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By all accounts, in the U.S. and abroad, there’s never been a better time to be in the outdoor hospitality industry. Consumer shows are seeing record numbers of attendees. As America’s Largest RV Show, held in Hershey, Pa., saw a remarkable 6% uptick in attendance, one of Europe’s, or perhaps even the world’s, leading camping events, Caravan Salon Dusseldorf, welcomed 203,500 visitors, a new record for that show as it celebrated its 55th year. Reports from Dusseldorf include an eight-to-12-month wait for new RVs as well as a nearly nonexistent pre-owned market. No one seems to be complaining, however, especially campground owners. 

So it’s official. After a slump in the economy (and/or the public’s perception) on both continents, camping is reemerging as a sought-after vacation option; a new generation graces our doorstep, eager to experience nature and freedom; and the ability to reach a targeted segment of the population is greater than ever. Market demographics now stretch from young couples and families to retirees, all eager to explore on their own terms.

Interestingly enough, many of the victories and challenges experienced by U.S. park owners and operators are also being worked through by their peers in Europe. Quality, professionalism, social media and its marketing aspects, operations and maintenance, and guest expectations are at the forefront of this very attractive form of tourism on both sides of the Atlantic.   

Woodall’s Campground Management writer Evanne Schmarder had an opportunity to sit down with Eicke Schueuermann, director of Leading Campings of Europe, a marketing club dedicated to promoting 39 top-rated camping resorts across 12 countries. With no two in the group alike, the common denominator across the associated parks is quality and each of the members takes that responsibility seriously.

Eicke Schueuermann

Eicke Schueuermann

WCM: At the parks that belong to the Leading Campings of Europe group, you say quality is job one. How do you measure and track that?

Schueuermann: Leading Campings of Europe is known for its high-quality parks, that’s our hallmark. Every member park understands, supports, and even protects that distinction.

One of our primary quality tools is our mystery-guest program. We employ different combinations of teams camping in a variety of different units to visit the parks, stay a few nights, and complete multi-question reports regarding every operational and service point measurable. Once completed we discuss the results with the park owner/operator. Standards must be met and if there is a deficiency they are asked to rectify it within a certain period of time. This is a costly process but one that is fully supported by the board and members. As it stands, we are on a three-year rotation, visiting each member park once every three years.

WCM: We understand the Millennial generation is a major European camping demographic. How has that come about in recent years?

Schueuermann: It is. In years past, camping was the province of those in their 50s, 60s and 70s and was considered a budget holiday. Recently we’ve seen a change, young families are discovering the value of nature and they choose to enjoy a camping holiday, be it in a tent, RV, rental RV, or a fixed accommodation at the park. It is no longer seen as a more cost-efficient holiday. Pitches (sites) run from $40-$140/night, and are in competition with several other types of holidaymaking.

Camping and cruising are the strongest European holiday market offerings and cruising is experiencing the same demographic shift as camping. Instead of silver agers, it’s now a younger crowd marketed to with pop music or other themed cruises.

Our Millennial campers are making holiday decisions based on what they can experience. It’s all about luxury, accommodation, food, sports, wellness, and entertainment.

Families with children look for a well-done animation (activities) program. It’s no secret that when the children are happy, everyone’s happy. Campgrounds can do this better than hotels. Cruise ships are a somewhat different concept. Cruisers are not as in touch with nature. The less we have of it, the more we value it. Younger families want to be able to wake up in the morning and put their bare feet on the damp grass. You can’t do that on a cruise ship.   

WCM: What type of camping unit trends are you seeing?   

Schueuermann: Of course the silver agers are visiting with their motorhomes and caravans, old style camping like they’ve always done. We see a growing number of young families coming with tents. That’s because their lifestyles are different today than former years. They do not stay in one place very long, they don’t work straight-line careers, they know they’ll make more money next year, and that they’re likely to change workplaces. They’re not too keen to invest large sums in an RV. It’s expensive and storage is often an issue.   

