Mom and pop: pretty much out of it

Some myths die hard. Case in point: the declaration by Jayne Cohen to 30 or so industry newbies that RV parks and campgrounds “are a mom-and-pop industry.”

That warm comment was made at a morning session of the “Prospective Owners Workshop,” hosted by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds as an add-on to its national convention a couple of weeks ago. Cohen is a long-time industry veteran who retired from the hands-on business of running campgrounds a decade ago to become an industry consultant. Her assertion was intended as encouragement, an assurance that unlike most other business ventures, campgrounds are run by friendly, people-oriented types who will bend over backwards to help each other, offer advice and share their knowledge. You won’t be alone, she was telling those newbies.

Maybe not so much.

A lot has happened in the past decade. There still are a lot of mom-and-pop operators around the country, but they’re quickly being elbowed aside by investors more concerned with debt leverage and financing their next acquisition than in helping out some greenhorn. And as the money becomes more important than the myth, that quasi-frontier mentality of “we’re all in this together” is being stripped out.

Two sets of numbers help put this in focus. One is the attendance figures ARVC trumpeted for its convention, including 1,127 attendees “representing” over 1,500 member parks. Think what that means. First, the number of campground owners was significantly less than 1,127, because the attendees list included several hundred vendors and exhibitors, as well as multiple attendees—spouses, adult children, employees— from individual properties. Second, that widening of the gap between ownerss and parks implies that as many as two-thirds of the 1,500-plus “represented parks” didn’t have someone who actually works the property attending the convention. Put another way, most of those “represented campgrounds” were links in a group or chain, not family businesses run by scrappy entrepreneurs.

The other number worth noting came from the ARVC Foundation, a charitable arm of the association that raises money from its members for disaster relief and education. “It’s in our nature to help,” assured a foundation spokeswoman on the convention floor, as she ticked off the natural disasters that had battered RV parks and campgrounds in the past year—culminating, just weeks earlier, in a devastating romp through Florida by Hurricane Ian. The amount in disaster grants doled out by the foundation in the year to date? A grand total of slightly more than $20,000—less than $15 per “represented” campground in the audience. How embarrassing is that?

It’s not that the traditional campground stalwarts have become suddenly cold-hearted. It’s that they’re dying off, like consummate industry promoter David Berg did last year, or they’re throwing in the towel and selling, or they’re simply being outnumbered by the more bottom-line oriented newcomers.

Even as veterans like Jayne Cohen maintain the myth of a warm and fuzzy campground culture, ARVC itself is growing ever more distant from its meat-and-potatoes members. This year’s convention registration initially was priced at $495—but only if convention-goers also booked their stay at the Rosen Center, at a cost of more than $1,000 a room. Otherwise, registration was going to get bumped up another $200—this for a crowd that includes campground owners who travel to conventions in their own RVs and stay at local RV parks. (It appears that this $200 penalty was eventually dropped, although it’s unclear how many attendees got clipped first.) Filet mignon and lobster, anyone?

As tone-deaf as that was, ARVC found another way to squeeze those least able to afford it: it touted “buyer workshops,” an offer to rebate convention registration fees to attendees who agreed to schedule individual meetings with five different vendors. These captive-audience sessions, more appropriately termed “seller workshops,” resembled nothing so much as an offer of free restaurant meals to lure the unwary to a time-share sales pitch. Investor-owners could readily pass on such a deal, but mom-and-pop owners? To those already bludgeoned by a four-figure hotel bill, a $500 savings could be just too much to resist.

As with its simultaneous push to create campground “standards,” ARVC clearly is following the money. It can be argued—and there are those who do— that this is an inevitable evolution of the industry and that it’s futile to resist the trend. Perhaps—although it’s worth noting that the country’s four most populous states, California, New York, Texas and Florida, all have their own campground associations that are not part of ARVC, suggesting that there’s a price to pay for becoming too distant from the grassroots.

Yet inevitable or not, the times have changed. A purely mom-and-pop industry this no longer is, and Jayne Cohen probably knows that, her assurances otherwise notwithstanding. Prospective campground owners should know that, too.

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FEMA didn’t get ARVC’s admonition

The split personality afflicting the RV industry, in which it can’t quite decide whether the wheeled homes it produces are recreational or residential in nature, has been on display again the past couple of weeks. The confusion is all but certain to result in calamity some day.

