The winter snowbird business has turned out to be stronger than anticipated with many park operators reporting business levels close to last winter’s figures before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pandemic impacts vary depending on the park, however, and while some parks have seen significant business declines, most Sunbelt park operators contacted at random by WOODALLSCM.com (WCM) said that their winter business levels have been comparable to recent winters.
“The winter this year has pretty much been the same compared with last year. Despite the Canadians not coming, we are fine,” said Christos Kappas, manager of Caladesi RV Park in Palm Harbor, Fla., which has 86 sites and seven park models.
“Plenty of people are traveling to Florida,” Kappas continued. “We are slightly less booked because of the uncertainty of the baseball spring training season. But without a doubt, people will still be coming down to Florida. As long as the North continues to get cold, people will come South.”
Ridge Manor Campground, 30 minutes north of Tampa, is also having a normal winter season, with snowbirds occupying most of its 75 RV and 40 manufactured home sites, said park operator Bradley Winterroth.
“We noticed our regular five Canadian snowbirds couldn’t make it down, though one of them actually did fly down and had to rent an RV when he got here,” Winterroth said. “Since we don’t have too many Canadians, we were able to remain full with other snowbirds. We are as busy as the last few years during our normal season: December, mostly full; January, full; February, full; March, full; and April, mostly full.”
Bay Bayou RV Resort in Tampa and Sunkissed Village RV Resort in Summerfield, near Ocala, are also keeping busy this winter, according to Darla Sinnard, a regional manager for both parks. “Although we did experience a large number of cancellations and date changes due to COVID-19, we have been able to fill those reservations with shorter-term stays,” she said. “Both resorts will be full for February and at 90% occupancy for March, so we are grateful. We tried to work with guests that had to cancel and either return their deposit due to the circumstances or offer a credit for a future reservation. Demand is strong for last-minute reservations for guests wishing the leave the cold weather in the Midwest and on the East Coast.”
Riptide RV Resort, a Sun Communities resort in Key Largo, has also been able to keep its sites full. “Some of our regular American snowbirds did cancel, but we have kept busy with transient RV guests,” said Julie Rohan, Riptide’s resort manager.
In Texas, some Rio Grande Valley parks have been negatively affected by the loss of Canadian snowbirds, but generally, parks across the Lone Star State have been keeping busy this winter, according to Brian Schaeffer, executive director and CEO of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO). “Business overall is up 10 to 15%, (reflecting) everything from local folks just getting out of the house to transient guests to workers. There are some parks that had a big influx of Canadians in the past, mostly in the Rio Grande Valley, and they are off some,” he said.
Some popular snowbird parks in Arizona are also experiencing the effects of the pandemic, but different parks are reporting different impacts.
“My monthly sites are full,” said Scott Swanson, who co-owns the 126-site Sonoran Desert RV Park in Gila Bend, Ariz., a tiny remote desert community about an hour southwest of Phoenix.
Swanson said two of his snowbirds left early for health reasons in late January, one who had a hip problem and another who needed to seek medical attention for his dog. But he was able to fill their sites right away because he still had a waiting list of snowbirds wanting a site — even in late January.
“The snowbirds would rather ride out the pandemic in the Sunbelt region than ride it out in the snow,” he said, adding that American snowbirds filled the seven RV sites that Canadians had previously reserved but were unable to use because of the continuing U.S.-Canadian border closure.
Swanson typically allocates 79 of his sites as seasonal sites for snowbirds, with his remaining 47 sites being reserved for overnight travelers since his park is near Interstate 8, a major east-west route connecting Tucson with San Diego.
But Swanson said his overnight traffic was down about 5% through late January, a situation he attributes to the pandemic, which has prompted the cancellation of rallies and special events, such as the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. “People are hunkering down,” he said. “There’s nothing driving them to drive all over the interstates. So there’s less overnight traffic.”
Some park operators said they have experienced a significant decline in their usual snowbird business this winter.
“We’re about 20% off on seasonal RVers, at some properties even 30% off,” said Scott Roberts, president and CEO of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Roberts Resorts & Communities, which owns and operates 17 RV resorts and manufactured home communities with 6,368 sites in Arizona, California, Colorado, Texas and Alabama.
