Campground sale offers ray of hope

Score one for the good guys.

At a time when RV parks everywhere are being snatched up by developers who covet their real estate, or by investment groups looking to cash in on the latest vacation fad, the Cape Cod town of Wellfleet is pursuing a different approach that promises to decrease pressure on local campgrounds to serve as low-income housing—even as it reduces the overall number of local RV sites.

The lack of affordable housing on Cape Cod, emblematic of a problem afflicting high-dollar resort areas all over the country, has been felt most acutely in Wellfleet, which has the lowest percentage of affordable housing on the Cape. Seasonal ownership, short-term rentals and skyrocketing prices have decimated the year-round rental supply, just as they have in Vail and Aspen, the Berkshires, the Smoky Mountains, Jackson Hole and other playgrounds of the well-to-do. Waiters, cooks, sales clerks—even teachers, firefighters and cops–are left scrambling for a place to sleep, much less for a family life of any kind, given that the median price of Wellfleet houses sold in the first part of this year was over $800,000.

So when Wellfleet’s town fathers learned that the three Gauthier brothers were looking to sell the 21.3-acre Maurice’s Campground, they realized they were looking at “a once in a lifetime opportunity,” as reported by the Cape Cod Times. Unfortunately, private developers and other campground operators had reached the same conclusion—albeit for different reasons—and with readier access to financing and fewer bureaucratic hurdles to clear, were quick to start lining up with their offers.

But the Gauthiers, aged 68 and up and whose family has owned the property since 1950, weren’t all that enchanted with their suitors. “So many of these people come in and the first thing they do is double the rates, or they’re going to build trophy homes,” the youngest brother, John, told the Provincetown Independent, explaining that such a possibility didn’t meet the family’s “vision.” The town’s purchase, on the other hand, “is a win-win.”

Still, there were those hurdles. Although the town agreed in mid-April to buy the entire operation for $6.5 million, the purchase would have to be approved at a special town meeting Sept. 10. So would a deed restriction requiring the land be used for affordable housing, and so would $225,000 in additional funding to operate the campground through the end of the fiscal year. And then it would all require a second vote Sept. 20, even before the town figured out how it was going to pay off a loan underwriting the purchase.

Oh, and then there was the little problem of 35 failed cesspools at the campground. . . .

For all that, Wellfleet’s voters approved the purchase more than two-to-one, by a vote of 583 to 247, as well as giving a thumbs-up to the rest of the package. Just don’t look for any quick changes. The purchase agreement stipulates that the property will continue as a campground for six years, partly in order to give its residents time to find alternative housing, partly because the town says it will take several years to get permitting, design and approvals for housing and wastewater treatment projects to be built.

Although Maurice’s has more than 180 RV sites, as well as 12 cabins and 16 tent sites, roughly two-thirds of the sites are occupied by seasonal campers, including vacationing families and approximately 60 seasonal workers. And while Wellfleet’s planners have not yet indicated how many housing units they want to build on the 21 acres, even a moderately dense development would be big enough accommodate both the seasonal workers at Maurice’s as well as those now living at the five other area campgrounds that permit long-term stays. That, in turn, should result in an overall increase in available RV camping for tourists and transient campers.

Or so one can hope. With promised affordable housing at Maurice’s not available until late this decade, and given an ongoing housing squeeze that long ago entered the crisis stage, it’s fair to wonder if it’s all too little too late. “We get a bunch of inquiries from people looking for long-term,” Katie Nussdorfer, owner of a campground in nearby Eastham, told the Independent, attesting to the unbalanced demand for affordability. “We have gotten into situations with people who are homeless, and that has been difficult.”

One thing’s for sure, though. Had the Gauthiers decided differently, even a flicker of hope wouldn’t exist.

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Maybe Terramor should be Terrless?

When KOA decided it wanted to get into the luxury end of the campground business—goosed along, no doubt, by its survey findings that there are a lot of campers out there with too much money and not enough ways to spend it at a conventional RV park—the brand-happy brain trust in Billings, Montana, opted to spin off yet another name plate. Even “KOA Resort” must have seemed too plebian for something as grand as was being envisioned for this new venture. Something more lofty and cultured was needed.

So it was that KOA gave birth to the pseudo-Latinate “Terramor,” a designer mashup connoting “love of the earth.” And thus began a protracted exercise in unintended irony.

