No room for RVs in gentrifying parks

As RV parks and campgrounds become increasingly folded into the cultural mainstream, it’s perhaps inevitable that they start resembling the larger society, warts and all. And so it is that campgrounds, once a refuge from the glitz and ostentation that characterize the contemporary world, have become as vulnerable to gentrification as any downtown warehouse district.

Remember Woodlands KOA? Probably not. A well-reviewed and moderately priced campground in Bar Harbor, Maine, it was closed three years ago with promises that it was going to be renovated and improved. RVers who had camped there in the past were thrilled. But when the campground reopened in 2021 it had been rebranded as Terramor Outdoor Resort, all the RV sites were gone and all “camping” was now restricted to renting one of four different styles of luxury tents–at an average price of $450 a night.

No? Then perhaps you’re familiar with French Broad River Campground RV Park in North Carolina, described in an online review as “a little hidden rustic gem” with all of its RV sites right on the river and a nightly rate averaging $45. That little gem went for $1.8 million earlier this year, as its owners of the past 27 years decided they were ready to do a little RVing themselves. “After some renovations, the new owners will reopen,” they assured their campers in a final Facebook post.

Yes, they will–but not any time real soon, as there’s still a lot of work to be done. That’s because the new buyer is AutoCamp, a fitfully growing national chain of glampgrounds that rents Airstream trailers and luxury tents but does not maintain spaces for RVs or tents, which would bring down the upscale vibe it’s seeking. This is, after all, an operation that describes itself as “an outdoor boutique hotel experience.” Which, in English, means nightly stays north of $300.

Or consider Prospect Lake Park in the Berkshires, a decades-old campground on the shores of a 56-acre lake that hosted generations of campers for the kind of idyllic summer vacations that would have caught Norman Rockwell’s eye. Its sites started at $39 a night, but if you needed 50 amps you were out of luck and whether you had a good time depended on how well you dealt with a gruff management style. If that rubbed you the wrong way, good news: the campground is now closed for at least another year, purchased last winter by a local developer, Ian Rasch, for $2.1 million.

As reported last week by Bill Shein of the Berkshire Edge, longtime summer residents who had put down deposits for this past season got refunds and were told that the new owner was planning on “significant improvements to the facilities.” Which is true as far as it goes, which isn’t far enough: the “improvements” entail replacing 125 RV sites with 40 park model RVs, reportedly being designed by a Brooklyn-based firm widely known for its “innovative prefabricated modular structures.” The improvements will not leave room for RVers or tenters.

Rasch’s intentions are also signaled by his working with LAND, an Austin, Texas-based design firm, to create a new “brand identity” for what had been a somewhat scruffy facility. LAND’s most recent project in the area was the 2018 launch of Tourists, a motel-turned-boutique hotel in nearby North Adams, where rooms rent for $300 to $700 a night. Chi-chi ‘R’ Us.

Why go to all the trouble of reworking an existing RV park rather than starting with a clean slate? Wouldn’t the latter be much easier and less messy?

Perhaps–but going the virgin-birth route opens up a developer to the uncertainties that come with seeking conditional use permits or other zoning approval, which means public hearings and potential public opposition. That’s what Terramore is discovering with its second venture, a 77-acre property it wants to develop from the ground up in Saugerties, New York. Despite its best efforts at community diplomacy earlier this summer, Terramor has been hit by local opponents who seem unimpressed with its pretensions to “outdoor opulence done right” but are worrying about water use, traffic and noise. Two weeks ago the newly formed Citizens Against Terramor told the local newspaper, “We’re afraid we’re headed for World War III.”

The alternative to that nightmare, however, can mean dancing right up to the line defining permitted use. Although Rasch’s redevelopment of Prospect Lake Park will amount to construction of a lakeside cabin community, by using RV park models instead of real cabins–or even tiny homes–he can maintain the fiction that the property will remain what it’s always been: a “campground.”

Just don’t try to camp there.

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Mobile-home Monopoly not a game

[Part II of a two-part look at the growing economic pressures squeezing mobile home parks, foreshadowing the future for many RV parks.]

As deep-pocketed investors continue vacuuming up mobile home parks at exorbitant prices, they have only two ways to make their purchases profitable. One is by replacing trailer pads with higher density housing, such as single family homes and apartments. The second is to jack up rents on the existing sites, in some cases simultaneously slacking off on maintenance and upkeep to reduce operating costs.

The first approach reduces the overall inventory of low-cost housing. The second raises the affordability bar for people most in need of low-cost housing, pushing them out of homes they may have occupied for decades and into the streets, for lack of anywhere else to go. Either way, the result is skyrocketing housing costs that add to inflationary pressures, even as county and city governments grapple with a tidal wave of homelessness that strains taxpayer revenues.

