When the house is on fire, you yell!

Just in time for hurricane season, which officially kicks off June 1, the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds today held a webinar/campfire session about disaster planning. The session wasn’t without merit, but as with many ARVC offerings, it was reactive rather than proactive, following the news rather than getting ahead of it. Moreover, the session failed to deliver on a timely promise that it would “consider insurance options,” the lack of which is shaping up as a crucial economic threat to the industry.

Yes, it’s critical for RV parks to have written disaster plans, to get in the habit of educating their guests about the kinds of disasters most common to the area and how to respond to them, and to have a close working relationship with local first-responders—all bases covered by the ARVC panelists. But these and similar bits of advice are limited in scope and imagination, a quiet murmur at the back of a room that badly needs to be shocked awake by a loud klaxon wail. As Susan Motley, ARVC’s education director, mildly observed, “We’re having disasters now in areas where people aren’t used to having them”—not that there’s much outreach to ARVC members about what that means.

Campers know about the growing challenge first-hand. Nearly one in five told The Dyrt for its 2023 camping report that wildfires and other natural disasters had disrupted their camping plans in 2022—triple the rate in 2019. Tornados, hurricanes, atmospheric rivers and record-breaking snowfalls have added to an assault most prominently headlined by wildfires, with their continent-spanning smoke plumes. As reported yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle, at least five popular state parks in the Sierra are buried in so much snow they won’t be able to open their campgrounds by Memorial Day weekend—and maybe not until well into June, depending on how much damage the melting snows reveal.

An eye-opening snapshot of current environmental risks is provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose National Risk Index maps 18 different threats across the U.S. But as important as knowing where we are is knowing where we’re headed, and in that respect the news isn’t good: as I wrote back in early March, First Street Foundation makes current circumstances seem downright utopian compared to what we can expect over the next 30 years. And First Street thus far has looked at only four of the 18 extreme weather events that FEMA has been mapping.

The striking thing about all these assessments is that when they’re plotted on a map, you quickly realize the last places you’d want to live or camp—or own a campground—are either Florida (and the Gulf Coast in general) or California (and the West Coast in general). And if the maps don’t convince you of that, the insurance melt-down in both states should. Weather-inflicted damage in both states is so severe that both have back-up insurance plans (so-called Fair Access to Insurance Requirements plans, or FAIR) to provide at least some limited coverage when private sector insurers go belly-up or refuse to sell or renew policies, which has been occurring with increasing frequency. Now even the FAIR plans are foundering.

Florida’s, for example, said last month it may have to borrow as much as $750 million to cover claims caused by Hurricane Ian, an expense that comes at an especially inopportune time given today’s high interest rates. In California, meanwhile, the state-run FAIR plan has accumulated a $332 million deficit while it charges premiums that are too low and has limited reinsurance coverage in case of future catastrophic wildfires. Such plans amount to a hidden tax that politicians don’t like to acknowledge, and they’re growing at a rapid clip: Florida’s FAIR plan has tripled the number of its policies since 2019; nationwide, FAIR policies saw a 29% growth in policy numbers from 2018 to 2021.

It goes almost without saying that campgrounds and RV parks are more vulnerable than other businesses to environmental assault. Many are located along coasts, lakes or inland waterways susceptible to flooding, and many more are in heavily wooded areas that make them sitting ducks in a wildfire–but the standard guidelines for reducing fire exposure, such as removing vegetation within 100 to 200 feet of any structure or RV pad, would essentially create a parking lot. Most are located in rural areas, where fire fighters, EMTs and law enforcement are stretched thin and can need lengthy response times. Disaster is not only more likely to strike a campground than, say, a motel or hotel, but when it does, it’s likely to cause more lasting damage.

These are complicated problems to assess and analyze, which may be reason enough for ARVC to shirk from doing so. Nor does it help that ARVC members as a rule are in deep denial about their predicament—if it were otherwise, they’d be clamoring for ARVC to step up to the plate. They’d be insisting that ARVC create a national database of the specific environmental threats faced by each RV park and campground; they’d push for an inventory of which campgrounds have suffered what natural disaster damages and at what cost; and they’d compel ARVC to start the discussion about insurance options that was promised for today.

