While there is no nationwide record keeping system to quantify trends in campground reservations, anecdotal information from campground operators and industry officials indicates the summer of 2003 was neither the best nor the worst of times for North America’s RV park and campground businesses.
And, given the year’s political circumstances, including a conflict in Iraq that all but paralyzed millions of American consumers, that should be pretty welcome news for many in the outdoor hospitality business.
On the positive side, some private parks in north Texas and along the Texas Gulf Coast reported their best summers ever, according to Brian Schaeffer, executive director of the Texas Campground Owners Association (TACO). And Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Encore Communities, which owns and operates more than 30 destination RV parks across the Sunbelt, also reported strong business this summer, particularly in California and Florida.
On the other hand, business at the nearly 500 parks affiliated with Billings, Mont.-based Kampgrounds of America, Inc., was down 5% overall, according to KOA President and CEO Jim Rogers.
The National Park Service also said its year-to-date visitation was down by 6% as of July.
In fact, a decline in long-distance travel was evident in some private parks across the country. There were about 15% to 20% fewer overnight travelers this summer, for example, at Ozark Travel Park, a popular stop for RVers making the trip between the Midwest and central Florida, park owner Richard Dickson said.
Why the mixed results?
Blame the weather, say many campground operators.
Campgrounds in the Midwest and along much of the East Coast struggled with unseasonably wet weather that kept many travelers at home. “I’ve never seen weather affect a (summer) camping season like it has this year,” stated Dean Crawford, senior vice president of Milford, Ohio-based Leisure Systems, Inc., which operates the Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp Resorts chain. “It seems like the rain has been relentless.”
“In lots of places we’re dealing with the rain issues,” agreed Linda Profaizer, president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds (ARVC).
In the Northeast, Iroquois Land Family Camping owner Karl Anderson, who has operated his North Clarendon, Vt., park for the past 35 years, told the Rutland Herald his business has been off 50% this summer. And business for Maurice Barnes, who owns 200-site Lakeside Camping in Island Pond, Vt., has been down by a third.
Weather wasn’t the only factor negatively affecting the campground business this summer. In Montana, public and private parks struggled with the effects of raging wildfires that closed the Going to the Sun Road through Glacier National Park, costing local tourism-related businesses close to $1 million a day, according to the Great Falls Tribune. The Going to the Sun Road had been closed nearly 14 days this summer.
Meanwhile, in Ontario, campground operators had to deal with the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak. During the Family Motor Coach Association’s convention in July near Buffalo, N.Y., private parks in the immediate area were filled to capacity by FMCA members, while the Niagara Falls KOA three miles north of the Canadian border had vacancies because people apparently were still leery of SARS, said Mike Gast, a spokesman for KOA.
However, Lisa Thompson, general manager of Niagara Falls KOA, said her business was strengthening as the summer progressed.
SARS wasn’t the only cause of health-related hysteria in Canada. Another campground, Cedar Beach Park, near Aurora, Ont., lost half of its summer revenues after Canadian authorities erroneously told the media that mosquitoes collected from a pool near the park had tested positive for the West Nile virus.
The lackluster economy was an important factor in summer camping traffic.
“Anybody that’s maintaining (their business volume) should consider that they’re doing pretty well,” said Rogers, the KOA executive.
“Campgrounds located near usual major summer tourist attractions – the brand name national parks, major amusement parks, big cities – are having at best a flat season and at worst a down summer as those major tourist attractions are seeing a flat to down year,” said David Gorin, a campground industry consultant and founder of campground marketing group BestParks in America.
“Although many, many parks in the Northeast and Midwest were battered by the May and June rainy weather, most high quality parks with long-term reputations and business are reporting that July and August have been so strong that their business overall is no worse than flat and, in many cases, is up,” Gorin said.