Meanwhile, the people profiting from the economic forces they’re unleashing rationalize their actions by blaming–well, anybody but themselves. Frank Rolfe, offering a prime example of deeply cynical self-serving rhetoric, contends that the U.S. is “in deep trouble” for one basic reason: “A dysfunctional Fed has driven rates up too far and too fast and there will be great economic suffering as a result.” In other words, the patient is sick only because of the medicine prescribed for an economic disease–a disease for which Rolfe is a primary but unacknowledged vector.

But Rolfe doesn’t stop there. “Bad times yield greater demand for affordable housing,” he writes. “So while Jerome Powell is busy raising rates and destroying the U.S. economy, he’s also acting as a powerful force to push mobile home park demand even higher.” The uncoupling of “affordable housing” from “mobile home park,” thanks to Rolfe’s (and his peers’) self-enriching actions, goes unremarked. In his own eyes, Rolfe is a savior of the working class, providing a praiseworthy safety net against the Fed’s recklessness.

The Frank Rolfes of the world owe their success not to any great investment brilliance, but simply to their understanding that residents of mobile home parks a) almost never own the land on which their mobile homes are sitting; and b) that “mobile homes” are almost never mobile. All of which means that the poor unfortunates inhabiting these homes are a captive audience, ripe for the plucking.

It doesn’t have to be that way, but creating the exceptions takes a lot of money and a fair amount of luck. Boston Trailer Park, for instance, which sits cheek-by-jowl with an apartment complex in which one-bedrooms go for $3,000 a month, is that city’s only mobile home park–but it exists today only because former mayor Tom Menino helped its residents take ownership of the land more than a decade ago. As a result, Boston has a little working class oasis in which residents pay just $425 a month for their sites.

Unfortunately, that sort of intervention is becoming increasingly difficult, thanks in no small part to the $4.5 billion in investment money that poured into mobile home parks across the country last year alone. Even though Massachusetts is one of a handful of states with legislation giving residents of mobile home parks a chance to match any purchase offers, outside investors are driving prices to unmatchable levels. Without government help and nontraditional financing, most mobile home residents may as well dream about living in Palm Beach or Beverly Hills.

Despite those odds, some successes have been notched. As NPR’s Morning Edition recently reported, the 200 or so residents of a mobile home park in Wareham, Mass. were able several months ago to match a $12 million offer from an Arizona-based investor–but only after obtaining loans from a nonprofit, ROC USA, and a $1.9 million grant from the state’s Affordable Housing Trust. Approximately five years ago, ROC USA also provided the financing that fended off an outside buyer seeking to acquire the 430-home Halifax Estates in Halifax, resulting in the country’s largest resident-owned mobile home community.

Colorado, where fewer than 10 of the state’s 900 mobile home parks have been purchased by their residents, recently had a similar success story. The approximately 200 adults and 100 children of the Parklane Mobile Home Park were able to recruit county assistance in tapping American Recovery Act funds for a $1 million forgivable loan, which in turn encouraged the private, family-run Bohemian Foundation to underwrite a $2.8 million low-interest rate loan . The balance of the $6.8 million purchase was then provided via a $3 million loan from the Impact Development Fund, a quasi-public financial organization.

Yet as these examples also illustrate, constructing such buyouts is a precarious business, requiring multiple financing streams of limited supply. Non-profits almost by definition have more limited financial resources than their investor-driven adversaries. Funding resources from the American Rescue Plan will be exhausted within a couple of years, if not sooner. And while some state governments are belatedly waking up to the housing crisis on their doorstep, their response is typically hesitant and restrained, hamstrung by concerns over interfering with market dynamics and worries about using tax dollars to intervene in the private sector.

Meanwhile, the mobile home version of Monopoly continues unabated. Earlier this month, it was the residents of Hi-Acres Mobile Home Park in Palm Beach County, Florida, who got their eviction notices, letting them know that the park’s new owners have other, unspecified ideas for their acquisition. One look at an aerial map of the property leaves little room for guessing what that might be: Hi-Acres is surrounded on three sides by a suburban development of single-family homes, and butts up against a golf course on the fourth. This is not an area that will long tolerate “affordable housing.”

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You can’t extinguish fires w/ gasoline

[Part I of a two-part look at the growing economic pressures squeezing mobile home and RV parks.]

In a harbinger of what lies ahead for a growing number of RV parks, the San Jose Mercury News reported this week that a family trust in California has just paid $40.7 million for the Rancho Santa Teresa Mobile Home Estates in San Jose. The mobile home park has 315 spaces, which means the purchase valued each site at $129,200.

Think about that. What kind of astronomical rents will it take to make that a profitable transaction?

And this was hardly the first or even the highest-priced acquisition of mobile home parks in California, which suffers the country’s most expensive real estate. As one example, the 116-site Mary Manor Estates in Sunnyvale sold in March for $39 million, which works out to $336,207 per mobile home pad. And the 110-site Winchester Ranch Mobile Home Park in San Jose changed hands last year for $50 million, or a whopping $454,545 per pad.

