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.

%d bloggers like this: