Recreational Vehicle Parks and Campsites

SIC 7033

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This industry classification includes establishments primarily engaged in providing overnight or short-term camping sites for recreational vehicles, trailers, campers, or tents.

Industry Snapshot

According to Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), in 2010 U.S. recreational vehicle (RV) enthusiasts were in possession of 8.2 million recreational vehicles (a general designation for motorized or towable vehicles that provide temporary living quarters). According to the RVIA, nearly 1 in 12, or about 8 million, vehicle-owning households in the United States owned at least one RV. The average RV owner was 49 years old, married, with a household income of $68,000. As baby boomers aged, RV camping became more popular, which led many campgrounds to make adjustments to accommodate larger RVs with higher electrical demands.

Commercial recreational vehicle parks and campsite establishments (i.e., campgrounds) typically provide RV owners and campers with inexpensive outdoor, recreation-oriented accommodations located near scenic and water recreation areas, national parks and forests, historic sites, theme parks, or major travel routes. The basic features of campgrounds are RV sites (ranging from rustic clearings to "pull-thru" concrete pads with utility hookups for water, sewage, electricity, and propane gas), tent sites, rest rooms, and shower facilities. Other typical amenities include rental cabins, convenience stores or snack bars, picnic areas and grills, coin-operated laundry facilities, garbage and sewage disposal stations, swimming pools or natural swimming areas, fishing and boating facilities, recreation halls, playgrounds, sports facilities, nature and biking trails, movies, cable TV hookups, telephones, and motorcycle accommodations. Moderately expensive resort and membership establishments also feature such "country club" amenities as 18-hole golf courses, tennis courts, and spa facilities.

Recreational vehicle parks and campsites are frequented by a wide range of the population, including middle-aged or senior citizen couples, often on prolonged trips with wide-ranging travel itineraries; families with young children; and young people or couples. Establishments may cater exclusively to such demographic groups.

Individual campgrounds may contain anywhere from one dozen to several hundred RV pads and/or tent sites. Establishments may be open seasonally or year-round, depending on the climate and the nature of the surrounding tourist attractions. Rates may vary by season. Senior citizen, RV club member, and other discounts are typically available, and longer-stay rates may also be discounted.

By the late 2000s, the RV and campgrounds industries had given rise to a wide array of affiliated businesses and services. Cruise America, which furnished motor homes and travel trailers on a rental basis to both domestic and international tourists, was largest RV rental company in the United States. Various international, national, regional, and state directories (including computerized databases) were being marketed, along with such "lifestyle" magazines as RV Times and Trailer Life. Specialty RV storage facilities, RV equipment and accessories retailers, and RV emergency road services were also available.

Organization and Structure

In the late 2000s, there were approximately 16,000 campgrounds and RV parks in the United States, of which approximately two-thirds were commercially owned. Public camping facilities were also operated by the National Park Service (388 campgrounds), the USDA National Forest Service (4,000 campgrounds), the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (53,000 campsites), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (504 National Wildlife Refuges), state park and forest systems, and county and city governmental bodies. These public campgrounds typically offered few amenities and some did not accept reservations, or did so only on a limited basis. Public campgrounds were free of charge or very economical with typical rates ranging from free-of-charge to $15 per night for tent sites and $15 to $25 per night for RV sites with hookups.

In comparison to public campgrounds, commercial campgrounds were more easily accessible, more predominantly oriented to RV camping, and more concentrated in the East and the upper Midwest. These commercial campgrounds, numbering approximately 8,500 in the late 2000s, typically offered more amenities (including reservation services) and were slightly less economical, although rates were still inexpensive in relation to the lodging industry as a whole.

The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), founded in 1967 as the National Campground Owners Association, provided networking, advocacy, convention, and information services for commercial campground owners. The ARVC, with approximately 3,700 members in 2010, sponsored the Go Camping America Committee to promote campground tourism, as well as the RV Park & Campground Industry Education Foundation to provide educational programs and publications to commercial campground owners. Many states established campground associations affiliated with the national ARVC. Government bodies that have promoted campground tourism include the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration and the Rural Tourism Development Foundation, which was established in 1993.

Chain Campgrounds.
Chain campgrounds, despite the connotations of the label, are often distinctive, independently owned businesses that are affiliated under varying arrangements with commercial campground organizations in order to take advantage of national or international marketing and reservation services. In the early 2010s, one of the largest chains was Kampgrounds of America (KOA), based in Billings, Montana. KOA had a network of more than 450 franchised campgrounds in the United States and Canada. While many of these establishments were roadside facilities with few amenities, others were destination resorts. Best Holiday Trav-L-Park Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 1982, included more than 70 independent parks that shared a central reservation service. Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Camp Resorts, established in 1969 and geared to families with children, consisted of nearly 70 member campgrounds with a theme based on Yogi Bear, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character. Chain campgrounds typically offered rate discounts for repeat customers within the campground network.