You can’t effectively address a problem until you’ve defined its nature and dimensions. What came through in today’s webinar, however, was at best a fragmented understanding of a growing threat, and a somewhat wistful reliance on the industry’s long-cherished tradition of campground owners helping each other in times of need. That’s an admirable history, indeed, but one that’s completely inadequate for the size and scale of the storms ahead.

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March madness, campground-style

There’s a different sort of March madness that has nothing to do with basketball: it’s the annual flood of numbers and statistics for the previous year, compiled from various year-end reports and surveys. Some are revealing, some are of dubious value and some hint at truths that may unfold over the next year or so. Almost all get trotted out on behalf of one agenda or another, and all are enough to make anyone’s head spin.

One of the most questionable bits of accounting has to do with the size and economic impact of the outdoor recreation industry. A malleable business segment whose definition will vary from one person to another, it generally eschews any kind of government involvement—until there are tax dollars to be dispensed, at which time various PR engines kick into high gear to extol the importance of outdoor spending to the overall economy, to the health of the planet and to the wellbeing of all Americans. And so as the Outdoor Recreation Act lurches toward Congressional adoption, supporters have been underscoring its importance by claiming that outdoor recreation contributes a whopping $862 billion to the U.S. economy and therefore is not to be taken lightly. The RV Industry Association has chimed in by claiming that its piece of the action has been $140 billion, and of that, $35.7 billion is attributed to RV parks and campgrounds.

Yowza! $140 billion from RVing? Almost $36 billion from RV parks and campgrounds? Sounds impressive as hell—until you realize that the International Dairy Foods Association claims the dairy industry had an economic impact of $753 billion in 2021, or 3.5% of that year’s U.S. gross domestic product. Just for cow juice. Meanwhile, the bottled water industry says it expects its revenues to reach $95 billion this year, a bit more than the $91.4 billion in projected spending this year for beauty and personal care products, and even the justifiably maligned tobacco industry has U.S. sales of more than $100 billion a year. Those 11- and 12-digit numbers start adding up pretty fast, and as you slice and dice the economy into its various products and services, you soon realize that their combined “contributions” to the overall economy are larger than the whole. Since that’s mathematically impossible, could it be that each group of industry promoters has been just a wee bit fast and loose with definitions and numbers?

Realistic or not, though, industry representatives by their very nature will portray their businesses as economically important, growing and vital. In that regard it’s instructive to look at RVIA’s recently released survey profiling last year’s new RV buyers. A key finding: the new buyers are unquestionably younger than in past years, with 65% categorized as millennials and only 3% as boomers. With a median age of 32 and a median household income of $80,900, last year’s buyers were buying RVs priced at an average of $92,415—suggesting either that this is a generation with unexpected wealth or one that is willing, because of its youth, to take on some lengthy financing. The latter seems more likely, but either way, RVIA is intent on letting us know that this is a growth industry with a bright future and not just some fuddy-duddy backwater.

But there are other considerations. While the RVIA survey reports that almost a third of the new buyers expect to be camping at privately owned RV parks, a national survey released yesterday by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds suggests those parks may not be as roomy as needed. Although 48% of campground owners had projected they would add a total of 81,000 new RV sites nationwide in 2022, the actual number was closer to 17,000. Moreover, fewer RV parks anticipate adding new sites this year—only 28%, for a projected increase of 44,000 sites—so given recent history, it’s fair to assume that the actual inventory increase may well be less than 10,000. That won’t go far in relieving the increased demand.

Meanwhile, although ARVC’s study is reasonably helpful in its national overview, its sample size is too small to draw definitive conclusions about various parts of the country—which is a shame, because the numbers it does have hint at significant regional differences. Overall, the study suggests that the campground industry is considerably stronger in the 12-state southern region than in the 13 states west of the 100th meridian, including a larger percentage overall of corporate-owned and franchised operations—and therefore deeper pockets— in the south than elsewhere. It therefore may not be surprising that only 18% of western campgrounds added sites last year, compared to 31%-32% in the rest of the country; this coming year, 50% of southern campgrounds plan to add sites, compared to just 10% in the west.

As mentioned, the sample sizes for each region (66 campgrounds in the west, 71 in the south) are too small to be more than suggestive. But they are in line with another set of regional differences: while only 9% of southern campground owners expect to sell their RV parks this year, that percentage doubles for the western operations. That could mean one in five western RV parks will change hands in 2023, making an an already turbulent industry even more so. On the other hand, a lot of those campground owners may have missed their best window and may end up changing their plans. According to an interview in the April edition of Woodall’s Campground Magazine, RV park prices have fallen from 10% to 30% in the past year, due not only to market conditions but to year-over-year revenue declines.