On the record, at least, the RV Industry Association (RVIA), the RV Dealers Association (RVDA) and the National Association of of RV Parks and Campgrounds(ARVC) all agree that the fifth-wheels and travel trailers that serve as vacation homes for millions of Americans are not meant for permanent, or even long-term, residency. Ditto for RV park models, which look every bit as sturdy and livable as their close cousins, the single-wide mobile homes beside which they are sometimes parked.

The distinction isn’t merely semantic. As I’ve written before, RVs are legally viewed as vehicles and are built to different codes than house trailers, which are defined as housing and therefore subject to more rigorous construction standards. The only notable distinction between the two is that as long as a house on wheels has less than 400 square feet under its roof—excluding lofts and outside porches—it only has to conform to the voluntary consensus standards set by the American National Standards Institute; more than 400 square feet and it has to meet more stringent Housing and Urban Development regulations.

The RV industry likes things this way because it means lower costs and less meddlesome interference from government regulators, which is understandable from a libertarian perspective—even if it does result in correspondingly shoddier and even life-threatening construction. As reported by the Indianapolis Star a month ago, in a devastating series that the RV industry has resolutely ignored, RV assembly workers don’t even need a license or certification to do electrical work, a level of lax oversight that HUD would never tolerate.

What brings this to mind is a general session at last week’s ARVC convention under the self-congratulatory title, “How National ARVC’s Advocacy Works for You.” Among the panelists was Wade Elliott, who has worked tirelessly over the years to raise electrical standards for campgrounds that in many cases were a do-it-yourselfer’s nightmare of undersized wiring, reversed grounds and shoddy work-arounds. Yet even Elliott demonstrated that he’s bought the myth that there’s a bright line between recreational vehicles and residential ones. Asked by an audience member why RVs shouldn’t be required to meet housing electrical standards, since there are so many people living in RVs, his answer was a short, “Well, they shouldn’t be living in them!”

Maybe not—there are a lot of “shouldn’ts,” including the necessary observation that people shouldn’t be living on sidewalks, either. But that’s the world we live in, and it’s naive at best and immeasurably cruel at worst to pretend otherwise.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that the federal government is no less fuzzy on the question of whether RVs are suitable as living quarters. Without any apparent recognition of the irony involved, RVIA issued a press release yesterday under the headline, “FEMA to Release Accessible Emergency Housing Proposal Request to RV Manufacturers.” As further detailed in the release, the Federal Emergency Management Agency wants to ensure access to a supply of RVs that are ADA compliant, with counter-top heights, thermostat placements and bathrooms suitable for wheelchair use.

The release stressed that “manufacturers will be able to use their existing processes, suppliers and materials,” and that FEMA will “do a significant run of units to create a stock of accessible travel trailers.” No mention, of course, of building the RVs to stricter HUD requirements—ANSI regs will suffice. And no acknowledgment of Elliott’s view that people “shouldn’t be living in them” because, of course, we all know they do. Even people in wheelchairs. In disaster areas.

What could possibly go wrong?

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Increasingly, it’s about da Benjamins

For all the high-fives and back-patting on display at the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds convention last week, an undercurrent of anxiety rippled just beneath the surface. Yes, the 2022 camping season was one of the best ever. Yes, there’s a wave of new campers invigorating the industry. And yes, a lot of the new-timers are more affluent than the fuddy-duddy boomers who dominated the landscape for so long. And yet. . . .

And yet, as strong as business was this year, for the most part it barely improved on 2021. As observed at an afternoon cracker barrel session led by Larry Brownfield, assistant vice president for franchise development at KOA, franchise revenues were up about 3% for the year even as camper nights were flat—in other words, any growth came from squeezing money out of a static customer base, not from increased business. Meanwhile, as summarized by economist Bob Kaplan in a breakout session on the economic outlook for 2023, industry headwinds are still gathering strength, including higher operating costs, higher fuel prices and inflationary pressures on family budgets.

Indeed, if there was one recurring theme to all the dollars-and-cents discussions, it was the observation that camping is becoming a pricey pastime. Propelled by a high savings rate during the many months of pandemic shut-downs, households were “flush with cash to spend on leisure activities,” Kaplan observed, to which the industry responded with opportunistic enthusiasm. As the number of camping households with annual incomes of more than $100,000 doubled from 2019 to 2021, the average cost of new RVs jumped 20% in three years, site rates kept going up, and the campground industry’s compound annual growth rate soared by half, to 12.7%, “an awesome number” that transformed the staid sector into a growth industry almost overnight.

