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Ocean Breeze

Sun Outdoors is focused on finding ways to improve resorts while also keeping the camping spirit. Credit: Sun Outdoors’ Ocean Breeze

Sun Outdoors — formerly known as Sun RV Resorts — is seeing tremendous growth as the demand for outdoor travel continues to surge. From RVing to glamping and even tent camping, more people are looking for experiential activities in natural settings.

Part of the rebrand includes the introduction of four sub-brand divisions within Sun Outdoors that give guests the flexibility to choose how they want to experience the outdoors.

The sub-brands include Sun Outdoors for short-term vacation resorts, offering travelers expansive grounds, unique amenities and programming; Sun Retreats for seasonal vacation resorts that attract guests in search of longer stays; Sun Resorts & Residences for 55-plus resorts offering long-term active-living amenities and programming; and Sun Uncharted for glamping resorts designed for travelers looking for that mystical, picture-perfect backdrop.

Sun Outdoors is also continuing to develop RV parks and actively seeks more parks to acquire as it works to expand its brand throughout North America that already includes 175 parks.

Woodallscm.com (WCM) spoke with Nate Philippsen, vice president of marketing at Sun Outdoors, to take a look at how the company has grown, why the company rebranded, what the company is focused on moving forward and on the outdoor hospitality industry in general.

Philippsen has worked with Sun Outdoors for two-and-a-half years and brings a background in hotels to his role at the company. Previously he worked for Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt and IHG.

Below is our edited conversation.

WCM: Just to start, since you have experience in the hotel industry, WCM gets comments from park owners on the differences between campgrounds and hotels from an operational perspective. It seems that maybe both are implementing procedures that are eliminating some of those differences though. What are your thoughts on the differences between the two different hospitality options?

Nate Philippsen: I think you could look at it a couple of different ways when it comes to hotels or a brand. There are multiple different locations. Like Sun Outdoors, we have 175 locations. So, how do we communicate to our guests all of our offerings in different locations? In that way, it’s similar.

One other way is the guests we cater to. Whether in hotels or be it at RV resorts, guests are looking for quality service. They’re looking for connection to our team members and our team members need to be knowledgeable. They’re looking for clean, well-maintained resorts, which is just the same on the hotel side too.

Those are some of the similarities. When it comes to differences, of course, the obvious is with RV parks you have this phenomenal place that spreads far out, right? You’re experiencing the outdoors. You’ve got campfires. You’ve got more sense of a community with your neighbors and the family right next to you on a site versus hotels where you’re in a box in a room. It would be very odd to go next door and knock on the door and say, ‘Hi, I’m on vacation too,’ but in an RV resort, that’s what you do. You talk to the individuals and families right next to you. I think just that close sense of community that camping offers is really a difference, and that’s what makes it special.

WCM: We have seen a lot of consolidation and we have seen a lot of new entrants to the market that historically haven’t been in the outdoor hospitality industry. With all of these new developers moving into the segment, how does the industry keep the campground experience the same as it has been in the past?

Philippsen: That topic and keeping that a priority is top of mind for everybody at Sun Outdoors. The reason why we’re in this and we have this Sun Outdoors brand is because of why people want to go outdoors and the desire to experience that sense of community and friendship with the person right next to them. That on-the-site, on-the-ground resort experience is paramount to us. We don’t want to change all of that on-the-ground experience. We don’t want it to be lost.

WCM: You rebranded to Sun Outdoors this past fall, why did you feel the need to make the change? The Sun RV Resorts name had been around for awhile and I am sure it had some name recognition among campers, so how does this rebrand help the company?

Nate Philippsen

Nate Philippsen

Philippsen: It’s a rebrand about two-plus years in the making, and we started out with a lot of research and listening to what our guests were saying, and then we looked at a lot of our resorts. What we found is we had a lot of unique offerings within the Sun RV Resorts portfolio and there wasn’t a clear line of communication of what we offer. When we dug in, we found that we have a number of different ways that we could allow our guests to experience the outdoors. We then started looking at it and saying, ‘Okay, well, if we created a new brand, how would we communicate that?’

That’s where the sub-brands were designed. We have Sun Outdoors, which includes short-term vacation resorts and is for travelers looking for expansive grounds and unique amenities. Then Sun Retreat is focused more on seasonals and long-term guests. Sun Resorts is focused on the 55-plus crowd looking for active living amenities, and Sun Uncharted is our glamping brand.

When we looked at Sun Outdoors, we were like, ‘We have these unique offerings, and we should package and build brands around these so that we could grow and better communicate and offer specific amenities and experiences to our guests.’ Instead of just being a one-all, and it wasn’t clearly communicated, now we have something that allows guests to pick however they want to experience the outdoors in whatever location.

WCM: Sun Outdoors has seen so much growth over the past few years, what does the future hold for the company as you look to develop and acquire more parks?

Philippsen: Just for perspective, when I joined there were 134 parks that the company owned and now, we are at 175. Beyond that, if we look at 10 years ago the company only owned a handful of parks.

We’re going to continue to look in markets and look for resorts that are unique and special, that may want to come to the portfolio, and then on the development side, too. We’ll continue to look and build resorts as well, maybe one or two a year or so, just depending on the opportunity with land. We’d love to continue to grow through additions to the portfolio and then building our own as well.

WCM: What are the key elements you are looking at when acquiring a park or when looking at a location to develop a park on?

