Campground buyers piling on

As the 2021 camping season winds down, the one message coming through loud and clear from investors is that campgrounds and RV parks are hot, hot, hot!

A couple of weeks ago, for example, campground owner, real estate investor and RV park promoter Heather Blankenship hosted an online webinar for people thinking about getting into the game–and a reported 1,500 callers Zoomed in to learn about “aggressive asset accumulation.” Blankenship claims to be running a $30 million real estate portfolio, but as she told her callers, she’s willing to teach you the tricks of her trade for just $997–a $4,500 value that includes eight hours of content on a series of CD discs.

What Blankenship did not tell her Zoom participants was that the $997 “ready to learn” package is only the first of three that she offers. The “ready to buy” option, priced at $2,999, adds access to her RV Park and Campgrounds Investor Mastermind Program, as well as “group calls with Heather.” And the all-inclusive $6,000 “ready to scale” program promises a “transformative three-month journey” that includes three one-on-one coaching calls with Heather, “direct access” to Heather and “preferred deal analysis and coaching.”

No telling how many of the 1,500 Zoom participants wrote checks to Blankenship, but as she was making her sales pitch, the chat feature was busy with networking entrepreneurs exchanging contact information.

Similarly high levels of interest were evident last week at the annual convention of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Nominally a four-day event, the convention usually kicks off with a much more targeted program the first day–and this year that meant a nine-hour “Prospective Owners Workshop.” “We’ll cover everything you’ll need to know to get started in the outdoor hospitality industry,” the program promised, adding, “Getting off on the right foot is easy!”

Approximately 60 eager participants attended, according to one of them, with the majority apparently more intent on building their own campgrounds rather than buying an existing one. Although ARVC conventions typically attract those who already own campgrounds, as well as a sizeable contingent of vendors, this year’s event had so many non-owners testing the waters that several “old-timers” commented on how many unfamiliar faces they were seeing.

Commented one long-time RV park owner, “I was at a table where there were nine of us, and when I said I owned a campground, everyone turned to me and said, ‘You own a campground?’ It turned out six of them were either buying or building campgrounds, and they all wanted to know about my experiences.”

All of which seems awfully frothy, but we’ll have to see how long it takes for the bubbles to burst.

Lies, damn lies and . . . .

“Facts” always sound more impressive when they’re draped with statistics, so it’s prudent to look carefully at the underlying fundamentals when someone is presenting a bunch of numbers to support various conclusions. Case in point: the Generational Camping Report, presented at ARVC’s national convention in Raleigh this past week.

Introduced as an admirably motivated effort to “provide a profile on camping preferences and differences between campers of different generations,” the report and its conclusions were presented at the convention as the responses of some 500 campers–a distressingly small sample, considering that the answers were supposed to provide insight into the differences between three different age groups. But the results were even more narrowly sourced than that, because the final report was limited to the 408 respondents who had actually gone camping, RVing or glamping in the previous 12 months–a winnowing that was not explained at the convention.

That more restricted sample was then further skewed by the distribution of answers among 233 millennials (born after 1981), 131 GenXers (born after 1965) and a combined category of 41 boomers and 4 “silent generation” campers born as far back as 1928. So those report “findings” that made overall statements, such as how many nights respondents anticipated they would camp in the next 12 months, or what amenities they found most important, were disproportionately weighted by the answers from younger campers.

That’s not all. The respondents were drawn predominantly (72%) from east of the Mississippi River, which inevitably would skew answers to questions about their preferred type of camping destination, since two of the offered possibilities were BLM land and backcountry/wilderness areas off the grid. A more representative geographical distribution of RVers would likely have pushed those two choices higher. Moreover, the report tried to draw conclusions by distinguishing between respondents who already own RVs and those that don’t, finding–for example– that 60% of boomers who don’t own RVs would consider purchasing one. But how many boomers actually said that?