But as seasoned investors are fond of saying, nothing grows to the sky. A strong dollar has made overseas tourism increasingly competitive with domestic travel—and as camping gets more expensive, hotels and other resorts also are competing for the same now shrinking pool of pent-up savings. Indeed, said Kaplan, demand for quality hotel rooms is already outstripping supply. Higher interest rates and rising fuel prices are deflating the RV sales balloon. And campground buyers are taking note and pulling back, as evidenced by a gradual rise in capitalization rates of newly sold properties, a marker of higher investment risk.

More cautious campground owners also are paying attention. Judy Brown, owner of a Florida RV park, said her campground now is almost completely occupied by full-timers, a hedge against softening transient demand and a transition enabled by the state’s flood of hurricane refugees. And Eric Rasmussen, president and director of acquisitions for Spacious Skies, an aggressively expanding chain of RV parks in the eastern U.S., said the company has started evaluating whether some of its properties should start accepting more long-term campers to ensure steadier cash flow.

While KOA and Spacious Skies both claim not to be changing their acquisition strategies—yet—Brownfield forecast that 2023 would be flat or even slightly down from this year. The “prudent” thing to do in an inflationary environment, he said, would be to reduce debt—the implication being that KOA’s pace of acquisitions may in fact start slowing down. Rasmussen, meanwhile, suggested that campground owners should “fire” their lower-end customers to make room for those who can absorb higher rates, another hint of growing financial stress.

Yet if the RV park industry indeed is heading into a significant slowdown, that may—somewhat paradoxically—result in a renewed acquisition spree. There’s more than $365 billion in cash sitting on the sidelines of the private real estate sector, Kaplan noted, just waiting for good opportunities, and real estate traditionally has been a safe haven in inflationary times.

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The new ‘campers’ really aren’t

If there’s one trend that has many veteran campground and RV park owners shaking their heads, it’s the largely pandemic-driven phenomenon of “the new camper.” Considerably younger, more diverse and more urban than their predecessors, the newcomers have changed not just the quantity of campers, but their overall quality—and not always in a good way. At least not from a traditionalist perspective.

Perhaps no one statistic sums up this new reality more succinctly than the answers to a Campspot survey, taken this past August, that among other things asked campers why they camp. A less than overwhelming 10% of 1,556 respondents answered “to spend time in nature.” The three larger responses could as readily have applied to an ocean cruise, a hotel stay or a ski resort: 23% for vacation family time, 19% for relaxation and 17% for proximity to outdoor activities. In other words, the one characteristic that traditionally set camping apart from all other vacation options has become the least important reason for doing it.

A summary of the Campspot survey was distributed at a breakout session at the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds annual convention last week, which was only fitting. Campspot, a cloud-based campground reservation management system, has been a principal driver behind both the swelling tide of new campers—who are most comfortable in the online universe—and of the increasingly transactional nature of “the camping experience.” With more than 2,000 campgrounds in its customer base, for which it processed more than $1 billion in gross bookings within a recent 12-month period, Campspot has been a leader in pushing “revenue optimization” in all its various incarnations, including demand pricing, site-lock fees and increasingly onerous cancellation fees.

But other industry representatives at the ARVC convention sang the same tune, usually to lay the groundwork for urging campground owners to accommodate the changing demographics. Typical in that regard was the observation by Jon Gray of RVshare, a peer-to-peer RV rental company, that the new campers are “looking for hotel-type amenities,” which he contended is a “great opportunity” for campground operators. In real-world terms, “great opportunity” means the opportunity to spend more money on various upgrades, increased amenities and all the marketing bells and whistles that go along with that. More spending, in turn, will necessitate higher rates, but the new campers, everyone seems to agree, not only can afford to foot the bill but won’t even notice the difference. “They’re conditioned for it—nobody says anything,” piped up an audience member at the Campspot presentation.

Indeed, KOA’s North American Camping Report 2022, released in late April, found that nearly 40% of the new campers have annual household incomes exceeding $100,000. Moreover, nearly half went glamping in 2021 and the rest planned to glamp this year, which is to say, planned on the least outdoorsy—and most expensive— way to “camp.” That high level of glamping interest contributed to KOA’s broader finding that 36% of all campers went on a glamping trip for the first time in 2021, with 50% saying they would seek a glamping trip this year.

While industry purists may shake their heads at such trends, others are all too willing to jump aboard what they see as a gravy train. As one such campground owner observed at a cracker barrel discussion about managing RV parks in a softening economy, “When we first started we welcomed everyone, but then we started upgrading our clientele.” Added another campground manager, who runs a large Florida park, ” People will pay to have fun. That will never go away.”