“Generally, the high interest rates are raising cap rates marginally, which is decreasing the overall value of properties,” Jesse Pine, a broker at NAI Outdoor Hospitality Brokers, told the magazine. “Also, 2021 was a banner year for most owners and in 2022 parks were down 5%-10% in gross income commonly across the country, [which] coupled with higher expenses like rising utility, labor and construction costs, [means] the result was lower than expected net income.”

Up, down, sideways—you can probably cobble together whatever scenario you find most pleasing from all the numbers getting slung around. The only thing certain is that being in the campground business these days means one helluva wild ride.

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RV chickens coming home to roost

This may sound harsh, but the campground industry has an enormously uncomfortable relationship with Mother Nature: like the victim of an abusive spouse, it prefers not to acknowledge that there is a dark and sometimes violent side to its partner.

Two days after passing around a tin cup for donations to help campgrounds getting swamped on the West Coast, the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) was at it once more, this time on behalf of campgrounds at the opposite end of the country. Proclaiming yet again that “When natural disasters strike, it’s in our nature to help,” the solicitation summarized the situation as follows:

At least eight people were killed on Thursday as severe storms and tornadoes left a trail of damage across the South. Ferocious winds sent residents running for cover, blew roofs off homes and knocked out power to thousands. The storms damaged power lines, severed tree limbs and sent debris flying into streets in Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky, where at least 35 preliminary tornado reports were recorded as of Thursday evening, according to the Storm Prediction Center.

All of which undoubtedly was true, as was a similarly generic recitation about the West Coast disaster—but in neither description was there any mention of an actual RV park or campground. The reader is left to assume that campgrounds were damaged, which is quite likely, but how many campgrounds or to what extent is left to the imagination. There are no human faces put on the tragedies for which ARVC is seeking a compassionate response, for the simple reason that ARVC doesn’t know them—nor does it really want to know them. Much better to leave this all on an abstract level.

That may sound harsh, but it speaks to the enormously uncomfortable relationship ARVC, and perhaps a majority of its members, have with Mother Nature. Like the victim of an abusive spouse, the campground industry prefers not to acknowledge that there is a dark and sometimes violent side to the relationship. Yes, there are problems, but we’ll keep those to ourselves—regardless of how unsustainable that may be—while presenting only a sunny face to the public. Anything else might be bad for business.

What throws this dynamic into sharp relief is the ironically concurrent news in the journal Science, published yesterday, that scientists at ExxonMobil “predicted global warming correctly and skillfully” more than 40 years ago. The peer-reviewed study found that Exxon’s scientists made remarkably accurate projections of just how much global warming would be increased by burning fossil fuels—“as accurate, and sometimes even more so, as those of independent academic and government models,” reported the New York Times this past Thursday.

Exxon’s corporate suite, no surprise, quickly put the kibbosh those several decades ago on its own research, casting doubt on its scientists’ work and cautioning against any move away from carbon-based fuels. Global warming projections “are based on completely unproven climate models or, more often, on sheer speculation,” the oil company’s chief executive assured a company annual meeting in 1999. “We do not now have a sufficient scientific understanding of climate change to make reasonable predictions and/or justify drastic measures,” he wrote in a company brochure the following year

ARVC, whose members rely on customers who drive vehicles of unenviable gas consumption, was only too happy to fan the embers of skepticism. Calls to reduce greenhouse emissions were premature, it declared in a 1998 policy, because of the “considerable uncertainty surrounding the theories on climate change.” What was needed, ARVC contended, was “more research, data collection and scientific analysis”—although presumably not by scientists employed by ExxonMobil. And guess what? Nearly a quarter of a century later, ARVC’s policy remains unchanged, as mired as ever in “considerable uncertainty,” even as its members watch helplessly as their campgrounds get inundated, leveled and swept away by pounding seas, tornadoes, mud slides and thousand-year storms.

And the tin cup gets passed around yet again.

To be clear, asking help for those unfortunate enough to be home when the chickens come to roost is both admirable and necessary. It’s just not enough. Aside from the disproportionate ratio of need to available resources, it doesn’t deal with the underlying problem. It doesn’t answer such fundamental questions as: who’s at risk? can that risk be managed? if not, what’s the alternative? is the current campground business model sustainable? if not, what changes—if any—can make it so? It essentially ensures that without such questions being asked, the pleas for help will only grow more bigger and more frequent.

