We’re not ready for the new normal

As California reels from a two-week series of storms that have claimed at least 18 lives, forced tens of thousands to evacuate and permanently altered the landscape, the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) finally took notice yesterday with an email blast from its disaster relief foundation, requesting donations to help battered campgrounds. The solicitation was heralded with the bold statement, “When natural disasters strike, it’s in our nature to help.”

Well, maybe sorta.

While the jury is still out on the helpful nature of the industry’s recent wave of institutional investors, ARVC members’ recent track record of helpfulness is not reassuring. As I reported in a November post, mere weeks after dozens of Florida campgrounds were devastated—some terminally—by Hurricane Ian, the ARVC Foundation had dispensed slightly more than $20,000 in disaster relief for all of 2022. And Hurricane Ian was far from the only weather disaster to ravage the U.S. last year, as witness the following graphic (a larger version can be seen here):

Indeed, it’s ironic that ARVC jumped on the assistance bandwagon just one day after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released that map as part of a larger report on 18 U.S. weather disasters in 2022, each causing at least $1 billion in damage. That’s the third costliest such tally on record, trailing only 2017 and 2005, both those years also marked by severe hurricanes. Ian led the charge this time, with a $112.9 billion price tag contributing the lion’s share of a tentative $165 billion in total damages—tentative because the final total is still awaiting cost estimates from a year-end winter storm that could add as much as $5 billion. Oh, and lest we forget: those 18 supercharged weather events also caused 474 deaths. The price tag for those is incalculable.

Now we’re off to the races again, jump-starting the casualty and damage steeplechase with torrential downpours that are predicted to start tapering off over the next week or so. The destruction no doubt will exceed NOAA’s billion-dollar threshold for inclusion in the 2023 map, continuing a pattern that since 2016 accounts for more than $1 trillion in damage and more than 5,000 deaths. While the campground industry obviously is no more than a footnote on that balance sheet, it’s just as obvious that $20,000 in damage relief doesn’t begin to address the need. Yes, every bit helps for those lucky enough to get a donation. But let’s also acknowledge that such help ultimately is as futile as bailing out a lake with a tin cup, amounting to little more than feel-good virtue signaling.

What’s to be done? For starters, ARVC and the rest of the industry must step out of their glamping bubble, look around at the natural landscape, and recognize that the natural order of things really is undergoing a fundamental change. You can’t deal with a problem without first acknowledging that it exists. The blissfully mild and predictable weather patterns of 40 and 50 years ago are growing steadily more anarchic, and more recently have become downright nihilistic—not everywhere, and not all the time, but often enough to demand attention. Unfortunately, that means talking about a phenomenon that most campground owners resolutely deny is even a thing, much less something that requires a response from them.

Meanwhile, although ARVC might be expected to provide leadership on the matter, this is an organization that operates with a transactional business model: the things that get talked about must either a) strengthen the executive suite; or b) enable someone to sell something, be it a product or a service. EV charging stations currently are a hot topic not because of ARVC’s commitment to a carbon-free future, but because RV manufacturers are developing electric RVs that they won’t be able to sell if their customers won’t have any place to plug them in. Nothing wrong with that, any more than there was anything wrong with promoting on-line reservation systems or enhanced campground wi-fi capabilities—just don’t confuse all that with a policy-driven agenda.

So until either someone figures out a way to make money off natural disasters or ARVC has a come-to-Jesus moment about climate change, the tin cup response will be the default position—again and again. “Groundhog Day” comes to mind. So does that quotation attributed to Einstein about the definition of insanity.

Even redwood trees like this one, at Sue-meg State Park in Humboldt County, CA, are succumbing to the relentless wind and rain buffeting the Pacific Coast. Be glad you weren’t camping here.

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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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