A demographic that appears to be shifting away from highly mobile RVers toward seasonal-site and cabin rentals was on the minds of those attending the 2008 Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Symposium Nov. 3-6 presented by franchisor Leisure System Inc. (LSI), Milford, Ohio. And to a great extent, it was business as usual.
“Overall, the symposium was very upbeat,” said LSI President and COO Robert E. Schutter Jr. “There is a general concern in the franchise group about the RV market and whether it will be a dominant factor in our marketplace in the future. We’ve had an up tick in seasonal rentals (and) cabin rentals have been a growing factor.”
About 200 people representing 65 of LSI’s 74 franchised parks attended the symposium at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center in Covington, Ky., just south of Cincinnati across the Ohio River. A record 52 vendors also manned booths during a two-day expo in conjunction with the symposium.
Schutter said that seasonal rentals are expected to account for 20% of systemwide rentals this year, up from 18% in 2007. As part of this emerging trend that promises to alter significantly the face of the average U.S. RV park and campground, nearly a third of Yogi Bear parks have 50 or more cabins.
“The customer demographic in changing,” Schutter said. “In many instances we are seeing people coming into our parks for the first time who are renting cabins. They are outdoor enthusiasts but they don’t own RVs, and cabins are being repackaged to be more elegant.
As most park operators are well aware, there’s also an economic incentive for campground owners to pay attention to this consistent shift. “The traditional rate for a cabin versus an RV site is generally 3 1/2 times.”
Schutter reported that camper nights at LSI parks were flat for the year, although revenue through the end of September was up 7% across the system. “We lost some transient, destination business, but picked up seasonal rentals,” he said. At the same time, Schutter said that LSI during the symposium encouraged franchisees to package their services and amenities. “We urged them to bundle their services like mini-golf, bicycles or their game rooms under one price to add value,” Schutter said. “But our main message was to advise them to provide services that people are looking for. And we recommended that they add water features. Every park with water features increased their occupancy by double digits that year.
“Finally,” he added, “we impressed on individuals (park operators) that no (visitor’s) problem is too small and that all problems have to be addressed. Show that you’ve taken their problem to heart and you can win a guest for life.”
Reflecting national trends, Schutter said that parks within 150 miles of a major metropolitan area did well during the summer but that rural and parks in the Northern mountain regions didn’t fare as well.
Former LSI owner Jim Webb, now a consultant to the company who attended the annual symposium, agreed that cabins are likely to play a more important role in Yogi Bear campgrounds in the future. “It used to be that our only customer was an established camper who owned a tent, popup, travel trailer or motorhome,” said Webb, who lives in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., where the first Yogi Bear Jellystone park was established in 1969.
“Today, anybody’s a customer because of cabins,” he noted. “You don’t have to be a camper to enjoy Jellystone. Cabins have taken over a good part of the business. People love to get together with families, and they love to recreate. And when they recreate, they want to be entertained and that’s our business.”
Roger Barry, owner of Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in Fremont, Ind., a park that tends to garner a lot of national publicity because of its elaborate amenities, said his summer season started slowly, primarily because of higher gas prices, but that business in July and August made up for the deficit.
“It was a decent year, particularly if you consider the gas price shock – $4 a gallon right through July,” Barry said. “But what it did for us was that instead of somebody going to Branson, (Mo.) or Myrtle Beach (S.C.) or out West somewhere, they stayed closer to home. We had a lot of weekly traffic during the summer.”
Barry expects the 2009 summer season to be about the same as 2008. “It depends a lot on gas prices and what they do,” he said.
Another well known LSI franchisee, Erv Banes, owner of Yogi Bear’s Frankenmuth (Mich.) Jellystone Park, said that while revenue for the summer was about even, “the season was different, meaning we had different campers.
“You could tell they weren’t going as far, and they were staying longer,” Banes said. “And we saw a lot more camping vans and people in tents. And we had more business in our rental units. That was a good thing.”
Banes also saw a noticeable increase in Canadian visitors during the summer. “Canadian traffic was definitely on the rise since their dollar is in a better position in regard to the American dollar,” he said. “They like to come to the U.S. to spend their money to buy American products because they are generally cheaper here than they are in Canada.”
Banes said that people who own RVs aren’t likely to let them sit. That, he reasons, should contribute to the strength of the accommodations sector. “The camper is a fickle person, but if they own a camper and they have a job and feel relatively secure, they aren’t going to leave it in their driveway,” he said. “They are going to run their camper somewhere that might not be as far away and they may stay a little longer.”
During a seminar on “Our Changing Business Environment,” park owners addressed ways of dealing with today’s challenging economic environment and recommended:
“Camping is basically a recession-proof business in my mind,” she said. “People still need to recreate. They are still spending money on vacations, but they are going to vacation a little differently than they have in the past.”