One place to start changing this vicious spiral would be for ARVC to create a reporting system so it can quickly identify which campgrounds and RV parks may be affected by the latest extreme weather disaster—to put a face on the victims. Another would be to revisit its 1998 policy, in light of the past 24 years of “research, data collection and scientific analysis,” and figure out what a meaningful revision might look like. Yet another would be for ARVC to promote discussion among its members of a common threat, so it’s no longer seen as a taboo subject, the bogeyman whose name must not be uttered.

Most of all, it would help if ARVC and its members simply acknowledged that the love of their lives is sometimes abusive. The first step on the road to recovery, as any 12-step program participant will tell you, is to acknowledge that your life has become unmanageable.

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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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Part III: RV parks and campgrounds are NOT part of a ‘hospitality industry’

The first two installments of this series examined how the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) fails to live up to its promise of being either “national” or an “association.” That was a relatively straightforward case to make. The more abstract yet more fundamental argument, however, is to demonstrate how ARVC’s leadership has been so seduced by the idea of being part of the “hospitality industry” that it has lost its way—and in doing so has lost sight of the many existential threats now confronting its core constituency. Which, if anyone needs reminding, is RV parks and campgrounds.

The “hospitality industry” identity, which ARVC claims overtly in its “vision” and “mission” statements and which it embraces in practice, is a seductive one. It sounds high-toned and professional, even scientific, as though there were a single overarching set of principles that could be applied to all those many ways of hosting people away from home: hotels, motels, campgrounds, bed-and-breakfasts, inns, RV parks, ski lodges, marinas, resorts, glampgrounds, and so on. And, indeed, there are commonalities—including some common problems, the most obvious being the extraordinary shortage of workers willing to be hospitable. But the differences are far greater than the similarities, and overlooking them in order to lump all those disparate businesses together makes as little sense as combining trees and horses in one category because they both have limbs.

Three years after the pandemic decimated the labor force, for example, the hospitality industry still has nearly a million fewer employees than it had in early 2020. But that burden is not distributed evenly. Hotel and motel employment has rebounded almost to full strength, while campgrounds and RV parks are still struggling to flesh out their payrolls, and especially among seasonal operations. One inevitable result: campers increasingly are pushed toward making reservations online (some campgrounds, if they answer the phone at all, now charge an extra fee for the “service” of accepting your money), are encouraged to check-in remotely and may never interact with a campground employee before checking out. That might be a preferred way of doing business for some, but it makes a mockery of any pretense at campground “hospitality,” just as the “hospitality” of an automat is nothing like that of a full-service restaurant.

But that’s only part of the problem. RV parks and campgrounds are significantly more labor intensive than their bricks-and-sticks counterparts even in the best of times, with campground owners having to deal with grounds-keeping, sewage disposal, and water and electric utilities on a scale that would make hotel managers blanch. But these are not the best of times. An increasingly unstable climate has added to this burden, with more frequent and destructive weather creating disproportionate damage to open-air facilities through flooding, wildfires, ice storms or wind damage. Their labor forces depleted, campgrounds and RV parks are accumulating a significant backlog of deferred maintenance projects, while routine housekeeping is increasingly sparse—and the claim to “hospitality” becomes even more illusory.

It therefore may seem paradoxical that campgrounds and RV parks have become sought-after acquisition targets for various investment groups, which over the past couple of years have been snatching them up at a fantastic rate, for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere. But while that may be an attractive development for campground owners wanting to get out of the business, it also creates enormous stresses and strains for the survivors—in the same way that gentrification puts the squeeze on long-term residents of a neighborhood—as site rates get pushed to unprecedented heights and campgrounds increasingly remake themselves as amusement parks.

This trend also means that an industry that once was largely diversified across thousands of small one-off operators, typically small family holdings, increasingly is dominated by companies that own dozens of properties. Being big has a remarkable effect on one’s perspective: problems that can fill a small operator’s horizon may be negligible from an absentee investor’s broader overview, with its deeper pockets, backfield of talent and abundant outside resources. But guess who’s more likely to get the ear of industry leaders?

