RV PARKS: SURVIVING ECONOMIC CHALLENGES
by Tom Gonser (Updated 07/2011)
Severe economic conditions plus the ever increasing cost of fuel has brought about major changes in the RV industry. For many, making an "investment" in larger RVs is now a risky proposition. RVers are evaluating their options for coping with economic circumstances that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago. Many RV manufacturers are now out of business, and others are re-tooling to meet what they see are dramatically changed preferences among RVers. The implications for park owners are significant as well.
Changing RV Travel Patterns: It seems RVers are reluctant to give up their enjoyment of the RV lifestyle, even as the economy is forcing new personal spending disciplines -- especially with respect to discretionary dollars. Most of us are tendng to avoid trips that involve long distances and/or short stays. It's far more economical to do less traveling and more "staying". Staying longer at each destination is one way to "amortize" the cost of fuel. It's clear that RV parks will be impacted by these trends based primarily on their location.
RV parks located within a relatively short distance of major population areas will benefit both from the "shorter distance" and "longer stay" factors. RV destinations located in remote areas will likely find traffic dramatically down. One attractive RV resort we stay at in Borrego Springs is only a couple of hours from the huge San Diego market. In addition to attracting snowbirds for seasonal stays, this park attracts lots of weekend travelers, and many RV clubs. It's essentially full for the winter months. On the other hand, the RVer population in the beautiful Big Bend area of Texas is obviously sharply down. It's a *long* way to Big Bend, and there is no nearby population center. Some parks may be inclined to offer incentives, such as a reduced daily rate. But saving a few dollars in RV park costs will often be insignificant to RVers compared to the greatly increased cost of traveling to more distant destinations.
Some Likely Adjustments: RV parks might find that the ability to offer RV storage is a powerful incentive. When RVers can leave their rigs at a destination facility for several weeks -- or even a full season -- they merely need to hop into their fuel efficient auto to drive back and forth. This not only attracts business, it attracts repeat business. And with the added bonus of storage fees, it offers a new source of revenue as well. Many parks may at first feel disadvantaged by this suggestion, because they may not have the physical space to accommodate RV storage. But that need not be a fatal flaw. These parks can "shop" locally to find an existing RV storage lot, or property that could be used for one, and/or create a joint venture with another property owner that could be a win/win situation for both.
Cabins, yurts, rental RVs and other options that let visitors drive their more fuel efficient cars to and from the destination are likely to experience increased demand as well. While this option is not particularly one that most RVers like to see, it may prosper from economic necessity. There is a careful tradeoff here, however, as "traveling" RVers tend to avoid RV parks that have either a high concerntration of "permanents", or a great many cabins or other fixed accommodations. RVers have a collegial social network, and enjoy being with others who enjoy the same pursuits. If they sense a park is becoming something other than a traditional RV park, they're likely to look elsewhere. An appreciation of this fact, and a thoughtful "balance" in the mix (and placement) of accommodations is important here.
RV parks that are located away from major population centers would be well advised to target their advertising to include a wide variety of activities available in their local area.
RVers contemplating trips of longer duration will likely want to go to places where they can spend more time. And if they're going to commit a substantial amount of time to one location they need to be assured there's "plenty to do" there. This has special implications for an RV park's website, which needs to emphasize the many attractions of the local area more than it has done in the past. We've long advocated that RV parks design entertaining "circle trips" from their location. These would essentially be easy day trips that would start and end at the RV park. Ideally, every park would have a folder full of one-page sheets that outline a series of circle trips in the area. These could even be included as printable PDF documents available from the park's website. It's no longer enough to attract RVers to your park. You now need them to be attracted to your entire area -- and pesuade them yours is the perfect "base camp".
RV Park Design Implications? Those considering building a new RV park, or upgrading an existing property, will want to pay close attention to the changes that higher fuel costs might engender. Until recently, "bigger is better" was winning the hearts and minds of RVers. This has changed significantly, and the changes may well be long term. Just as automobiles sales have dramatically shifted away from full size gas guzzlers to smaller, more versatile and fuel efficient cars, RV sales are especially slow with "big rigs" -- the emergence of which had driven concepts in RV park design and renovation in the recent past. Accommodations for big rigs require more space, wider roads, higher clearance, and far more power than smaller rigs. Until recently it seemed prudent that all parks should be built with these behemoths predominently in mind. But as new RV sales swing to the smaller, more fuel efficient rigs, it's possible that parks that avoid some of the higher costs inherent in catering to big rigs might find they've anticipated a change that could be on the near horizon. Conceivably in time RV sites might be priced differently, depending on the length of the RV or the length of the site. Power consumption will likely become an increasing factor in pricing RV sites.
There is a second, independent, and somewhat more subtle trend out there known as "downsizing". As RVers purchased ever larger rigs, they began to recognize one of the limitations to size: the larger the rig the fewer places it will fit. We had already begun to see the early stages of a downsizing trend before the present fuel and general economic crunch. The added impetus of potentially higher gas and diesel prices, coupled with the reluctance to purchase higher end RVs may accelerate its pace.
Clearly "big rigs" are here to stay. But it no longer appears inevitable that RVing is moving inexorably toward ever bigger, wider, longer and heavier RVs. And those who plan for a more varied "mix" of RV sizes in the future, and invest accordingly, may find a better return on their investment.
Real estate values may also play a role in the RV park industry in future years. Only a couple of short years ago real estate development was racing ahead at record speeds. Signs of development were everywhere, with new projects being built or planned to accommodate what seemed at the time to be an ever increasing price point for new homes. How that has changed! Consider the number of developments that put in streets and utilities -- then found the market had virtually disappeared. Those partially-developed projects tell a story that has implications for RV parks. Not too long ago it seemed that prime location RV parks and resorts were "going away", with many being destined for the "higher and better" use of a new housing development. The message for RV park owners at that point in time was positive: RVers would have fewer choices of places to go, and competition for RV sites would impact pricing.
No longer is this the case. Properties acquired for real estate development only a short time ago are increasingly being re-designed for a "lower and better" use -- including RV parks and resorts. This trend, if it continues, means there will be more options for RVers, not fewer. And pricing will need to be competitive to attract good occupancy rates.
Much of what's said above is of course a bit speculative. Moreover, as the cost of fuel continues to exhibit volatility, and the economy works its way through difficult times, the overall RV market will likely continue to react erratically as well. There is a case to be made, however, that higher fuel prices -- despite wide fluctuations over time -- are now seen as inevitably here to stay. To the extent that perception evolves, much of what's described above is more likely to occur.
The economics of the entire RV industry -- RVers, manufacturers, park owners, and related players is clearly undergoing some major changes. RVing will not disappear. But it may evolve in new directions that require new strategies for all concerned. One of the purposes of this website is to monitor these developments closely, and with the assistance and input from our readers (including participating park owners) to help identify emerging trends and new options for responding to them. We intend to post our views on these matters as developments occur.
07/2011 Update: We've reviewed the above for currency, and amended this piece as required. There are signs of recovery in parts of the industry. It seems the smaller, lighter and more fuel efficient RVs -- likely disproportionately represented by towables -- are indeed leading the march going forward. Clearly with purchases now long deferred, we're bound to see the release of some pent-up demand once consumer confidence makes a northward turn. More later.