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Today’s RV parks: ‘Camping’ gives way to ‘Resortainment’

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… 

KOA direction is ‘luxury and rustic camping’—Really?

Low-income people turning to RVs, while RV parks change with the times

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.

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drc
17 days ago

If it’s a resort, I don’t want to go there, and I’m sure there are many others like me. “Camping” means nature, relaxation, hiking…things that can be quiet and not cost money. I love the state parks, and that’s where you’ll find me. Private campgrounds that are taking the glitsy path are making a big mistake.

Tom S
17 days ago

Locally it appears there has been a name change to resort, the only change being how much they charge.

Heather
18 days ago

It’s important to remember that the Wall Street Journal is after all, Wall St. and them bothering to know the true number of price-conscious travelers is as unlikely as them knowing their A** from their Elbow.

Last edited 18 days ago by Heather
Dennis G.
18 days ago

Honestly, we don’t book resorts, or even KOAs as we don’t want or need the types of services they offer. We are far better off in nature at state and national parks, where the draw is a empty hiking trail.
For the sake of our son, we will usually book one night at a campground with a pool. The other 11-12 days are at more primitive campsite or on BLM land.

Steve H
18 days ago
Reply to  Dennis G.

Agree completely! We have stayed at a KOA once–and never will again–and never at a Jellystone Park. We also prefer state, county, and city (some free with W/E) campgrounds. Favorite state parks are in New Mexico and favorite Federal campgrounds are Corps of Engineers, both for less then $15/night with hookups.

Jewel
18 days ago

Recently, it was announced that a favorite rustic, woodsy campground near us was being sold to none other than Margaritaville resorts.
I’m sure they will have a steady stream of visitors and revenue but most will be a different type of RVer than the ones who loved camping there.

Give me a gravel pad in a peaceful woods over the noise and excitement of an outdoor wonderland of water parks and hay rides any day.

“Don’t resort my campground!”

drc
17 days ago
Reply to  Jewel

Amen!!!

Tommy Molnar
18 days ago

“Resortainment” (will this word show up in the Webster list of new words from 2022 this year?) for me, means drive on by. At this point in my life, long cross-country trips are out so we just go to a host of favorite home state camping spots (mostly boondock) and continue to enjoy the RV experience.

Bob p
18 days ago

For the first 32 years of camping I went to state parks or an occasional national park until my late wife passed away. During the last 6 years I have spent my “camping” days in resorts as my new wife likes ALL the amenities she can get. She likes the pools, spas, game rooms etc., being a former redhead now white haired I’m fair complected and burn in the sun in a matter of 30 minutes. I don’t mind the game rooms, but I’m not really a game person unless it’s pool. I go along with most of it as a I love DW, but I’d rather be in nature sitting in my lawn chair drinking a glass of ice tea. Lol

Rock & Tina
18 days ago

Not everyone traveling in an RV is “camping.” Those that use their RVs as their own personal mobile “hotel suite” look forward to these amenities.

Jim Prideaux
18 days ago
Reply to  Rock & Tina

True. There are some major divides out there regarding folks who use RVs and campgrounds. There’s campers who want to get back to nature and boondock or utilize state parks. Then the travelers who, as you say, use their rigs a mobile hotel suites and wouldn’t think of having a campfire or eat outside at the picnic table. Then there are those who are mobile and would not stay for more than a few days or a week. Then there are those who homestead. I did not realize what a park model was until I stayed in a Jellystone campground last month.

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