Given that price, Winchester Ranch clearly wasn’t purchased as a mobile home park but for its land, so there’s no surprise that it’s been bulldozed to make way for 320 single-family homes and 368 apartments. A similar fate may await other, similarly high-priced acquisitions. Then again, housing costs have become so extraordinarily distorted that even the most bloated valuations may be sustainable if rents are pushed to even more stratospheric levels.

Consider the average Los Angeles monthly rent for a mobile park site last year, which according to the commercial real estate services company Jones Lang LaSalle was $1,103–significantly higher than anywhere else in the country, yet the market still had the nation’s lowest vacancy rate, at 1%. With an average expense ratio of just 43%, that resulted in a market net operating income of $8,600 per site, or just shy of a million bucks for a park the size of Mary Manor Estates. That’s a number sturdy enough to support an awful lot of debt–and if it’s not enough, well, just raise the rates some more. With comparable apartments renting for triple that amount, the market will bear it.

Los Angeles in particular and California in general are high-cost outliers, but where they lead the rest of the country so often follows. It’s instructive, therefore, to read the latest musing from Frank Rolfe about why mobile home parks are better positioned to weather the Federal Reserve’s ongoing efforts to curb inflation by increasing interest rates. Rolfe, who has been flogged by me (here and here, for starters) and the media in general for his predatory approach to mobile home parks, contends that “mobile home park rents are ridiculously low and have massive potential for increases,” so higher interest rates are nothing to worry about.

But juxtaposing Rolfe’s further comments with recent mobile home park sales underscores the tragic transition that occurs when trailer parks–as well as RV parks and campgrounds–are sold by mom-and-pop operators to corporate and investment buyers. “How did mobile home park rents get so low to begin with?” he asks rhetorically. “To understand, you have to go back to the 1960s when the industry was young. Moms and pops owned virtually all of the mobile home parks and they simply were not good about increasing rents. . . . Moms and pops only raised rents at about half the level of inflation, resulting in rents being so ridiculously low.”

Put another way, moms and pops were putting the brakes on inflationary pressures, but now that moderating influence is being steadily reduced, even as inflation is reemerging as a global economic concern. From Rolfe’s vantage point, however–and that of the other investors snapping up such properties–“the greater demand that recession brings for affordable housing will allow offsets–such as higher lot rents–that will battle back the higher rates on loans.”

Those “offsets,” it should go without saying, only throw more gasoline on the inflationary fire.

[Next post: Part II, taking a look at the hypocrisy behind promoting mobile home parks as “affordable housing” by investors who are making them unaffordable, and the increased pressure that puts on RV parks as housing of last resort .]

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Van-life mantra: Tune out, drive off

No, it’s not a van–but Fortune magazine doesn’t know that, and there’s the rub.

These days, the LSD-driven urge of another age to “turn on, tune in, drop out” is being replaced, to a significant degree, by the sound of transmissions shifting into gear and the refrain “tune out, turn on, drive off.” Many of today’s RVers are the new hippies.

Fortune magazine this past week ran a somewhat whiny article under the headline, “Van life is just ‘glorified homelessness,’ says a 33-year-old woman who tried the nomadic lifestyle and ended up broke.” The photo that topped this angst-filled account is reproduced above, and as anyone who knows anything about RVing will tell you, that ain’t no van; it’s a small class C motorhome.

A trivial point? Perhaps, but it illustrates the bigger problem of mainstream publications writing about subjects they don’t really understand. It’s not just that the reporter and her editors don’t know the difference between one kind of RV and another–a difference, for example, that might confuse a reader about the story subject’s complaints about being unable to cook or wash-up while on the road–but that their ignorance perpetuates certain stereotypes. See all those RVs rolling down the road? Just glorified homelessness, they’re saying. Bums on wheels. Vagabonds.

To be fair, that’s not entirely incorrect–but it is enormously skewed. Fortune‘s story reminds me of the ‘Sixties and mainstream media’s coverage of the counterculture, which emphasized sex, drugs and rock-and-roll and largely skated by the deeper philosophical, political and cultural rift that was opening up in American society. Sometimes it seemed like an entire generation was being dismissed as either a dopey long-haired bunch of hedonistic parasites or as an addle-brained cadre of brainwashed Marxists fantasizing about overthrowing the system. Both were readily found, but there was so much more going on, with so much more meaningful commentary about U.S. society that wasn’t nearly as sensational.

These days, the LSD-driven urge to “turn on, tune in, drop out” is being replaced, to significant degree, by the sound of engaging ignition keys and the refrain “tune out, turn on, drive off.” Untold hundreds of thousands of Americans have piled into everything from rattle-trap conversion vans to skoolies to homemade teardrop trailers–as well as $200,000 class B “vans” and 40-foot motorcoaches–in search of, well, something: new vistas, new adventures, the freedom of the open road, movement itself. Or sometimes they’re just fleeing from rather than running to, be it cold winters or an accumulated burden of too much stuff or just a sense of staleness.