To answer that, anyone reading the survey results needs to have a calculator at hand, because most report findings are presented as percentages rather than hard numbers. But given that 254 of all the respondents don’t already own an RV, that could mean as many as 27 boomers said they’re open to buying one–assuming none of the 45 currently own one. Then again, assuming that 62% of the surveyed boomers don’t own RVs–the same ratio as the whole sample–then 28 boomers responding to the survey don’t have RVs and 17 of them said they would consider buying one. That’s an extraordinarily slender statistical reed on which to build any conclusions.

The overall report, alas, is replete with these kinds of overly broad conclusions, from statements about why people go camping, to what kind of campground amenities are most important to them, to how much they spend when they go camping–all good things for campground owners and local communities to know, but deserving of a far more ambitious research effort than this wan attempt. It’s telling, therefore, that the researchers who prepared the report apparently omitted the most fundamental caveat of any survey’s methodology, at least as it was presented at the convention: there is no mention of their confidence level in their findings.

No confidence level seems about right.

Party like there’s no tomorrow

If you’d been in Raleigh, N.C. this past week, looking on as the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) held its annual convention, you’d have thought the Covid-19 coronavirus had been vanquished months ago.

Most extreme was Monday’s reception at the Sheraton Hotel, a boisterous affair of hundreds of people from all corners of the country jostling each other over pizzas and beer, shouting to be heard over the din. There was a time not long ago when this would have been called a super-spreader, but then again, this demonstrably is not a group that puts a lot of stock in science.

The rest of the confab showed similar if more restrained disdain for public health and welfare. Notwithstanding “mask up” signs posted throughout the convention center, virtually the only people paying heed were the masked convention center employees patiently attending to their unmasked guests. The double standard was so blatant that all attendees were sent an email Tuesday requesting that they observe the masking protocol, but as with the masks themselves, the email was almost universally ignored.

By Wednesday, security guards had been stationed at the doors to hand out masks to anyone entering the facilities who wasn’t already wearing one. Campground owners would take the masks, often grudgingly, then walk off without putting them on.

This sort of clueless behavior often starts at the top, so it was no surprise to see ARVC executive director Paul Bambei walking the halls and in the ballrooms with a naked face. Bambei’s offices, it should be noted, are in Centennial, Colorado, a state that for the past several weeks has seen such a sharp spike in Covid-19 infections that a local television station reported yesterday its contact tracers have been overwhelmed and can no longer keep up with the spread.

The U.S. overall is now reporting 23 new cases daily per 100,000 population. The rate is twice that in Arapahoe County, where Centennial is located. Viruses, like gases in a closed container, diffuse from areas of higher concentration to those with less. That’s why the U.S. overall is looking at a fourth wave this coming winter–as is already occurring in Europe, which has seen a 50% surge in just the past month–and why ARVC and its leadership did no one any favors this week.

RVing a lot? Odds are you’re a woman

GO RVing, the “consumer-facing voice of the RV industry,” has just released its latest demographic profile of RV owners. Given that this voice speaks on behalf of the companies that build and sell recreational vehicles, it’s not surprising that it chooses to highlight the big picture, starting with its finding that RV ownership has increased more than 62% over the last 20 years. All told, there now are 11.2 million RV-owning households in the country–and a whopping 9.6 million additional households say they intend to buy an RV within the next five years.

But that last number should give even the RV Industry Association pause, because it implies that U.S. manufacturers will have to crank out an additional 1.9 million RVs each year for the next five years–more than triple 2021 production, which has broken all records amid growing complaints of shoddy construction. Even assuming that some of those 9.6 million households buy used RVs and not new ones (an unlikely scenario, given the study’s finding that 78% of Millennials and Gen Zers looking to buy an RV want a new one), most sellers presumably will be looking to upgrade to newer units. Subtract those current RV owners who die or simply throw in the towel in disgust at the increasingly crowded RV landscape, and you’re still left with an impossible level of buying demand.

That’s the big picture. However, it’s the granular details that emerge from the demographic profile that are most fascinating–and none is more noteworthy than the link between gender and the amount of time spent RVing.