Taken together, those three dynamics—an insufficient workforce, a more hostile natural environment and a gentrifying business model—are fundamentally transforming the campground industry right under ARVC’s nose, yet without a flicker of recognition of what that means for association members. To take just one set of examples: how should campgrounds respond to the growing recognition of wildlife-urban interface problems? What best practices can they adopt to mitigate threats of wildfire or flooding? How many campgrounds may soon find themselves unable to to obtain property insurance in environmentally threatened areas, and how should ARVC respond to that need? What are the possibilities of the industry as a whole becoming self-insuring? Alternatively, what can the industry do to promote non-private insurers of last resort?

Similar kinds of questions can be asked about a depleted workforce and gentrification, but not by an organization that doesn’t recognize them as issues in the first place. And if that organization has isolated itself from its membership base, and if it identifies itself as being a segment of a more refined “hospitality industry” than as representing a bunch of hard-scrabble dirt renters for whom this is their entire fortune, it’s every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. The most critical questions won’t be asked until ARVC remembers why it was created in the first place: to serve the needs of privately owned RV parks and campgrounds, just like its name says.

Everything else is a distraction.

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Part II: ARVC’s name is misleading, because it’s hardly an ‘association’

There are lots of nouns a group of people can adopt when creating an entity of common interests. “Grange” has a certain folksy appeal, despite its admittedly short-lived history as a farmers’ group to advance agricultural methods and to promote its members’ social and economic needs. “Society” is another possibility, as is “alliance,” as are “union,” “brotherhood” and “confederation.” But when a group of campground owners got together in 1967 to form a national group that would meet their needs, the noun they chose was “association.”

That’s “association” as in the National Campground Owners Association, decades later changed to the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC). “Association” as in “a group of people or organizations who work together for a particular purpose.” “Association” as a collective noun whose commonly understood synonyms include partnership, companionship, fellowship—words, alas, that hardly describe ARVC as it is today.

This is an organization, after all, whose current stated “vision” is a mystifying five words—“an empowered outdoor hospitality industry”—and whose “mission” is couched in soulless corporate-speak: “We empower outdoor hospitality businesses by providing industry-tailored resources, organic connections, consumer exposure, professional development, and proactive legislative action.”  That’s a long way from the association’s founding principle, which was “for the purpose of promoting camping through the private sector and protecting the camping industry from unfair legislation and unfair competition.”

Just as ARVC has replaced the earthiness of “camping” with corporate jargon about “outdoor hospitality,” so too has it jettisoned the fraternal trappings of an association in favor of a service organization’s efficiencies. Members are asked for little more than their annual dues, in exchange for which they get a strongly hyped menu of vendor discounts, various educational opportunities and a steadily more expensive annual convention. True, ARVC has a notably energetic legislative watchdog and lobbyist in the person of Jeff Sims, whose efforts readily fulfill at least that part of the original mandate. But efforts to promote “association”? To harness the energies of people to “work together for a particular purpose”? Not so much.

Instead, under the 12-year leadership of chief executive Paul Bambei, ARVC has become increasingly transactional and more distant from its individual members. Nominees for the board of directors, for example, must have received a certificate from—or be actively enrolled in—the organization’s Outdoor Hospitality Education Program, regardless of how much campground operating experience they already have. While the full program leads to certification as an Outdoor Hospitality Professional, it’s questionable how “professional” one can become after just eight days of face-to-face instruction. What’s unquestionable is that the $3,790 tuition cost, plus the expense of hotel, travel and time lost from work, can be a steep deterrent to potential ARVC leaders and a surprising hurdle for an association to place before any civic-minded members.

Once elected to the board, however, ARVC directors conduct their duties in a bubble. Although their names and pictures can be found on the ARVC website, no contact information is provided for any of their constituents who might want to reach them. The membership is not notified of upcoming board meetings before which it might to tempted to bring up matters of interest, and the minutes of board meetings are not published for membership review. Meanwhile, the flow of membership publications has been steadily choked off, its last magazine being quietly dispatched last year without so much as a farewell notice. As a result, ARVC members have little to no idea of their organization’s internal workings, and ARVC’s leaders hear extraordinarily little of their members’ concerns. Small wonder, then, that membership ranks have been eroding.

