Higher prices, less attention

In Staunton, VA, where we live, there’s something that calls itself a “chic boutique hotel.” “Boutique” presumably because it has only four rooms, each with a king-size bed, kitchenette and ensuite bathroom. “Chic” because–if by “chic” we mean “elegant and stylishly fashionable”–when you rent one of those four rooms you never have to encounter another human being. And that now seems the fashion, pandemic or not, since this establishment has been operating in this manner for at least three years.

All booking is online, all payments are via credit card and there is no reception desk. Once you book, you receive a code for the private, keyless entry. When you check-out, you simply leave-and don’t forget anything, because the code will have expired. Have a question or a problem? Send an e-mail. . . .

Cold though that may sound, it’s apparently a big hit with guests, who almost uniformly give the facility rave reviews for cleanliness, spaciousness, proximity to downtown–and, yes, the complete lack of human interaction. “We were able to check in and stay without encountering any other people which was very welcome during the pandemic,” raved one recent guest, before apparently dismissing pandemic concerns by adding that he could “walk easily to coffee shops, restaurants, stores.” Added another couple: “Being the rather private folks we are, it was nice to not have to encounter anyone if we didn’t want to.”

Well, if it works for a hotel, why not for a campground?

That apparently is the thought at our former property, the Walnut Hills Campground, which is aggressively discouraging campers from interacting with its steadily diminishing office staff. For example, campers making online reservations formerly paid an additional fee to offset the fee charged by the booking company. Now that’s been reversed, with the extra fee charged to those who make a phoned-in reservation–but not to those who book online.

Walnut Hills also is reducing office hours, which is not unusual in the winter–but according to its website, will close the office altogether for two days each week for three months, starting January 1, and that is unusual. Campers arriving on Tuesdays or Wednesdays will be expected to book online and check-in online, and apparently will not be able to buy firewood, propane or anything from the store. Campers without smart phones or credit cards presumably will need to go elsewhere. And forget about being escorted to your site, or getting help with backing-in.

Meanwhile, as some costs get cut, all prices have risen smartly upward. The cancellation fee, currently $10, will double Jan. 1. Site fees have already exploded, nearly doubling over the past six months, and without any noticeable reduction in winter rates–although it’s hard to tell, thanks to the campground’s adoption of “dynamic pricing” and the scrapping of anything that looks like a rate sheet. Suffice to say that if you book a one-night stay this week for a full hook-up pull-thru, it’ll run you $68.34–and if you want the same site for Friday or Saturday, you’re looking at $89.51. For a single night. In December.

And as for holiday pricing in the year ahead? Although the campground website emphasizes “You will get the absolute best rates by booking early and online,” reserve any of next year’s holidays today and expect to pay upwards of $100 a night (with a three-night minimum) for any pull-thru, even those without a sewer. No telling what you’ll pay if you wait a few months. . . .

As with the chic boutique hotel in Staunton, however, the customers seem unfazed. Reviews for Walnut Hills have been exceptionally positive the past six months, and if any campers are suffering from sticker shock, they’re keeping it to themselves. The campground business is changing, and a sufficient number of its customers seem ready to change right along with it. Those who don’t, won’t or can’t are just plumb out of luck.

Housing squeeze pressures RV parks

As worries about rising inflation grow more widespread, the most obvious remedy is rarely mentioned: provide more things for people to buy. And one of the most obvious “things” in short supply is affordable housing.

Inflation is the result of too much money chasing too few goods, so a common government response when inflation heats up is to rein in the money supply. Money, after all, is something over which government has the most direct control. But an alternative response is to increase the supply of goods. That’s harder, because the government’s influence on goods production is more indirect, but it almost certainly is the healthier response overall.

What brings this to mind is the appalling–and growing–shortage of affordable housing in the U.S. The National Association of Relators this month said the nation is short 6.8 million housing units, due to a 20-year-long slowdown in housing construction, and most of what’s being built is on the high end of the market. The steady decline in housing construction feeds into a vicious circle, in which fewer people–especially including retirees–can afford to move, so they stay put. Then, when changing business or economic trends require workers to relocate, the housing available to them is both over-priced and in short supply.