In that sense, the new nomads are not too dissimilar from the psychedelic voyagers of 60 years ago. Viewed from a different perspective, however, today’s voyagers are reacting to–are resisting–a greatly more circumscribed world. The ‘Sixties were a time of social wealth and endless possibilities; the ‘Twenties are an age of growing impoverishment and diminishing horizons. Hitting the road means fleeing the crime and economic privation so many people fear will claim them as their next victims, of getting out from under the oppressive reach of the government (“the man,” again) with its mask mandates and high taxes. The cultural rift threatens to be even wider than it was those many decades ago, leaving us all with no one to rely on other than ourselves. What better way to do that than in the seemingly self-contained little world of an RV?

It’s all self-delusional, of course. Taking a trip, be it to the land inside of your mind or to a boondocking site on BLM land, can last only so long before reality intrudes. Acid trips wear off. Road trips require state-maintained byways and highways, not to mention gas stations and replacement tires. And just as some acid-trippers crashed and burned, so too some modern-day nomads will discover they’re not really equipped for this new adventure on which they’ve embarked. They’ll have a bad trip. Bummer.

The mistake Fortune made, with its simplistic glomming onto a counter-narrative to demonstrate its supposed ability to look beneath the surface of a growing cultural phenomenon, was to stop there. It’s as though it were reporting on the excesses of Haight-Ashbury as a way of dismissing a huge cultural paradigm shift without saying Whoa! What’s actually going on here? What are these people saying about cultural expectations, the disintegration of authority, the relationship between individuals and their society?

The growing tide of today’s nomads represents a new critique of today’s society that might become just as disruptive as were those other voyagers of 60 years ago. Picking at the fringes of this phenomenon without digging past the gotcha headlines not only demonstrates a lack of insight and understanding–as evidenced by that non sequitur of a picture–but creates a false impression that we are now better informed.

Nope.

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IndyStar blasts RV industry big-time

Kate Mercer photo

Okay, class. Today we have a pop quiz–but don’t panic! There’s only one question, and the answer is multiple-choice, so you have at least a 25% chance of getting it right:

What do you get when an industry pressures an inadequately staffed and poorly-trained workforce into increasing output by almost 50%?

a) A lot of shoddy product.

b) A lot of sick and injured workers.

c) Record industry profits.

d) All of the above.

If you answered d), congratulations! You’ve just described Elkhart, Indiana, which is to recreational vehicles what Detroit once was to automobiles. Four out of every five RVs in the U.S. roll out of Elkhart, an area dominated by three major players the way Detroit was once dominated by Ford, Chrysler and GM: Thor Industries, Forest River and Winnebago Industries. Unlike Detroit, however, Elkhart is union-free in a so-called “right-to-work” state. And unlike Detroit in past decades, Elkhart has been ravaged by the Covid-19 coronavirus.

The result, as documented October 19 by the Indianapolis Star in a damning 15,000-word, four-part, multi-media series, is an industry riddled with broken bodies and a record number of recalled RVs, even as the major manufacturers all have been posting unsurpassed revenues and profit margins. Covid drove an unexpected surge in demand for RVs, much of it from first-time buyers who were looking for a safe way to travel. But Covid also decimated the ranks of RV factory workers, even as they were being pushed to increase production by almost 50%.

Two results were inevitable. One was a volley of Covid-19 complaints to the underfunded, undermanned and industry-friendly Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which responded not with inspections but with requests to employers to submit documents “proving” they were following Covid-19 safety protocols. Indeed, IOSHA’s response was so perfunctory that it physically inspected only 44 of more than 6,000 Covid-related complaints state-wide–the worst inspection rate in the U.S.–including just two in Elkhart County, neither involving major RV makers. The county eventually recorded nearly 700 Covid deaths.

But as the Star also found, problems in the RV plants had been brewing long before the epidemic, which the virus only exacerbated. “Workers told Indy Star about injuries from lax safety rules and the fast pace, drug use, unfair pay structures, a disciplinary system that punishes workers for taking sick time, a lack of training, and quality issues with products that leave factories,” the Star reported. “Several RV workers said they and others inside the factories needed daily uppers such as energy drinks, Ritalin or Adderall–even methamphetamine–to keep up with the pace.”

The other predictable result was that as the work pace picked up–one Winnebago employee said he went from working on 16 RVs a day to 36 during the pandemic–the products coming off the line were increasingly substandard. Ron Burdge, an Ohio attorney who has been suing RV manufacturers for years over defective products, told the Star that RV quality had been declining for at least 15 years prior to the pandemic, but took a nosedive once it hit. Record-setting recall numbers bear him out. Companies owned by Thor Industries recalled more than 156,000 RVs this year alone, while Forest River–a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway–recalled nearly 200,000 and Winnebago Industries recalled more than 125,000.

