The outdoor hospitality industry has been running at full speed this summer — which is really a surprise to no one as all indications this past winter pointed to an RVing/camping season that would be like no other.
“It’s growing and overflowing in most cases, especially on weekends,” noted Paul Bambei, the CEO and president of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC).
Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) moved up its annual projection of the number of households that will camp in 2021. In June, they moved it up to 53 million households, a nearly 500,000 increase from its spring projections. That is a five million increase over 2020 numbers.
KOA numbers also pointed to more than 24 million campers taking a camping trip at some point in July and notes impressive growth among new campers with the new camper segment estimated to reflect 4.9 million by the end of the year. This is up from estimates of 4.3 million in May and 4.8 million in June.
Looking to summer as a whole, KOA research shows that 52% of all North American campers plan to camp even as monthly research shows campers across the U.S. and Canada are dealing with outsides forces that may affect camping behavior.
“The strong momentum in our business we experienced late summer and fall coming has accelerated this year. Our business is tracking 30% ahead of 2019 which was a record year for KOA and we see no signs thus far of it slowing,” noted Toby O’Rourke, KOA’s CEO and president to WOODALLSCM.com (WCM). “Advanced deposits on future reservations, the majority of which are for the next few months, are over 60% ahead of where they were at this time last year. We did have setbacks in Canada this spring as there were stay-at-home orders and business restrictions in place. However, now that all of our parks are fully open, it is full steam ahead. The surge of interest in the outdoors and camping is fueling what will be our undoubtedly best year in history.”
At Leisure Systems Inc. (LSI), the franchisor of more than 75 Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts across North America, revenue reports coming in from its parks are showing the outstanding year that Jellystone Park owners are having.
“Based on our same park comparisons through June, total revenues are up 58% compared to 2020 and 2020 was the highest revenue year in the company’s history,” noted Trent Hershenson, vice president of marketing at LSI. “We’re definitely continuing to see an influx of new campers this summer. Based on our customer research, 45% of the guests visiting us this summer were visiting a Jellystone Park location for their first time ever.”
He also noted that the outlook for the fall looks very strong based on advanced reservations. Based on the available data (as of mid-July), reservations for September, October, November and December are up 76% compared to the same park advance reservations from mid-July in 2020.
At RVC Outdoors, Lloyd Lauland, president of the company, noted that its parks are seeing more repeat business, along with more new campers looking to explore the lifestyle.
“At our Pigeon Forge Landing location, we have seen guests checking in the same day they purchased their rigs,” he noted. “With the record number of RV sales in the past 18 months, the percentage of new guests is increasing daily. Across our entire portfolio, occupancy is up 35.8% in the first six months of the year. Bookings for the fall are much stronger than this time last year, however, we are still witnessing shorter booking windows due to the uncertainty of COVID-19.”
Mike Harrison, the vice president of operations for Contemporary Resorts and Residences (CRR), told WCM that while its numbers are skewed a bit from first opening in 2019 and then working through the COVID crisis, the company is still seeing strong interest from campers.
“Year-to-date our numbers are strong and are far exceeding our expectations in revenue,” he explained. “Occupancy continues to remain strong and our parks had very busy first and second quarters. Our outlook for the fall continues to look strong and should be up year-over-year.”
“The majority of our Great Escapes RV Resorts are booked seven days a week with campers in RVs, tents and cabins,” according to Cherolyn Chiang, the company’s director of marketing. “We have seen an influx of first-time campers and first-time visitors to our
parks. Interest in tent camping has surged so much that they are renting our RV sites for their tents. Overall, our parks have been quite full since the camping season began.
“In our warmer regions, demand started in May 2020 and has not slowed since,” she added. “Fall camping demand remains strong but is limited to weekends.”
Campspot Software, a reservations and park management software provider, noted to WCM that its research shows a 37% increase in bookings from May until now year over year, with a 47% increase in advanced bookings from now until the end of the Summer (now until September 1).
There is a 62% increase in advanced bookings for Fall (Sept. 1 – Oct. 31).
“What I’m seeing is venture capital and private equity investment is being attracted to our industry,” said Bambei. “Those guys look for one thing, predictability of cash flow or profit, and we have that. They like it when it sustains over many years. What they look for is a minimum of three years of sustained cash flow increase and the smart campground owner is taking advantage of the law of supply and demand and raising their rates and raising their profits right along with it.
“Our annual Trends and Insights report shows that site numbers are growing right along with the number of amenities,” continued Bambei.
State campground associations have also reported that their member parks are seeing an increase in the number of campers visiting their parks — including an influx of new campers.
“The camping season in Ohio has been great,” noted Kristy Smith, the executive director of the Ohio Campground Owners Association. “Campgrounds are very busy; bookings are up or at least on par from last year (which was also one their busiest years). We are continuing to see new campers come into our parks and we are excited looking forward to fall and expect the busy weekends to continue well into the fall.”
In Virginia, Emily Peck, co-executive director of the Virginia Campground Association (VCA), told WCM that park owners are seeing the highest reservation numbers they have seen in years.