Thus insulated from their supposed following, ARVC’s “professional” leaders are free to develop solutions for non-existent problems while remaining oblivious to actual industry threats. Among the current distractions, for example, is a renewed push—more than a decade after it was first rebuffed—to create an industry-wide set of “standards.” Regardless of whether this is a good idea or not, the lack of prior membership involvement and education—and how could that have happened, given the leadership’s near-total isolation?—has resulted in a massive backlash and still more alienation between the leaders and the led.

Just how poorly those leaders appreciate the chasm that lies before them was suggested by a letter one of the board’s past presidents wrote a few weeks ago to the various state affiliates, seeking to explain why the standards had been proposed. None of his reasons indicated that the proposal was a response to membership demands. Instead, his chief rationale seemed to be that because the “hospitality industry has emerged as a leading travel and vacation style in recent years,” “regulators” are paying more attention. And since the regulators “don’t know our industry, wouldn’t it be better if the industry itself provided the definition rather than ceding that inevitable chore to others?”

Although no evidence is presented that this is in fact a problem (what “regulators”? making what “attempts to define us”?) the argument has a certain logic—until, that is, one realizes it turns the whole association dynamic on its head. Instead of an association of campground owners “protecting the camping industry from unfair legislation,” as was originally conceived, an increasingly “professional” ARVC has reached the point at which it will attempt to institute its own regulations, its own legislation. That’s a whole lot easier than pushing back against ignorant meddling by outsiders.

And, not incidentally, it also cements the transformation of a society of equals into a corporate-style command structure. There’s the top of the pyramid, which controls all internal communication and sets the agenda for everyone else; and there’s everyone else—until they aren’t. Until they bail, out of resentment or disgust or simply because their real needs aren’t being met.

Next post: Part III of why the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds should reconsider its name. Perhaps it should rebrand as the National Association of the Outdoor Hospitality Industry?

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Part I: ARVC’s misleading name, to whit, it’s not really a ‘national’ org

There’s only one national organization that non-franchised campground owners can turn to when they need help with their business, and that’s the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC). It’s unfortunate, therefore, that ARVC is “national” more in name than fact, and is scarcely an “association” in any meaningful sense of the word.

For a better understanding of that first point, take a look at the map above. The blue states are ones that have state associations affiliated with ARVC: if you own a campground in one of those states, you can’t belong to ARVC unless you first belong to that state’s ARVC affiliate. Indeed, so entwined are these relationships that the blue states are charged with collecting dues on behalf of the national association as well as themselves—there is no option for paying dues directly to ARVC. Want to benefit from national membership but don’t see any value in belonging to the state organization? Too bad. This is an all or nothing proposition, not dissimilar from other bundled “services” we’ve grown to resent.

Own a campground in one of the six green states? You’re comparatively lucky there, because in those states you can belong to either ARVC or the state ARVC-affiliate—or both. Your choice, courtesy not of ARVC but of those state affiliates, which apparently feel confident enough in their offerings to believe they can attract members without having to ride ARVC’s coattails.

Then there are the grey states, of which there are 24, or roughly half the total but more than half by any other measure, such as land area or population. Those are the 24 states that don’t have an ARVC affiliate in the first place, so prior state association membership isn’t a consideration—for ARVC. Take a closer look, however, and you might realize that the country’s four most populous states—California, Texas, Florida and New York, accounting for fully a third of the U.S. total—are all grey, and while they don’t have ARVC-affiliated associations, they most definitely have their own campground membership organizations. They are, in other words, competitors.

How many campground owners in those states do you think might belong to both ARVC and to their own, unaffiliated state associations? To both ARVC and TACO (Texas Association of Campground Owners), or to ARVC and CONY (Campground Owners of New York)? Some, to be sure, but far fewer than would be the case if those independent associations weren’t around. Indeed, as illustrated by the California Outdoor Hospitality Association, former ARVC state affiliates have a distressing tendency to jump the ARVC ship when it seems financially feasible to do so: COHA did so in 2019, and hasn’t looked back since. Other non-ARVC associations, meanwhile, are reaching across state lines to create larger industry groupings, as Florida has with Alabama.

The result is an anemic “national” organization from which its potentially strongest affiliates have seceded altogether, while its main membership base is sustained by a mutually dependent relationship with state affiliates that might not otherwise stand alone—not unlike two drunks leaning against each other for support. That mixed allegiance led Greg Gerber, the now-retired editor of a daily RV industry watchdog publication, to observe that ARVC has a muddled public mission. “Does it represent campgrounds, or is it an association of state associations that represent campgrounds?” he wondered in 2016, in his seminal report, “RV Industry Death Spiral.”

