While Sunbelt park operators have been bracing for a major downturn in business this winter with the continued closing of the Canadian border and continuing concerns about the pandemic, business levels have remained strong at many parks that cater to snowbirds.
Across the Sunbelt, park operators say newcomers to the RV industry are joining the scores of existing RVers to help offset the loss of Canadian snowbirds due to the continuing border closure.
Sunbelt park operators also tell Woodall’s Campground Management they are seeing increasing numbers of people with mobile jobs who are working from the road and enjoying the snowbird lifestyle now rather than waiting until they are retired.
Some Sunbelt park operators are also seeing something they don’t typically see at this time of year: Large numbers of families traveling with young children.
The Springs at Borrego RV Resort in Borrego Springs, Calif., is a case in point. Instead of seeing its normal large influx of Canadians who stay for weeks or months at a time, the 160-site desert park is going gangbusters with weekend visitors, mostly young families from San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties.
“We’re having 50, 60 and 70 rigs checking in every Thursday and Friday,” said Dan Wright, assistant manager of the 160-site The Springs at Borrego RV Resort.
While the influx of overnight campers is great from a revenue standpoint, since they pay more than campers who stay a month or longer, it has created an extraordinary workload for park staff and has also changed the ambience of the park. “This is completely different from the way the campground typically operates at this time of year,” Wright said.
Campers at Verde Ranch RV Resort in Camp Verde, Ariz., about 30 minutes south of Sedona, have also been surprised to see families traveling with children at this time of year.
“We see a lot of people with their kids. They must be homeschooling them. They don’t leave on Sundays. They stay for a couple of weeks,” said Jennifer Oswald, a retiree from Oregon who is snowbirding for the first time this winter with her husband, Dean.
While many Sunbelt park operators worried that their winter business would be down somewhat this winter as a result of the continuing closure of the U.S.-Canadian border and other concerns involving the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not hard to find operators who expect their winter business to be just as strong as last year’s figures. Some park operators expect to be even busier this winter.
“Since this pandemic hit, we’re busier than we’ve ever been,” said Fran Myers, who has owned the 250-site Red Coconut RV Park on Fort Myers Beach with her husband, Tom, for the past 40 years.
“For this winter, we’re totally sold out already. We’re just phenomenally busy right now. This year, we hired two more people just in the front office to answer the phones,” she said.
Aside from being in a spectacular location with beachfront campsites, Myers said she believes she’s busy because people feel safe in the comfort of their own RV.
“I think folks feel safe in an RV,” she said. “They have it sterilized. They have their own restrooms.”
Other Florida park operators also anticipate a busy winter season.
John Peter Winkler of Fisherman’s Cove RV Resort in Palmetto, Fla. said he expects to be as busy this winter as he was last winter before the pandemic. “It’s looking OK,” he said, noting that he is seeing the normal flow of 55 and over snowbirds come into the park.
“We are full for this coming season,” said Amir Harpaz, co-owner and developer of Torrey Trails RV & Golf Resort in Bowling Green., Fla., about an hour southwest of Tampa. The park debuted its first 159 sites Dec. 1 and already had 30 sites rented, he said.
Harpaz said Torrey Trails has also been equipped with powerful Wi-Fi as well as fiber optic lines at each campsite to accommodate the growing numbers of people who are still working but want to enjoy the snowbird lifestyle now, rather than wait until they are retired.
“I have people who call and ask about Internet access because they have to work,” he said, noting that many of these new telecommuting snowbirds are in their 50s and 60s.
“Our phones are ringing constantly,” Harpaz said, noting that any cancellations are quickly replaced with new bookings. “We will be full by the end of December.”
“From what I’m hearing from our board and other park operators in Florida and Alabama, any snowbird losses or cancellations are being picked up by other campers, many of whom are new to RVing and working out of their RVs,” said Bobby Cornwell, executive director and CEO of the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds and Alabama Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.
“We are very fortunate in Florida and Alabama to have pro-business governors who realize the importance of keeping businesses open and the economy going, and from all reports, the parks are looking forward to a good winter season.”
Winter business is booming at private parks in Texas, too, some of which are seeing more visitors from states with more stringent COVID-19 procedures.
“Texas is seeing quite the surge in new population from states that have gone nuts lately with personal restrictions, unfriendly to business and general safety questions – like California and Illinois,” said Brian Schaeffer, executive director and CEO of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO). “Since housing is a big issue right now in Texas, both the lack of it and it being very expensive, RVs and RV parks are enjoying quite the bump up for this segment of business while folks figure out their permanent housing.”
