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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Attention, RVers: it’s brutal out there

Peace River Campground, Arcadia, FL, two days after Ian struck.

“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Those words were written by Samuel Johnson about the sentencing of an American clergyman, William Dodd. Exactly 245 years later (as of Sept. 19), they could–or should!–apply to anyone witnessing the twin ravages of Fiona and Ian, which between them tore up tens of billions of dollars in real estate, immiserated countless thousands and claimed an as-yet unmeasured loss of life. If contemplating such destruction doesn’t concentrate the collective mind, we are indeed doomed.

At this writing, the full extent of the devastation in Florida is still unknown, and the swamping of huge swaths of the southeast is just beginning. But the forlorn reports have started trickling in: “The Peace River is still rising!” announced a Facebook post from the Peace River Campground this morning. “If you had ANYTHING on the property, it’s UNDER WATER and not accessible. . . .The water is to the ceiling in the office. . . . We tried pulling campers to higher ground but the river was just too high. It’s catastrophic devastation.”

The Frog Creek RV Resort reported that it has no electricity and no certainty of when it will. “We have power lines down. Our staff is working hard to clean up the debris. Currently park is closed.” The San Carlos RV Park, meanwhile, said it had “sustained massive damage,” adding: “Our computers and records are inaccessible at this time. If you had reservations obviously that won’t happen. We will be working to refund deposits as soon as humanly possible, but please understand the immense task in front of us.”

Those and similar stories will be repeated dozens of times in the next few days, which is tragic enough. But the bigger tragedy is that they’ll be repeated next year, and the year after that–just as they were last year, and the year before that. And it’s not just hurricanes and subsequent flooding that will be the cause, or just RV parks and campgrounds along the Gulf Coast or the eastern seaboard that will be affected. Tragedy can be caused by too much water, but also by too little.

So it is that the National Interagency Fire Center announced today that 12 new large fires were reported yesterday alone, eight in Idaho and one each in Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Washington. Idaho and Montana currently have the most large fires, 59, out of 88 total across the West. To date, 6.9 million acres of U.S. land have burned in 2022, forcing thousands of evacuations and causing more than $11.2 billion in damage, according to Bankrate, an insurance website–and fire season isn’t nearly over.

Hurricanes become stronger and more frequent as ocean water gets warmer, while warmer air holds more moisture, resulting in heavier rainfall. But the same warming climate that pumps too much moisture into one part of the country is baking it out of another, causing widespread–and growing–aridification of all the states from the Central Plains west to the Pacific. The resulting tinderbox makes “enjoying the outdoors” ever more of a gamble, threatening the viability not just of camping but of fishing, as streams dry out and lakes shrink; wine making, as wildfire smoke contaminates grapes and bark beetles start killing off drought-stressed conifers and now oak trees in wine country; and farming and ranching. (As just one example of the latter, 39% of respondents to an August survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation said that wildfires have contributed to crop losses and herd sell-offs in their area in 2022.)

All of the above suggests a screaming need to reevaluate our relationship to the Great Outdoors–to “concentrate the mind wonderfully” on the hard questions reality is demanding we confront. Instead, the reflexive response, as already articulated by the Florida RV Park and Campground Association, is to pull together and rebuild and show some grit. “Our park owners and operators are some of the best people in the world,” association president Bobby Cornwell assured his members in an email today. “I have no doubt the industry will rally together and support all those in need.” Southwest Florida “will, without a doubt, be rebuilt and will be paradise once again.”

But doing more of the same, if spunky and admirable in a fatalistic sort of way, avoids the even harder work of figuring out how to avoid a repeat. It doesn’t engage the mind at all, much less concentrate it. Doing more of the same only assures an endless Groundhog Day-cycle of rebuilding and devastation and rebuilding again, until there’s no energy or money or hope left.

Poetically, both KOA and the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds will be holding their annual conventions in Orlando in November–long enough from now for a lot of the clean-up to be done, soon enough that the scars left by Ian will be inescapable. Both meetings would be ideal opportunities to examine what just happened, what is happening elsewhere in the country because of climate change, and how the campground industry could better respond to this existential threat. Ideal–but don’t count on it. That would require too much concentration.

William Dodd, it’s also worth remembering, was hanged.

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Buying, selling hotels without walls

There are lots of reasons to be wary of the institutional investors that are tripping all over themselves to get into the campground and RV park business. They drive up the cost of entry for the mom-and-pop entrepreneurs who have been the industry’s backbone. They jack up prices for campers and RVers, transforming a formerly low-cost form of recreation into an increasingly pricey one. They tend to homogenize the business overall, chasing after the economies of scale that come through cookie-cutter standardization.

But perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this trend is that many of these investors don’t know what they’re buying. They haven’t been campers or RVers themselves. They may not know any campers or RVers personally. They basically know only that the campground industry is a still relatively under-exploited segment of the commercial real estate (CRE) market and that they have a chance to get in early. If they don’t really know the business, how hard can it be? How different can it be from other CRE “hospitality” segments?

