Gas prices could have varying impacts on campgrounds depending on the type of park it is. Credit: Unsplash

Editor’s note: This article was featured by WOODALLSCM.com last fall as gas prices rose through the summer months. WCM is featuring this article again as prices continue to climb due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

If you drive a vehicle, no doubt you keep track of gas prices, and this past Spring most motorists probably noticed a slight uptick in prices.

Headlines that noted jumps in gas prices were pretty common in May, June and July as demand crept up and prices did too. According to AAA, by the end of July gas prices had bumped up 13 cents since Memorial Day — a full 98 cents higher than at the same time in 2020, but of course, COVID impacted demand.

The last time the national average for a gallon of gasoline was above $3/gallon before 2021 was in 2014, so motorists were obviously a little nervous that prices may continue to jump — maybe even reaching the $4 mark that drew the ire of many during the Great Recession.

Those fears have alleviated to some degree as crude oil prices dropped near the end of August, according to AAA.

What does any of this have to do with operating your business?

WOODALLSCM.com (WCM) wondered the same thing and wanted to learn more about how high gasoline prices could impact the outdoor hospitality industry, so we caught up with a few longtime park owners and industry veterans who provided us with insight into the issue.

David Gorin

David Gorin, former president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) from 1987-2001 and executive director of the Virginia Campground Association from 2002-2011, along with being the co-founder of Gorin+Cohen Consulting Group, told WCM that back in the 1970s, during the oil embargo, the RV industry and travel, in general, was definitely impacted.

“I think if people went back and looked at the RV sales numbers from the late ‘60s into the ‘70s they might be pretty shocked. They were pretty good,” he mentioned. “Then of course the oil embargo and oil shortages of 1973 began, and the RV industry saw its high numbers move significantly down. Another oil shortage in the 1980s had a similar impact.

“What came out of both of those shortages was a recognition by the industry, particularly among the RV manufacturers and campgrounds, that the government needed to take another look at recreation as an essential part of American life,” Gorin added. “Every time the gas prices went up, you couldn’t just say, ‘Okay, no sales of gas to RVs or boats or recreational purposes. We’re not going to sell gas to you guys. You’re out of luck.’ That led to the creation of the American Recreation Coalition, which was the predecessor to the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR).”

During the Great Recession (2008-2009), Gorin noted that campers still wanted to get out, but they cut back some on travel and on how far they were willing to go.

Gary Quigley

Gary Quigley

“It really led to the growth in seasonal camping in a lot of places because campers wanted to find a site that they could park their unit on and leave it there during the summer months,” he said.

Gary Quigley, the owner of the Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resort at Kozy Rest in Harrisville, Pa., mentioned that his family was a little nervous when gasoline tipped over $4 a gallon in 2008.

“We were in a complete panic thinking that there is no way people are going to travel when gas is that high,” Quigley remembers. “But, in fact, it was the complete opposite. Typically, we draw most of our people from within a two-hour radius and that shrunk to about a 30-minute radius. We surveyed our customers and spoke with them about why they came to the park to help us understand the trends. We found that a lot of the people that were staying with us were new to the park because they were more local and considered us too close for a vacation before.

“Not only that, but the people who were planning larger beach vacations to places like Myrtle Beach or Disney canceled those vacations and instead stayed longer with us,” he continued. “Now we had people staying 3-7 days. Not only that, but these people also began to see that their kids were having a more enjoyable time at the campground versus the other vacations they typically took, and they kept coming back. So, we were able to see several positive things out of the whole experience.”

Quigley did note that his park is a destination park, with nothing much else for campers to do in the area it is located in. He said the impact of higher gas prices may be felt more by parks that sit by the highways and cater more to people traveling through.

“It obviously could have a more negative impact for those parks than a park like ours,” he said.

Al Johnson

Al Johnson, the immediate past chair of ARVC and executive vice president of development and public affairs for Recreational Adventures Co., which owns numerous Kampgrounds of America Inc. parks throughout the United States, noted that gas prices have historically been an impactful factor in the kind of season the company’s parks would have.

“It was more important than weather, political activities or anything else overall in the determination of what kind of season to expect,” he explained. “This summer gas prices have moved up, but the impact has been different. Usually, with the increase in prices, we have seen this year I would have expected it to impact our business somewhat, but that hasn’t happened. I think part of the reason is that campers feel more confident in their financial position and so higher gas prices aren’t having the same type of impact they would have had in years past.”

Johnson agreed with Quigley that the type of park an owner operates will impact how gas prices affect business.

“Transient parks generally rely on people traveling to a national park or other destination and if people stay closer to home then parks closer to urban areas or destination parks may see higher demand versus those transient parks along the highway,” he noted.

Peter Brown, owner of Lone Oak Campsites in East Canaan, Conn., and ARVC’s current chair, noted that gas prices have never historically impacted his park because most of his campers travel from shorter distances.

“In the grand scheme of things, when they come to camp with us the gas price is a small percentage of what they are paying for the trip,” he explained.

Peter Brown

Peter Brown

What do you do if gas prices are an issue?

Gorin remembered when they opened a Florida park during the Great Recession and cancellations were pouring in because of high gas prices.

“So, we instituted a deal where if someone came to stay with us they would get a $500 gas card and if they stayed with us for three months, they got another $500 gas card,” he said. “It helped us fill up the park. That is the type of things you have to look at to overcome those types of problems.”

Johnson said that in the 1970s the availability of gas was an issue, so one park actually put a gas pump out front that campers could use.

“It gave people the feeling of security that if they made it to us, they could get gas when they were on the road,” he noted.

Quigley explained that park owners should also look at their marketing efforts and adjust them so that they match with the type of consumers that are coming into the park.

“It might benefit parks to target more local campers,” he said. “If you are a transient heavy park, maybe you offer a few things to attract travelers. You need to find ways to lengthen stays and get people to come.”

Gorin said that the campground sector also needs to prepare for more electric vehicles.

“It is going to happen, although exactly what it looks like is still yet to be seen,” he noted.