Is the bloom off the camping rose?

The fall equinox arrives today, marking the transition from summer to fall. Now the days get progressively shorter than the nights, sweaters and jackets make an appearance, leaves turn color and drop. The great wheel turns, and with it we cycle into another phase, another set of rhythms and relationships with each other and with the environment.

So, too, it would seem with the camping industry. After a couple of hot-house years in which RVs and anything to do with them seemingly exploded across the landscape, the first hints of an impending cool-down have become visible, even as broader underlying trends suggest a deeper downturn than many industry participants might be prepared to weather.

In that regard, two sets of recently announced numbers specific to RVs and RVers are especially telling. One has to do with RV wholesale shipments, which now are projected by ITR Economics, which prepares quarterly forecasts for the RV Industry Association, to end 2022 at less than 500,000 units. That would represent a stunning near-17% decline from the 600,240 RVs shipped to dealers last year–and that’s not the end of it. ITR’s mid-range forecast for 2023 predicts another 16% drop, to 419,000 units.

Putting aside the pandemic-blasted sales figures for 2019, that means projected RV shipments for next year will be at their lowest level since 2016. Coming on the heels of last year’s unprecedented construction boom, with RV builders hiring boatloads of new employees and adding assembly plants at a frantic pace, the implications are for a massive disruption of RV-dependent economies everywhere, but especially in Elkhart, Indiana.

The other notable numbers are from KOA, which recently reported a 5.6% increase in short-term registration revenue–even as it reported a 3.4% year-over-year decline in second-quarter occupancy. Moreover, long-term registration revenue for the same quarter was up 6.9%, while occupancy was down 3.3%. There’s only one way to reconcile fewer bodies with higher revenues, and that’s with higher prices, which at the very least should raise questions about the sustainability of such a business model.

Higher prices of all sorts, meanwhile, suggest that the slowdown KOA and RVIA are seeing will only accelerate in the months ahead. The Fed’s continuing interest rate increases, most recently projected to exceed 4.5% by year-end, will further dampen consumer spending, whether it’s for discretionary big-ticket items like RVs or for discretionary leisure activities like increasingly pricey RV sites. And gas prices, to which the RV sector is especially sensitive, may be rebounding after falling from their $5-a-gallon peak, bumping up by a penny yesterday–ending a 98-day streak of declines.

One signal of what’s to come may be getting offered by the investment groups that have been piling pell-mell into campground acquisitions–not that they’re slowing down, by any means. They are, however, lowering their sights, taking more of a long-term view that puts a greater emphasis on getting a foot in the door. As Randy Hendrickson, CEO of United Park Brokers, told Woodall’s Campground Magazine in its current issue, “a few years ago the criteria may have been 200-plus sites in the Sunbelt. [But] investors now recognize that 70-site parks with additional acreage” may be a better option, paving the way for “extracting internal value later through expansion or repositioning.”

The purchase of smaller campgrounds, it should go without saying, also is more easily financed, yet another consequence of higher interest rates. But it also means an unexpected down-market consolidation of the industry, further squeezing out would-be owner-operators.

Yes, winter is coming.

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The RV park bubble is growing

If the pandemic has been bad news for many businesses, just the reverse has been true for RV campground valuations, with prices ratcheting steadily upward. But as is becoming increasingly clear, the buying frenzy is creating a real estate bubble of asking prices that aren’t supported by economic fundamentals.

Take, for example, the Tennessee RV and motorhome campground that just got listed for sale, scarcely more than two years after the current owners acquired it. The 8.1-acre Tiny Town RV and Motorhome Park has 54 RV sites, plus sites for 10 single-wides and one double-wide, and accepts only monthly rentals. That means it also has minimal amenities, but the park does include a 3,600-square-foot house, a laundry facility with bathroom and connected maintenance area, and a zero-turn mower and diesel tractor.

Asking price? $3.4 million.

Sound pricey? Indeed it does, and a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation demonstrates how much so. The campground’s current rates include $550 a month for 26 RV sites at the front of the park (where there’s more road noise) and $575 a month for 28 sites in the rear. The single-wides, whose occupants pay their own utilities, are charged $250 a month; the solitary double-wide pays $320 a month. Assuming 100% occupancy year-round–which isn’t really a thing–that works out to a maximum of $398,640 a year in revenue. In other words, the aspiring sellers want someone to pay them 8.5 times their maximum annual cash flow.

How crazy is that? Let’s assume a buyer comes in with a typical 30% down-payment, or a smidge over a million dollars. Further assuming that the balance of $2.38 million is financed over 25 years at 6%, that means a monthly mortgage payment of $13,913, or $184,008 a year, leaving $214,632 a year to cover utilities, insurance, taxes, payroll (assuming the new owner can’t do all the needed work), maintenance and upkeep. If operating expenses can be kept to 40% of annual revenues, or $159,456–a highly optimistic assumption–the buyer will be left with annual income of $55,176 plus a home. At a more realistic 50% of revenues, or $199,320 in operating expenses, that drops to just $15,312 a year for the owner to live on.

Is it possible? Yes–if everything meets best-scenario expectations, nothing goes awry and there’s no expectation that the park will ever need capital improvements . Keep in mind, though, that buying an annual income of no more than $55,000 will cost the new owners a million bucks that they could have invested a lot more profitably elsewhere, and without years of hard work ahead of them. The more likely outcome is that if this property sells at anywhere near its asking price, it’ll be because the buyer is planning a sharp increase in site rates.

It might be time, in other words, for the park’s residents to start thinking about their next home.

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