Maybe Terramor should be Terrless?

When KOA decided it wanted to get into the luxury end of the campground business—goosed along, no doubt, by its survey findings that there are a lot of campers out there with too much money and not enough ways to spend it at a conventional RV park—the brand-happy brain trust in Billings, Montana, opted to spin off yet another name plate. Even “KOA Resort” must have seemed too plebian for something as grand as was being envisioned for this new venture. Something more lofty and cultured was needed.

So it was that KOA gave birth to the pseudo-Latinate “Terramor,” a designer mashup connoting “love of the earth.” And thus began a protracted exercise in unintended irony.

The first Terramor glampground was created a couple of years ago in Bar Harbor, Maine, on the grounds of the former Woodlands KOA. Problems ensued. Although highly rated overall in Google reviews, a surprisingly large number of negative reviews identified the same basic problems: too much road noise, a lack of parking at the luxury tents, gravel trails that made it hard to haul luggage from car to tent, tents crowded too close together, inadequate outdoor lighting—problems, in other words, that had to do with location and infrastructure limitations. Problems that might put a serious dent in any return business, given Terramor’s site rates of $350 to $500 a night.

So when KOA went shopping for a second Terramor location, it wanted a blank canvas, a raw piece of property in an upscale neighborhood that it could shape more to its liking. That upscale neighborhood turned out to be near the Catskills towns of Woodstock and Saugerties, an area gaining some renown as the new Hamptons for New York’s monied crowd. The property it settled on is a 77-acre expanse of mature forest, providing relatively more space for site dispersal and sound buffering than it had in Bar Harbor, on which KOA is proposing to build 75 luxury platform tents with ensuite bathrooms and showers, each with its own firepit and parking space. Oh, and there also are plans for a 4,000-square-foot restaurant and event center, an outfitter’s shop, a swimming pool and wellness center, and a small cluster of housing units for 28 employees.

But—can this be?—KOA’s prospective neighbors are not happy. Up to 15 of the 77 acres are wetlands, which KOA proposes to bridge with a berm that will disrupt water flow. Talk of evening concerts has raised concerns about noise pollution, with some residential properties only 100 feet from the glamping sites. Increased traffic, wood smoke from dozens of fire pits, loss of wildlife habitat—no, the neighbors are not happy. They’ve formed a group called Citizens Against Terramor, started a petition and a GoFundMe account, and raised nearly $30,000 locally to hire a hydrologist, an environmental engineer, a geologist—and, of course, a lawyer.

Protesters at planning board meetings have been hoisting signs that read “Terra LESS” and “Terramor Means ‘Love the Earth’: What About ‘Love Thy Neighbor?'”

Here’s the promised irony: not four miles up the road is the former Saugerties/Woodstock KOA, a typically modest mom-and-pop KOA franchise that puttered along for years to middling reviews. But that all ended two years ago, and earlier this year the property reopened as—wait for it—AutoCamp Catskills. That’s right: one of KOA’s major national competitors in the glamping sector has set up shop at a former KOA that’s a five-minute drive away. And did it without any of the sturm und drang that is battering the Terramor proposal, basically because it was not changing area dynamics.

Indeed, while KOA is still hoping its contested Terramor project can be opened in 2024, AutoCamp already has generated a slug of fawning press coverage for its first season. The 37-acre site houses 65 converted Airstream trailers, 10 tiny-home cabins and 10 “basecamps,” which comprise an Airstream plus a luxury tent; a central wood-beamed clubhouse with vaulted ceilings provides room for games, craft cocktails and morning breakfast and coffee service. (The discerning reader may note that this is a significantly higher development density than is being proposed for Terramor, making the lack of local opposition all the more notable.)

And, of course, everything is quite expensive, with weekend nights in October (two-night minimum required) priced upwards of $500 a night—not to mention firewood selling for $20 a bundle, barbecue kits for $69 and s’more kits for $15. “I’ve been in this industry for 15 years and I’ve never seen prices like this,” a local travel agent told a skeptical New York Post reporter. It’s also, of course, why KOA continues to flog this particular horse, despite all the ill-will it’s generating locally. There’s money to be made, dammit, and getting it the old-fashioned way—you know, by catering to middle-class families with travel trailers and troops of snotty-nosed kids—is just so dreary. And slow.