The GO RVing study divides the RVing population into seven categories, with the three largest groups–“casual campers,” “family campers” and “escapists”–accounting for a combined 88% of the total universe. As the names suggest, these are all RVers with relatively limited time spent in an RV each year, mostly for vacations, with the escapists clocking the longest hours, at an average 55 days a year. A fourth group, the “happy campers,” consist of snowbirds who, on average, spend 180 days in their RVs, essentially using them as seasonal housing.

Two of the remaining groups, on the other hand, are distinguished by their traveling in RVs for extended periods of time: “avid RVers,” the 6% of all RVers who spend an average of 111 days a year on the road; and “full-timers,” at 1.5% of the total. And the striking thing about these two groups is how disproportionately female they are, with 70% of the study’s full-timers being women, as are 64% of the avid RVers.

The GO RVing announcement about its findings focuses primarily on changing age demographics, presumably because a younger-trending market signals more industry growth. But the gender breakdown that GO RVing is ignoring presents numerous RV manufacturing design and marketing possibilities. And the realization that two-thirds of the most committed RVers are women should raise some tantalizing questions for sociologists interested in gender stratification in various occupations and American sub-cultures.

Who will speak for the RVers?

If there is a third rail in RV world, it’s climate change.

Yesterday I published a piece in RVtravel that was too wonky by far, but which tried to make the point that no one is fighting on behalf of RVers in today’s great climate-change battles. More specifically, there has been no one representing RVers and RV campground owners in the weeks of intense negotiations over the Build Back Better proposal (often referred to simply as “the reconciliation bill”) that has been stymied, in large part, by a U.S. Senator invested in the fossil fuel industry.

There are, I pointed out, two national industry groups that embrace the outdoors. There’s the Outdoor Industry Association, which despite having more than 1,200 members across the full spectrum of outdoor activities and equipment makers includes only one RV campground owner, Kampgrounds of America. And then there’s the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, which encompasses nearly three-dozen trade associations–including the Outdoor Industry Association–and the three largest RV industry representatives: the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), the RV Dealers Association (RVDA) and the RV Industry Association (RVIA).

As I further wrote, the Outdoor Industry Association has been lobbying the past several weeks on behalf of the Build Back Better proposal because of its significant commitment to combating climate change. Only by adopting such an ambitious agenda can we “ensure the success of the outdoor industry and the American economy and protect the health of the planet,” the association has argued. But the association clearly has been unable to convince the rest of its peers to follow its lead, and for the past several months the roundtable has studiously avoided any reference to climate change. It has not lobbied for passage of the Build Back Better proposal. It has, for all practical purposes, left the RVing community sidelined in one of the most, if not the most, urgent environmental struggles of the age.

That’s the point I tried to make. In retrospect, I did a poor job of it. As my RVtravel editors pointed out, the piece drew a near-record low readership. Few RVers wanted to read what I had to say–and of those who did, only a couple responded with favorable comments. The preponderant unfavorable responses, meanwhile, either largely missed my point (for which I take the blame) or are still mired in antediluvian talking points, claiming we’ve always had climate change, or confusing climate with weather. And some simply didn’t give a damn, such as the reader who assured us, ” I have no qualms in my Class A burning diesel all over the US, and will continue to do so as long as I can.”

A more sophisticated response came in an email to me from a representative of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, who felt that what I had written was “very disappointing and factually inaccurate.” To substantiate that latter point, he appended four PDFs of letters and statements that supposedly reflected the roundtable’s work on “climate resilient infrastructure.”

It was a mixed bag. Two of the PDFs spoke to the infrastructure bill that got strong bipartisan support months ago and was not at issue in my column. The other two were copies of letters sent in August and September to House and Senate committee chairs, neither of which mentioned climate change and both of which urged even more infrastructure funding than had been allocated in the infrastructure bill itself. Requested were “additional funds for the U.S. Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Program, improving trails that serve underserved communities, funding capital maintenance projects, restoring ecological integrity, creating sustainable recreation infrastructure, expanding access, promoting tourism and more.”

In other words, more of the same.

As I responded in my answering email, “My disappointment with the ORR is that while it lobbies for making the outdoors more accessible to the general public, it sits on the sidelines of a climate change debate about an incomparably more fundamental need, which is a reduction in greenhouse gases. Overworked though the metaphor may be, the ORR is lobbying for more deck chairs and a bigger brass section in the shipboard orchestra while there’s a furious debate in the control room over what to do about that iceberg looming on the port bow.”

It should go without saying that for most RVers and most campground owners, the compelling attraction of what they do is being in the great outdoors, of getting closer to nature and the environment. That environment is being transfigured before our very eyes, day by day and week by week, into something ugly and hostile to human life–and that transformation is a direct result of human action. If we are to restore and reclaim the environment we love, the very first step will be to acknowledge that we are at fault; and being at fault, we will have to change our behavior to regain what is slipping through our fingers.

That means calling the problem by its name: climate change, catalyzed by human production of greenhouse gases. And it means accepting that climate change cannot be stopped, much less reversed, without significant changes in our habits and behavior–and there’s the rub. For who wants to do that? Yet the inescapable physics of it all is that, sooner or later, change will be forced on us nevertheless. Nature will see to it–unless we get ahead of it by initiating change on our own.

To do that, however, we need to start talking–and so far, the RVing community hasn’t found its voice.

Sign of the times?

Paper plates and plasticware instead of china and silverware. Disposable razors replacing straight razors that need a stropping leather to maintain an edge. “Fast fashion” clothing, designed to be worn just a few times before being thrown out. Maintaining “stuff” is tedious and time -consuming, and who needs that? Far better to use it and lose it, one way or another.

Now some of that mind-set seems to be trickling down into the RVing world, as signaled by a recent story on the RVLife website headlined, “Sell Your RV This Year, Don’t Store It.” As writer Chelsea Gonzalez points out, winter’s approach means many RV owners have to think about winterizing their rigs, which can be a headache and expensive, to boot. “Why spend so much of your time preparing and storing your rig for winter when you can sell your RV and let someone else use it for the cold months or deal with the storage aspect?” she asks.

That puts a whole new spin on the “pay it forward” concept. But as Gonzalez writes, dumping your RV before you actually have to take care of the thing not only saves time and money, but might result in a profit in this time of high demand. Best of all, selling now means “you can start fresh next year.”

“So many people have purchased RVs recently that it’s highly likely a number of used motorhomes and trailers will be for sale next season,” she contends. “This means you can choose an RV that better suits your needs. . . . You’ll end up with an RV that is the style, size, and floorplan that you truly want, without any of the hassle of winterizing one you don’t care for as much.”

It needs to be pointed out that this particular prescription is flagged on the RVLife site as sponsored content, which may not mean anything to some readers, but is supposed to indicate that what looks like a news story is actually an advertisement. In this case the sponsor is National Vehicle–a company that advertises vehicles for sale by their owners. Just the kind of sponsor, in other words, that would love for you to dump that maintenance headache sitting in your driveway–then come back next spring to buy a replacement.

Who would have thought we’d see an age of disposable RVs?

Losing their ever-lovin’ minds

Renting Dirt and its thematic predecessor, an essay I wrote for RVtravel explaining why we sold our campground this past May, apparently struck a nerve with several long-time RVers. Among them: Charity and Ben, who in 2017 became full-timers with their kids, Dakota and Trinity, and creators of a YouTube channel and blog, at gratefulglamper.com.

What particularly resonated for Charity, a former customer service manager in the automotive industry, was my description of increased bad behavior by campers. “It was a great job,” she wrote earlier this month of her decade-long employment. “I loved working with and developing my team. I didn’t even mind the company ownership (most of the time). [But] there was one thing that made me never want to do that type of job again: the people. . . . I cannot even imagine being in this industry today. People have lost their ever-loving minds!

