Kristi Collier, CEO of Welcome Home Rio Grande Valley

It’s no secret that RV parks and resorts in the Rio Grande Valley whose livelihoods depend on the annual influx of Winter Texans are facing several challenges.

Many of today’s winter visitors are younger and more mobile than their counterparts of years past.

“They may go to Arizona this year, Texas next year and Florida the next year,” said Kristi Collier, president and CEO of Welcome Home Rio Grande Valley, which markets 74 RV parks and resorts from Mission to South Padre Island.

Snowbirds who don’t have a history of spending their winters in the Rio Grande Valley are also more likely to be frightened by publicity about violence in Mexico, even though cities in the Rio Grande Valley have less crime than other popular winter resort destinations in other states.

Despite these challenges, RV parks and resorts across the Rio Grande Valley are finding that they can continue to grow their business base for the winter season if they offer lots of organized activities and continue to invest in new amenities for their parks, said Brian Schaeffer, executive director and CEO of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).

Pet Amenities

These new amenities include walking areas and agility courses for people with dogs as well as special pet-related activities.

“Dog parks are a big deal,” said Jacqueline Gomez, who is the marketing director for Llano Grande Lake Park Resort & Country Club in Mercedes, Victoria Palms Resort in Donna and Alamo Park Mobile Home & RV Park in Alamo. She said each of the resorts has two, off-leash dog areas.

Pet amenities are important for Winter Texans, Gomez said, because for many of them, pets are like their children. The dog parks act as a backyard for pet owners, offering residents a comfortable place to let their dogs run freely and interact with other animals. The three parks also have golf cart parades for special occasions and holidays where residents’ dressed-up pets become the talk of the town in aptly-themed outfits .

The dog park at Bentsen Palm Village in Mission has become so popular that the owners recently added a second park so that guests could have separate running and play areas for big dogs and small dogs.

“About 70% to 75% of our guests have dogs, so these kinds of amenities are important,” said Juanita Carvajal, Bentsen Palm Village’s general manager.

Community Gardens

Of course, while pet friendly amenities are attractive to Winter Texans, that’s not the only attraction at Bentsen Palm Village. The 250-site resort recently set aside an open area of the park where its guests can grow their own organic fruits, vegetables and herbs.

“It’s like a community garden,” Carvajal said, “but we give each guest a 10 by 10-foot section where they can put a stake with their name on it. They often grow kale, peppers, tomatoes, onions and radishes. Sometimes, they grow so much they bring it into the office to share.”

Birding, Hiking and Wildlife

Bentsen Palms also markets its proximity to the World Birding Center while also highlighting the rare birds and other wildlife that make their way into the park.

“This past season, we had a family of elf owls that stayed in our park,” Carvajal said, adding that the owls are only 5 inches tall. “The season before we had black vented Orioles,” a rare bird native to Mexico and Central America that has a black hood, upper back and wings and a bright yellow-orange underside.

Many visitors to the Rio Grande Valley like taking hikes to wildlife preserves and seeing wildlife in nature reserves. Others like taking bike rides and walks and kayaking down the Rio Grande River.

Other Activities

But while nature oriented activities are always popular, RV park and resort operators are finding that other types of organized activities are also critical for today’s Winter Texans.

El Valle del Sol in Mission offers more than 100 activities each week for its guests. “Winter Texans want to be active,” said park manager Irma Sanchez.

El Valle del Sol’s activities include classes in wood carving, ceramics and painting and Tai Chi while its food related events range from pancake breakfasts to potluck dinners with Hawaiian, Cajan, Western and other culinary themes. The park also has live entertainment with polka bands and other musicians.

“Winter Texans don’t sit still,” Sanchez said.

Winter visitors like their surroundings to be nice, too, which is why many Rio Grande Valley parks are also investing in aesthetic improvements and other creature comforts.

“We just put in a high powered Wi-Fi system this summer and everybody is real happy about that,” said Ruth Dearinger, manager of VIP Park in La Feria. Other improvements at the 256-site park include resurfaced streets, landscaping and the installation of more campsites with 50 amp electrical hookups.

Bentsen Palm Village routinely surveys its guests to pinpoint the improvements they would like to see at the park. The park recently installed radiant heaters in its clubhouse and mirrors in its exercise room in response to such surveys.

New improvements at Victoria Palms Resort include revitalizing the ballroom with an expansion of the stage, installation of new stage lighting and a new high-tech sound system. The park has also invested heavily into improving the landscaping throughout the park with a new look and aesthetic appeal Gomez said is sure to wow guests.

Heightened Security

Llano Grande Lake Park, Victoria Palms Resort and Alamo Park also have heightened security procedures, with guests being issued clickers to open the security gate as well as stickers to post in their vehicles. “We want to make sure all of our guests feel safe, happy and secure,” Gomez said. “Additionally, our residents view our resorts as a home away from home and they have a vested interest into who comes and goes. So we make safety a top priority.”

Dearinger said VIP Park also makes security a priority, with custom designed windshield passes that are required of every vehicle that is allowed into the park. “It is an added security feature,” she said, adding, “All guests need to stop by our office and get a visitor pass.”

Some Rio Grande Valley parks are also using social media tools to increase their outreach and communication with Winter Texans. Llano Grande Lake Park, Victoria Palms Resort and Alamo Park have all stepped up their use of Facebook to keep in touch with park guests, alert them to activities and build a sense of community, Gomez said.

And while some park operators say it’s hard to predict just how strong the upcoming winter season will be, Collier said Winter Texans are already arriving at parks across the Rio Grande Valley, which is good news. “People are coming down earlier this season,” she said.