Independent Campgrounds.
In the early 2010s, establishments in the independent campgrounds category varied widely in size and quality, ranging from small-scale, modest operations to such destination resorts as Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort in Florida. Many independent campgrounds were registered with the nation's leading RV owners' club, the Good Sam Club, as Good Sam Parks. Other independent campgrounds were older facilities that were not equipped to handle the parking and hookup requirements of the newer, larger, and more luxurious recreational vehicles.

Membership Campgrounds.
Membership campgrounds are destination resorts typically operated on one of two membership bases. One form of campground membership offered RV pads and campsites free of charge to members who paid a membership fee and annual dues. A second form of campground membership offered access to RV pads and campsites on a time-share basis. Both forms of campground memberships often belonged to networks, whereby members could extend their privileges to affiliated membership campgrounds for nominal fees. Membership campgrounds were often oriented toward golf, tennis, water-recreation and/or boating, and provided clubhouses and restaurants. Initiation fees for membership campgrounds started at $3,000 (although memberships were often resold at discounted rates), with annual fees starting at $150 or more.

Background and Development

Several cultural forces provided the impetus for the commercial recreational vehicle parks and campsites industry. The central factors, of course, are the national enthusiasm for camping, which has been ranked by the U.S. Census Bureau's Statistical Abstract of the United States as the fourth most popular participatory sport/activity in the country, and the American passion for automobiles and recreational vehicles. America's camping tradition can be traced to the desire for an affordable form of travel and tourism, particularly given the geographical expanse of the United States; the nation's scenic diversity and natural endowments, which give weight to such tourism slogans as "See America First" and "Discover America;" a national ambivalence about city life, with its crowds, pollution, and noise (conditions, unfortunately, sometimes reproduced within busy campgrounds); an idealization of nature and the "frontier," and a corresponding adoption of Native American traditions; the conservation and ecological awareness movements; the country's outstanding interstate highway system; and the development, dating from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, of the national park and forest systems. The prestige and popularity of national parks at the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and California's redwood forest have played no small role in making camping one of the most popular leisure activities in the country.

"Sagebrushing," as the first wave of automobile- or RV-based camping was called, became a cultural phenomenon in the 1920s and 1930s, continuing even during the Depression. Such camping became even more popular after World War II, particularly among the burgeoning suburbanite population, and it utilized wartime technology such as four-wheel drive. By the 1960s, recreational vehicles became increasingly prominent on the camping scene, spurring the development of private campgrounds featuring utility hookups and a new level of amenities. The 1970s and 1980s marked the development, initially in the Pacific Northwest, of membership campgrounds. In the 1980s, record crowds at the most popular public campgrounds, in conjunction with Reagan-era federal budget cutbacks, created further growth opportunities for the commercial campground industry.

According to the RVIA, shipments of RVs increased during the 1990s, from 173,100 in 1990 to a decade high of 321,200 in 1999. "These robust numbers confirm that RV travel has entered a new era of growth," said RVIA President David J. Humphreys in a press release. "The industry is now benefiting from an influx of baby boomers into the RV ownership ranks, long projected by market analysts."

A University of Michigan Survey Research Center study also found that RVs were increasingly appealing to younger consumers. Although Americans aged 55 and older owned approximately one-third of the total RVs on the road in the late 1990s, the segment experiencing the most growth in the industry was the baby boomer generation. RV ownership by Americans aged 45 to 54 increased 25 percent in the mid-1990s. By the end of the decade, approximately 45 percent of the nation's RVs were owned by baby boomers between the ages of 35 and 54, compared to the 40 percent owned by those aged 55 and older. The University of Michigan study also determined that nearly 25 percent of baby boomers intended to purchase an RV sometime in the future. A study by Louis Harris and Associates similarly found that more than half of all likely RV buyers fell in the 30- to 49-year-old range.

This demographic trend indicated a positive outlook for leisure activities, such as RV camping, that were favored by middle-aged and older populations. As Business America noted, "The progression from tent camping to RV camping as campers grow older is evident." Therefore, the aging of baby boomers was expected to ensure a phase of renewed growth for the industry into the twenty-first century.

A separate trend affecting the campground industry was the growing ecological and environmental awareness that was reflected in the international tourism industry by the advent of "ecotourism." Some campers and campground owners, increasingly concerned about minimizing their negative impact on natural and wildlife environments, had turned to environmentally sensitive camping methods and products, including the recycling or careful disposal of garbage, food waste, and sewage. The New York Times reported that "operators of private campgrounds, while still eager to draw customers and make profits, are more aware that the lure of the outdoors means preserving the outdoors." Public campgrounds also responded to this trend. For example, in 1993, Yosemite became the first national park to develop a comprehensive garbage and food waste reduction strategy.

