By Andy Zipser
Owner, Walnut Hills Campground and RV Park
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.”
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.”
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.