Glamping. Yeah—that’s the ticket.

Jan. 25 author’s note: This post has been lightly edited to make some corrections, but because this is an evolving story, the reader is encouraged to look at the subsequent post for updates.

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No room for RVs in gentrifying parks

As RV parks and campgrounds become increasingly folded into the cultural mainstream, it’s perhaps inevitable that they start resembling the larger society, warts and all. And so it is that campgrounds, once a refuge from the glitz and ostentation that characterize the contemporary world, have become as vulnerable to gentrification as any downtown warehouse district.

Remember Woodlands KOA? Probably not. A well-reviewed and moderately priced campground in Bar Harbor, Maine, it was closed three years ago with promises that it was going to be renovated and improved. RVers who had camped there in the past were thrilled. But when the campground reopened in 2021 it had been rebranded as Terramor Outdoor Resort, all the RV sites were gone and all “camping” was now restricted to renting one of four different styles of luxury tents–at an average price of $450 a night.

No? Then perhaps you’re familiar with French Broad River Campground RV Park in North Carolina, described in an online review as “a little hidden rustic gem” with all of its RV sites right on the river and a nightly rate averaging $45. That little gem went for $1.8 million earlier this year, as its owners of the past 27 years decided they were ready to do a little RVing themselves. “After some renovations, the new owners will reopen,” they assured their campers in a final Facebook post.

Yes, they will–but not any time real soon, as there’s still a lot of work to be done. That’s because the new buyer is AutoCamp, a fitfully growing national chain of glampgrounds that rents Airstream trailers and luxury tents but does not maintain spaces for RVs or tents, which would bring down the upscale vibe it’s seeking. This is, after all, an operation that describes itself as “an outdoor boutique hotel experience.” Which, in English, means nightly stays north of $300.

Or consider Prospect Lake Park in the Berkshires, a decades-old campground on the shores of a 56-acre lake that hosted generations of campers for the kind of idyllic summer vacations that would have caught Norman Rockwell’s eye. Its sites started at $39 a night, but if you needed 50 amps you were out of luck and whether you had a good time depended on how well you dealt with a gruff management style. If that rubbed you the wrong way, good news: the campground is now closed for at least another year, purchased last winter by a local developer, Ian Rasch, for $2.1 million.

As reported last week by Bill Shein of the Berkshire Edge, longtime summer residents who had put down deposits for this past season got refunds and were told that the new owner was planning on “significant improvements to the facilities.” Which is true as far as it goes, which isn’t far enough: the “improvements” entail replacing 125 RV sites with 40 park model RVs, reportedly being designed by a Brooklyn-based firm widely known for its “innovative prefabricated modular structures.” The improvements will not leave room for RVers or tenters.

Rasch’s intentions are also signaled by his working with LAND, an Austin, Texas-based design firm, to create a new “brand identity” for what had been a somewhat scruffy facility. LAND’s most recent project in the area was the 2018 launch of Tourists, a motel-turned-boutique hotel in nearby North Adams, where rooms rent for $300 to $700 a night. Chi-chi ‘R’ Us.

Why go to all the trouble of reworking an existing RV park rather than starting with a clean slate? Wouldn’t the latter be much easier and less messy?

Perhaps–but going the virgin-birth route opens up a developer to the uncertainties that come with seeking conditional use permits or other zoning approval, which means public hearings and potential public opposition. That’s what Terramore is discovering with its second venture, a 77-acre property it wants to develop from the ground up in Saugerties, New York. Despite its best efforts at community diplomacy earlier this summer, Terramor has been hit by local opponents who seem unimpressed with its pretensions to “outdoor opulence done right” but are worrying about water use, traffic and noise. Two weeks ago the newly formed Citizens Against Terramor told the local newspaper, “We’re afraid we’re headed for World War III.”