Philippsen: We are open to looking at any park at the moment. When we dig into what we want out of a park we look at the amenities, the potential for growth, special offerings…etc. Maybe there’s nothing we need to do. Maybe they have a phenomenal resort that the guests love, and we would just love to add that to the portfolio. Sometimes you look at what its proximity is to water, proximity to other attractions, and again, those things that add an elevated experience to our guests. We take a lot of things into consideration.

WCM: Do you get a lot of inquiries from current park owners, or do you actively send out teams to look for prospective parks?

Philippsen: I would say it is a mix of both. People reach out to us, and we have teams that look for parks as well.

WCM: On the new development side, WCM speaks with a lot of developers who note that the zoning and planning process is a headache. What is that like for Sun Outdoors? Does the ability to show officials what you have done in the past help?

Philippsen: What we try to do is show officials our process and the types of resorts that we are building at the moment. We also demonstrate our commitment to partnering with the community. We don’t want to come in and just build something. We are really focused on highlighting what we are adding to the community.

WCM: Sun Outdoors has highlighted some of the partnerships it has with organizations like the National Park Foundation and Outdoor Afro. How do those partnerships help Sun Outdoors appeal to a wider, more diverse population of campers?

Philippsen: We’re actively promoting to a newer audience and a more diverse group of campers that want to experience the outdoors. Then on the marketing side, when it comes to content, our media needs to be reflective of those communities that we are in and make sure that it is diverse because camping is diverse. When you see people that look like you in advertising, you’re more inclined to say, ‘Well, let me look at that’ or ‘Let me explore more.’ It’s our job on the marketing side to make sure that our media and photography reflect that diversity and that all of those channels are representative of all cultures and walks of life.

WCM: How do you train park managers and your workers on the ground at each park to have that patience when it comes to working with first-time campers?

Philippsen: As part of the rebrand, we’re also expanding our training at the local level too. So how do we ensure that we’re bringing the brand to life at a local level? How are we being their guide to the outdoors or guide to transformation? When looking at our management training, things like setting up an RV and the ability to assist our customers in those certain unknowns that may pop up are key.

Our on-the-ground experience and our operations team, I may be a little biased here, but is absolutely incredible. Some of our guest feedback about the on-the-ground experience and the interactions they have with our team members is just extremely positive. It’s about training new managers to ensure that we’re available and open to helping anyone. It’s just instilling that sense of hospitality because we’re a hospitality company.

WCM: There is a debate about what glamping is. Depending on who you talk with, it can mean different things. What does glamping look like at Sun Outdoors?

Philippsen: I would say glamping is what our guests want it to be. That’s why we have such a range in offerings. As we continue to build the brand and grow, we’re going to continue to listen to our guests, and we’re going to provide them with ways to stay that they want to experience the outdoors in. Along with that, if glamping is staying in a cabin, and it’s a great, quality stay, and it’s at one of our outdoor locations, great. If glamping is a vacation rental with a 12-foot ceiling, a chandelier and glass showers, we have that too, and that’s glamping for another person.

However the customer wants to experience the outdoors I think defines that. But right now, as an industry, glamping, like you noted, is a very open term. I think the more people that get outdoors and as people learn about it, I think maybe the better it’ll be defined over time. But we provide a range for guests, however, they want to experience it.

WCM: WCM has been hearing about experiential travel, and a lot of the Millennials and Millennial families are looking for experiences and not just a place to stay. How does Sun Outdoors fulfill that as far as giving these guests access to experiences that maybe they wouldn’t find somewhere else?

River Run Resort

Sun Outdoors notes that glamping can mean different things to different people, but that offering experiences is key when dealing with younger, newer campers. Credit: Sun Outdoors’ River Run Resort

Philippsen: With the launch of the brand, we launched our new website, which I would say is one of the most advanced websites in hospitality. When you talk about experiences, right at the top of the website you can click on the experiences tab and have access to a wide range of experiences to choose from. If you want to go kayaking or play pickleball or visit water parks. If that’s how you want to start your search, you click those experiences and then immediately you’ll be shown all the resorts with those features. You can tailor your vacation or how you want to experience the outdoors and find a location that way.

Then on the other side, every resort’s website offers a way for our customers to find out what is going on in the nearby area. We have a very large local area section where we’ve curated content showing the things that can be done at the resort and at locations nearby the resort. Then we’ve got an activity calendar that pulls in on-property and local events, as well. You could look at a calendar and say, ‘Wow, this weekend, there’s going to be face painting for the kids. We’re also going to go do some kayaking. But then in the evening, there is the town parade at XYZ town.’ We can show that information in that content calendar through this system. It really allows people, like I said, to build an experience or build a vacation around the experiences that they choose, which I think sets us apart from a number of other opportunities or vacation companies.

WCM: What are some of the challenges that Sun Outdoors or maybe the industry in general faces as we enter 2022 and beyond?

Philippsen: I don’t know if it’s a challenge, but we want to continue getting the Sun Outdoors name out there. There are a number of people that are trying the outdoors and trying to go camping, and demand is at an all-time high. I just want to make sure that when a first-time RVer or camper goes out, that their first experience is a memorable one. One that keeps them coming back.

I’d say our biggest challenge is ensuring that we are retaining all these new guests. How do we make sure we retain them and provide them with an incredible experience at a resort? I think it’s pretty hard to experience camping outdoors with your family and say, ‘Oh, I never want to do this again,’ because it’s such a special form of vacation.

WCM: Electric vehicles are a hot topic right now. How is Sun Outdoors preparing for EVs?

Philippsen: All of our sites accommodate all sizes of RVs or vehicles. We’re embracing the change in climate and we’re installing solar panels at a lot of our locations. We are doing our best to help by not impacting the climate or by doing things in a positive way.