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.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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