The alternative to that nightmare, however, can mean dancing right up to the line defining permitted use. Although Rasch’s redevelopment of Prospect Lake Park will amount to construction of a lakeside cabin community, by using RV park models instead of real cabins–or even tiny homes–he can maintain the fiction that the property will remain what it’s always been: a “campground.”

Just don’t try to camp there.

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Chasing ‘epic potential’ of outdoors

Although commercial property sales are slowing after more than a year of brisk growth, deflated by rising interest rates, RV parks and campgrounds are still demanding outsized sales prices. And with gas prices climbing above the $5-a-gallon benchmark that many industry analysts believe will seriously crimp leisure travel, you might think this is not the best time to think about buying RV parks and campgrounds.

Which just goes to show you why some of us are forever doomed to a lackluster middle-class existence, while others soar to Olympian financial heights–quite often on the wings of other people’s money.

Late last month, yet another entrant into the increasingly crowded “outdoor travel industry” sector announced itself in a blizzard of investment mumbo-jumbo. Outside Capital, helmed by David Smith, is a “purpose-built [because what other kind could there be?] hospitality real estate investment platform bringing the outdoor sector’s most compelling projects and strategies to life.” This Lazarus-like exercise will be “capitalizing on long-term, measurable trends favoring experiential and nature-based travel” under the guidance of “an experienced team of hospitality real estate professionals who are passionate about the epic potential of the outdoors.”

Does being “passionate about the epic potential of the outdoors” strike you (as it does me, I must confess) as being epically over the top? This is the language of someone with remarkably little first-hand experience with what he’s talking about, but who nevertheless wants to get your juices flowing. It’s the language of someone more comfortable with crunching numbers and poring through spreadsheets than dealing with the epic potential of forest fires, mud slides, raging rivers and parched reservoirs–with the “experiential” side of things.

David Smith, undoubtedly a fine human being despite his masters in hospitality from Cornell University, where a lot of this cult-like jargon is birthed, was for 18 months a senior director at a real estate private equity firm, Whitman Peterson. Before that he worked for a couple of firms investing in hospitality real estate–read “hotels”–but his Whitman Peterson stint must have been an eye-opener. That’s where he led a significant deal on behalf of AutoCamp, “the leading provider of upscale outdoor hospitality experiences in the United States,” and that’s presumably when he realized he could “help unlock the potential of quality projects in the great outdoors.”

And so Outside Capital was created.

A couple of observations about what that means. First, there still is a difference between hotels and campgrounds. “Outdoor hospitality” isn’t simply “indoor hospitality” without a common roof, although AutoCamp–apparently Smith’s only brush with “the great outdoors”–strives mightily to obliterate the distinction. The handful of AutoCamp resorts around the country consist primarily of Airstream trailers grouped around a clubhouse of common facilities, such as a snack bar, gift shop and “gathering space”–in other words, and as expressly described by Smith’s former employer, an “Airstream hotel chain,” complete with hotel lobby.

But not everyone is besotted by the Airstream mystique. When AutoCamp earlier this year sought to build a “luxury AutoCamp RV park” on the Carpinteria Bluffs on the southern California coast, the president of the local homeowners’ association dismissed it as nothing more than “a trailer park”–perhaps because the proposal called for 24 Airstreams on just 2.5 acres. Nor was the association enamored of the prospect of 24 aluminum reflectors parked on a bluff; as the association president noted, in addressing the Carpinteria city council, “If cabins were proposed here with earth tone or natural wood exterior, would you recommend they change the material to be shiny metal?”

David Smith, it should be noted, had little if anything to do with the Carpinteria proposal, which currently seems to be in limbo. But the AutoCamp business model apparently is his only exposure to the “epic potential of the outdoors” about which he has become so “passionate,” which I find epically depressing. It and he, alas, also are symptomatic of the way the whole industry is going. Or as Smith’s new enterprise declares, in its “value proposition”: “The outdoor sector is a massive, rapidly growing, and cycle-resistant component of the global travel industry. Outside Capital believes the industry is in the early stages of a secular growth trend driven by meaningful changes in the way people and organizations gather, travel, and recreate.”

So go ahead. Hug a tree. And hang on to your wallet.

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