"Walmart in Perspective..."
Just as park owners can benefit from understanding the needs and objectives of RVers, RVers can learn as well from a thoughtful consideration of the issues which face the owners of RV parks. While there are some large corporate concerns that operate networks of upscale RV resorts, the mainstay of the private RV park industry is still characterized by something akin to a family owned business. These small businesses which we recognize as RV parks have a variety of complexities to deal with, whether it involves the maze of government regulations that limits the construction or renovation of RV parks, or simply the challenge of managing an existing park in a profitable manner.
Bookdocking: The "Walmart" Issue
Clearly one provocative issue is "boondocking". Because a number of well publicized disputes have resulted from the RV friendly attitude of many Walmart stores, it's often referred to as the "Walmart" issue. However, it's really much broader than that, as it involves virtually all types of shopping centers, as well as truck stops, rest stops, and other areas where enterprising RVers have found they could overnight without cost. For some RVers, this is the very essence of RVing. In fact it's the fundamental reason some RVers have chosen to adopt the RVing lifestyle. For others, it's also an issue of common sense economics. After all, they own a modern RV unit with virtually all the comforts of home -- and they want to enjoy the independence this mode of travel and living offers. This group of RVers neither needs -- nor wants to pay for -- a duplication of these same amenities which are offered by the hookups and restroom facilities at RV parks.
Some of these RVers have little interest in other amenities, such as swimming pools and club houses, which are included in the rate base of the price of a night's stay. Others see boondocking as a "sometimes" thing, such as occasionally overnighting in a Walmart or truck stop en route to an RV destination where they intend to avail themselves of all the amenities offered by a private or public RV resort or campground. And there are still others who rarely, if ever, would consider staying overnight in a Walmart parking lot. These RVers almost always prefer the added comfort and amenities that an RV park will provide. This latter group is the true "natural market" for the private park owners; but even these RVers can resent the perception that park owners are seeking to eliminate boondocking options for all RVers.
We think this deserves a closer look. Our predicate is that most RVers need a strong and viable network of RV parks (from budget priced to true RV "resorts") available to us. And if we want to ensure they'll not only be there, but be able to provide the services and amenities we're asking for, we have an interest in their continued success. If that premise is correct, then we need to take a closer look at this issue from the perspective of park owners. Only then can we make a fair and balanced evalutation of the matter.
For starters, imagine a family business that has invested substantally all of its savings in purchasing or constructing an RV park. Imagine further that a new shopping mall is soon built across the street, and once constructed invites RVers to park there free overnight. From the park owner's perspective, all of a sudden you have a new "competitor" -- someone who is "giving away" a product which you need to charge for in order to stay in business. What if these were your dollars invested in the RV park -- can you honestly say you'd champion "boondocking rights" with the same enthusiasm? Of course not.
At this point we've done no more than put the issue in objective focus: RVers for very legitimate reasons want to preserve their rights to enjoy the benefits of boondocking. And some park owners for very legitimate reasons don't want to compete with someone who furnishes for free a "product" for which they must charge a fee in order to survive.
Most RV parks of course won't have to contend with the extreme example we've described. However, a few parks that are located in such close proximity to these "free overnight parking options" will be seriously impacted by this scenario. In our opinion, most park owners are not significantly effected by this issue, even though some may perceive otherwise. There will always be a portion of the RVing public that will have a preference for boondocking -- and these folks are simply not part of the private RV park owner's natural "market". The enlightened RV park owner will not just be making RV parking available for whomever may happen to show up. Rather he or she will be doing the necessary market research to determine which types of RVers, or what mix of them, can be most easily attracted to that particular park.
RVers tend to assume that all RV park owners are united into one cohesive campaign to end boondocking in whatever form. We disagree. We have met with groups of park owners at both national and state conventions, and discussed this issue openly with them. A few -- very possibly those who are faced with a severe challenge to their own park -- are indeed strongly opposed to free overnight parking in shopping malls, truck stops, and the like. However we perceive that many -- and possibley even most -- of them do not see this as a major issue. In fact, we think they may correctly understand that the more significant threat to their business lies in alienating all RVers by taking collective action to combat the "evils of boondocking". Just as we as RVers must consider the concerns of park owners on this issue, park owners must objectively assess whether organized opposition to free overnight parking will result in a net positive outcome to them. It's quite easy to see how one or more battles may be won here, but the end result might well be to lose the war.
We make the point above that RVers who do not care to use shopping malls as RV parks will nevertheless feel a certain comaraderie with other RVers who want to preserve the right to boondock. In the case of park owners, no doubt the many RV park owners who do not see boondocking as a significant issue will nevertheless feel a similar sense of comaraderie with those few but vocal RV park owners who are, by virtue of their unique cicrumstances, adversely impacted by a nearby boondocking spot.
This inertia has caused RVers and park owners to polarize around opposite conclusions about boondocking -- with each side assuming the other is somehow united against them. Both RVers and park owners would be far better off to understand each other's point of view, and participate in a dialogue which could both promote a better mutual understanding, and explore some possible areas of solution.
We think there are steps both RVers and park owners each could take to improve the current impasse.
Park owners need to consider whether the serious boondocker is someone they really want to attract to their parks. If they don't, they have no cause whatever to interfere with the rights of RVers who prefer that option. Many RVers operate on limited budgets, and may not want to stay at resort type parks with high amenities, and correspondingly high fees. However, if the boondocker is seen as a potential customer, then those private park owners need to consider creative new plans to accommodate the boondocker. Specifically, they need to offer a "budget rate" which offers overnight parking with no amenities but for a substantially reduced rate. This would offer RVers who don't want to pay for unwanted amenities a safe and secure place to spend the evening at an affordable price. Even without hookups, such parking would offer opportunities to put out a lawnchair, enjoy a barbeque, and generally have a more enjoyable outdoor experience than is available in a paved parking mall. It's our view that if park owners are not willing to adopt creative measures to attract those who enjoy boondocking, we think they have little cause to complain.
But we think RVers -- especially those who value boondocking -- need to act in constructive ways as well. What's crucial is that they understand the personal financial dilemma a few private park owners face. These are families just like yours that have worked hard, and invested their resources in a small business called an RV park. After doing so they perceive (correctly or otherwise -- but in good faith) some of their potential customers are being lured away by an offer from a shopping mall they simply cannot afford to match -- free overnight parking. Would any RVer, in the same circumstance, feel any differently than that private park owner?
We had hoped the earlier edition of this article might have resulted in a growing dialogue between RVers and park owners, but the park owners' group at the national level has not chosen to to be a participant. We would like to see the conversation expanded to include the input, suggestions, and recommendations from any RV organization committed to seeing a positive outcome on this issue. This might include such key groups such as state and local park owners' associations and representatives of groups which represent or are aligned with RVers, such as SKPs, Good Sam, FMCA and others. We believe if persons representing all sides of this issue could discuss their views in good faith, and with an appreciation for the opposing points of view, the result would be positive for all. RV parks would benefit by finding the most economically viable solution to the issue, and RVers would benefit by helping to ensure a growing number of finanancially stable private parks which can meet the need for RV accommodations at all price levels.