The first Terramor glampground was created a couple of years ago in Bar Harbor, Maine, on the grounds of the former Woodlands KOA. Problems ensued. Although highly rated overall in Google reviews, a surprisingly large number of negative reviews identified the same basic problems: too much road noise, a lack of parking at the luxury tents, gravel trails that made it hard to haul luggage from car to tent, tents crowded too close together, inadequate outdoor lighting—problems, in other words, that had to do with location and infrastructure limitations. Problems that might put a serious dent in any return business, given Terramor’s site rates of $350 to $500 a night.

So when KOA went shopping for a second Terramor location, it wanted a blank canvas, a raw piece of property in an upscale neighborhood that it could shape more to its liking. That upscale neighborhood turned out to be near the Catskills towns of Woodstock and Saugerties, an area gaining some renown as the new Hamptons for New York’s monied crowd. The property it settled on is a 77-acre expanse of mature forest, providing relatively more space for site dispersal and sound buffering than it had in Bar Harbor, on which KOA is proposing to build 75 luxury platform tents with ensuite bathrooms and showers, each with its own firepit and parking space. Oh, and there also are plans for a 4,000-square-foot restaurant and event center, an outfitter’s shop, a swimming pool and wellness center, and a small cluster of housing units for 28 employees.

But—can this be?—KOA’s prospective neighbors are not happy. Up to 15 of the 77 acres are wetlands, which KOA proposes to bridge with a berm that will disrupt water flow. Talk of evening concerts has raised concerns about noise pollution, with some residential properties only 100 feet from the glamping sites. Increased traffic, wood smoke from dozens of fire pits, loss of wildlife habitat—no, the neighbors are not happy. They’ve formed a group called Citizens Against Terramor, started a petition and a GoFundMe account, and raised nearly $30,000 locally to hire a hydrologist, an environmental engineer, a geologist—and, of course, a lawyer.

Protesters at planning board meetings have been hoisting signs that read “Terra LESS” and “Terramor Means ‘Love the Earth’: What About ‘Love Thy Neighbor?'”

Here’s the promised irony: not four miles up the road is the former Saugerties/Woodstock KOA, a typically modest mom-and-pop KOA franchise that puttered along for years to middling reviews. But that all ended two years ago, and earlier this year the property reopened as—wait for it—AutoCamp Catskills. That’s right: one of KOA’s major national competitors in the glamping sector has set up shop at a former KOA that’s a five-minute drive away. And did it without any of the sturm und drang that is battering the Terramor proposal, basically because it was not changing area dynamics.

Indeed, while KOA is still hoping its contested Terramor project can be opened in 2024, AutoCamp already has generated a slug of fawning press coverage for its first season. The 37-acre site houses 65 converted Airstream trailers, 10 tiny-home cabins and 10 “basecamps,” which comprise an Airstream plus a luxury tent; a central wood-beamed clubhouse with vaulted ceilings provides room for games, craft cocktails and morning breakfast and coffee service. (The discerning reader may note that this is a significantly higher development density than is being proposed for Terramor, making the lack of local opposition all the more notable.)

And, of course, everything is quite expensive, with weekend nights in October (two-night minimum required) priced upwards of $500 a night—not to mention firewood selling for $20 a bundle, barbecue kits for $69 and s’more kits for $15. “I’ve been in this industry for 15 years and I’ve never seen prices like this,” a local travel agent told a skeptical New York Post reporter. It’s also, of course, why KOA continues to flog this particular horse, despite all the ill-will it’s generating locally. There’s money to be made, dammit, and getting it the old-fashioned way—you know, by catering to middle-class families with travel trailers and troops of snotty-nosed kids—is just so dreary. And slow.

Glamping. Yeah—that’s the ticket.

Jan. 25 author’s note: This post has been lightly edited to make some corrections, but because this is an evolving story, the reader is encouraged to look at the subsequent post for updates.

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Mom and pop: pretty much out of it

Some myths die hard. Case in point: the declaration by Jayne Cohen to 30 or so industry newbies that RV parks and campgrounds “are a mom-and-pop industry.”

That warm comment was made at a morning session of the “Prospective Owners Workshop,” hosted by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds as an add-on to its national convention a couple of weeks ago. Cohen is a long-time industry veteran who retired from the hands-on business of running campgrounds a decade ago to become an industry consultant. Her assertion was intended as encouragement, an assurance that unlike most other business ventures, campgrounds are run by friendly, people-oriented types who will bend over backwards to help each other, offer advice and share their knowledge. You won’t be alone, she was telling those newbies.

