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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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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