Home sweet . . . shipping container?

It’s gotten to the point where the notion of a “campground” is becoming indistinguishable from that of a subdivision. True, the housing units at so-called campgrounds and RV parks are—mostly— smaller than their suburban counterparts. And their settings may be more “rustic,” perhaps with gravel roads instead of asphalt, and with such camping flourishes as outdoor fire pits or communal swimming pools. But commercial camp sites, whether for RVs or dwellings, also tend to be more closely packed together than the houses in most subdivisions, and the inexplicable fondness of many campers for lighting up their sites means starry nights at a campground will be as elusive as in any Levittown.

What brings this to mind is a couple of news items April 7 in RV Business, an online industry magazine, that illustrate the ever-widening definition of what constitutes an acceptable campgound rental unit. The first announced the “successful splash test” of something called a Bungalow Boat, developed by a sister company of Blue Water, an aggressively expanding developer and manager of RV parks and marinas. The Bungalow Boat is little more than a cabin on pontoons, suitable only for being moored in calm water, but is being promoted as “a true glamping experience”—which is to say, as an overpriced shelter that will make money only as long as “campers” are convinced they’re paying for an unusually authentic experience.

The other RV Business article that caught my attention breathlessly introduced something called the Gateway Park Model RV, manufactured by ekō Solutions LLC, “specializing in state-of-the-art eco-friendly dwellings.” Its faux Scandinavian name notwithstanding, ekō is headquartered just outside of Indianapolis; its eco-friendly dwellings are repurposed shipping containers.

There’s nothing wrong—indeed, it’s quite possibly praiseworthy—to take a 20-foot-long shipping container that has outlived its initial function and rework it into a habitable space. But it may be a stretch to label the result as “perfect for the tiny home lover or on-the-go camper who wants the amenities of a home away from home,” which is a lot to lay on a metal box that at 160 square feet is smaller than most travel trailers and easily twice as heavy. “On-the-go” possibly, but not easily. Perhaps there’s a market for these on the West Coast, where cities are scrambling for low-cost housing to shelter a growing army of the homeless, but to call them “park model RVs” suggests that ekō Solutions has a more upscale market in mind.

Recycled “camping” at its finest: the Gateway Park Model RV. Ah, nature!

Meanwhile, the more conventional park model industry is rolling along quite nicely, even as traditional RV manufacturers have seen production plunge 50% from year-earlier levels. As Dick Grymonprez, director of park model sales at one of the country’s biggest park model manufacturers, Champion Home Builders, told Woodall’s Campground Magazine last month, business for the segment is up 15% this year, driven in part by the continued building and acquisition of campgrounds by industry heavyweights like Sun Communities, Cove and Equity Lifestyles. “All the big community owners are growing their RV portfolios and putting in RV parks, so they need rentals. And they’re buying park models for rentals,” he explained.

Park models are the Trojan horses of the campground industry (as I’ve written before, here and here), a way of smuggling small houses onto properties that ostensibly were built for the more transient pastime of camping—a blurring of the line between residential and recreational communities. Layer on the upselling phenomenon of glamping, from bungalow boats to tricked-out safari tents, domes, yurts, treehouses, prairie schooners, teepees, Hobbit houses and other fantastical dwellings, and all of a sudden the RV nomads of yore find themselves boxed out and hemmed in by the new urban settlers.

It won’t take much more of this before a lot of prospective RV buyers will suddenly realize they don’t have to make a 10- or 15-year investment to go “camping” when campgrounds are providing such alternatives. True, on a per-night basis a park model or glamping unit will cost significantly more than an RV site, but for anyone not looking to be an RVing full-timer, the overall cost favors traveling by car and staying at what amounts to a decentralized hotel room disguised as something else. In this way, campground owners may already be stealing business from RV manufacturers, who in any case have done themselves no favors with their years of shoddy workmanship.

So look for still more variations on the theme, more innovative ways to put walls and a roof around beds and bathrooms while marketing the result as an unprecedented wow! way to go “camping.” Eventually all the combinations and permutations will be exhausted and the public, wowed no longer, will move on, the campgrounds they leave behind looking like those mining towns that became overrun with tumbleweeds once the ore played out.

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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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