Just how pervasive the change has become was evidenced by ARVC’s choice of campgrounds for its prospective owners’ workshop, a pre-convention one-day session attended by approximately 30 people learning the business as they prepare to build or buy an RV park of their own. Following a morning of quick-and-dirty workshops, the prospective owners piled into a bus to drive an hour to . . . Camp Margaritaville RV Resort, the only example of what an RV park looks like that they would be shown.

Nice place, Margaritaville. Two restaurants, 401 sites that include 75 RV park models, 650 imported palm trees, artificial turf throughout, its own call center, a cashless economy—everything that’s needed, said one of its amiable owners, “to propel old-style RV parks into the present day.”

[Next post: Whistling past the graveyard? Despite all the upbeat emphasis on “the new camper,” a softening economy has some campground owners scrambling.]

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ARVC struggles with park ‘standards’

You know an initiative is in trouble when a) the people presenting it tell you not to get hung up on what it’s called; and b) the actual text of what’s being proposed is only talked about but never shared.

So it was at the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) convention this past week and its curiously emasculated discussion of an unprecedented set of industry “standards.” A first for RV parks and nearly a year in the works, the Voluntary Standards for Outdoor Hospitality Operations had been crafted by a nine-member task force chaired by past ARVC chair Kathy Palmeri, who acknowledged that something of the sort had been suggested 20 years ago but quickly got deep-sixed when it ran into a buzz-saw of member opposition.

Some things don’t change. Initially scheduled to be released over the summer, so ARVC members would be able to review them before the convention and thereby provide informed feedback, the standards instead were held back in an apparent effort to forestall concerted opposition. The pushback had already started, according to several insiders, and resistance was intense. An industry still dominated by intensely independent owners who don’t like being told how to run their businesses was not keen on having their association tell them how they should do things.

Addressing hundreds of campground owners at the convention, a noticeably defensive Palmeri explained that the task force had decided convention goers should have “context” before getting an actual document. There should be no rush to judgment. Campground owners shouldn’t get hung up on the word “standards,” she said, adding that “there should be no angst about it,” that the standards were completely voluntary and that they were, in any case, responsive to public demand for something of the sort.

Pushing on, Palmeri contended that industry changes were forcing ARVC’s hand. “There used to be a real solid campground culture,” she explained, “but that day is done, so we have to react to that.” More millennials, more institutional investors, more first-time campers—all called for more standardization, and if ARVC didn’t meet that challenge, then who would? Campground owners, she finished in an awkward flourish, could no longer “live under a rock.”

For all that “context,” however, still no standards. Instead, a last-minute and thinly advertised break-out session was scheduled with Palmeri and most of the task force, drawing 50 to 60 attendees before the meeting room doors were inexplicably closed. Without an actual document to discuss, those in the room had an hour of abstract discussion in which it became clear that a primary impetus for standard-setting was coming not from the camping public, but from the new money flowing into the industry. As Palmeri amplified, a seat-of-the-pants mom-and-pop industry “had flown under the radar for a lot of years, and we were happy to do that. But it’s a new day,” and the new players “are hungry for this kind of information.”

That information clearly is still being sorted out, as the new standards are still nowhere to be found. Instead, ARVC has emailed an extensive survey to its members, asking them to agree or disagree whether scores of benchmarks should be included in the standards, and whether each acceptable benchmark should be “essential” for all parks or simply “aspirational.” There are 10 “domains” of benchmarks, covering such broad categories as guest services, security, staffing and maintenance, some with dozens of individual items. Although Palmeri said the survey can be completed in 15 to 20 minutes, those few people in the room who had already filled it out advised budgeting an hour or so.

Campground owners who are not ARVC members–and there are many—can only peer through the window.

One further complicating factor to all this is a task force recommendation that ARVC create some kind of “good housekeeping seal of approval” for campgrounds that meet the standards. What, after all, is the point of having standards if no one knows which RV parks meet them and which don’t? Yet as one park owner complained, doing so moves ARVC one step closer to being a governing body, “which it’s not supposed to be.” And as another park owner observed, creating industry standards is little more than an invitation for lawsuits against RV parks that don’t adopt them, “voluntary” be damned.

Such objections notwithstanding, big money will have its way—and big money needs standardization in the service of predictability. Throw in ARVC’s ongoing drive to be more “professional” and less clubby, and you have a perfect storm of rule-making zeal. Camping indeed ain’t what it used to be.

