Linda Profaizer

Editor’s Note: Linda Profaizer, a Colorado resident and immediate past-president of ARVC, can be contacted at [email protected] Having stepped away from her association duties at the end of 2010, she welcomes input on topics of importance to campground owners for upcoming columns.

It appears that most RV parks and campgrounds had very strong Labor Day Weekend business. Several park owners I spoke to were full to capacity. As a matter of fact, Texas parks, according to a release from Brian Schaeffer, executive director of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO), “year-to-date business levels have surpassed last year’s figures.” This has been true in many parts of the country. Great news and possibly a reflection that, according to the new MMGY Global/Harrison Group research, there is a comeback of pre-recession leisure travel habits and preferences.

Their “2012 Portrait of American Travelers” research points to a revival of the most meaningful driver of American vacations – the emotional connection between travel and quality of life. While there is no doubt that the economy is still challenging, travelers are reaffirming that leisure travel is important to their very well-being.

According to their research, while the average number of overnight leisure trips taken during the past year has remained essentially unchanged versus the previous year, the motivations underlying these getaways are evolving. “Trading down,” “staycations” and other cost-conscious travel behaviors that emerged during the recession have diminished and the new findings bode well for a boost in 2013 travel spending thanks to a renewed interest in quality experiences that Americans deem “worth it.”

While studies such as the “2012 Portrait of American Travelers” talk about travel in general and seem to mention hotels and resorts to a great extent, they are also pertinent to the RV park and campground segment of the travel market. Their findings reflect positively on our sector of the industry and many findings can be applied to parks and can provide some insight into next year.

Several key insights of the annual survey reveal that today’s travelers:

Place High Value on the Emotional Power of Travel: More than nine in 10 travelers agree, “The memories I get from my vacations make the trip worth it.” This seems to be the primary reason for the renewed interest in travel by consumers who have endured a prolonged economic downturn of having less discretionary money and less time to participate. Vacationers’ top goals for the coming year speak to this connection – they want to see more of the world (39 percent of respondents) and spend more time with family and friends (29 percent of respondents). Note: Our sector of the tourism industry has long promoted the great memories that a camping experience provides – this is not new for our RV parks and campgrounds, but perhaps this key outcome of the survey points to even more travelers recognizing this as a meaningful reason to travel and could lead to more people enjoying camping.

Emphasize the Experience vs. the Cost: Travelers in all annual household income groups now value “quality” over “savings.” They are more willing to pay full price “as long as I am guaranteed the quality and service I deserve.” In contrast to how consumers planned their vacations during the height of the recession, today’s travelers choose the destination (34 percent of respondents) and type of trip (33 percent of respondents) first, before setting a budget (18 percent of respondents) and searching for deals (8 percent of respondents). However, the perceived “value for the price” remains the most influential factor for nine out of ten travelers when choosing lodging. The influence of “value” on accommodation selection has increased corresponding with a decline in the influence of “rates,” suggesting that travelers really do make a distinction between “price” and “value.” Note: This really points out the need to make sure you are providing value for the experience and price you are offering. Great customer service is key to the experience and value proposition. Read those reviews: do you have repeated complaints about a service or experience that you provide? If so, time to make some changes!

Focus More on Family: “Togethering” vacations are on the rise in what remains an uncertain economy, with 43 percent of leisure travelers saying family getaways were the primary purpose of one or more leisure trips during the past year, compared to 40 percent just two years ago. This renewed familial focus has also given way to a significant boost in multi-generational travel – 23 percent of all active leisure travelers are now grandparents, and 37 percent of those took at least one vacation with their grandchildren during the past 12 months, compared with just 32 percent in 2011. Note: We have been talking about this for years. Our industry has promoted the family aspects of camping enabling a family to really enjoy being together in a relaxed, interesting outdoor environment. We have also noted the increase in the number of grandparents and that increasingly they are taking their grandkids camping. Grandparents have the time and may be the primary “parent” for their grandkids. This research enforces that for our industry and if your park wants the family business, think about what you can offer grandparents traveling with their grandchildren. Make it easy for them and come up with some things to see and do in the area that would appeal to the grandkids.