A leading example of this phenomenon, ironically, is Elkhart, Indiana, in and around which more than 80% of all U.S. RVs are manufactured. Last month, Elkhart was tagged by The Wall Street Journal and realtor.com as the nation’s “best emerging housing market,” which is investor-speak for “get in now because prices are about to go through the roof.” Indeed, with a median price for houses of just $232,250, the local housing market is starting from a relatively low base–while the booming RV construction industry means demand for additional workers, and therefore for additional housing, is high and going higher. Indeed, as one local reporter noted this month, “almost two-thirds of the buyers in the Elkhart area were not locals.”

While prices for Elkhart housing have started exploding, the economic engine behind much of that growth–the RV manufacturing industry–is likewise in high gear, on course to crank out a record-breaking 600,000 or so units this year alone. Those recreational vehicles, in turn, are being snatched up not just by that segment of the public that puts the emphasis on “recreational,” but by that segment of the public that can’t find, or can’t afford, conventional housing.

So, for example, Austin, Texas, is facing a housing squeeze in part because Tesla has moved its headquarters there and also is nearing completion of a “gigafactory” that will employ up to 10,000 low- and middle-skill workers. Paid an average of less than $50,000 a year in a city where the average home price is now $525,000, those workers also will be scrambling to find an affordable place to live–and the area’s trailer courts and RV parks are gearing up to accommodate at least some of them. One predictable outcome: the cost of staying in an RV park will be bumped up considerably.

Such housing price inflation is a nationwide phenomenon, not confined just to Elkhart or Austin, and is indicative not of too much money but of inadequate supply. Increasing the supply of middle-income housing would not only meet people’s basic need for shelter at a cost they can afford, but would relieve the pressure on recreational facilities that never were intended to be this century’s version of Hoovervilles.

Magical mystery tour–not

What’s the magic in going camping?

Why do so many people think there’s something desirable about packing up the family and heading out for the mountains/desert/forest for a day or two or five of camping? What’s the attraction in leaving a warm, snug home for a possibly wet or cold stay in a strange place of unknown irritations and perils, from dirt in the food to mosquitoes to unseen and inexplicable rustlings in the dark?

Truth is, for most people that isn’t the least bit attractive. That’s why, having been seduced by idealized images of happy families roasting marshmallows over a campfire, they rent cabins or buy RVs, look for campgrounds with full hookups and a dependable wifi system, and start demanding that the campgrounds they frequent have swimming pools and kids’ activities and other distractions. And that’s why campgrounds and RV parks look increasingly alike and increasingly sanitized, the unpredictable forces of nature held at bay by extensive lighting and paved roads, manicured grounds and pest control services.

Sociologist George Ritzer wrote about this process in his trail-blazing 1993 book (updated in 2000), The McDonaldization of Society, which is all about organized society’s ceaseless drive for rationality: efficiency, predictability, calculability and control in all transactions. As he observed:

“Modern campgrounds are likely to be divided into sections–one for tents, another for RVs, each section broken into neat rows of usually tiny campsites. Hookups allow those with RVs to operate the various technologies encased within them. After campers have parked and hooked up their RVs or popped up their tents, they can gaze out and enjoy the sights–other cars, antennas, teenagers on motorbikes–in other words, many of the sights they tried to leave behind in the cities or suburbs.”

Rizer acknowledged that “there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to be safe from harm,” which is the implied promise of such campgrounds–campgrounds designed to reduce anxiety and unpredictability, and to make the “camping experience” efficient. But all such guarantees involve tradeoffs, and often those tradeoffs aren’t even recognized, much less accepted. Ritzer made that point most poignantly in a chapter titled “The Irrationality of Rationality,” using language that is rarely heard these days except as packaging for manufactured experiences.

“Efficient systems have no room for anything smacking of enchantment and systematically seek to root it out. Anything that is magical, mysterious, fantastic, dreamy, and so on is considered inefficient,” he wrote. “Put another way, it is difficult to imagine the mass production of magic, fantasy and dreams. . . . No characteristic of rationalization is more inimical to enchantment than predictability. Magical, fantastic, dreamlike experiences are almost by definition unpredictable. Nothing would destroy an enchanted experience more easily than having it become predictable or having it recur in the same way time after time.”

“Enchanted.” “Magical.” “Dreamlike.” Words most RVers don’t associate with camping. . . .

Campground buyers piling on

As the 2021 camping season winds down, the one message coming through loud and clear from investors is that campgrounds and RV parks are hot, hot, hot!

