If so many people prefer boondocking, why don’t they just boondock and count their saving? Why do they have to try to convince everyone else that boondocking is the way to go, whether others want to hear it or not? Boondockers, don’t you realize that the more people you convince to boondock, the more crowded your favorite boondocking spots are going to get. Then you won’t have that peace and quiet in the the pristene wilderness. You will have fellow boondockers complaining about the smoke from your BBQ pit or your campfire. There will be more campers who don’t know how to or don’t care to pick up after themselves. My advice is to keep quiet and enjoy your pristene wilderness while you can….LOL

G. Wagner

One of the first things I was taught in writing a business plan was to identify your customers. From the above comments, I believe we can agree that the needs of RVers are absolutely diverse. So the question is, do we segregate those needs or combine them?

Campgrounds already differentiate between tents, water/electric only, and full hookup. Different prices depending on different needs, which seems to reflect a mixed-use model. However, the same campground then builds a pool, community house, hot tubs and assumes EVERYONE should pay for them even if they do not need or use them? Seems a little contradictory.

Finally, one additional concern about rising costs: the mandatory use of web-based reservations systems that add as much as $8-10 dollar to the base campground fee. We stayed at a state park last week whose base rate was $40, but then added an out-of-state resident fee (so much for encouraging tourism!) and a reservation fee. That $40 spot was quickly a $53 spot — before taxes. We only stayed one night until we could find something else.

Bottom line for us as retired RVers is that we will be looking into other alternatives to traditional campgrounds.

Stuart Sachs

As both a landscape architect and former professor, my assessment of a good RV park needs between 60 & 90 spaces to be profitable, but the attendance peaks and lows are so variable you have to carefully develop a business plan to support the owner/investors, 2 laborers (min.), septic, elec, water, cable/wifi, etc. When you get that business plan, unless you’re planning to carry “freebies or discounts,” you’ll be out of business sooner than you think. Incidentally, I do not normally recommend pools because of liability, insurance, lifeguard training & labor, plus “public pools” in some states require far more regulatory agency review & upkeep – that’s a good thing, but is it in your business plan. It’s just costly.
Getting back to “freebies and discounts”, the $1.75MM to $2.5MM has been a budget number for the “moderate, well-chosen site.” I just had my first company that’s picked location-location-location based on demographics, nearby amenities, and traffic. Then they asked, “what’s it gonna cost?” Coupled to that was, “How can we extend the season?” “What needed activities can we provide?” Answer: Not much for families during the school year; but seniors & retired couples want things farther north – not as much driving is a big target. They also have an amazing amount of discretionary income.
Times are changing. Better run facilities will not have to offer bargain places. You can book a space and pay online, maybe even pick out the spot on the site’s Google Map. One of my latest suggestions was having concierge service waiting for your guest’s arrival with groceries, show tickets, admission tickets, or even a filled cooler chest. Some of these items are advertising, lost leaders, or have a huge markup and will easily become the perks offered to the better customers.

Kevin Hogle

https://www.thespectrum.com/story/news/2018/01/18/zion-bryce-canyon-both-set-new-records-numbers-visitors-2017/1044061001/

Here is an article ifrom our local paper that indicates $62 million in postponed maintenance for Zion alone. So you can imagine the extent of this problem nationwide. Get prepared to pay. The party is over.

Curtis Dowds

Thought I’d add one curious thought. Everyone seems to agree that if you need an RV park you should pay a fair price for the amenities that you use. A large number of participants in this thread want the freedom of “boondocking” which mostly means getting out and away, by inference in nature. I’m totally the opposite although I’ve configured my rig for what amount to boondocking. Big batteries, multiple chargers, big inverter. But in my case what I want is to get close to the big cities (L.A., San Francisco, Portland, Denver, Chicago, as examples in the West) and sample the culture I can’t get from my remote suburban home right up against the border in San Diego. I love my small RV that pulls a car that gives me the freedom to move when I’ve found a safe place in an urban setting, more and more a challenge because of homelessness. Main point. We RV’ers are a very eclectic bunch.!! Good luck to everyone, including the RV park owners whom I only need every once in a while.

Kevin Hogle

I guess I’ll take Andy’s side. I’m willing to pay a fair price to keep him in business. Maybe then he can buy one of my $80,000 trucks I helped to engineer.

I’m also not insulted by anything he said. He has many valid points. Walmart looks to be in the process of eliminating staying in their parking lot overnight. As I previously emailed Chuck, the store here south of Zion posted “no overnight parking” signs here this last winter. Probably invites trouble.

I’m afraid the future holds many more “pay to play” items including the national and state parks. We had years of taxpayer supported parks, but with the finances of the national and state government being in shambles, more of these “nice to have” items are going to be supported by user fees.

PS: it would probably take a week to explain why trucks can cost 80k! Let’s talk emissions, safety, regulations certification and compliance.

Jerry X Shea

Running/managing an RV Park is no different from any of the 6 businesses I have owned. It all comes down to profit and “cashflow.” What Andy (the owner) is missing is his lack of understanding of playing “the numbers game.” To say he would not make a profit offering Passport America 50% off discounts is without merit. We have been staying at a 10/10/10 RV Park every November for over 12 years. Of the 225 spots, Monday – Thursday they would have about 25 spots filled. On the weekend it would fill up. Then, about 4 years ago they signed up with PA offering the 50% discount from Monday night till Thursday night (4 night). Ever since then the park is just about full on those weekdays. Filling 200 spots, even at 50% off would equal 100 full fee payments to the park. That, guarantees “cash flow.” Everyone pays the full price Friday – Sunday night. Andy – try it for one year and see what happens. You can always cancel.

rvgrandma

When we traveled we usually would boonedock for 2-3 nights then stay at a park to empty tanks and fill up fresh water. But we would choose an cheaper park because we did not care about all the amenities they offered.

I have also workamped working in RV parks and campgrounds. Yes people will get upset over the prices. Some will even come in late and leave early never paying.

Due to my husband’s illness we have been at our current park for 5 years. We are in a high demand area due to workers coming in who work at Hanford and other businesses. Plus, even if making RV payments, staying in an RV is cheaper than apartments. Families can no longer afford apartments so buy an RV which results in too many children running around the park – IMO. But due to my husband’s illness moving is out.

Because of supply and demand, the park changed from their almost yearly $10 increase on monthly to $25 increase and almost doubled the w/d charges (which is a lot on fixed income) this year. This is the first year they did not increase electric. With just monthlies, that comes to around $78,000 a month income. They advertise free wi-fi but for most of us it does not work – too many for too little bandwidth. If you want internet you have to pay for it yourself which adds another $65 a month. The manager even admits we are in a ‘dead zone’ but will not give any credit on our internet fee.

This is a resort, offers clean bathroom, pool, hot tub (which many do not use because the cover over it is so heavy it take two to remove it), club house, etc. Their website advertises full time activities director but the 5 years we have lived here we have never heard of or seen one. Rarely are there activities for the monthlies, only when groups come in. The pool is rarely used. They resurfaced it this spring and left the bottom rough which is hard on feet.

If I ever won the lottery I would buy land and set up boondocking for a night or two. Just a safe place where people can stop for the night with no amenities.

I believe there is a need for both the free camping and pay camping. The reason I like staying in my RV vs hotel – it is my bed.