Changed the Types of Trips Taken Last Year: More travelers enjoyed both trips focused on outdoor activities as well as city-based vacations last year, with each type of getaway reflecting a two percentage point rise since 2011. And while trips focused on outdoor activities rose in popularity, less active general sightseeing vacations declined significantly, dropping from 29 percent in 2011 to just 26 percent today. Trips to see sporting events and, not surprisingly, gambling vacations also declined in popularity. Note: What a great outcome for RV parks and campgrounds. Camping trips do focus on outdoor activities, either at your park or nearby. Just a reminder to make sure that you know all the outdoor activities available in your area and provide that information to your guests. Take a look at the activities that are popular or are gaining popularity and consider adding them to your park. One such activity is disc golf formerly called Frisbee golf. The number of courses has doubled since 2004 to 3500 nationwide and participation increased 10 percent to 51,100 from 2010 to 2011. I thought disc golf was just a more formalized version of heaving Frisbees at trees. It is that, but there are also hazards, like hills and swales; there are different kinds of throws; and there are drivers and putters in the form of differently designed discs. All ages can play and you can offer the golf for free or charge, charge for disc rental, and sell them in your store. You can even open up the course to locals and introduce them to your park at the same time. If you are interested in disc golf, go to www.pdga.com where you can find lots of information or if you want to contact a park owner who added disc golf to his park recently, contact Ian Steyn, Yogi Bear Jellystone Park of Larkspur at [email protected] According to Ian, the disc golf has been a great addition. He offers it free to guests and if they don’t have discs, he rents a set of three for $5/round. His equipment cost was around $8,000, but he says it isn’t necessary to spend that much. His was all top-of-the-line. Installation, concrete pads, course construction ran about another $10,000. Again not necessary in less heavily wooded or flatter terrain. He charges $5/round for “outsiders” to play and put on free disc golf clinics for his guests. It’s been a great hit. An RV park could put in a few baskets for a few hundred dollars or go all out if they have the land available.

Are More Likely to Trade Up: The survey showed that more travelers prefer upscale accommodations this year than last, with 26 percent of vacationers preferring luxury lodging versus just 15 percent in 2011 (remember the research refers mainly to hotels and resorts). Note: This would be similar to premium sites at your park and full service on-site rentals being more popular with your guests than standard sites and bare bones cabins.

Show a Shift in Destination Interest: While the most popular U.S. states retained their appeal (California, Florida, Hawaii and New York), the allure of several other destinations has also increased. States like Alaska, Arizona and Tennessee saw decreases in interest, while Louisiana, Michigan, Oregon and Washington, D.C., benefited from increased interest. Many destinations that feature outdoor recreation now enjoy a statistically significant rise in interest. Other destinations with increasing popularity offer unique visitor experiences such as historic Colonial Williamsburg, Va., St. Augustine, Fla., Napa and Sonoma valleys in California for their wine tours, and neon-lighted Las Vegas. Interestingly, fewer US travelers are interested in international trips overall, dropping to 9 percent of all leisure travelers today vs. 11 percent last year. The incidence of riots and general unrest in other parts of the world could be contributing factors. Note: The fact that destinations featuring outdoor recreation enjoy increasing popularity plays directly to our market. If you have some of those “unique visitor experiences” drivers near you, make sure you promote that on your website and other literature. With fewer people interested in international travel, it means more will be looking to plan trips in the U.S.

Use Mobile Media Differently: The use of tablets is increasing. While less than one in 10 leisure travelers accessed the Internet through an iPad or tablet computer in 2011, this has increased nearly four-fold to 27 percent in 2012. When comparing the activities performed by leisure travelers on tablets vs. smartphones, travelers now use tablets more frequently when comparing prices, making air travel, lodging reservations or purchasing tickets to attractions and other activities. Smartphones are more likely to be used for activities on the go, such as finding nearby restaurants and shops, navigation, scanning QR codes or using check-in features or apps such as Facebook Places and Foursquare. There was also a recent survey by Trivago showing that 85 percent of survey participants preferred booking a last-minute hotel reservation via the Internet or via an app, while only 15 percent opted for the more traditional methods of calling or booking via a travel agent. Note: I’d be interested in hearing from you about what you have noticed regarding your business and the use of smartphones and tablets by your guests. I know I have used my smartphone to make reservations and certainly finding locations of parks and restaurants on the go. I do believe more park guests probably call for reservations than hotel guests. This research outcome points out the need for you to make sure campers can find your park using the GPS coordinates provided by Google and others and get listed on mobile sites.

Rise in Optimism: I’m not sure I really believe this one, but according to the survey, U.S. travelers now embrace a more positive view of the world – no doubt another reason for their renewed interest in rediscovering the emotional benefits of travel. Significantly more leisure travelers now say they are extremely/very optimistic about “their own future,” “the future of their children,” “their jobs,” “their companies” and “the world in general” than just two years ago. Note: I was happy to see this bit of news, but this seems to be counter to what we hear today in the press and certainly political campaigns, but then again, those are “political” campaigns.

The MMGY Global/Harrison Group “2012 Portrait of American Travelers” annual research surveys 2,527 U.S. households with an annual household income of $50,000 or more who have taken at least one overnight trip of 75 miles or more from home during the previous 12 months. Peter Yesawich is vice chairman of MMGY Global. Some of you may remember the first comprehensive national campground study titled The American Camper: Profiles and Perspectives was conducted by the then YPBR for ARVC released late in 2005.