“All are among the highest for each company in the last five years,” the Star reported. “Among the problems that led to recalls: gas leaks, various electrical issues, increased propane pressure and poorly installed awnings.” One example it offered of the life-threatening dangers unwitting RV buyers have been accepting: an Oregon family that purchased a 40-foot Heartland Road Warrior for more than $100,000, only to have it burst into flame in Montana on the return trip home, totaling it and the tow vehicle. The cause appears to have been faulty wiring in the fifth-wheel’s electrical panel, yet as the Star observed, RV workers don’t need a license or certification to do electrical work.

Industry response to the Star’s findings, grim as they are, thus far consists either of stonewalling or of denying there is a problem in the first place. Thor Industries responded to the newspaper’s requests for comment by claiming the quality of its units had actually improved, even as it was making more of them, as evidenced by a lower level of warranty claims–without acknowledging not just this year’s 156,000 recalls, but the 371,384 recalls it had in 2021. Forest River, meanwhile, didn’t respond at all to the Star’s requests for comment, while Winnebago declined to answer the newspaper’s questions about quality issues.

The industry overall seems to be hoping the Star’s blockbuster series will sink out of sight. RV PRO, an online site “for the RV professional,” ran a terse and nonspecific news item about the series on the day it was published, much of it devoted to quoting an equally nonspecific response from the RV Industry Association, the trade association for RV manufacturers. Lamenting that it had been answering the Star’s questions for nearly a year, “emphasizing the high priority the RV industry places on workplace safety and the safety of our products,” the RVIA insisted that “protecting the safety of these valued employees is of paramount importance to our industry.”

RVIA’s own website, however, has none of that. Indeed, at this writing, the RVIA website makess no mention at all of the IndyStar story and its withering critique.

Putting an ironic frosting on the cake, so to speak, it must be noted that Winnebago Industries held a previously scheduled earnings call at 10 a.m. October 19, even as the Star’s report was being published online. Business was gang-busters, financial investors and analysts were told: fourth-quarter net revenues were up 14%, year over year, for a gross profit of $210.4 million. Net revenues for the year were $5 billion, for a record gross margin of 18.7%.

No questions were asked–and no information was given–about workforce or production issues. Chief financial officer Bryan Hughes, however, did offer the observation that “the company and our culture are successful because all our employees care deeply about our end customers, strategic business partners and each other.”

[The full Indianapolis Star series can be accessed here, but readers should note that virtually all of it is behind a paywall–non-subscribers will instead be shown a graphic novel that capsulizes some of the reporting, followed by an invitation to subscribe. The good news is that an introductory subscription can be had for just $1, with subsequent cancellation always an option.]

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Can ‘dynamic pricing’ beget cartels?

How long will it be before reservation software companies serving the campground industry take a lesson from apartment leasing agents and adopt a killer algorithm that will send your site-rates soaring?

One of the biggest mysteries in the RV park business, for campground operators and campers alike, is how rates are determined. How much “should” be charged for a water-and-electric RV site? Should a back-in cost less than a pull-through? How much more should be tacked on for a sewer connection? Fuzzy questions all, frequently answered by seat-of-the-pants calculations. But here’s the most difficult one of all: how often, and by how much, should rates be increased?

Historically, the simplest answer to that last question was to increase all rates each season by a similar percentage, explaining to campers that this was the price of “the increased costs of doing business.” Another approach was for campground operators to see what other parks in the area were charging and make corresponding changes, this time explaining to campers that the adjustment was to keep in line with “the market rate.” But that’s old school.

These days a rate sheet is as outdated as paper itself. These days it’s all about “dynamic pricing,” an algorithm-driven way of setting rates that fluctuate with demand–an apparently hands-free approach that absolves campground operators from any responsibility for camper resentment over higher prices. Indeed, with dynamic pricing, higher rates are the fault of the campers themselves. Who, after all, can argue with the iron logic of supply and demand?

Dynamic pricing, however, is just the first drop in the bucket. Algorithms are capable of doing so much more, especially in an industry that has almost entirely computerized its reservation systems–and in the process opened its gates to a potential trojan horse for even higher rates.

What the future might hold is heralded by an astonishing piece of reporting by ProPublica,  an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. A lengthy article by Heather Vogell, published Oct. 15 and headlined “Rent Going Up? One Company’s Algorithm Could Be Why,” establishes that a significant factor behind soaring apartment rents nationwide is a Texas-based company named RealPage and its proprietary algorithm, YieldStar.

