Camping steak: a lot of sizzle, but . . .

The camping PR machine is kicking into high gear, beating the drums for another blockbuster year and working hard to energize the camping public. “Planning Early is a Hot Trend,” according to the Editor’s Notes in the March issue of Woodall’s Campground Magazine. “2023 Camping Starts Strong,” announces the February monthly report from Kampgrounds of America, its findings summarized by one online industry publication as “an exciting outlook for the outdoor hospitality industry.”

Well, not quite. While the Woodall’s piece asserts that early booking is “key for campers who want to stay at specific parks,” that may not be as true of the overall industry. And Woodall’s underlying analysis is based largely on The Dyrt 2023 Camping Report, which may be an interesting read but is almost entirely retrospective, more focused on telling readers what happened in 2022 than what to expect in 2023. Meanwhile, a closer look at the KOA report is revealing: while the February 2023 survey reports that 26% of campers have already booked all or some of their trips for the season, that’s less than half of the 54% who had done so a year earlier, according to that year’s February report.

Demand, in other words, may be quite a bit softer than industry boosters would have us believe. This has been signaled to some extent by a widely reported decline in RV production last year, with 493,268 units rolling off the assembly line—a 21.5% haircut from the all-time record of 600,240 RVs shipped in 2021; moreover, industry forecasts call for only 419,000 shipments in 2023. Optimists have rallied around the observation that even with last year’s steep decline, RV production in 2022 was the third highest in industry history; they’re less likely to note that the second highest level was set back in 2017, and that production declined each of the two subsequent years—until the pandemic turned everything around.

A second set of numbers RV manufacturers are less likely to quote have to do with retail sales. Indeed, the past decade has seen twice as many years in which more RVs were manufactured than were sold, an overall trend that was snapped in 2019 and 2020 before resuming in 2021. Last year there were 45,550 more RVs shipped than were sold, adding to a surplus of 29,469 in 2021, explaining why many RVers report seeing more RVs in dealers’ lots than in some campgrounds.

Replenishing inventory could be seen as a positive sign in an otherwise expanding market, but there’s little data to suggest that’s the case and a growing body of evidence to think otherwise. Americans’ financial reserves are evaporating as pandemic relief programs run out, ongoing inflation is eroding buying power and housing costs remain stubbornly at record highs. Perhaps most telling: credit card debt is at an all-time high, just shy of $1 trillion, and delinquencies among borrowers are accelerating, thanks to record-setting credit card interest rates nearing 20%.

Other storm clouds include an end to the pause on college student loan payments, scheduled for the end of June—just in time to derail the summer vacation plans of Gen Z and Millennial campers that the RV industry has hailed as a much-awaited shot in the arm. Gas prices, meanwhile, remain a wild card: $1 a gallon higher than a year ago but still at a reasonable level, yet with some indications that they might soon be headed for sharp increases.

Amid all that uncertainty, a campground industry that too readily believes its own rah-rah boosterism could be making some major missteps. One indicator of that is provided in the same Dyrt camping report that Woodall’s cited so uncritically, in a pair of statistics under the heading, “property managers respond to demand.” In 2022, 48.6% took advantage by raising their rates—and 46.4% said they plan to do so this year. Whether campers will swallow such increases at a time when consumers are spending more on food and essentials and less on hard goods remains to be seen, but grumblings about higher prices have already been forthcoming.

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Lazy, hazy, crazy days indeed

Remember when Nat King Cole would croon about the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer”–almost 60 years ago? That refrain was a hymn to a particular experience that no longer exists, and perhaps never will again. These days the “crazy” would refer to an endless procession of hurricanes and tropical storms, while the “hazy” can only mean a sky filled with smoke from millions of acres of burning forest .

You might think such an apocalyptic scenario would be provoking a spirited discussion within an industry whose success is most closely tied to the environment. You’d be wrong. Even as campgrounds and RV parks are bursting at the seams with Covid refugees eager to get out into the world, those organizations most critically positioned to address the issues confronting them are completely silent about climate change, extreme weather and how the campground industry should be responding.

The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, for example, is the only nationwide representative of campground owners, yet the top post on a website largely devoid of anything topical is focused on the hot topic du jour, online reservation systems. Woodall’s Campground Magazine, probably the leading industry publication, dedicates issue after issue to one product line after another: park models in September, wi-fi systems in August, liability insurance in July, pet products in June. Kampgrounds of America, the largest campground franchise system in North America, is so beside itself over the record numbers of campers swarming its campgrounds that it can’t talk about anything else.

Take your pick: maybe that head-in-the-sand outlook is crazy, or maybe it’s just lazy. Either way, it’s ultimately suicidal.

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