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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