Using data acquired from RealPage’s clients, which include some of the largest property managers in the country, YieldStar “suggests” optimum rates for thousands of open rental units each day–rates that often are significantly higher than the market rate, and frequently higher than experienced property managers believe are obtainable. As a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s antitrust division told Vogell, “machines quickly learn the only way to win is to push prices above competitive levels.”

In addition to having a comprehensive grasp of what rental rates a major segment of the apartment market is charging, RealPage’s algorithm also calculates how demand for apartments responds to price changes–what’s known as price elasticity. As a result, it can call for disrupting the balance of supply and demand by “suggesting” a supply reduction while increasing rates. Property companies soon learn that they can make more profit by operating at a lower occupancy level–levels that “would have made management uncomfortable before,” as a former RealPage executive explained to Vogell.

While leasing agents would typically lower rents to fill vacancies, YieldStar architect Jeffrey Roper lamented that such practices simply undercut the rental industry. “If you have idiots undervaluing, it costs the whole system,” he said. “We said there’s too much empathy going on here. This is one of the reasons we wanted to get pricing off-site” by taking it out of a property manager’s hands and assigning it to an algorithm.

As a result, Vogell’s article notes, YieldStar’s “design and growing reach have raised questions among real estate and legal experts about whether RealPage has birthed a new kind of cartel that allows the nation’s largest landlords to indirectly coordinate pricing, potentially in violation of federal law.”

What’s intriguing about the YieldStar algorithm is that it seemingly does an end-run around anti-trust considerations, which come into play when industry competitors collude on prices. OPEC is the poster-child example, with major oil producers meeting to set production quotas and pricing targets. RealPage, however, is a third party–its competitors are not apartment mangers but other software providers. And YieldStar does not set rental rates, it simply suggests rates that leasing agents are free to accept or ignore–all of which complicates antitrust considerations and may explain why RealPage has gone unchallenged by the Federal Trade Commission or the Justice Department.

Given all that, it’s not a stretch to think that something similar could be coming to the historically tech-resistant RV park and campground industry. Not only have reservation systems achieved near-universal computerization, but the fierce competition among reservation software companies is rapidly winnowing the ranks.

CampSpot already has carved out a dominant niche, claiming it serves more than 1,800 private parks in North America (there are approximately 12,000 private campgrounds in the U.S.) comprising approximately 200,000 sites. CampLife, Astra, Digital Rez and a dozen others are baying at its heels, all holding out the promise of increasing revenues for their lucky clients. But what many people don’t realize is that all those companies are aggregating the data they receive from their numerous unrelated clients, creating massive data bases that can be useful in all sorts of ways–including the way RealPage has developed.

Reservation software companies were the primary proponents of dynamic pricing, eventually overcoming the entrenched opposition of campground owners who worried about the effect it would have on long-time customers and repeat business. These days, however, such notions of business-to-customer loyalty seem almost laughably quaint, and all the more so with the industry’s increased corporatization. With that “empathy” hurdle now overcome, further monetization of reservation data will face increasingly less resistance.

Don’t be surprised, in other words, if at some time in the murky future the rates at your favorite campground start increasing more than they already have. The invisible hand of the marketplace has a few more tricks up its invisible sleeve.

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Another survey that misses the mark

What challenges do RV park operators face these days, and just how hard is it to operate a campground in this quasi post-Covid era? Cairn Consulting Group, with the backing of Woodall’s Campground Magazine, attempted to find out by going to the source–campground owners and managers themselves–and reported its findings in recent weeks. Those findings, however, leave something to be desired, unintentionally illustrating the overall lack of reliable data about the campground industry.

As summarized in the October issue of Woodall’s magazine, the survey “highlights some of the key trends and challenges that park owners face” in a time that “has brought a flood of new campers onto their parks.” But that unfortunate choice of words, coming against a backdrop of more than two dozen Florida campgrounds still shut down because of Hurricane Ian, underscores one of the major flaws of such studies: the results are predetermined by the questions that are asked. And since there appears not to have been a single question in the survey about the environment–assuredly a significant component of “outdoor hospitality”–environmental issues like flooding, wildfires and drought simply don’t emerge as a concern.

Then again, figuring out what questions were asked requires a bit of reverse engineering, since that information isn’t provided in the Woodall’s article, nor in the “full report” that’s accessible on-line. Moreover, the full report really isn’t, since it provides no information about how many campground owners were surveyed, nor how they were recruited and contacted, much less what they were asked. All answers to survey findings are given as percentages, with some responses broken down into subgroups, such as small, medium and large campgrounds. But while the survey duly defines each of those subcategories, there’s no way to determine if the 5% of mid-sized campground owners saying they need help with marketing represent 50 RV parks–or just one.

Asked via email about these critical missing bits of information, Cairn’s president, Scott Bahr, said that the survey had 459 respondents, although he didn’t provide a further breakdown of how those respondents were spread across the three campground sizes. The overall response rate has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.47%, according to Bahr, which isn’t great but also isn’t shabby. But the margin of error jumps significantly for the responses that are broken out by campground size, although Bahr did not say by how much–nor why so many of the survey’s findings are broken down into such unreliable statistics.

“What is my level of confidence in the subgroups in this study?” he asked rhetorically. “I would say that if we did the study again, and with a larger sample, that some of the findings would remain consistent, but in cases where the differences were minor, you could see some swapping.” No mention of the possibility that some differences would be not the least bit minor.

Setting aside the study’s structural shortcomings, two of its findings seem applicable across the board. The most notable is that campgrounds of all sizes are desperate–or were in June, when the survey was conducted–for more staff. Increased staffing was the biggest need they cited, at 65% of all respondents, or more than triple the next largest need (advice on local ordinances, a puzzling choice and surely not one most campground operators would have volunteered on their own).

The other notable responses were to the question, “How far out are campers typically booking?” Of the total number of respondents, 29% said three to four months–and 27% gave even longer time frames, including “more than a year.” In other words, acc0rding to survey respondents, substantially more than half of all campers are locking in their sites wa-a-ay in advance.

Overall, that’s a minimal return of reliable information for the survey’s stated objective of learning about the “key trends and challenges” facing campground operators–but it’s more than the survey turned up about the “flood of new campers.” Although the study concludes, with scant supporting data, that this flood of newcomers “has put a strain on many campgrounds,” it explores that issue only in terms of increased volume. As many campground operators will readily attest, however, the issues regarding new campers go far beyond numbers: most, for example, are unfamiliar with their equipment and with campground manners or culture, creating conflicts with operators and other campers. And some are “campers” only in the sense that they are living in an RV as a dwelling of last resort, creating other tensions and friction.

As with its lack of questions about the environment, the survey’s failure to probe such issues suggests it has missed a huge trove of the kinds of trends and challenges that actually keep campground operators awake at night. Perhaps Woodall’s and Cairn Consulting will cast a wider net next time?

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Trailer parks a risky refuge for RVs

An increasingly common sight: RVs tucked among house trailers in “mobile home communities.”

As the U.S. housing crisis continues unabated, forcing growing numbers of low-income people into RVs as their housing of last resort, the question of where to park all those vehicles has become ever more confounding. Some end up on the streets, of course, and some in those RV campgrounds that have long-term sites available. But a significant if uncounted number end up in trailer courts, which superficially appear to provide a perfect fit.

Yet that security is increasingly illusory, as mobile home communities are being squeezed like never before. Just in the past couple of weeks, for example, the Holiday Park in Minot, ND, told its residents their lot rents were being increased by $400 a month, while residents of several mobile home parks in Mercer County, WV, were told to expect a near-doubling of their rents, by as much as $525. But at least they still have a place to live: residents of Lesley’s Mobile Home Park in Riverdale, UT, have started getting eviction notices months ahead of a May, 2023 planned redevelopment of the property.

One explanation for such jarring developments is the growing appetite for trailer parks among institutional investors, who swept up 23% of all park sales in the past two years, doubling their acquisitions from the prior two-year period. Blackstone, the Carlyle Group, Apollo Global Management, Stockbridge Capital Group and Brookfield Asset Management are just some of the major “investors,” who invariably follow-up on their purchases with major rate increases–or by razing their newly acquired real estate to make way for more profitable uses.

Some of this can be chalked up as the inevitable, if deplorable, result of market economics. An extraordinarily large number of mobile home parks, for example, are located in once-rural areas that over the past 40 or 50 years have been engulfed by urban sprawl, transforming land of marginal value into real estate gold. But sprinkled among those flinty-eyed opportunists with big checkbooks and an unquestioning belief in “highest, best use” is a more loathsome creature, the unalloyed bottom-feeder who not only sucks his prey dry of anything of value, but also welshes on his debts and other obligations.

A leading example of such predatory capitalism is Alden Global Capital, co-founded by Randall Smith, which for more than a decade has feasted on the bones of scores of community newspapers. Its depredations have spanned the American journalistic landscape, from the Hartford Courant (the country’s oldest daily) to the Chicago Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Denver Post and the Oakland Tribune–to mention only a few of its victims. Its initial modus operandi was to gut newsrooms by laying off staff, even as it raised ad and subscription rates. More recently, however, and as comprehensively reported by Julie Reynolds Martinez and by the News Guild, it has resorted to simply not paying its bills and walking away from leases after falling a year or more in arrears.

Newspapers have been in terminal decline for at least 15 or 20 years, making them–like an aging gazelle spotted by a a pack of hyenas–an irresistible target for the Aldens of the world. It’s therefore noteworthy, as also reported by Martinez, that Randall Smith has now become transfixed by . . . mobile home parks. Working under a variety of limited liability corporate names, Smith has acquired approximately 20 such parks in North Carolina and a publicly untallied number elsewhere. And as might be expected from someone with his track record, his first step upon making each acquisition is an immediate rent increase, backed by eviction threats.

