Campground Editor’s note: Mike Gast, the former vice president of communications for Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), wrote this for RVTravel.com

Now, before you bring out the tar and feathers, hear me out. I’m not sure yet myself if the loss of small, family-owned parks should be decried or celebrated. I’m just bringing the issue out of the dusty topic closet for a little discussion. I’d really like to hear what you think on the subject.

What got me thinking along these lines was the column last Sunday by Andy Zipser, the former owner of the Walnut Hills RV Park in Staunton, Va. Andy recently sold his park to an up-and-coming corporate group that owns or operates more than a dozen parks.

I’ve known Andy for all eight of his campground-owning years since, for most of them, his park was a KOA and I was the vice president of communications for Kampgrounds of America Inc. We didn’t cross paths often (mostly I heard from Andy when he rightfully pointed out a typo in some of my content). Even though we didn’t always agree, I have always respected Andy. He’s a smart fellow – smart enough to purchase a great campground that he undoubtedly left better than he found it and was able to reap the rewards of his efforts.

Andy’s story of campground ownership actually reflects the outcome most park owners seek. First, you buy a campground. Then you pour in your sweat equity and the improvements you can afford for a few years. In the end, you successfully cash out … sometimes to another family, but now it’s more likely – like Andy – you sell to a group or corporation.

So, back to my original statement. How can the demise of small, family-owned (“mom-and-pop”) campgrounds be a good thing?

Small mom-and-pop parks tend to grow slowly

Over the past two decades, I’ve watched hundreds of eager couples purchase “mom-and-pop”-type campgrounds. Most were mortgaged to the hilt to make it happen, although they were required to have at least a minimal amount of available operating capital to start their ownership experience.

Campgrounds – even small ones – do make money. But typically, the financial demands of debt service and other family expenses don’t leave a lot of cash to pour back into these smaller campground businesses (try as they might). Small, family-owned campgrounds certainly do add improvements and amenities where they can. It’s just a slower process.

That’s when corporate buyers can actually be a plus. They usually finance most or all of a campground purchase on their own and they have the cash needed for the quick improvements, added amenities, and campground expansions campers are now demanding.

Who’s to blame for fewer mom-and-pop campgrounds?

You can point that finger at yourself. Well, that might be a bit harsh. But in general, it’s the demands of the market that dictate what happens in any industry.

Campers today want more. More food services, more amenities, more sites and more space. The list is long. A small 30/50-site park, as my friend Andy pointed out, can’t afford to keep up with all of the current trends. Take a look at most campground reviews and you’ll see many complaints about poor Wi-Fi, unpaved roads and sites built in the 1970s that don’t fit current RVs sporting five slide-outs. It all adds up and these are all issues that only cash can fix.

Like I said earlier, there is a lot of money to be made in camping, but it has to be done on a larger scale to really turn top dollar. Corporate buyers can afford to take a small park that comes with unused land and quickly ramp it up by adding hundreds of new sites and amenities to give campers just what they say they really want. Industries always react to market demands.

The downside

What’s happening now in camping isn’t new. Every industry evolves. The mom-and-pop,12-unit roadside motels that sprouted along the nation’s two-lane highways in the 1960s and 1970s gave way to the Motel 6’s and Super 8’s. They, in turn, had to share space with even larger motel chains as the interstate highway system bloomed.

The same goes for retail. Not many small-town hardware stores survived the arrival of a Home Depot and you boondockers out there who are worried about the declining number of Walmarts that allow overnight camping probably won’t get much sympathy from the thousands of small local businesses driven out by Sam Walton’s behemoth creation.

The real downside of this evolution in camping, at least for us long-timers who remember it as it was, is that bigger parks with more investments in expansions and amenities will undoubtedly charge higher rates. Not only that, but more sophisticated operations will bring in “dynamic pricing,” just as Andy predicted last week. That means campsite prices will be handled just as seat ticket rates are managed in the airline industry. The price you pay will be determined by the day of the week, the camp’s available inventory, the demand for a certain type of site, even the time of day you try to reserve.

It’s all driven by algorithms, and the factors are endless and automated. But it all leads to you possibly paying a lot more for the same site (or at least a very different rate) than your neighbor.

It doesn’t matter if we are talking about the future of national and state park campgrounds or private parks – be careful what you ask for. Endless surveys and reviews of post-stay comments clearly show that campers want more and bigger sites, more amenities, better Wi-Fi and sophisticated online reservation systems. And they want it all now. That takes capital and that requires owners with more resources.

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