Good question, and one that ARVC has never answered, even as it continues to trumpet its standing as “the only national association dedicated to representing the interests and needs of private RV parks and campgrounds in the U.S. and Canada.” Which is true as far as it goes, but that seems to be progressively less each passing year: even as its overall income increased by 50% over the five years since Gerber wrote his report, overall membership has declined and now sits below 3,000 campgrounds—or less than a quarter of the industry overall.

Next post: Part II of why the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds should rethink what it calls itself, in this case focusing on what it means to be an “association.”

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More electrifying news for RVers

A pair of webinars this past week, one hosted by the RV Industry Association and one by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, underscored how seriously the campground world views the oncoming onslaught of electric vehicles. While campground and RV owners remain mostly skeptical, questioning the costs, range, recharging availability and environmental impact of a lithium-based technology, industry leaders are unwavering in their belief that the EV-RV revolution is already here and that the problems others see are either overblown or will be resolved in timely fashion.

“We are really at an inflection point which is amazing,” Ashis Bhattacharya, senior vice president for development and advanced technology at Winnebago Industries, told his RVIA audience. A “wave of electric adoption” is already washing over rental car agencies, delivery services such as Prime, UPS and FedEx, as well as school buses and other municipal vehicle fleets, all of which is normalizing the technology. The paradigmatic shift already underway, Bhattacharya added, is as significant as any ever experienced in the transportation sector.

Meanwhile, said Jay Landers, RVIA’s vice president of government affairs, state initiatives to outlaw internal combustion engines are giving the entire EV sector a kick in the pants. Five states, including California, already have voted to ban sales of new internal combustion vehicles by 2035, and others are looking to possibly follow suit. The state of Washington, which had the country’s sixth highest rate of RV shipments this year, is even more aggressive, adopting a 2030 cutoff deadline. Furthermore, expansion of the EV charging network nationwide is being super-charged by $5 billion in federal funding approved earlier this year.

None of which, all speakers agreed, is to minimize the problems confronting EV in general, and EV-RVs in particular. “The (EV) technology is still more expensive than what it’s replacing,” conceded MacKay Featherstone, Thor Industries’ senior vice president of global innovation. Moreover, he added, “the charging experience is utterly critical” and still inadequate for RVers in particular, both because most RVs need pull-through charging stations to be practical and because they have larger power needs than EV cars.

To their credit, RV manufacturers, frequently criticized for shoveling out hundreds of thousands of RVs without giving a thought to where their buyers might use them, are at least trying to get out in front of this development. And there is little reason to doubt that a society-wide change is coming, and coming hard. EV-RV costs inevitably will come down as sales take off, as they do with any emerging technology. Alternatives to lithium batteries, using less exotic minerals, are being developed, and advances in recycling technologies will further ease environmental concerns. Similarly, ongoing improvements in battery density will continue to expand vehicle range, relieving one of the biggest consumer anxieties about EVs.

The weak link, however, appears to be the RV park and campground end of the product chain. The RVIA webinar inadvertently made that point when its campground representative on the panel—Toby O’Rourke, president and CEO of KOA—was so unintelligible that she had to be dropped from the screen, apparently because she was trying to link in from an airport. (And why O’Rourke, again? Is there no other campground industry representative who can speak to the industry’s issues? Maybe someone from the Yogi franchise, or ARVC, or one of the other large state RV park associations, like Texas or California?)

Subbing in for O’Rourke was Brandi Simpson, her chief of staff, whose faltering contribution was to assert that campground owners are dealing with “a ton of misinformation” about EVs and need a lot of education and guidance. Which, presumably, KOA is scrambling to provide. . .

. . . as is ARVC, which lustily beat the drum on behalf of EV-RVs at its national conference in early November, and again at an hour-long webinar a couple of days after RVIA’s face-to-face. Pitched as “a recap of the best” of the conference for those who might have been unable to attend, the session inexplicably ignored the most contentious convention issue—a proposal to adopt industry-wide “standards”—while devoting the majority of its time to further promoting the idea that campgrounds need to get on the EV bandwagon, starting with the installation of EV chargers.