Residents of North Carolina’s Big Oaks Mobile Home Park, for example, received a 90-day notice of a rent increase that in at least some cases jumped 60%, from $440 a month to almost $700. Similarly, and at the other end of the country, residents at the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park in Orange County, CA, another Smith-acquired property, were notified early this summer that their rents were being hiked by up to 40%. Adding insult to injury, the notices were all in English, even though nearly all the Ridgewood households speak only Spanish.

While on one level it doesn’t matter which investor is putting the squeeze on a captive client base–a 40% rent increase may be equally intolerable regardless of who’s pocketing it–on another level it can matter a great deal. Sam Zell or Blackstone may be out for every last nickel, but Alden Global Capital and Randall Smith will take every last nickel while turning their properties into cesspools and garbage dumps. They’ve done it with newspapers, which once might have blown the whistle on such predatory behavior, and they’re doing it now with the last places some people have to live.

That’s bad news for RVers looking for safe harbor in a mobile home park, who face the unenviable task–if they’re going to be prudent–of attempting to pierce the corporate veil to find out who actually owns a property. Failing to do so, however, may mean even more heartache down the road for people who’ve already had more than their fair share.

[Full disclosure: I was for about a decade an employee of the News Guild and had a front-row view of Alden’s rapacity. It has gotten only worse since then.]

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There’s gold in them thar glampers!

The gold rush to get into the glamping business was on naked display at the Arapahoe County Fairgrounds in Colorado the past few days, where organizers of the Glamping Show USA 2022 were giddy over the turnout. With 141 exhibitors–readily matching the numbers found at more traditional camping trade shows, such as those hosted by ARVC or KOA–and attendance up more than 40% over last year, the scent of greenbacks was unmistakable.

And no wonder. As reported by Whitney Scott, chief operating officer for KOA’s own glamping brand, Terramor, roughly one-fifth of both the glamping and non-glamping public is willing to pay more than $350 to spend a night in a safari tent, yurt, covered wagon or teepee. Why, there’s serious money to be made from rope and canvas!

But as in any gold rush, prospective glamping entrepreneurs must also contend with grifters, fast-buck artists and other camp followers (pun intended). Some nibble around the edges of the industry; some are welcomed into its bosom. Most can be detected and avoided by those who keep their brains engaged, but all the rah-rah boosterism and sugar-plum visions that infuse such events can dull the critical faculties.

One attempt to cash in on glamping entrepreneurs’ ignorance is by peddlers of supposedly comprehensive market research. An outfit calling itself The Business Research Company, for example, contends that its market report, released last month, includes statistics on “glamping industry global market size, regional shares, competitors with a glamping market share, glamping market segments, market trends and opportunities, and any further data you may need to thrive in the glamping industry.” The report also “delivers a complete perspective of everything you need, with an in-depth analysis of the current and future scenarios of the industry.”

All that, it should be noted, is crammed into just 175 PDF pages. Available at the low, low price of just $4,000–but really, how can you put a price on such crucial market data?

Well, Allied Market Research–an equally obscure market research company–is willing to do so, and for less! Its glamping research purports to be twice as extensive, at 400 pages, and is available for a mere $3,570. And really, how can you put a price on tortured syntax, like the the study’s claim that it “provides an in-depth analysis of Glamping Market along with current trends and future estimations to elucidate the imminent investment pockets”? Unimpressed? Consider, then, that the study’s authors “not only engrave the deepest levels of markets but also sneak through its slimmest details for the purpose of our market estimates and forecasts.”

Wow.

Meanwhile, at the show itself, a schedule featuring less than a scant dozen workshops on the intricacies of creating and operating a glampground chose to devote one of them to . . . “influencers.” Specifically online influencers, as represented by Mike and Anne Howard, who for the past decade have been wandering the globe while depending on the kindness of strangers, whom they repay by saying nice things about them on their various social media blogs. The Howards, a/k/a HoneyTrek (because they’ve been “trekking” from the first day of their honeymoon), claim to have acquired 340,000 followers; be nice to them, and those followers can learn all about you, too.

Or that’s the carrot; how many of those followers can be converted into paying customers is anyone’s guess. But for the owner of a glamping resort, this is all presented as a low-cost win-win: get favorable online exposure in exchange for providing “a lovely room, meals and activities,” although some influencers may also “require a fee for their time and digital assets.” Back in the day when commercial radio could make or break a singing career, this was derisively known as “pay to play,” but we live in a different, more nakedly transactional age today.

“Remember,” the Howards explained in the show program, “the more you give them (be it money, room nights or experiences) the more you’ll get in return. . . so be generous, it all comes around!” If only.

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