Snowbird traffic during the winter of 2002-2003 is:
A. Up dramatically
B. Up moderately
C. Pretty flat
D. Off somewhat
E. In the doldrums
F. Your guess is as good as ours
Although we would like to present a more concise conclusion on the general trends in Snowbird activity, the real answer to the above quiz is either “C” or “F,” depending upon whom you talk to. Nevertheless, we’ve made some calls to try to get a general anecdotal, reading on what’s occurring out in the field this winter. And all we can really say is that the snowbird traffic at the Sunbelt’s RV parks is probably similar to last year – neither vastly improved nor greatly reduced.
On the down side, we’re told, last year’s strong RV sales didn’t necessarily carry over to the accommodations sector. “Even though there’s a big increase in RV buying going on,” reports Greg Sidoroff, general manager of the 1,000-space Golden Village Palms RV Resort in Hemet, Calif., “it’s not necessarily impacting our segment of the market. People travel on their disposable income.”
Senior citizens, he added, are largely bound by the limitations of their stock portfolios and other investments, which, in many cases, are earning only a fraction of what they did a few years ago. As a result, he said, many retirees are taking shorter trips and some are even going back to work.
On the plus side, Canadian Snowbirds appear to be traveling south in their usual numbers, unfettered by new Immigration and Naturalization Service proposals that threatened to increase border hassles and limit stays in the United States. “It seems to be business as usual on our end,” observed Heather Nicolson-Morrison, executive director of the Canadian Snowbird Association. “There’s been no hassles at the border regarding the INS issue.”
In fact, Medipac International, which sells supplementary health care insurance to Canadians traveling to the U.S., is reporting increased sales, which signals an increase in Canadian travel to the United States, Nicolson-Morrison reported. “I don’t see a slowdown at all,” reports Dustin Hinkle, director of marketing for Gulfport, Miss.-based Passport America, a 100,000-member camping club that provides discounts to 900 campgrounds across North America.
Again, however, tracking the strength of the Snowbird business at state or national levels is problematic. Both Arizona and Florida, for example, collect statistics on incoming visitors. But neither has specific break downs for RV travelers. Consequently, the picture varies widely.
Regarding the Florida Snowbird market, Mike Gast, a spokesman for Billings, Mont.-based Kampgrounds of America, Inc. (KOA), said KOA’s Florida Snowbird business has softened somewhat. “This is true not only for most campgrounds, but for the Florida economy in general,” he said, citing a list of factors that includes the stock market, fuel prices, weather, layoffs, the economy, war fears and delayed arrivals by Canadian snowbirds.
Yet, within KOA’s own 500-park network, exceptions abound, as evidenced by this response from KOA’s Fiesta Key Resort. “We are up substantially from where we were last year at this time,” said spokesman Stacie Brooks.
At the state level, Tom Flanigan, a spokesman for Visit Florida, a statewide tourism marketing agency, said the numbers of travelers visiting Florida by air have dropped somewhat from 55% to 50%, which means, he speculated, that thousands of additional travelers are arriving by motorized vehicles. But Flanigan couldn’t quantify the numbers of RVers entering the Sunshine State or indicate how long they were staying.
Even universities located in other popular Snowbird destinations have a hard time tracking Snowbird statistics. “We don’t have real hard information,” responded Tim Hogan, director of the Center for Business Research at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business. While the center has conducted Snowbird surveys in the Phoenix area for 19 years, much of the data is anecdotal, he said, and gathered through phone calls to selected RV parks.
On the other hand, Hogan noted, the center has noticed a change taking place in the composition of Phoenix area RV parks during the past “three or four years” in that more of their parks’ spaces are being occupied by transient travelers who don’t fit the region’s traditional Snowbird profile – generally a visitor from the frigid north who stays for the entire winter. So, he said, while occupancies remain high at Phoenix-area RV parks, there are fewer long-term occupants and more short-term winter travelers.
“They (RVers) are coming in, and they’re more mobile than they have been in the past,” Steve Stewart, manager of the 1,155-space Sunflower RV Resort in Surprise, Ariz., told the Arizona Republic.
So, too, does Tina Positano, who heads up the Quartzsite Chamber of Commerce, see more active and mobile Snowbird visitors in Arizona this winter. “We have a different type of retiree population,” she said. “It’s different than it was 15 years ago when retirees stayed put.”
At the same time, some of those travelers who previously stayed in RV parks may now be investing in homes in the area, observed Dan Austin, president of the Arizona Winter Visitors Association. “We used to be strong in the parks, but now 60% to 70% (of his group’s members) live in homes, apartments and condos,” he said.
Regardless of whether their winter guests are staying for days, weeks or months, most park operators agree that this year’s Snowbird season got off to a late start, partly because of the late arrival of cold weather up north, but also because of weak economic conditions, which may have prompted some Snowbirds to depart later as a way of reducing their vacation costs.
Others noted that Snowbirds were gravitating to parks with improved amenities versus those with fewer improvements. This trend was particularly noticeable in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. “Our parks with the greatest amount of amenities are doing better than those with lesser amenities,” said Brian Schaeffer, executive director of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).
But even those parks that had improved their facilities were generally only able to match last year’s figures, he said. “If they’ve got more activities and more amenities, their business is about flat,” he said. Conversely, he maintained, campgrounds that had not invested in upgrades actually saw their businesses decline, perhaps by 5% to 10%.
Senior managers for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Encore Communities, which operates 33 upscale parks in popular Snowbird destinations across the Sunbelt, have also noticed that business prospects are generally better for parks that offer improved facilities. “We have spent a lot of money in our properties and we’re seeing a lot of new and bigger rigs coming into our parks,” said Carl Fives, Encore’s senior vice president of Florida operations.
Across Florida, Encore’s Snowbird business is up about 3% to 5% compared to last winter, Fives said, although some parks have experienced even stronger increases. “A few years ago, people thought Internet and 50 amp connections were nice extras. Now they’re expected,” said Roger Buchanan, Encore’s senior vice president of sales and revenue. Snowbirds also are demanding a better variety of entertainment and activities, said Greg Barton, Encore’s senior vice president of marketing.
But even if parks provide improved amenities, they still have to continue their advertising and promotions to be successful, Barton said, adding that Encore targets its Snowbird visitors through camping industry magazines and selected RV shows.
Ernie Sims, owner of Corpus Christi RV Resorts LLC, which operates four parks in the Corpus Christi, Texas, area, agreed that it’s important for parks to keep up with their advertising to let people know about the upgrades and other amenities they offer. “If you don’t keep up your advertising, you run risks,” he said.
Sims advertises in one campground directory and at least one national monthly magazine, and finds that both help him increase his business base. “It’s pretty much a normal year right now,” he said. “We’re running right at 100% capacity.”
Sims also noted that other Texas parks that have reduced their advertising have experienced declines in their Snowbird business. Still, most parks contacted said their business was at least keeping pace with last year’s figures. “We’re doing about as much (business) as we did last year at this time,” said Sheila Piveral, office manager for the 75-site Town and Country RV Park in Roswell, N.M.
Sally Fagan, who works the front desk at the 178-site Sans End RV Park in Winterhaven, Calif., near Yuma, Ariz., said her business has kept pace with last year’s figures as well.
And so have a number of Arizona parks, according to published news reports. “Our original park is totally booked this year,” Char Wilson, administrator for the 767-site Fiesta Grande RV Resort, told the Casa Grande Dispatch News.