All of which is undeniably true, but far more nuanced and with many more questions than have been answered to date. For example: both webinars referenced possible tax breaks and federal grants to defray campground costs for installing chargers, while glossing over the reality that such inducements will require making the chargers accessible to the general public, and not just campground guests. Getting equally short shrift were any explanations of the occasionally mentioned “partnerships” that campgrounds might have to accept, whether with public utilities or third-party providers, to deal with licensing and infrastructure issues, since electric sales are typically a utility monopoly and EV chargers require robust additional power supplies.

(On a related note: one of the biggest frustrations for many KOA franchisees has been the parent company’s insistence on taking a 10% cut of all site fees—including any electric charges, even though campgrounds are legally prohibited from making a profit from reselling electricity. To the extent that EVs will increase electricity consumption at RV sites, that means even more unearned money transferred from franchisees to corporate headquarters.)

By ARVC’s calculations, electric metering of RV sites can reduce energy consumption by a third.

Indeed, the whole issue of who is going to pay for the extra electricity consumed by EV-RVs, and how, is still being sidestepped at the national level, quite possibly because there is no one answer. That, by itself, may become the biggest impediment to mom-and-pop campgrounds rushing into this brave new world. It’s notable, for example, that while ARVC now has an online “EV Toolkit” to help its members understand how to accommodate the new technology, the only guidance it provides for covering their costs is the vague advice to “consider billing for shorter stays, especially [campers] with unique equipment (large class As, EVs, electric golf carts, etc.), automatically billing those campers for the electricity they use. “

Presumably these and other issues will get resolved, sooner or later—once the industry stops talking around them. The RVing public, meanwhile, should brace itself for still higher costs, as a new electric sensibility starts percolating through the camping universe. Just as computerized reservation systems have introduced demand pricing and all kinds of add-on fees, the electrification push ultimately will result in all RV sites getting electric meters. Or as ARVC’s EV Toolkit asks, in a prominently displayed screen, “You don’t give away ice, candy bars or firewood, why give away electric?”

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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.

Cognitive dissonance, part 2

The article in Woodall’s Campground Management that I mentioned in my previous post, regarding efforts by California campgrounds to “stay on top of” the wildfire situation, includes an interesting aside that underscores why we seem incapable of making any headway against extreme weather-driven calamities.

Interviewing Dyana Kelly, president of the CampCalNOW RV Park and Campground Alliance, the article notes that a “recent win” for the trade group was an exemption from a state rule that would have required Class A diesel pushers to participate in an annual emissions inspection and maintenance program. First unveiled this past March, the rule drew an instant and sharp response not only from CampCalNOW, but also from ARVC and RVIA, two national trade groups that declared their mission was to “protect the public” from “overly burdensome” regulations on motorhomes.

The new regs, which remain applicable to commercial truckers, create a smog-check program to ensure that diesel engines in the state have properly functioning emissions controls. Improper control systems, it should go without saying, add to the atmosphere’s greenhouse gases, which further increase global warming and thus exacerbate California’s drought and the wildfires it promotes. In other words, a campground industry that idealizes the environment for recreation is simultaneously doing its damnedest to block efforts to protect that environment from its own depredations.

There’s no question that California’s motorhome owners would have been somewhat inconvenienced by having to trundle off to an emissions inspection station once a year. And there’s also no question that some of those owners would have been hit with the financial costs of repairing or upgrading equipment that failed the smog test. But keeping any equipment in working order is the cost of ownership, and that cost should be borne by the actual owner, not by the broader public–which is what unchecked polluters are imposing. “Protecting the public” should mean all of the public, not just the motorhome-owning portion of it.

Instead of knee-jerk opposition to any regulatory attempt to control the external costs of private actions, the campground industry’s lobbyists and trade groups would do everyone a service by acknowledging reality and working toward alternatives. In Europe, for instance, which is hard at work on eliminating all diesel engines, the RV industry is years ahead of the U.S. in moving to alternative power sources. German-based Erwin Hymer Group, as one example, is developing not just electric motorhomes, but travel trailers–powered in part by roof-top solar panels–with electrified axles that reduce the amount of power needed by tow vehicles. How cool is that? And how not American. . . .

Ironically, Erwin Hymer was acquired by Thor Industries a couple of years ago, which might lead one to think such cutting-edge technology would quickly show up on this side of the Atlantic. Guess again. Apparently, it’s easier simply to lobby for the status quo, regardless of the greater social cost that entails, and celebrate successful obstruction of change as a “win.”

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