“For some, it is the most they have ever had,” she highlighted. “There are certainly many new campers in addition to people, old and new, taking an increased number of trips. Many parks are completely booked on the weekends, which I am sure is the case in most states right now. Many of our campgrounds are anticipating busy October/Halloween weekends.”
The story is much the same in Maine.
“Our season began early this year because the weather has been terrific,” noted Kathy Dyer, the executive director of the Maine Campground Owners Association. “Reservations are high, no vacancy signs continue to pop up, very few seasonal sites available – so people should call ahead and be ready to be flexible with dates and where they want to go.
“Our next big hurdle is getting the Canadian border opened, sooner than later,” she added. “This closure has and continues to hurt many of our parks here in Maine.”
“Tennessee parks are having an amazing season and we are so excited about all the new campers we are seeing. It’s been a lot of fun to introduce them to an industry we all know and love,” explained Heather Blankenship, the president of the Tennessee Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds. “Fall camping sites are filling up fast.”
The Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO) said that parks in the Lonestar state are at record occupancy levels.
“Additionally, there is quite the influx of new residents to Texas and they don’t all immediately find housing so some stay in their RV’s or cabins/cottages while they seek permanent housing,” noted Brian Schaeffer, the CEO and president of TACO. “The high rate of RV sales is definitely delivering a new and slightly younger demographic. COVID-19 has been a real shot in the arm (no pun intended) to our industry.”
As fire season ramps up out West, there is some concern about the impact that it will have on camping, but so far Dyana Kelley, the CEO and president of the CampCalNOW RV Park and Campground Alliance (CampCalNOW), notes that parks are doing well.
“Parks have been busy and full but not as intense as last year,” she said. “Last year was a frenzy. With more travel options open, travelers have dispersed a bit, which has taken some pressure off outdoor hospitality and recreation. Campers have been generally happy and grateful for a site. Weekends are booked through fall, but many parks still have weekday availability. In some cases, bookings are up but not crazy.”
Mary Arlington, the executive director of the Colorado Campground & Lodging Owners Association, the Kansas RV Park Owners Association and the South Dakota Campground Owners Association, noted that parks in all three states are reporting very strong traffic.
“Overnight traffic is up at the overnight parks, and demand is more than intense at the destination parks,” she explained. “I’ve heard from some that they’re experiencing 95% to 99% occupancy, even when they include weekdays.”
In Pennsylvania, Jason Vaughn, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association, noted that parks have been “fairing well.”
“Advanced bookings were up partly because of the unavailability from late last summer,” he said. “Park owners are excited to be back to a more normal year, without a lot of the stress last year from the COVID-19 crisis and all the restrictions that were in place. They have begun bringing back many of the activities that families missed last year.
“Our parks are still continuing to see new campers and campers that experienced camping for the first time during the pandemic,” he added. “Although advanced bookings are up, campsites still do remain available for families that are looking for last-minute weekend trips, and cancellations are still a little higher than in the past, so we are encouraging campers to still look for the last-minute trips. We are also encouraging mid-week stays where campers can find a spot a little easier at most parks. Fall foliage, Halloween activities and great weather always make the fall a busy and fun time in Pennsylvania.”
Dee Witting, executive director of the Carolinas Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, noted that reservations are up in 2021.
“Many are seeing new campers along with many of their returning customers,” she highlighted. “Most of the campgrounds see no trend towards camping nights decreasing. Many campgrounds have added super sites and improvements to existing sites. Those sites are being booked immediately and reservations are continuing to come in for the remainder of 2021.”
In New Jersey, campground owners are reporting a banner year, according to Joann DelVescio, executive director of the New Jersey Campground Owners Association (NJCOA).
“New Jersey campgrounds are reporting higher than average occupancy not only on the weekend, but mid-week as well, and reservations are coming in much faster than normal for the Fall season,” she explained. “People are so eager to be outdoors that camping sites are in demand and new campers are staying in our campgrounds and feel confident in the safety measures campgrounds have put in place. People new to camping are renting all kinds of outdoor lodging units and getting into the camping scene. Most businesses in the areas surrounding campgrounds are also reporting that campers are visiting their establishments and attractions, which has helped their businesses tremendously after last year.”
Looking forward, Bambei doesn’t expect things to slow down industry-wide moving into the Fall.
“We don’t see any trend that will cause the growth of camping in the fall to veer off pattern,” he explained. “All the signs say that it’s going to be strong. Halloween has become a major event for a lot of campgrounds around the country. When a park decides to winterize, it’s basically because the cold weather is upon them. They typically get through mid-October to the end of October before they have to think about that, but we’ve heard a lot of stories of campground owners that used to be seasonal that just decided, ‘Hey, I’m going to keep riding the wave and keep my campground open all year.’
“There’s a monumental shift going on out there amongst campers,” Bambei added. The brick-and-mortar jobs used to keep a lot of people tied to their home base and then COVID changed all that. So, now they’re going to plan a trip or two or maybe a whole lifestyle away from home and that’s why it’s enabling these campgrounds to stay open longer.”