Maybe not so much.

A lot has happened in the past decade. There still are a lot of mom-and-pop operators around the country, but they’re quickly being elbowed aside by investors more concerned with debt leverage and financing their next acquisition than in helping out some greenhorn. And as the money becomes more important than the myth, that quasi-frontier mentality of “we’re all in this together” is being stripped out.

Two sets of numbers help put this in focus. One is the attendance figures ARVC trumpeted for its convention, including 1,127 attendees “representing” over 1,500 member parks. Think what that means. First, the number of campground owners was significantly less than 1,127, because the attendees list included several hundred vendors and exhibitors, as well as multiple attendees—spouses, adult children, employees— from individual properties. Second, that widening of the gap between ownerss and parks implies that as many as two-thirds of the 1,500-plus “represented parks” didn’t have someone who actually works the property attending the convention. Put another way, most of those “represented campgrounds” were links in a group or chain, not family businesses run by scrappy entrepreneurs.

The other number worth noting came from the ARVC Foundation, a charitable arm of the association that raises money from its members for disaster relief and education. “It’s in our nature to help,” assured a foundation spokeswoman on the convention floor, as she ticked off the natural disasters that had battered RV parks and campgrounds in the past year—culminating, just weeks earlier, in a devastating romp through Florida by Hurricane Ian. The amount in disaster grants doled out by the foundation in the year to date? A grand total of slightly more than $20,000—less than $15 per “represented” campground in the audience. How embarrassing is that?

It’s not that the traditional campground stalwarts have become suddenly cold-hearted. It’s that they’re dying off, like consummate industry promoter David Berg did last year, or they’re throwing in the towel and selling, or they’re simply being outnumbered by the more bottom-line oriented newcomers.

Even as veterans like Jayne Cohen maintain the myth of a warm and fuzzy campground culture, ARVC itself is growing ever more distant from its meat-and-potatoes members. This year’s convention registration initially was priced at $495—but only if convention-goers also booked their stay at the Rosen Center, at a cost of more than $1,000 a room. Otherwise, registration was going to get bumped up another $200—this for a crowd that includes campground owners who travel to conventions in their own RVs and stay at local RV parks. (It appears that this $200 penalty was eventually dropped, although it’s unclear how many attendees got clipped first.) Filet mignon and lobster, anyone?

As tone-deaf as that was, ARVC found another way to squeeze those least able to afford it: it touted “buyer workshops,” an offer to rebate convention registration fees to attendees who agreed to schedule individual meetings with five different vendors. These captive-audience sessions, more appropriately termed “seller workshops,” resembled nothing so much as an offer of free restaurant meals to lure the unwary to a time-share sales pitch. Investor-owners could readily pass on such a deal, but mom-and-pop owners? To those already bludgeoned by a four-figure hotel bill, a $500 savings could be just too much to resist.

As with its simultaneous push to create campground “standards,” ARVC clearly is following the money. It can be argued—and there are those who do— that this is an inevitable evolution of the industry and that it’s futile to resist the trend. Perhaps—although it’s worth noting that the country’s four most populous states, California, New York, Texas and Florida, all have their own campground associations that are not part of ARVC, suggesting that there’s a price to pay for becoming too distant from the grassroots.

Yet inevitable or not, the times have changed. A purely mom-and-pop industry this no longer is, and Jayne Cohen probably knows that, her assurances otherwise notwithstanding. Prospective campground owners should know that, too.

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FEMA didn’t get ARVC’s admonition

The split personality afflicting the RV industry, in which it can’t quite decide whether the wheeled homes it produces are recreational or residential in nature, has been on display again the past couple of weeks. The confusion is all but certain to result in calamity some day.

On the record, at least, the RV Industry Association (RVIA), the RV Dealers Association (RVDA) and the National Association of of RV Parks and Campgrounds(ARVC) all agree that the fifth-wheels and travel trailers that serve as vacation homes for millions of Americans are not meant for permanent, or even long-term, residency. Ditto for RV park models, which look every bit as sturdy and livable as their close cousins, the single-wide mobile homes beside which they are sometimes parked.