“Luckily, most of our revenue is not seasonal revenue,” Roberts said. “It’s long-term park model customers. If they don’t come back (to spend the winter) they are still paying rent.”
Still, the absence of Canadians at RV parks across the Sunbelt is affecting parks in various ways. “We have a majority of park models and half of those are owned by Canadians. So those are sitting empty even though the rent is paid,” said Keith Bailey, owner and manager of Yankee Traveler RV Park in Largo, Fla., near Tampa.
“(This) is impacting our park since we have a lot more work keeping those (unoccupied park model) sites tidy. Also, the Canadians tend to be very social and they chair and attend a lot of our activities. So, the social life in the park is down. Further, a few Canadians have asked for a rebate of some kind since they can’t get down here,” Bailey said.
But while some park operators have seen their snowbird business fall this winter as a result of the Canadian border closure and the continuing pandemic, others told WCM their winter business has been phenomenal.
“Since this pandemic hit, we’ve been busier than we’ve ever been before,” said Fran Myers, who co-owns the 250-site Red Coconut RV Park in Fort Myers Beach with her husband, Tom. She said she had to hire two more people for the front office just to answer the phones. “For this winter, we are sold out completely,” she said.
The 260-site Ocala North RV Resort in Reddick, Fla. has also seen its snowbird business rocket this winter.
“This season our snowbird business has been huge,” the park said in a statement. “Currently for the season we are up 41% compared to last season. Our snowbird business has changed. With the Canadian borders being confusing we have lost almost all of our Canadian business, but we have filled that hole through targeted Facebook ads in particular states. We focused our resources on states that we do the most business with historically.”
Many parks are also reporting an increase in short-term visitors and because transient travelers pay more for their campsites than seasonal campers they have ended up helping parks offset losses from Canadian or American snowbirds.
“We have been able to fill our short-term sites that had been reserved by Canadian travelers with U.S. travelers,” said Bailey of Yankee Traveler RV Park in Largo, Fla. “We might be 2% to 3% down, but nothing significant. Since we charge more for shorter stays, we might even be up money-wise.”
Some parks have been hurt by the loss of Canadian snowbirds this winter, however, including the 350-site Nova Family Campground in Port Orange, Fla. “Our business was down about 5.5% for 2020 compared to 2019,” said park manager Michael Ho-Lung. “We attributed this to the effects of COVID-19. The absence of Canadian customers hurt our bottom line.”
Meanwhile, campgrounds across the Sunbelt that are affiliated with Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) have seen an increase in business this winter.
“There’s no doubt that camping continues to gain popularity across the country, with KOA’s ‘Sunbelt’ campgrounds up 21% year-over-year in registration revenue since November 1, all pre-COVID,” Chris Scheer, chief financial officer of the Billings, Mont.-based franchise network, said in an emailed statement.
“During that time period,” Scheer said, “the South West and South Central regions have led the way, up 27% and 26%, respectively, year-over-year. Registrations since late December are still strong, with KOA’s ‘Sunbelt’ parks up 17% year-over-year. During the past month (December 28 – January 24), the short-term business has been tremendous, up 29% over the prior year; However, long-term registrations, monthly and seasonal RVers, are only up 4% over last year, mostly due to a slowdown in business in the South East region. Campgrounds in Florida and around the South East are taking short-term campers to replace the Canadian and some American snowbirds who seem to be waiting to head South, many of whom have already rebooked for next winter.
“The February 2021 registration pace is down 10% year-over-year for long-term campers in the South East, while KOA campgrounds in the South West and South Central regions are pacing up for February 2021 by 9% and 12%, respectively, year-over-year,” he added. “Of course, the March and April 2021 pace is way up over last year, as the COVID-19 health mandates began impacting travel in mid-March 2020.”
Other Sunbelt campgrounds are also seeing an increase in advance bookings, a positive indicator for the 2021 camping season.
Campspot, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based reservations provider, noted that as of late January, most of the 58 Sunbelt campgrounds that use the Campspot reservations system had experienced an increase in demand for advance reservations, which were up 40% for the February to April period compared to the same time last year, according to Haley Dalian, Campspot’s marketing manager.