If they like camping they may stay with a tent or instead choose to take advantage of a new trend called fly-in camping. Guests fly to a destination, schedule pick-up service to the campsite, and stay at the park in a fixed accommodation, much like a hotel. This gives them the ability to create an experience to their liking. Meals, for example, may be included in a hotel holiday but then guests are tied down to the same experience each day. With fly-in camping there’s freedom. One day they may choose to be a smart shopper and enjoy a sandwich because it’s enough for that day, the next they may choose to go to the farm market and appreciate a fresh meal, and the third day they may want to have an ambitious cookout with their neighbors featuring regional meat, fish, or other specialties.

Holidaymaking on this order is a hybrid form of old-school camping. A quality European campground is a mix of different things including tents and RVs but also rentals and the fly-in option. It’s possible to rent a car, bike, or scooter as well as enjoy most amenities one can find in a good hotel.

This all comes together with social media. These days you do not go on holiday on your own. You always have your social peer group with you as you share pictures, comments, or observations on social media.

Caravan Park Sexten in Italy

Caravan Park Sexten in Italy

WCM: How is digital marketing being used by the outdoor hospitality industry in Europe?

Schueuermann: The digital revolution is out there whether park owners want to accept it or not. It’s easy to pay attention to the things they know and are familiar with but the Internet and associated apps and platforms must be addressed. This tool can help park owners with many complex things including dynamic pricing and addressing customers in a very different, modern way.

Generational changes in the family business are bringing about different marketing ideas and perspectives. Their first key principle is to know their customer. They’ve worked to identify their target markets, who can they serve and who is not their customer, and they market accordingly. Parks today are marketing online, taking advantage of websites, review sites, and social media.

Leading Campings saw a dramatic year-over-year change in the way our websites are being accessed. It’s almost all gone to smartphones. This means that websites must be responsive and user-friendly from that small screen.

Review sites are large and looming. They must be monitored and responded to almost in real time. And you must not lie. In today’s world of online images and instant messaging people can see what’s real and what is not. Tell the truth and let the public make up their own minds.

Social media is our biggest issue at the moment. We have Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, and other second-tier platforms. Facebook is our biggest outlet. A year ago we would post a picture and get many likes. Now a picture is no longer enough, now it should be moving, a video. You must follow what is in fashion. Ten years ago nobody took selfies but now you need to have a “selfie point” at a lovely, memorable, or dramatic point in your park with an empty picture frame, including the park’s name, encouraging people to post their pictures promoting the park experience.

The next step in Europe will be more sophisticated camping apps that include information, community, push notifications, and other marketing tools.

WCM: What’s the next big thing for the European camping industry?

Schueuermann: A very, very big challenge lies ahead. We must renew our complete audience. We’ve lived well on the silver agers; 1967 was the highest number of births. Then the pill was invented and we had fewer children. This new generation is different. Are they going to continue to frequent camping? Will they take a cruise next year, a yoga holiday in South America, hiking in Nepal? We do not know how frequently they’ll show up in a campground. We must work out what they need and how we can reach them.

We definitely can’t address them with a four-color ad in a camping directory, the least sexy of books ever! They contain lots of information but don’t tell you anything about holidaymaking.

In Germany a new portal was recently launched, fed by a database from the oldest and most serious camping directory. Users are asked to choose an emotion: active, urban, comfort or the like and a matching selection of beautiful, clickable pictures appear, much better than icons. This is the way it changes. But there are more challenges.

If we are really serious about global warming and fossil fuels, if we are really serious about electric vehicles, the good old caravan is more or less dead. The future of camping is more and more the hybrid model where you have fixed accommodations, tent pitches, and different ways to access a campground. Fewer and fewer guests, the Millennials, may be showing up in an RV.

Members of the younger generation, many living in metropolitan areas, don’t want a car. Certainly they need the latest iPhone or new electronic device, but not a car. They share, peer-to-peer sharing. They get what they need when they need it by participating in a pool. You cannot sell this concept to those proud of owning and upgrading a car. But it’s a new world that we will be required to adapt our business model to.

We simply must find a way to address these people. Everything is changing. Quality experiences, shorter stays, an immediate-gratification mindset, new ways of camping, and the desire for smaller camping units are in high demand. The dual triggers of freedom and nature will continue to drive the industry for at least the next 30 years, becoming more and more valuable as they disappear from our everyday lives. How we respond to these challenges today will determine the industry’s future.