The distinction isn’t merely semantic. As I’ve written before, RVs are legally viewed as vehicles and are built to different codes than house trailers, which are defined as housing and therefore subject to more rigorous construction standards. The only notable distinction between the two is that as long as a house on wheels has less than 400 square feet under its roof—excluding lofts and outside porches—it only has to conform to the voluntary consensus standards set by the American National Standards Institute; more than 400 square feet and it has to meet more stringent Housing and Urban Development regulations.

The RV industry likes things this way because it means lower costs and less meddlesome interference from government regulators, which is understandable from a libertarian perspective—even if it does result in correspondingly shoddier and even life-threatening construction. As reported by the Indianapolis Star a month ago, in a devastating series that the RV industry has resolutely ignored, RV assembly workers don’t even need a license or certification to do electrical work, a level of lax oversight that HUD would never tolerate.

What brings this to mind is a general session at last week’s ARVC convention under the self-congratulatory title, “How National ARVC’s Advocacy Works for You.” Among the panelists was Wade Elliott, who has worked tirelessly over the years to raise electrical standards for campgrounds that in many cases were a do-it-yourselfer’s nightmare of undersized wiring, reversed grounds and shoddy work-arounds. Yet even Elliott demonstrated that he’s bought the myth that there’s a bright line between recreational vehicles and residential ones. Asked by an audience member why RVs shouldn’t be required to meet housing electrical standards, since there are so many people living in RVs, his answer was a short, “Well, they shouldn’t be living in them!”

Maybe not—there are a lot of “shouldn’ts,” including the necessary observation that people shouldn’t be living on sidewalks, either. But that’s the world we live in, and it’s naive at best and immeasurably cruel at worst to pretend otherwise.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that the federal government is no less fuzzy on the question of whether RVs are suitable as living quarters. Without any apparent recognition of the irony involved, RVIA issued a press release yesterday under the headline, “FEMA to Release Accessible Emergency Housing Proposal Request to RV Manufacturers.” As further detailed in the release, the Federal Emergency Management Agency wants to ensure access to a supply of RVs that are ADA compliant, with counter-top heights, thermostat placements and bathrooms suitable for wheelchair use.

The release stressed that “manufacturers will be able to use their existing processes, suppliers and materials,” and that FEMA will “do a significant run of units to create a stock of accessible travel trailers.” No mention, of course, of building the RVs to stricter HUD requirements—ANSI regs will suffice. And no acknowledgment of Elliott’s view that people “shouldn’t be living in them” because, of course, we all know they do. Even people in wheelchairs. In disaster areas.

What could possibly go wrong?

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Increasingly, it’s about da Benjamins

For all the high-fives and back-patting on display at the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds convention last week, an undercurrent of anxiety rippled just beneath the surface. Yes, the 2022 camping season was one of the best ever. Yes, there’s a wave of new campers invigorating the industry. And yes, a lot of the new-timers are more affluent than the fuddy-duddy boomers who dominated the landscape for so long. And yet. . . .

And yet, as strong as business was this year, for the most part it barely improved on 2021. As observed at an afternoon cracker barrel session led by Larry Brownfield, assistant vice president for franchise development at KOA, franchise revenues were up about 3% for the year even as camper nights were flat—in other words, any growth came from squeezing money out of a static customer base, not from increased business. Meanwhile, as summarized by economist Bob Kaplan in a breakout session on the economic outlook for 2023, industry headwinds are still gathering strength, including higher operating costs, higher fuel prices and inflationary pressures on family budgets.

Indeed, if there was one recurring theme to all the dollars-and-cents discussions, it was the observation that camping is becoming a pricey pastime. Propelled by a high savings rate during the many months of pandemic shut-downs, households were “flush with cash to spend on leisure activities,” Kaplan observed, to which the industry responded with opportunistic enthusiasm. As the number of camping households with annual incomes of more than $100,000 doubled from 2019 to 2021, the average cost of new RVs jumped 20% in three years, site rates kept going up, and the campground industry’s compound annual growth rate soared by half, to 12.7%, “an awesome number” that transformed the staid sector into a growth industry almost overnight.

But as seasoned investors are fond of saying, nothing grows to the sky. A strong dollar has made overseas tourism increasingly competitive with domestic travel—and as camping gets more expensive, hotels and other resorts also are competing for the same now shrinking pool of pent-up savings. Indeed, said Kaplan, demand for quality hotel rooms is already outstripping supply. Higher interest rates and rising fuel prices are deflating the RV sales balloon. And campground buyers are taking note and pulling back, as evidenced by a gradual rise in capitalization rates of newly sold properties, a marker of higher investment risk.