No difference at all, according to Bob Kaplan of NAI Outdoor Hospitality Brokers, as quoted by Woodall’s Campground Magazine in its current issue. “If you’ve been a hotel operator, then certainly you can figure out how to run an RV park,” he assured senior editor Jeff Crider. “In my eyes, a highly transient park is like a hotel without walls.” Easy-peasy, and in all likelihood just the kind of reassurance Kaplan provides the investors who turn to him for guidance as they wade into this brave new world.

For someone who actually runs an RV park, however, Kaplan’s assurance is as nonsensical as declaring that anyone who has grown grapes can figure out how to run a winery. It certainly is possible. It’s just not going to happen overnight, and there’s a good chance there will be some bitter missteps along the way. Just as making the jump from vineyard operator to vintner requires sophisticated new knowledge, from soil chemistry, suitable varietals and fermentation to a host of other variables, running a campground requires–at a minimum–the skills and attitudes of a cruise ship director and a farmer in addition to those of a hotelier.

For example, most campgrounds have amenities and activities that are more common to Norwegian Cruise Lines than to Marriott Hotels, from climbing walls and laser tag to face-painting, live bands and bingo nights. True, not all campgrounds fit that description: some truly are just Spartan overnight rest-stops that cater to the traveling public, just as most motels do. But a preponderance of campgrounds market themselves to families, and that means kids in numbers that would set most hotel operators aback. Those kids and families require a level and kind of staffing that hotels don’t experience, a specialized repairs and maintenance budget for all those amenities, and a management sensibility more often found among elementary school teachers than among graduates of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration.

Even more critically, a “hotel without walls” is another way of saying “outdoors”–with all the blessings and misfortunes that entails. That in turn calls for a farmer’s temperament and outlook, for working with mercurial–and increasingly extreme–weather, with changing seasons and with a campground infrastructure that is far more exposed to the elements than any hotel’s. A hotel with walls doesn’t have to contend with wildlife wandering in or with guests who start campfires without respecting fire bans or with diesel fumes and the rumble of generators. A hotel without walls is by definition thrown open to Mother Nature’s unpredictable and uncaring whims, quite unlike the constrained and regulated bounds of a brick, glass and steel fortress.

A hotel without walls, in other words, requires more time and effort than most people looking simply for a place to “put their money to work” want to expend, so either they do a lousy job of it or–as Kaplan also noted–they turn to third-party management companies, like Blue Water Development Corp., Advanced Outdoor Solutions or Horizon Outdoor Hospitality, to do the heavy lifting. The ones that go it alone, believing that money is a meaningful substitute for long hours and actual work, tend to pump a bunch of it into their new property to justify hiking rates, even as previous levels of hospitality or maintenance decline. The result: a slow overall deterioration that may not be discernible for several years.

The others? Those are the parks that become buffed-up clones of each other, like so many interchangeable fast-food restaurants. They’ll fill you up, but a few days later you may be hard-pressed to remember what you tasted. And you might end up wondering why some people talk about camping as having been such a special activity.

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Is the bloom off the camping rose?

The fall equinox arrives today, marking the transition from summer to fall. Now the days get progressively shorter than the nights, sweaters and jackets make an appearance, leaves turn color and drop. The great wheel turns, and with it we cycle into another phase, another set of rhythms and relationships with each other and with the environment.

So, too, it would seem with the camping industry. After a couple of hot-house years in which RVs and anything to do with them seemingly exploded across the landscape, the first hints of an impending cool-down have become visible, even as broader underlying trends suggest a deeper downturn than many industry participants might be prepared to weather.

In that regard, two sets of recently announced numbers specific to RVs and RVers are especially telling. One has to do with RV wholesale shipments, which now are projected by ITR Economics, which prepares quarterly forecasts for the RV Industry Association, to end 2022 at less than 500,000 units. That would represent a stunning near-17% decline from the 600,240 RVs shipped to dealers last year–and that’s not the end of it. ITR’s mid-range forecast for 2023 predicts another 16% drop, to 419,000 units.

Putting aside the pandemic-blasted sales figures for 2019, that means projected RV shipments for next year will be at their lowest level since 2016. Coming on the heels of last year’s unprecedented construction boom, with RV builders hiring boatloads of new employees and adding assembly plants at a frantic pace, the implications are for a massive disruption of RV-dependent economies everywhere, but especially in Elkhart, Indiana.

The other notable numbers are from KOA, which recently reported a 5.6% increase in short-term registration revenue–even as it reported a 3.4% year-over-year decline in second-quarter occupancy. Moreover, long-term registration revenue for the same quarter was up 6.9%, while occupancy was down 3.3%. There’s only one way to reconcile fewer bodies with higher revenues, and that’s with higher prices, which at the very least should raise questions about the sustainability of such a business model.