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RV meetings will ignore the elephant

Private campground owners from around the country will descend on Orlando, Florida the next couple of weeks for two of the year’s biggest annual conventions, hosted by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) next week and Kampgrounds of America (KOA) the week after. And next week, at least, the subject most prominently on the agenda–as it was last year–will be electric vehicles (EVs) and how they “are poised to be a major factor in the future of outdoor hospitality.”

How prominently? For openers, a plenary panel led by ARVC president Paul Bambei on Tuesday morning will provide “a vision of the future where EVs play an integral role in outdoor hospitality.” Immediately following will be a lunch panel, “Your Campground’s EV Road Map,” described in early convention programs in language exactly the same as used for the earlier panel. Apparently this will not be a fast-charging discussion.

Two predictions about this confab. Number one, the elephant in the room will be completely ignored. Number two, while convention-goers will be urged to start installing EV chargers at their campgrounds, little to no attention will be paid to the costs of such an amenity. While much will be made of how EV chargers are a necessary accommodation for a changing customer base (ARVC already is claiming that EV owners are currently twice as likely as everyone else to be campers), to which will be added the observation that campgrounds offering such chargers will have a competitive edge, any analysis of the costs that face campgrounds going the EV route will be sketchy at best.

It’s not that the charging station itself is prohibitively expensive: figure $500 for the equipment and possibly a like amount for installation of a Level 2 EV charger, which is sufficient for a full recharge overnight. (Level 3 “fast” chargers are commercial grade and therefore in an entirely different price category, starting at $20,000 per charger.) Assuming, therefore, that a campground wanted to ease into the EV world with half-a-dozen Level 2 chargers, it could do so for $6,000 or so, which won’t break anyone’s bank.

The problem is how to recoup the “fuel” costs. The amount of EV traffic into RV parks is still nominal, prompting most campgrounds that offer charging stations to simply absorb the cost as a goodwill loss-leader. But as more EVs start hooking up to a campground’s grid, that nominal expense will become a growing hit against the bottom line–inevitably prompting campground owners to wonder just how much of an increased cost they incurred and how they can start charging for the energy they’d been giving away.

The answer, alas, is “it depends.”

Electricity sales, unlike gasoline, are monopolized by electric utilities operating under rules that vary from state to state, with billing practices that vary from one utility to another. Most states, for example, don’t allow resellers of electricity to make a profit in doing so–all they can do is pass along their costs. And while such restrictions are gradually loosening up, seven states still regulate EV charging as the exclusive domain of electric companies, as described in a recent Politico article.

A second variable is what’s known as a “demand charge,” which homeowners don’t encounter but some business owners–including those who own campgrounds–know all too well. Demand charges are meant to compensate utilities for providing enough delivery infrastructure to meet spikes in demand caused by businesses with a lot of highly variable consumption–such as campgrounds. The demand charge is a base fee that is multiplied by the kilowatts consumed at peak demand each month, and is in addition to the per kilowatt cost of the electricity itself.

The problem for campground owners is that there is no one standard demand charge across the country: such charges vary wildly from one utility to another. And while Level 2 charging stations are not consumption black holes like Level 3 stations, they nevertheless can add an incremental boost to peak demand that will have a disproportionate effect on the final bill, as the higher demand charge will be multiplied across all of that month’s kilowatt consumption.

(Campground owners, for these and other reasons, should completely abandon any idea of installing Level 3 charging stations. As Politico reports, “Electrify America, a leading charging provider, says that demand charges are up to 80 percent of the cost” of operating Level 3 charging stations.)

Sorting out such cost complexities requires a lot of study and possibly the advice of a consultant, and undoubtedly will not be something the ARVC panels explore in any meaningful fashion, if at all. But back to that elephant. The other subject the convention won’t address–my second prediction–is the growing vulnerability of RV parks and campgrounds to climate change and extreme weather.

It’s ironic, actually, that ARVC will be meeting in a state that only weeks ago was battered so severely by Hurricane Ian that several dozen campgrounds were shut down, some permanently. Horrendous as the destruction was, and as inevitable as it is that similarly extreme storms will strike not just Florida but many other states, not one mention of the climate threat appears in the convention’s program. The cost and availability of flood or property insurance, best practices in fire- or flood-prone areas, how to determine when it no longer makes sense to rebuild–all these and a host of other pressing topics never made it into the program.

It’s likely that the KOA convention will be just as mum on the subject, since the industry’s “thought leaders” seem incapable of actually leading on so threatening an issue. One might wonder how much longer they can ignore the elephant in the room, but the fact that they’ll be doing so in Florida suggests their myopia cannot be overestimated.

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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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