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Camp Duffy campground

Sites at the Camp Duffy campground at Sun ‘n Fun in Lakeland, Fla.

When the reality of the pandemic set in, families across the globe hastily canceled vacations as flights were grounded and reservations pulled. That flurry of disappointment created the “perfect storm” for a dark horse industry: RV sales and campgrounds, according to The Ledger.

Tristan Farrell, president of Sunlight Resorts, said it looks now like he had a crystal ball when his company decided to push forward with their brand new RV resort despite COVID-19. But he just saw a gap in the market and decided to fill it.

“There is a massive shortage of RV sites. You gotta book a site six months to a year in advance in Florida,” Farrell said. “There are waiting lists still to get into parks.”

On New Year’s Eve weekend, Sunlight Resorts opened Canopy Oaks, an RV resort in Lake Wales. It’s one of five Sunlight RV resorts planned throughout Florida. Two of the resorts, one in Ocala and one in Sebring, will open by New Year’s Eve. The other two, another in Sebring and one in Punta Gorda, will open in 2022.

“The first weekend, right when we opened the park, it was completely sold out for the opening weekend, which we did a big New Year’s Eve party and fireworks,” Farrell said.

Canopy Oaks is just one example of a nationally growing market, particularly in Central Florida. While the RV industry has been growing for years, COVID-19 accelerated growth in the rental and campsite space as families gravitated toward contained, outdoor activities. And campsites are growing from being just plots of land to offering resort-level amenities for a true vacation feel.

For many businesses and industries, the onset of the coronavirus was all but a death sentence. But not for the RV industry, said Bobby Cornwell, the president and CEO of the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds and Alabama Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.

“It’s been a crazy 12 months, to say the least,” Cornwell said. “When COVID hit, I guess it was kind of the perfect storm for our industry.”

Cornwell said RV sales are probably up 20% to 30% over the past year and that parks are performing 20% over with campground reservations and camper stays compared with where they were in 2019.

According to an industry flyer from the association, more than nine million households now own an RV, the highest level recorded. That’s a 16% increase since 2001.

The explosion is happening on the ground in Central Florida. Scott McNamara, who does marketing for Giant Recreation World in Winter Garden, says they’ve seen a huge increase in interest since the onset of COVID-19.

“Naturally with the pandemic, there was an upswing of business just because it is a safer way to travel. There’s not as much contact with other people; social distancing becomes a lot easier,” McNamara said. “You buy an RV, I mean, it’s your home. You know exactly who’s going in and out of it.”

McNamara said they’re seeing an increase in purchases and rentals. He said when it comes to rentals, people may tend toward them for vacations because the turnaround time is slower between RVs passing hands than at regular resorts and hotel rooms.

But the industry has also seen an increase in buyers, especially those seeking out smaller models or trailers they can pull behind them on trips.

“We definitely saw an upswing of first-timers and people of the younger generation trying to get into it and trying to experience it for themselves,” McNamara said.

He added that many people they saw come in for the first time just didn’t want to give up planned vacations, but they also didn’t want to get on planes or rent out hotel rooms.

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