insites09Private campgrounds and RV parks have proven themselves to be the most vibrant segment of the travel and tourism business in 2009, with most parks reporting surprisingly stable revenue and occupancies figures, despite the recession.

The nearly 600 private park operators, vendors and industry officials who attended the annual InSites Convention and Expo in Orlando, Fla., this week learned that 2009 was also year of multiple successes for the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC).

ARVC, in fact, used the recession as a news hook to promote camping in a national media campaign that scored positive story placements in some of the largest media outlets in the country, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune.

ARVC also completed a major redesign of its GoCampingAmerica website with interactive Google maps; stepped up its communication efforts with members with the ARVC Report in Advance, a bi-monthly e-newsletter, and monthly and bimonthly conference calls with state campground association executives; and launched a new pricing program with Thor Industries Inc. for specially built park models and travel trailers that are designed for use as rental accommodations.

ARVC also secured an 84% membership renewal rate. In fact, nearly half of ARVC’s Texas members renewed their memberships, despite a decision by the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO) to loosen its affiliation with the national association.

And the association saw a 30% increase in the number of parks participating in the GuestReviews online survey program, which is offered to private parks as an ARVC member benefit.

In their joint presentation in a ballroom at the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando, ARVC Chairman Mark Anderson and President and CEO Linda Profaizer provided updates on the association’s successes, while also sharing positive news about the camping and RV industry’s expected performance in 2010.

“It seemed like people were giving camping a try this year,” Anderson said, adding that many snowbird parks are also projecting a good winter season, with advance reservations running slightly ahead of last winter’s figures.

The RV industry is also experiencing a gradual rebound. Anderson quoted a recent report from University of Michigan economist Richard Curtin, who forecast 185,000 RV shipments by the end 2010, a 27% increase over this year’s figures. Granted, the numbers are still a long ways from the 396,000 shipment figure recorded in 2006, he said, but they are headed in the right direction.

Profaizer told InSites attendees she was particularly pleased with the performance of Jeff Crider, a Palm Desert, Calif.-based public relations consultant and longtime Woodall’s Campground Management contributor who ARVC hired to lead its media outreach campaign.

“Our PR campaign has really scored tremendous successes with more than 220 story placements in newspapers, magazines and broadcast media in the U.S. and Canada – and I think that’s really only the tip of the iceberg,” Profaizer said. “The top 30 newspaper placements alone generated more than 15 million positive impressions about the affordability of camping and the improvements underway in private RV parks and campgrounds across the country.”

“ARVC was quoted as an expert source by USA Today three times this year, (and) one member park that participated in a radio interview said they’ve had inquiries from coast to coast and around the world as a result of the interview.”

As a result of its successful media outreach efforts, Profaizer said reporters are now regularly contacting ARVC for suggestions on story ideas and industry trend information.

In his remarks to InSites attendees, Vic Nolting, vice chairman of Milford, Ohio-based Leisure Systems Inc. (LSI), expressed a sense of relief over the relative strength of the private park business compared to other segments of the travel and tourism business.

Citing figures from Smith Travel Research, he noted that hotel occupancies were down 8% during the third quarter, despite a 10% reduction in room rates.

Las Vegas, in fact, had suffered a 6% drop in overall visitors and a 30% drop in its convention business despite a 24% reduction in room rates, Nolting said, citing Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau statistics.

Nolting said the hotel industry’s malaise is further compounded by the fact that the hotel industry is adding even more inventory.

Amusement parks, meanwhile, have suffered similar malaise. Attendance is down 14% year to date at Universal Studios, while Disney has suffered a 24% drop in its net profits. Nolting said there was a chance Disney could rebound somewhat during the fourth quarter holiday season, but even Disney has been discounting its rates in an effort to boost sales.

“They are discounting the Holy Grail to get people into their parks,” Nolting said. “That is unprecedented.”

But while the hotel and amusement park industries have suffered during the recession, campgrounds and RV parks have held their own. “By and large, people are saying, ‘Up a couple.’ ‘Down a couple.’ Yogi has had a very good year. KOA has had a good year.”

And, unlike the hotel industry, “Our inventory is shrinking and we’re not having to promote and discount our life away,” Nolting said.

Several InSites speakers indicated they expect a slight increase in business levels in 2010.

KOA, for example, is predicting a one-half percent increase in camper nights and a 3.8% increase in rates for its 450-park system, according to COO Pat Hittmeier. “The recession is not quite over with,” he said, adding, “We’re sort of crossing our fingers to see what’s going to happen in December, January and February.”

On the other hand, the long-term outlook is very good, he said, adding that 90% of campers who participated in the latest KOA survey indicated they planned to camp as much or more often during the next five years as they are now. In fact, 45% of survey respondents said they planned to camp more during the next five years, while only 10% said they planned to camp less.