“Our current occupancy is actually above last year in both our extended stay and overnight and weekly travel areas, in spite of the big decreases in March, April and May,” said Teri Blaschke, who co-owns and operates Hidden Valley RV Park in Von Ormy, outside San Antonio.
“We, of course, regret that we won’t have our Canadian friends this winter, but we’ve served lots of travelers working on the road remotely that have more than made up for the loss of our ‘across the border’ guests.”
Blaschke also noted that many travelers are making their reservations at the last minute instead of weeks or months in advance as they normally do, largely because of uncertainties involving the pandemic
“The unknown, I suspect, is to blame,” she said. “However, if things continue as at present, our arrivals and occupancy will continue, just with last minute reservations. Regarding those that visit us yearly, most are still planning travel to the south. Some are already here, and others have promised to call soon with more definite dates of arrival. In San Antonio, we are also seeing lots of jobs, with Boeing, a Toyota factory, traveling nurses and the military being the source of our longer-term guests from one to six months. We have been happily surprised by how these guests have integrated and are getting along with our traveling and full-time RVers.”
Across the Sunbelt, park operators are also seeing growing numbers of people who have their own businesses and work from their RV, such Jennifer and G. Dean Oswald of Oregon.
Four years ago, the Oswalds retired from their previous jobs and adopted a new lifestyle, spending five months at their cabin near Mount St. Helens and the rest of the time in their 25-foot Airstream.
But the Oswalds have not stopped working. Dean works as a cinematographer, developing promotional lifestyle videos for RV parks, while Jennifer makes jewelry, sun catchers and other crafts that she sells at RV resorts and gift shops during their travels.
They have also worked as camp hosts at Sea Perch RV Resort in Yachats, Ore., which has beautiful RV sites overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
But this winter, the Oswalds are trying something new. They are trying out the snowbird lifestyle at various RV resorts in Arizona, while they continue to work and enjoy the Sunbelt sun.
Woodall’s Campground Management caught up with the Oswalds while they were staying at Verde Ranch RV Resort in Camp Verde, which is about 30 minutes south of Sedona.
“This year we thought, ‘Let’s try the Sunbelt and see if we like it,’” said 57-year-old Dean Oswald, noting that the Arizona sunshine sure beats the cold, cloudy days up North at this time of year.
But while the Sunbelt remains compelling as a winter destination, some parks are reporting a downturn in their winter business due to the loss of Canadian travels and other problems associated with the pandemic.
“Right now, we are down about 10% to 20% because of COVID-19 related cancelations,” said Scott Roberts, CEO of 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.
Dyana Kelley, president and CEO of CampCalNOW RV Park and Campground Alliance, said snowbird parks in California are seeing what she calls “COVID Crows” this winter. “They’re not really snowbirds,” she said. “They are a new camper that hasn’t really come around before.”
Examples of what Kelley calls “COVID Crows” include families with children, such as those staying at Springs at Borrego, who normally don’t travel to make weekend trips in the winter months, certainly not to resorts that typically accommodate snowbirds.
Different regions of California were placed under more restrictions due to a COVID-19 outbreak that did force parks to close to essential travelers only at the beginning of December, but the jury is still out on how this might impact snowbird travel patterns moving forward.
But while parks are reporting different kinds of travelers than traditional snowbirds, winter business levels remain strong at most parks contacted by WCM.
Billings, Mont.-based Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), for its part, is seeing “healthy” business levels at its Sunbelt parks.
“We are seeing some snowbird business typically booked by Canadians replaced by other American snowbirds this year,” according to Saskia Boogman, KOA’s director of public relations. “Our reservations as of now for long-term business in the Sunbelt looks healthy for the upcoming winter months. From where we are pacing today, we are seeing a slight decrease to January business in the Southeast and Southcentral regions in January, but up over last year quite substantially in February. In looking at two key snowbird states, Florida and Arizona, both are ahead of last year in bookings for both January and February.”
As other park operators have noted, KOA is also seeing more consumers book their reservations at the last minute, rather than weeks or months in advance.
“Through weekly tracking, we have seen our booking windows shorten since the pandemic began and we’ve seen more people waiting to book their trips until closer to their stay,” noted Boogman. “We believe this trend is similar for long term business as well. As we progress through December, we anticipate having more clarity on snowbird business.”
But Boogman said KOA is anticipating a strong snowbird season. “According to our research we fielded in September, 30% of U.S. campers said they were more likely to snowbird this year, and while 22% said they were less likely the data suggests we will have more Americans looking to go south this year across age demographics,” she said.