Upriver RV Resort

Snowbird parks across the U.S. saw a mixed response to travel during the winter months. Photo credit: Upriver RV Resort in North Fort Myers, Fla.

While the pandemic has unleashed unprecedented demand for RVs and some of the highest business levels some campground operators have ever seen, coronavirus-related travel restrictions and safety protocols had a negative impact on the snowbird business for some parks last winter.

The net effect of COVID-19 on the snowbird business varied widely by park across the U.S. Sunbelt, depending on the extent to which parks depended on winter visitors from Canada and other factors, such as the degree to which American snowbirds stayed home for fear of contracting COVID or spreading it to loved ones.

Some parks were able to counter the loss of Canadian visitors due to the continuing closure of the U.S.-Canadian border by marketing themselves to families and to American snowbirds. In some cases, Sunbelt parks without age restrictions performed better than parks with age restrictions.

“Essentially, what we found was that our parks that rely heavily on specific seasonal snowbirds, many of which come from Canada — and the border has been closed — really suffered during COVID,” said Brooke Hundley, marketing director for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Roberts Resorts. “(This was) especially because those (seasonal) guests view our resorts as an adult summer camp with activities, bonding and holiday events with their friends they view as family.”

But Hundley said some American snowbirds stayed home due to fears of COVID. Many snowbirds wanted to stay home either for their own safety or to not to carry COVID to their parents, she said.

Last winter’s business levels at Pueblo El Mirage in El Mirage were down 37%, while Gold Canyon Golf & RV Resort in Gold Canyon fell 40% and Sunrise RV Resort in Apache Junction dropped 47%, Hundley said. The Roberts Resorts properties that fared better last winter were RV resorts outside Arizona that do not have age restrictions.

“Those (resorts) that have a more mixed bag (in terms of) their clientele that are all-age resorts that cater to travelers looking to go and travel the U.S. or workers who come in on a project basis and stay for a month or two actually did really well during COVID with the influx of people not being able to travel safely other than by car or RV and wanting to get out of the house and use this situation to visit places they might not visit otherwise,” she highlighted.

While Roberts Resorts’ snowbird business was down sharply at its age-restricted parks in Arizona, its business was up in Texas, where its resorts have no such age restrictions.

“We actually had a strong winter season (in Texas),” Hundley said. “In Texas particularly, we aren’t affected as much by the Canadians as our Winter Texans are typically from the Midwest. In addition to this, we saw a lot of new RV          travelers come into the market.”

Exceptionally strong occupancies at Roberts Resorts parks in Texas offset the company’s overall performance last winter. “We averaged over 90% occupancy across our southern properties from January to March and 85% from October to March,” Hundley said. “The biggest changes we saw were the onsite events and how we had to adjust to COVID. We didn’t do any potlucks. We socially distanced at all other events. Turnout for the events was down across the board but occupancy of the parks was solid.

“Ultimately, for us, it was about having a mixed portfolio that could soften the losses from the resorts that rely on long term reservations and 55-plus demographics and (our ability to) jump on the uptick trend for young families, single folks and stir crazy work from homers to buy or rent an RV and go and see the country, as well as the transient worker who has to be able to travel and find projects during an uneasy job market,” she added.

Being able to market to younger RVers and families also made a big difference at Upriver RV Resort in North Fort Myers, Fla., according to park manager Lynda Phelps.

“I was a little concerned in October and November as our numbers were below normal, not only due to the loss of Canadians but also since we are an adult park and some of our older clients started to cancel,” Phelps said, adding that she typically caters to older guests during the winter months. “I kind of took a pause to rethink and I set off in unknown territory and decided to (allow) people who were calling that had bought new RV’s and were traveling with children that they were homeschooling and young adults who were first-timers.”

Pueblo El Mirage in El Mirage

Parks with age restrictions saw drops in the number of snowbirds this past winter. Photo credit: Pueblo El Mirage in El Mirage

Allowing younger RVers and families quickly reversed the decline Phelps initially experienced with her snowbird business. “We took right off in the middle of December through to the end of our season in May,” she said.

Of course, allowing families with children brought a new set of hurdles. “I will not deny that this didn’t come with some challenges with children now skateboarding and riding their bikes throughout the resort and jumping and splashing in the pool but putting our heads together we worked out scheduled times for adult-only activities and children-only activities and joint times — all with COVID restrictions in place.”

Phelps said her park made it through the entire winter season without a single case of COVID. “Many of our people got vaccinated before they departed for the summer,” she said.

In northwest Florida, last winter’s business was booming at Camp Gulf in Miramar Beach. “We were full (and) turning away reservations,” said Pat O’Neill, the park’s general manager. “There were cancellations but there were two calls for every one that canceled. We had no activities like normal, but they seemed content to have small gatherings. Overall, (our) winter business was up.”

Across the country, the Springs at Borrego RV Resort in Borrego Springs, Calif., also had an exceptionally busy winter season, with weekend overnight campers from metropolitan areas along the coast largely replacing the 160-site park’s typical winter base of U.S. snowbirds and Canadians. While most Canadians couldn’t travel because of the border closure, most of the park’s American snowbirds stayed home.

“We got through it,” said Dan Wright, assistant manager of the park, noting that the demands placed upon camp hosts and office staff were greater than he’d ever seen before because of the constant turnover of weekend visitors.

“Every weekend was like a holiday weekend,” he said. “We’d have 60 to 90 check-ins on Thursday.”

But because of the high volume of transient travelers, winter revenues at Springs at Borrego ended up higher than normal. In fact, business was so strong that the park is exploring the possibility of expanding, Wright said.

Park operators are optimistic next winter will be better, considering that much of the U.S. population will have been vaccinated against COVID by then. Park operators are also hopeful that the U.S.-Canadian border will reopen. At the time of this writing, Canadian officials were expected to announce their latest policies regarding the status of the U.S.-Canadian border on June 21.

Some Florida park operators are already booked solid for next winter.

“We are blessed to be completely booked for this next season with a huge waiting list,” said Phelps of Upriver RV Resort.