More cautious campground owners also are paying attention. Judy Brown, owner of a Florida RV park, said her campground now is almost completely occupied by full-timers, a hedge against softening transient demand and a transition enabled by the state’s flood of hurricane refugees. And Eric Rasmussen, president and director of acquisitions for Spacious Skies, an aggressively expanding chain of RV parks in the eastern U.S., said the company has started evaluating whether some of its properties should start accepting more long-term campers to ensure steadier cash flow.

While KOA and Spacious Skies both claim not to be changing their acquisition strategies—yet—Brownfield forecast that 2023 would be flat or even slightly down from this year. The “prudent” thing to do in an inflationary environment, he said, would be to reduce debt—the implication being that KOA’s pace of acquisitions may in fact start slowing down. Rasmussen, meanwhile, suggested that campground owners should “fire” their lower-end customers to make room for those who can absorb higher rates, another hint of growing financial stress.

Yet if the RV park industry indeed is heading into a significant slowdown, that may—somewhat paradoxically—result in a renewed acquisition spree. There’s more than $365 billion in cash sitting on the sidelines of the private real estate sector, Kaplan noted, just waiting for good opportunities, and real estate traditionally has been a safe haven in inflationary times.

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The new ‘campers’ really aren’t

If there’s one trend that has many veteran campground and RV park owners shaking their heads, it’s the largely pandemic-driven phenomenon of “the new camper.” Considerably younger, more diverse and more urban than their predecessors, the newcomers have changed not just the quantity of campers, but their overall quality—and not always in a good way. At least not from a traditionalist perspective.

Perhaps no one statistic sums up this new reality more succinctly than the answers to a Campspot survey, taken this past August, that among other things asked campers why they camp. A less than overwhelming 10% of 1,556 respondents answered “to spend time in nature.” The three larger responses could as readily have applied to an ocean cruise, a hotel stay or a ski resort: 23% for vacation family time, 19% for relaxation and 17% for proximity to outdoor activities. In other words, the one characteristic that traditionally set camping apart from all other vacation options has become the least important reason for doing it.

A summary of the Campspot survey was distributed at a breakout session at the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds annual convention last week, which was only fitting. Campspot, a cloud-based campground reservation management system, has been a principal driver behind both the swelling tide of new campers—who are most comfortable in the online universe—and of the increasingly transactional nature of “the camping experience.” With more than 2,000 campgrounds in its customer base, for which it processed more than $1 billion in gross bookings within a recent 12-month period, Campspot has been a leader in pushing “revenue optimization” in all its various incarnations, including demand pricing, site-lock fees and increasingly onerous cancellation fees.

But other industry representatives at the ARVC convention sang the same tune, usually to lay the groundwork for urging campground owners to accommodate the changing demographics. Typical in that regard was the observation by Jon Gray of RVshare, a peer-to-peer RV rental company, that the new campers are “looking for hotel-type amenities,” which he contended is a “great opportunity” for campground operators. In real-world terms, “great opportunity” means the opportunity to spend more money on various upgrades, increased amenities and all the marketing bells and whistles that go along with that. More spending, in turn, will necessitate higher rates, but the new campers, everyone seems to agree, not only can afford to foot the bill but won’t even notice the difference. “They’re conditioned for it—nobody says anything,” piped up an audience member at the Campspot presentation.

Indeed, KOA’s North American Camping Report 2022, released in late April, found that nearly 40% of the new campers have annual household incomes exceeding $100,000. Moreover, nearly half went glamping in 2021 and the rest planned to glamp this year, which is to say, planned on the least outdoorsy—and most expensive— way to “camp.” That high level of glamping interest contributed to KOA’s broader finding that 36% of all campers went on a glamping trip for the first time in 2021, with 50% saying they would seek a glamping trip this year.

While industry purists may shake their heads at such trends, others are all too willing to jump aboard what they see as a gravy train. As one such campground owner observed at a cracker barrel discussion about managing RV parks in a softening economy, “When we first started we welcomed everyone, but then we started upgrading our clientele.” Added another campground manager, who runs a large Florida park, ” People will pay to have fun. That will never go away.”

Just how pervasive the change has become was evidenced by ARVC’s choice of campgrounds for its prospective owners’ workshop, a pre-convention one-day session attended by approximately 30 people learning the business as they prepare to build or buy an RV park of their own. Following a morning of quick-and-dirty workshops, the prospective owners piled into a bus to drive an hour to . . . Camp Margaritaville RV Resort, the only example of what an RV park looks like that they would be shown.