Higher prices of all sorts, meanwhile, suggest that the slowdown KOA and RVIA are seeing will only accelerate in the months ahead. The Fed’s continuing interest rate increases, most recently projected to exceed 4.5% by year-end, will further dampen consumer spending, whether it’s for discretionary big-ticket items like RVs or for discretionary leisure activities like increasingly pricey RV sites. And gas prices, to which the RV sector is especially sensitive, may be rebounding after falling from their $5-a-gallon peak, bumping up by a penny yesterday–ending a 98-day streak of declines.

One signal of what’s to come may be getting offered by the investment groups that have been piling pell-mell into campground acquisitions–not that they’re slowing down, by any means. They are, however, lowering their sights, taking more of a long-term view that puts a greater emphasis on getting a foot in the door. As Randy Hendrickson, CEO of United Park Brokers, told Woodall’s Campground Magazine in its current issue, “a few years ago the criteria may have been 200-plus sites in the Sunbelt. [But] investors now recognize that 70-site parks with additional acreage” may be a better option, paving the way for “extracting internal value later through expansion or repositioning.”

The purchase of smaller campgrounds, it should go without saying, also is more easily financed, yet another consequence of higher interest rates. But it also means an unexpected down-market consolidation of the industry, further squeezing out would-be owner-operators.

Yes, winter is coming.

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RVDA pushes back against sales regs

Earlier this week I wrote about a proposed new rule from the Federal Trade Commission that seeks to “prohibit motor vehicle dealers from making certain misrepresentations in the course of selling, leasing or arranging financing for motor vehicles.” Turns out, that doesn’t apply just to your Ford F-150 or Mazda Miata: “motor vehicles,” as defined in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, includes recreational boats, motorcycles, motor homes, recreational vehicle trailers and slide-in campers–to RVs in general.

No surprise, then, that the motorcycle, automobile, RV and marine trade associations have come down with both boots on this one. Mark Steinbach, a past member of the board of directors of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, suggested as much back in July, when his written comments to the FTC warned that the various associations “will be circling the wagons” and claiming “that there is no need for the new rule, that everything is hunky-dory” just the way it is. If only.

Start with the claim that the proposed rule is “ill-conceived, ill-supported, ill-coordinated, untested and unlawful.” That’s just one of the opening broadsides from the National Automobile Dealers Association, which filed a 364-page series of arguments to expand on the idea that each problem the proposal addresses “is already regulated under existing law”– which is to say, hey, everything is hunky-dory. That 364-page rebuttal, by the way, is only ten times as long as the FTC’s actual proposal, which brings to mind that old line about brevity being the soul of wit. This is wit-less.

NADA’s submission, as was true of all industry responses, was filed Sept. 12, on the very last day of an 80-day comment period. This was true as well of the RV Dealers Association, which chipped in with its own 13-page argument–which the FTC didn’t post on its website until Sept. 16– detailing why RVs shouldn’t be lumped in with other wheeled conveyances that are sold, financed and titled by dealers. Given all the time it had to prepare its brief, one might wonder why the RVDA did such a skimpy job of it.

The RVDA’s basic line of reasoning begins with the observation that RVs are discretionary purchases, unlike other motor vehicles, and for their buyers are “not essential for their daily life activities, but a means to escape from their daily lives.” That distinction is important to the RVDA because the FTC’s “stated purpose” for the proposed rule is “to protect consumers for essential motor vehicle purchases used for daily activities.” Translation: federal regulations that apply to “essential” purchases are too rigorous for an industry that sells non-essential ways for its customers to “escape from their daily lives,” even if those purchases may easily cost several times more than “essential” ones. Escape that, you yahoos.

There are a lot more specious arguments of this sort in the RVDA brief, from the observation that the RV market is considerably smaller than its automobile counterpart, to a somewhat strained claim that the RV industry needs special regulatory treatment because RVs are not as standardized as automobiles—that “in the RV industry it is customary to prepare a vehicle before a customer is able to use the RV.” At bottom, however, the RVDA is simply claiming that the FTC is trying to solve a non-existent problem—but that if there is a problem, “enforcement should focus on the bad actors, and not treat every dealership as if it is a bad actor.”

Yep–more of the same hunky-dory.

Given that the proposed rule has drawn almost 28,000 comments, scarcely more than a handful of them addressing the implications for RV dealers, it’s entirely possible that the FTC might not even take note of the RVDA’s hyperventilating. But if it does, one may hope it’ll also give a passing glance to the brief comments of Michael Nicholas, an automotive sales manager for the last 25 years who thinks his industry has become immeasurably more transparent over that time period.

“If you really want to go after a business that isn’t transparent,” he wrote in early September, “you may need to look into boat, RV, furniture and jewelry sales, where their markup is huge and a customer has no way of getting [the actual] cost. . . . Try to find the actual cost of a ring or an RV–YOU CAN’T.”

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