The American dream, part 2

If you can’t educate ’em, join ’em.

In my last post I reported on an RVtravel poll of its readers, published May 22, that asked whether they would like to own and operate an RV park if given the opportunity. Judging by the first returns, RVtravel’s early readers are a dyspeptic bunch, as the initial response was overwhelmingly negative. But then the cheery brunch crowd woke up and took note, and ten days later the results are still rolling in on a tsunami of positivity, now approaching 6,000 replies and more than two-to-one in favor of owning and operating a piece of paradise–proof, yet again, that the American entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well.

Or maybe just a sign of how desperately people want to work for themselves. Or to have a place to call home. Or both.

For a writer–for this writer–that could be dismaying. Last fall, after all, I published a slim paperback, Renting Dirt, that for 128 pages described the crushing forces that after eight years convinced our family to sell our Shenandoah Valley campground and RV park. I detailed the never-ending workload, the onslaught of first-timing RVers and the toll they took on our property, the crippling lack of reliable employees and the public’s ever increasing expectations of us and our facilities. No wonder, I wrote, that mom-and-pop campgrounds get sold, on average, after just seven years.

Yet judging by the RVtravel poll results, either there’s a whole lot of RVers who never read my book (likely), or RVers have read it but remain unconvinced by my jeremiad. Maybe the latter believe I was ill-equipped for the job, or that I ran into unusually adverse conditions. Or maybe they believe they’re made of sterner stuff, and can succeed where I eventually bailed. Whatever the case, it’s clear that there’s a substantial number of people out there who really, really want to have their own RV parks.

That’s why I’ve now written: Turning Dirt: A step-by-step guide for turning dreams of campground ownership into reality. A 156-page paperback scheduled for release the first day of summer, Turning Dirt is exactly what its subtitle promises: a methodical introduction to the process of searching for, negotiating the purchase of, and taking over the operation of an existing campground that meets the buyer’s needs. Divided into three successive sections, Turning Dirt begins with a discussion of current market conditions and environmental concerns, then walks the reader through several key decisions that should be made before he or she even begins to look for the “right” property.

Section two then describes various ways to identify potential acquisitions, what kind of information should be obtained at this stage of the process, how to analyze financial statements and the red flags to look for in an initial walk-through. This section also explores the ins-and-outs of a purchase agreement, walks the the reader through the various elements of a comprehensive due diligence inspection period, and describes some of the factors that may prompt a decision to pull out of the deal. Three appendices provide a sample offer letter, a due-diligence checklist and an outline of the elements of a comprehensive sale and purchase agreement.

Section three moves on to discuss the particular aspects of campground management that don’t get covered by general “how-to” business books. Included are discussions about employees, the various kinds of campers (and which kinds you may not want), the many ways to structure rates, and the importance of having clearly defined policies–and what those policies should include. Additional covered subjects of interest specifically to campground owners include bed bugs, golf cars, pets and electric vehicles.

Unlike Renting Dirt, which was a candid description of our family’s experiences, Turning Dirt is agnostic about its subject matter: it’s not my intention to convince the reader to make one set of choices or another, or to adopt any particular approach, philosophy or set of expectations. But based on our family’s experiences, as well as my interactions with other RV park owners, my education in the business and my following the industry as a journalist, I believe there are certain things that anyone contemplating the purchase of a campground needs to think about. Turning Dirt presents those issues and concerns as objectively as possible, as well as providing additional resources to address them further.

So yeah, this is a sales pitch. But it’s pretty straightforward, and if you want to know more–including the discounts I’m offering for orders placed by June 20–click on this link or on the “About my books” button at the top of this page. Thanks.

RV parks as the American dream

RVtravel.com, an online publication for RVers of all shapes and sizes, regularly runs reader polls to take its audience’s temperature. Most are of only passing interest to me personally, but the one that ran May 22 hit home–as did the responses and how they shifted over time.

The question was: “If you were given the opportunity to own and operate an RV park, would you?” And unlike most RVtravel polls, which typically provide a range of possible responses, this one expressly did not. As the poll makers wrote, “You’ve got to choose between a simple ‘yes’ and a simple ‘no.’ Some of you may say something like, ‘Sure! If it only had five spaces and it was next to a beautiful waterfall and kids and dogs and campfires weren’t allowed . . . ‘ It’s just gotta be a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ No ifs, ands, or buts!”

As someone who wrote a book last year about this very topic–one that detailed our family’s eight-year history of being ground into the dust by the weight of operating an RV park–I was intrigued to see the results and encouraged by the early returns. By that evening, 72% of the thousand-plus respondents had turned thumbs down on the idea, sometimes in vehement terms in the comments section. “No option for ‘No, Hell No!’. Too much work for too little appreciation of it!” wrote one poll-taker. “A simple ‘no’ doesn’t BEGIN to express the no-ness of my no,” wrote another, with Zen-like simplicity.

 Explanations for why this is a truly asinine idea included the amount of work involved and the realization that owning a campground would put an end to one’s own travels. But the most cited objection was, strikingly–other campers. There are a lot of RVers, it turns out, who don’t like the way other RVers behave. “Dealing with the public would be the primary issue–and we’ve lost a sense of civility as a society,” explained one of the more civil respondents. Added another: “Big NO! Too many messy, inconsiderate (not to mention lazy and stupid) people camping now. Pick up after your dog, pick up after yourself, your family may not mind that you are rude but we do. Keep your music to yourself, save the profanity until you are in your own camper, leave the bathroom as clean or cleaner than you found it.”

And then there were the rants like this one:

“Big NO.
Sick of cleaning up after PIGS.
They don’t own the property so people just throw crap wherever they feel like.
Bathrooms are the worst. Did I mention PIGS.
Try to poop IN the toilet. Put the tissue IN the toilet.
Aim for the drain of the urinal, not the floor.
Don’t write your complaints on the mirrors.
Cans and bottles strewn outside.
I guess it’s too hard to use the cans management has provided.
I often wonder what their home and yard looks like?”

But then a curious thing happened. As the hours slipped by and more RVtravel readers took the poll, the sentiment quickly reversed. Within 24 hours the “no” votes dropped from 72% of the respondents to just 43%; by Tuesday the gap widened even more, to 63% “yes” and just 37% “no.” And as of this morning, with more than 5,400 respondents to the poll and 213 of them weighing in with comments, the turnaround is almost complete, with 68% saying they’d love to own and operate a campground and just 32% grousing about the workload and the public.

Wow.

In digesting these results, as well as the comments they elicited, I have a couple of takeaways. One is that of the 16 or so comments made by people who’ve actually owned a campground, or at the very least worked at one, the overwhelming majority were too happy to walk away and wouldn’t want to repeat the experience.

A second is that a significant number of those saying they’d jump at the chance did so on the basis of their experience as RVers, with little if any understanding of the difference between being a producer and being a consumer. To use my go-to analogy for this sort of thing, it’s as if I were to say that I’d like to become a rancher because I like to eat steak. That’s probably not the best strategy for making life choices.

A third takeaway is that an equally significant number of affirmative respondents are, if not desperate, at least wistful in their wish for something more than what they have, such as the commenter who wrote simply, “I’d really like to own something.” Several seemed to interpret the poll as a job posting; some said they think of campground ownership as a retirement plan; and some apparently just need housing, as in “We are looking for an RV park to make into a homeless shelter!!”

A fourth conclusion, and one I’ll explore in my next post, is that not enough RVtravel readers have picked up my book, Renting Dirt–or that they have, but were not deterred by our experience. The siren song is strong indeed!

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