According to Charity’s blog, a stressed-out, abusive public is becoming a widespread phenomenon, with “lost mind” syndrome cropping up throughout society. The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, reports that there have been more than 4,000 unruly passenger complaints so far this year, compared to just 150 for all of 2020. Rude customers are being cited as a major reason why fast-food/restaurant and hospitality workers are quitting in record numbers. Road-rage incidents resulted in 42 people a month getting shot in 2020, or nearly double the rate from four years earlier, and thus far in 2021 the shooting rate is up to one every 18 hours.

“Now, why are these important things to know and what, pray tell, do they have to do with RVing?” Charity wrote. “Here is the point–people are losing their ever loving minds! And campground owners are facing these same types of people who are rude in other business settings.”

And it’s not just the campground owners who are victimized by entitled and self-centered RVers, as Charity points out: it’s also their employees, many of whom are also RVers. “Many RV campgrounds run by governmental organizations such as state parks or national forest campgrounds have camp hosts that help to keep things in order,” she notes. “There are also a lot of people who work camp, [with] work campers getting their campsites for free in exchange for doing some light work around the campground.

“That person answering the phone at the RV campground you are calling just may be a fellow RV’er . . . . Kindness goes a long way!” she concludes.

Amen.

Truth in advertising–not

Say you’re Erik the Red and you’ve just been exiled because even the Vikings, it turns out, have a low tolerance for murder. Now you’ve found a new island home and you’d like to tempt some of your former colleagues into joining you, but how are you going to get them to sail across the bitter north Atlantic to settle on a hunk of rock that’s 80% covered by an ice sheet? Why, just call it “Greenland,” of course.

That’s pretty much the approach taken by Frank Rolfe, whose sometimes misleading promotion of RV parks was last mentioned in this blog Sept. 18. But now Rolfe seems to be stepping up his game, headlining last week’s email blast with the seductive promise, “Vacation while you work: welcome to the RV park owners lifestyle.” Land ho! Is that a massive, glaciated island up ahead?

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume Rolfe is simply clueless and not actually trying to sell us the Brooklyn Bridge. Still, there are some real howlers in his polemic, such as the claim that “you have the best of both worlds” when owning an RV park because this “will allow you to effectively feel like you’re on vacation while you’re working.” He then goes on to list the benefits of a hands-on approach to ownership, concluding with this bit of supposed wisdom: “You can also select exactly how you spend your time each day, and never again miss out on any personal activities that you would like to attend. At the end of your life, you will never think back on ‘could I have done something different that I would have liked more’ as you have taken your destiny into your own hands.”

Uh-huh. This is from a man who apparently never, you know, actually ran an RV park. True, he did operate a trailer park–or mobile home park, as he prefers to call it–some two decades ago, but these days he busies himself as an investor, not an operator. More to the point, claiming contemporary RV park insight based on 20-year-old trailer park experience is like having a typewriter repairman tell you what you need to upgrade your MS-DOS platform and thinking he’s kept up with the times.

To put it most bluntly, these days the RV park business is a ball-buster. It was never easy–no hospitality industry is, given that every customer is your “boss”–but the past couple of years have been wracked by a worker shortage, an increasingly pugnacious public and a wave of newcomers who often don’t have the vaguest idea of how to operate their equipment. Both the hours and the seasons have grown longer, even as tempers get shorter. Not only is there no room to “select exactly how you spend your time each day,” there isn’t enough day to do all the things that must be done, and never mind the “personal activities that you would like to attend.”

If that’s your idea of a vacation, I hear there’s a nice little cottage available in this paradise-on-earth we call Greenland. . . .

Amping the glamping

Bella Solviva, according to its owners, Brad and Sandy Carlson, supposedly means “beautiful hope.” “Beautiful hype” might have been more like it, as perhaps signalled by its inexplicable mash-up of two different languages.

Bella Solviva was unveiled in 2015, amid fawning media coverage and lavish online pictures, as a 229-acre first-class Michigan glamping resort. Visitors would be able to book a dizzying array of accommodations, from converted yachts and an airliner to luxury tents, travel trailers and treehouses, and would have access to such amenities as a fitness center, massages and catered meals. The “eco-chic” facility would feature organic cotton linens and grey water recycling. As reservations started rolling in, Bella Solviva’s website also offered annual memberships, a rewards program and purchase of gift certificates of up to $5,000.