Nice place, Margaritaville. Two restaurants, 401 sites that include 75 RV park models, 650 imported palm trees, artificial turf throughout, its own call center, a cashless economy—everything that’s needed, said one of its amiable owners, “to propel old-style RV parks into the present day.”

[Next post: Whistling past the graveyard? Despite all the upbeat emphasis on “the new camper,” a softening economy has some campground owners scrambling.]

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ARVC struggles with park ‘standards’

You know an initiative is in trouble when a) the people presenting it tell you not to get hung up on what it’s called; and b) the actual text of what’s being proposed is only talked about but never shared.

So it was at the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) convention this past week and its curiously emasculated discussion of an unprecedented set of industry “standards.” A first for RV parks and nearly a year in the works, the Voluntary Standards for Outdoor Hospitality Operations had been crafted by a nine-member task force chaired by past ARVC chair Kathy Palmeri, who acknowledged that something of the sort had been suggested 20 years ago but quickly got deep-sixed when it ran into a buzz-saw of member opposition.

Some things don’t change. Initially scheduled to be released over the summer, so ARVC members would be able to review them before the convention and thereby provide informed feedback, the standards instead were held back in an apparent effort to forestall concerted opposition. The pushback had already started, according to several insiders, and resistance was intense. An industry still dominated by intensely independent owners who don’t like being told how to run their businesses was not keen on having their association tell them how they should do things.

Addressing hundreds of campground owners at the convention, a noticeably defensive Palmeri explained that the task force had decided convention goers should have “context” before getting an actual document. There should be no rush to judgment. Campground owners shouldn’t get hung up on the word “standards,” she said, adding that “there should be no angst about it,” that the standards were completely voluntary and that they were, in any case, responsive to public demand for something of the sort.

Pushing on, Palmeri contended that industry changes were forcing ARVC’s hand. “There used to be a real solid campground culture,” she explained, “but that day is done, so we have to react to that.” More millennials, more institutional investors, more first-time campers—all called for more standardization, and if ARVC didn’t meet that challenge, then who would? Campground owners, she finished in an awkward flourish, could no longer “live under a rock.”

For all that “context,” however, still no standards. Instead, a last-minute and thinly advertised break-out session was scheduled with Palmeri and most of the task force, drawing 50 to 60 attendees before the meeting room doors were inexplicably closed. Without an actual document to discuss, those in the room had an hour of abstract discussion in which it became clear that a primary impetus for standard-setting was coming not from the camping public, but from the new money flowing into the industry. As Palmeri amplified, a seat-of-the-pants mom-and-pop industry “had flown under the radar for a lot of years, and we were happy to do that. But it’s a new day,” and the new players “are hungry for this kind of information.”

That information clearly is still being sorted out, as the new standards are still nowhere to be found. Instead, ARVC has emailed an extensive survey to its members, asking them to agree or disagree whether scores of benchmarks should be included in the standards, and whether each acceptable benchmark should be “essential” for all parks or simply “aspirational.” There are 10 “domains” of benchmarks, covering such broad categories as guest services, security, staffing and maintenance, some with dozens of individual items. Although Palmeri said the survey can be completed in 15 to 20 minutes, those few people in the room who had already filled it out advised budgeting an hour or so.

Campground owners who are not ARVC members–and there are many—can only peer through the window.

One further complicating factor to all this is a task force recommendation that ARVC create some kind of “good housekeeping seal of approval” for campgrounds that meet the standards. What, after all, is the point of having standards if no one knows which RV parks meet them and which don’t? Yet as one park owner complained, doing so moves ARVC one step closer to being a governing body, “which it’s not supposed to be.” And as another park owner observed, creating industry standards is little more than an invitation for lawsuits against RV parks that don’t adopt them, “voluntary” be damned.

Such objections notwithstanding, big money will have its way—and big money needs standardization in the service of predictability. Throw in ARVC’s ongoing drive to be more “professional” and less clubby, and you have a perfect storm of rule-making zeal. Camping indeed ain’t what it used to be.

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RV meetings will ignore the elephant

Private campground owners from around the country will descend on Orlando, Florida the next couple of weeks for two of the year’s biggest annual conventions, hosted by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) next week and Kampgrounds of America (KOA) the week after. And next week, at least, the subject most prominently on the agenda–as it was last year–will be electric vehicles (EVs) and how they “are poised to be a major factor in the future of outdoor hospitality.”