A couple of weeks ago, for example, campground owner, real estate investor and RV park promoter Heather Blankenship hosted an online webinar for people thinking about getting into the game–and a reported 1,500 callers Zoomed in to learn about “aggressive asset accumulation.” Blankenship claims to be running a $30 million real estate portfolio, but as she told her callers, she’s willing to teach you the tricks of her trade for just $997–a $4,500 value that includes eight hours of content on a series of CD discs.

What Blankenship did not tell her Zoom participants was that the $997 “ready to learn” package is only the first of three that she offers. The “ready to buy” option, priced at $2,999, adds access to her RV Park and Campgrounds Investor Mastermind Program, as well as “group calls with Heather.” And the all-inclusive $6,000 “ready to scale” program promises a “transformative three-month journey” that includes three one-on-one coaching calls with Heather, “direct access” to Heather and “preferred deal analysis and coaching.”

No telling how many of the 1,500 Zoom participants wrote checks to Blankenship, but as she was making her sales pitch, the chat feature was busy with networking entrepreneurs exchanging contact information.

Similarly high levels of interest were evident last week at the annual convention of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Nominally a four-day event, the convention usually kicks off with a much more targeted program the first day–and this year that meant a nine-hour “Prospective Owners Workshop.” “We’ll cover everything you’ll need to know to get started in the outdoor hospitality industry,” the program promised, adding, “Getting off on the right foot is easy!”

Approximately 60 eager participants attended, according to one of them, with the majority apparently more intent on building their own campgrounds rather than buying an existing one. Although ARVC conventions typically attract those who already own campgrounds, as well as a sizeable contingent of vendors, this year’s event had so many non-owners testing the waters that several “old-timers” commented on how many unfamiliar faces they were seeing.

Commented one long-time RV park owner, “I was at a table where there were nine of us, and when I said I owned a campground, everyone turned to me and said, ‘You own a campground?’ It turned out six of them were either buying or building campgrounds, and they all wanted to know about my experiences.”

All of which seems awfully frothy, but we’ll have to see how long it takes for the bubbles to burst.

Lies, damn lies and . . . .

“Facts” always sound more impressive when they’re draped with statistics, so it’s prudent to look carefully at the underlying fundamentals when someone is presenting a bunch of numbers to support various conclusions. Case in point: the Generational Camping Report, presented at ARVC’s national convention in Raleigh this past week.

Introduced as an admirably motivated effort to “provide a profile on camping preferences and differences between campers of different generations,” the report and its conclusions were presented at the convention as the responses of some 500 campers–a distressingly small sample, considering that the answers were supposed to provide insight into the differences between three different age groups. But the results were even more narrowly sourced than that, because the final report was limited to the 408 respondents who had actually gone camping, RVing or glamping in the previous 12 months–a winnowing that was not explained at the convention.

That more restricted sample was then further skewed by the distribution of answers among 233 millennials (born after 1981), 131 GenXers (born after 1965) and a combined category of 41 boomers and 4 “silent generation” campers born as far back as 1928. So those report “findings” that made overall statements, such as how many nights respondents anticipated they would camp in the next 12 months, or what amenities they found most important, were disproportionately weighted by the answers from younger campers.

That’s not all. The respondents were drawn predominantly (72%) from east of the Mississippi River, which inevitably would skew answers to questions about their preferred type of camping destination, since two of the offered possibilities were BLM land and backcountry/wilderness areas off the grid. A more representative geographical distribution of RVers would likely have pushed those two choices higher. Moreover, the report tried to draw conclusions by distinguishing between respondents who already own RVs and those that don’t, finding–for example– that 60% of boomers who don’t own RVs would consider purchasing one. But how many boomers actually said that?

To answer that, anyone reading the survey results needs to have a calculator at hand, because most report findings are presented as percentages rather than hard numbers. But given that 254 of all the respondents don’t already own an RV, that could mean as many as 27 boomers said they’re open to buying one–assuming none of the 45 currently own one. Then again, assuming that 62% of the surveyed boomers don’t own RVs–the same ratio as the whole sample–then 28 boomers responding to the survey don’t have RVs and 17 of them said they would consider buying one. That’s an extraordinarily slender statistical reed on which to build any conclusions.

The overall report, alas, is replete with these kinds of overly broad conclusions, from statements about why people go camping, to what kind of campground amenities are most important to them, to how much they spend when they go camping–all good things for campground owners and local communities to know, but deserving of a far more ambitious research effort than this wan attempt. It’s telling, therefore, that the researchers who prepared the report apparently omitted the most fundamental caveat of any survey’s methodology, at least as it was presented at the convention: there is no mention of their confidence level in their findings.