It was all a scam. The pictures were copied from other sites, ground was never broken and various necessary permits were never obtained–even as Bella Solviva continued soliciting reservations. After two years of growing consumer complaints, the Better Business Bureau issued a consumer alert observing that the company had not “even started initial construction,” and less than a week after that the road-side sign marking the property had disappeared. Bella Solviva as a corporate entity was dissolved a year later, in July of 2018. But it took another three years after that for the Carlsons to be called to account–if you can call it that–as they pleaded no contest this past week to multiple state charges of larceny. Their penalty? Two years’ probation.

This wasn’t the couple’s first exercise in financial recklessness (to be kind), as they had juggled several businesses over the years with no apparent success and had filed for bankruptcy just a couple of years before starting the glamping grift. But the more dismaying aspect of the entire episode is how Bella Solviva lives on in some quarters, a zombie scam that refuses to die even though it’s been defanged.

To whit: this past June 15–which is to say, months after the Carlsons were indicted and years after their scam had gone up in smoke–a website called RVshare published what it described as an updated version of an article it had previously published April 13, 2016. The headline on the 2021 “update?” “Luxurious Glamping in Northern Michigan.” The text went on to rhapsodically describe a facility “that will offer guests a combination of contact with natural beauty and all the creature comforts of modern life,” while also acknowledging that “the resort is still in its preliminary stages.”

Indeed. Proving, yet again, that just because you read something doesn’t mean it’s true.

History repeats

Public perception is a fickle thing, buffeted by changing circumstances and shallow emotions, and the RVing world is not exempt from its vagaries.

Back in the 1920s, for example, the growing affordability of automobiles resulted–among other things–in an explosion of car camping among the middle class. Unfortunately, the democratization of a previously elite pastime grated on the more affluent, who did their best to tamp down this encroachment on their turf. As quoted by Terence Young in his book Heading Out, from a widely circulated camping publication of the time, efforts to exclude “obnoxious” campers included instituting campground fees, “not because the camp managers need to raise any more money, but to keep out the ‘cheap camper,’ called by the Forest Service men a ‘white gypsy.'”

A decade later, car-camping as the epitome of camping convenience was surpassed by the size and amenities of camping trailers, which did away with the nuisance of having to set up a tent. But those same features also opened up the possibility of other uses, and as camping trailers became more affordable (as had automobiles before them), the Great Depression recast them as housing alternatives for those with no other options. With public perception of trailers shifting from cushy camping to inexpensive housing, officials overseeing the still fledgling supply of public campgrounds became increasingly alarmed. Camping trailers were “a highly objectionable and dangerous feature” in campgrounds, warned Emilio P. Meinecke, perhaps the nation’s preeminent architect of campground design. If not regulated closely, he warned, the trailers would create “a new type of city slum or suburban village with a floating population.”

Fast-forward nearly eighty years, and Meinecke’s fears–at that time on behalf of national forests and parks–are now applicable to the cities and suburbs themselves. Not just cars, vans and travel trailers, but tents and motor coaches have all become fixtures on streets throughout the United States, and especially in the warmer parts of the country. What just a few years ago was a “stealth” mode of creating shelter has become increasingly overt, culminating last month in the owner of a Class C parked on a Seattle street building a wooden second floor on top of his motorhome. (City authorities eventually made him remove the superstructure.)

City officials everywhere are struggling to cope with these incursions, which over the past 18 months have grown more pervasive due to the impact of Covid-19 on homeless shelters. Their efforts range from adopting draconian restrictions on who can park what kind of vehicle where and for how long, which doesn’t address root causes, to creating designated parking lots for RVs, which when underfunded and under-serviced simply concentrate the problem–again, without addressing root causes.

The general public, meanwhile, may end up viewing RVs with the same skepticism it had in the run-up to World War II. And that, in turn, may tarnish RVs as déclassé affectations, bastard children that are neither home nor vehicle, more public blight than private luxury.

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