How prominently? For openers, a plenary panel led by ARVC president Paul Bambei on Tuesday morning will provide “a vision of the future where EVs play an integral role in outdoor hospitality.” Immediately following will be a lunch panel, “Your Campground’s EV Road Map,” described in early convention programs in language exactly the same as used for the earlier panel. Apparently this will not be a fast-charging discussion.

Two predictions about this confab. Number one, the elephant in the room will be completely ignored. Number two, while convention-goers will be urged to start installing EV chargers at their campgrounds, little to no attention will be paid to the costs of such an amenity. While much will be made of how EV chargers are a necessary accommodation for a changing customer base (ARVC already is claiming that EV owners are currently twice as likely as everyone else to be campers), to which will be added the observation that campgrounds offering such chargers will have a competitive edge, any analysis of the costs that face campgrounds going the EV route will be sketchy at best.

It’s not that the charging station itself is prohibitively expensive: figure $500 for the equipment and possibly a like amount for installation of a Level 2 EV charger, which is sufficient for a full recharge overnight. (Level 3 “fast” chargers are commercial grade and therefore in an entirely different price category, starting at $20,000 per charger.) Assuming, therefore, that a campground wanted to ease into the EV world with half-a-dozen Level 2 chargers, it could do so for $6,000 or so, which won’t break anyone’s bank.

The problem is how to recoup the “fuel” costs. The amount of EV traffic into RV parks is still nominal, prompting most campgrounds that offer charging stations to simply absorb the cost as a goodwill loss-leader. But as more EVs start hooking up to a campground’s grid, that nominal expense will become a growing hit against the bottom line–inevitably prompting campground owners to wonder just how much of an increased cost they incurred and how they can start charging for the energy they’d been giving away.

The answer, alas, is “it depends.”

Electricity sales, unlike gasoline, are monopolized by electric utilities operating under rules that vary from state to state, with billing practices that vary from one utility to another. Most states, for example, don’t allow resellers of electricity to make a profit in doing so–all they can do is pass along their costs. And while such restrictions are gradually loosening up, seven states still regulate EV charging as the exclusive domain of electric companies, as described in a recent Politico article.

A second variable is what’s known as a “demand charge,” which homeowners don’t encounter but some business owners–including those who own campgrounds–know all too well. Demand charges are meant to compensate utilities for providing enough delivery infrastructure to meet spikes in demand caused by businesses with a lot of highly variable consumption–such as campgrounds. The demand charge is a base fee that is multiplied by the kilowatts consumed at peak demand each month, and is in addition to the per kilowatt cost of the electricity itself.

The problem for campground owners is that there is no one standard demand charge across the country: such charges vary wildly from one utility to another. And while Level 2 charging stations are not consumption black holes like Level 3 stations, they nevertheless can add an incremental boost to peak demand that will have a disproportionate effect on the final bill, as the higher demand charge will be multiplied across all of that month’s kilowatt consumption.

(Campground owners, for these and other reasons, should completely abandon any idea of installing Level 3 charging stations. As Politico reports, “Electrify America, a leading charging provider, says that demand charges are up to 80 percent of the cost” of operating Level 3 charging stations.)

Sorting out such cost complexities requires a lot of study and possibly the advice of a consultant, and undoubtedly will not be something the ARVC panels explore in any meaningful fashion, if at all. But back to that elephant. The other subject the convention won’t address–my second prediction–is the growing vulnerability of RV parks and campgrounds to climate change and extreme weather.

It’s ironic, actually, that ARVC will be meeting in a state that only weeks ago was battered so severely by Hurricane Ian that several dozen campgrounds were shut down, some permanently. Horrendous as the destruction was, and as inevitable as it is that similarly extreme storms will strike not just Florida but many other states, not one mention of the climate threat appears in the convention’s program. The cost and availability of flood or property insurance, best practices in fire- or flood-prone areas, how to determine when it no longer makes sense to rebuild–all these and a host of other pressing topics never made it into the program.

It’s likely that the KOA convention will be just as mum on the subject, since the industry’s “thought leaders” seem incapable of actually leading on so threatening an issue. One might wonder how much longer they can ignore the elephant in the room, but the fact that they’ll be doing so in Florida suggests their myopia cannot be overestimated.

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