To the extent that the RV park industry increasingly draws inspiration from its hotel-and-resort big brothers and sisters—which is to say, a great deal—looking at the latter can give campers and RVers a sense of what lies ahead for them. Judging by recent developments, alas, that means more glitz, higher prices and less of anything that resembles “nature.”
One signpost to the future is provided by an article last month in The Wall Street Journal, headlined “Hotel Owners Embrace ‘Resortainment’ to Boost Business,” detailing the latest efforts to “persuade guests to stay longer and spend more.” That means, among other things, hotels adding the kinds of distractions that some campgrounds already have installed—ziplines, waterslides, mini-golf, playgrounds—and some that may be next in the campground pipeline, from 4D theaters with moving seats to virtual-reality games. More amenities mean higher rates, of course, but as explained by Bjorn Hanson, an adjunct NYU professor, “What was learned during COVID was that most of these leisure travelers are not as price-sensitive as assumed.”
Transforming from camping to entertainment
All this comes in the wake of private campgrounds transforming themselves from having an emphasis on reconnecting with nature to having an emphasis on being a family “activity,” an evolution decades in the making. While inoffensive and even commendable in its purpose (who’s going to argue that families spending time together is a bad thing?), the shift opened the door to marketing and packaging of “experiences” that reached its apotheosis with the Jellystone campgrounds, which explicitly sell themselves as kid-centric amusement parks. Camping at a Jellystone is incidental to photo ops with Yogi Bear and buying Yogi-themed souvenirs, and building a campground is a helluva lot cheaper than building a Wolf Lodge, its closest hotel analogue.
Nor is Jellystone an outlier. The hotel-and-resort-ification of the campground industry can be traced directly to the influence of its most recognizable name, KOA, which fell under the sway of a former hotel and casino operator when Jim Rogers became its chief executive in 2000. As Rogers later told Forbes magazine, “The casino business is so cutting-edge and the camping industry is so ‘back of the woods’…” that his work was cut out for him, starting with a big push to add full-service cabins to every campground in the system. More hotel practices quickly followed, few having anything to do with camping other than to make it less, well, natural.
Squeezing out every last bit of revenue
In the years since, KOA, Jellystone and ARVC, the industry’s trade group, have all heavily promoted hotel and resort industry practices, from computerized reservation systems to dynamic site pricing to the latest holy grail, “yield management.” By unbundling various products and services and pricing them separately, then “dynamically” adjusting each price in response to supply and demand, a business can squeeze out every last possible bit of revenue. Old-timers may scorn that as “nickel-and-diming,” but as the Wall Street Journal reported, leisure travelers just aren’t all that price conscious.
What’s happening in the camping industry
In that respect, yet another Wall Street Journal article spoke directly to what’s happening. The headline pretty much summed it up, reporting on a company that the campground industry’s movers and shakers consistently cite as the paragon of hospitality: “Disney’s New Pricing Magic: More Profit From Fewer Park Visitors.” As the subhead further explains, Disney theme park attendance remains below pre-pandemic levels, but not to worry: the Magic Kingdom simply raised some prices and eliminated or started charging for services and features that used to be “free,” i.e., part of the overall package. And guess what? Record revenues and record operating income followed.
That kind of magic is sure to bedazzle the swarm of deep-pocketed investors circling the industry, and as they sweep up more and more of its larger campgrounds and RV parks, expect similar pricing dynamics. The time is rapidly coming when most middle-class families will figure out they’ll be better off, and less impoverished, by forsaking the razzle-dazzle and heading for the woods—where they can actually carve out some undistracted quality time together.
PREVIOUSLY FROM ANDY…
Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park for eight years, five of which was as a KOA franchise, and of Turning Dirt, a step-by-step guide for finding, buying and operating an RV park and campground. Both books are available through bookstores or at Amazon.com.