Part III: RV parks and campgrounds are NOT part of a ‘hospitality industry’

The first two installments of this series examined how the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) fails to live up to its promise of being either “national” or an “association.” That was a relatively straightforward case to make. The more abstract yet more fundamental argument, however, is to demonstrate how ARVC’s leadership has been so seduced by the idea of being part of the “hospitality industry” that it has lost its way—and in doing so has lost sight of the many existential threats now confronting its core constituency. Which, if anyone needs reminding, is RV parks and campgrounds.

The “hospitality industry” identity, which ARVC claims overtly in its “vision” and “mission” statements and which it embraces in practice, is a seductive one. It sounds high-toned and professional, even scientific, as though there were a single overarching set of principles that could be applied to all those many ways of hosting people away from home: hotels, motels, campgrounds, bed-and-breakfasts, inns, RV parks, ski lodges, marinas, resorts, glampgrounds, and so on. And, indeed, there are commonalities—including some common problems, the most obvious being the extraordinary shortage of workers willing to be hospitable. But the differences are far greater than the similarities, and overlooking them in order to lump all those disparate businesses together makes as little sense as combining trees and horses in one category because they both have limbs.

Three years after the pandemic decimated the labor force, for example, the hospitality industry still has nearly a million fewer employees than it had in early 2020. But that burden is not distributed evenly. Hotel and motel employment has rebounded almost to full strength, while campgrounds and RV parks are still struggling to flesh out their payrolls, and especially among seasonal operations. One inevitable result: campers increasingly are pushed toward making reservations online (some campgrounds, if they answer the phone at all, now charge an extra fee for the “service” of accepting your money), are encouraged to check-in remotely and may never interact with a campground employee before checking out. That might be a preferred way of doing business for some, but it makes a mockery of any pretense at campground “hospitality,” just as the “hospitality” of an automat is nothing like that of a full-service restaurant.

But that’s only part of the problem. RV parks and campgrounds are significantly more labor intensive than their bricks-and-sticks counterparts even in the best of times, with campground owners having to deal with grounds-keeping, sewage disposal, and water and electric utilities on a scale that would make hotel managers blanch. But these are not the best of times. An increasingly unstable climate has added to this burden, with more frequent and destructive weather creating disproportionate damage to open-air facilities through flooding, wildfires, ice storms or wind damage. Their labor forces depleted, campgrounds and RV parks are accumulating a significant backlog of deferred maintenance projects, while routine housekeeping is increasingly sparse—and the claim to “hospitality” becomes even more illusory.

It therefore may seem paradoxical that campgrounds and RV parks have become sought-after acquisition targets for various investment groups, which over the past couple of years have been snatching them up at a fantastic rate, for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere. But while that may be an attractive development for campground owners wanting to get out of the business, it also creates enormous stresses and strains for the survivors—in the same way that gentrification puts the squeeze on long-term residents of a neighborhood—as site rates get pushed to unprecedented heights and campgrounds increasingly remake themselves as amusement parks.

This trend also means that an industry that once was largely diversified across thousands of small one-off operators, typically small family holdings, increasingly is dominated by companies that own dozens of properties. Being big has a remarkable effect on one’s perspective: problems that can fill a small operator’s horizon may be negligible from an absentee investor’s broader overview, with its deeper pockets, backfield of talent and abundant outside resources. But guess who’s more likely to get the ear of industry leaders?

Taken together, those three dynamics—an insufficient workforce, a more hostile natural environment and a gentrifying business model—are fundamentally transforming the campground industry right under ARVC’s nose, yet without a flicker of recognition of what that means for association members. To take just one set of examples: how should campgrounds respond to the growing recognition of wildlife-urban interface problems? What best practices can they adopt to mitigate threats of wildfire or flooding? How many campgrounds may soon find themselves unable to to obtain property insurance in environmentally threatened areas, and how should ARVC respond to that need? What are the possibilities of the industry as a whole becoming self-insuring? Alternatively, what can the industry do to promote non-private insurers of last resort?

Similar kinds of questions can be asked about a depleted workforce and gentrification, but not by an organization that doesn’t recognize them as issues in the first place. And if that organization has isolated itself from its membership base, and if it identifies itself as being a segment of a more refined “hospitality industry” than as representing a bunch of hard-scrabble dirt renters for whom this is their entire fortune, it’s every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. The most critical questions won’t be asked until ARVC remembers why it was created in the first place: to serve the needs of privately owned RV parks and campgrounds, just like its name says.

Everything else is a distraction.

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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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