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.

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