No confidence level seems about right.

Party like there’s no tomorrow

If you’d been in Raleigh, N.C. this past week, looking on as the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) held its annual convention, you’d have thought the Covid-19 coronavirus had been vanquished months ago.

Most extreme was Monday’s reception at the Sheraton Hotel, a boisterous affair of hundreds of people from all corners of the country jostling each other over pizzas and beer, shouting to be heard over the din. There was a time not long ago when this would have been called a super-spreader, but then again, this demonstrably is not a group that puts a lot of stock in science.

The rest of the confab showed similar if more restrained disdain for public health and welfare. Notwithstanding “mask up” signs posted throughout the convention center, virtually the only people paying heed were the masked convention center employees patiently attending to their unmasked guests. The double standard was so blatant that all attendees were sent an email Tuesday requesting that they observe the masking protocol, but as with the masks themselves, the email was almost universally ignored.

By Wednesday, security guards had been stationed at the doors to hand out masks to anyone entering the facilities who wasn’t already wearing one. Campground owners would take the masks, often grudgingly, then walk off without putting them on.

This sort of clueless behavior often starts at the top, so it was no surprise to see ARVC executive director Paul Bambei walking the halls and in the ballrooms with a naked face. Bambei’s offices, it should be noted, are in Centennial, Colorado, a state that for the past several weeks has seen such a sharp spike in Covid-19 infections that a local television station reported yesterday its contact tracers have been overwhelmed and can no longer keep up with the spread.

The U.S. overall is now reporting 23 new cases daily per 100,000 population. The rate is twice that in Arapahoe County, where Centennial is located. Viruses, like gases in a closed container, diffuse from areas of higher concentration to those with less. That’s why the U.S. overall is looking at a fourth wave this coming winter–as is already occurring in Europe, which has seen a 50% surge in just the past month–and why ARVC and its leadership did no one any favors this week.

RVing a lot? Odds are you’re a woman

GO RVing, the “consumer-facing voice of the RV industry,” has just released its latest demographic profile of RV owners. Given that this voice speaks on behalf of the companies that build and sell recreational vehicles, it’s not surprising that it chooses to highlight the big picture, starting with its finding that RV ownership has increased more than 62% over the last 20 years. All told, there now are 11.2 million RV-owning households in the country–and a whopping 9.6 million additional households say they intend to buy an RV within the next five years.

But that last number should give even the RV Industry Association pause, because it implies that U.S. manufacturers will have to crank out an additional 1.9 million RVs each year for the next five years–more than triple 2021 production, which has broken all records amid growing complaints of shoddy construction. Even assuming that some of those 9.6 million households buy used RVs and not new ones (an unlikely scenario, given the study’s finding that 78% of Millennials and Gen Zers looking to buy an RV want a new one), most sellers presumably will be looking to upgrade to newer units. Subtract those current RV owners who die or simply throw in the towel in disgust at the increasingly crowded RV landscape, and you’re still left with an impossible level of buying demand.

That’s the big picture. However, it’s the granular details that emerge from the demographic profile that are most fascinating–and none is more noteworthy than the link between gender and the amount of time spent RVing.

The GO RVing study divides the RVing population into seven categories, with the three largest groups–“casual campers,” “family campers” and “escapists”–accounting for a combined 88% of the total universe. As the names suggest, these are all RVers with relatively limited time spent in an RV each year, mostly for vacations, with the escapists clocking the longest hours, at an average 55 days a year. A fourth group, the “happy campers,” consist of snowbirds who, on average, spend 180 days in their RVs, essentially using them as seasonal housing.

Two of the remaining groups, on the other hand, are distinguished by their traveling in RVs for extended periods of time: “avid RVers,” the 6% of all RVers who spend an average of 111 days a year on the road; and “full-timers,” at 1.5% of the total. And the striking thing about these two groups is how disproportionately female they are, with 70% of the study’s full-timers being women, as are 64% of the avid RVers.

The GO RVing announcement about its findings focuses primarily on changing age demographics, presumably because a younger-trending market signals more industry growth. But the gender breakdown that GO RVing is ignoring presents numerous RV manufacturing design and marketing possibilities. And the realization that two-thirds of the most committed RVers are women should raise some tantalizing questions for sociologists interested in gender stratification in various occupations and American sub-cultures.

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