The entire travel and tourism industry suffered setbacks during the early 2000s due to a recessive economy and a reduction in overall travel following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. However, by the mid-2000s the economy had rebounded, and travel numbers had returned to pre-9/11 levels. According to the RVIA, U.S. ownership of RVs reached record levels by the mid-2000s, with approximately 7 million households owning an RV. Aging baby boomers were the main source for the increase in RV ownership, as the 35- to 54-year-old age group led all other age demographics in growth. Those over the age of 55 were the largest group of RV owners, with a 10 percent ownership rate, followed by the 35- to 54-year-olds with an ownership rate of 8.9 percent. The continued aging of America boded well for the RV industry in the mid-2000s as millions of baby boomers headed toward retirement age.

The growth of the RV industry led to some significant changes in campgrounds. Many older campgrounds were built primarily for tent camping and smaller RVs and trailers. By the mid-2000s, many RVs were 30 to 40 feet long, and often RVers also towed a separate vehicle. Dave Barbulesco noted in RV Business in November 2004 that "A flourishing RV industry that is catering to its most demanding consumers--baby boomers with bucks--has placed a strain on campground infrastructures, particularly those of older, established facilities, by forcing them to accommodate bigger and bigger units equipped with more and more electrically powered amenities."

The increasing size of RVs and their increasing popularity led to a decline in the number of campers at national parks, many of which were built in the 1930s and 1940s and had smaller campsites. Camping at national parks declined by 12 percent between 1999 and 2004. In 1979 national parks hosted 4.4 million RV campers and 3.4 tent campers. However, by the early 2000s, the number of tent campers remained level, but RV campers at national parks declined to 2.4 million.

Along with increasing the size of their pad sites to accommodate larger RVs, campgrounds were also under pressure to upgrade their electrical infrastructure to support 50-amp hookups, rather than the standard 20-or 30-amp sites. Modern, top-of-the-line RVs could include a washer and dryer, shower, dishwasher, kitchen, satellite television, DVD player, air conditioning, and heating--all of which require an ever-increasing amount of electricity to operate. Because rewiring could cost up to $3,000 per campsite, the cost made upgrades prohibitive for smaller campgrounds. Larger campgrounds, however, prepared for the future by installing 100-amp capabilities.

Entering the Internet age, campers could access ReserveAmerica.com, an on-line reservation service with assess to over 300,000 campsites across the United States. Taking its first online reservations in 1997, ReserveAmerica processed over 3.5 million camping reservations for about2.8 million campers annually during the mid-2000s. Campers could check camp site availability, search for locations, read rules and regulations, view campground maps, and obtain directions, along with making reservations for a particular campsite.

Current Conditions

Like many leisure industries, RV parks and campsites dealt with the effects of the economic recession of the late 2000s. According to the RVIA, shipments of RVs fell almost 33 percent in 2008 and another 30 percent in 2009, reaching 165,700 units. However, by 2010 industry participants were looking forward to a recovery in the industry. According to the ARVC, occupancy rates and revenues at RV campgrounds in 2010 were consistent with the previous year's figures, with the exception of parks along the Gulf Coast. These locations experienced declines due to the effects of the BP oil spill in April.

Pressing concerns for the industry overall included the repercussions of the green movement. California, for example, proposed legislation that would prohibit the use of any non-biodegradable toxic chemicals in the toilets or holding tanks of RVs in the state. Although the bill was eventually vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Debbie Sipe of the ARVC commented, "While chemical based treatment products are a major problem for septic and small municipal treatment facilities, it is not the only challenge facing campground operators in regards to wastewater output." RV campground operators continued to search for ways to provide good service to their clients while also meeting the demands for environmental consciousness.

Industry Leaders

In 2010, Thousand Trails, Inc., which was founded in 1969, had 130,000 members who had access to a network of 80 private campgrounds. Thousand Trails also managed about 200 campgrounds for the U.S. National Forests System. Its subsidiary, Resort Parks International, was a network of affiliated, private RV and condominium resorts with 300 resort facilities.

Kampgrounds of America, Inc., (KOA) was the world's largest system of franchised campgrounds in 2010. Established in 1962 to offer overnight amenities for cross-country travelers, KOA included about 450 locations in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Japan. About 96 percent of the campgrounds were franchised, with the remaining 4 percent company-owned. KOA recorded revenues of $37 million in 2003.

Workforce

Traditionally, many commercial campgrounds were modest, owner- or family-operated establishments. Therefore, only a limited number of seasonal or permanent positions were created by the industry. These positions were typically for registration clerks, convenience store clerks, janitors, groundskeepers, and recreation-related employees.

America and the World

The United States has historically been dominant in the recreational vehicle parks and campsites industry, and American RV owners and campers have fueled the commercial campground industries in Canada, Mexico, and other popular international camping destinations. In the early 2010s, Kampgrounds of America had several franchises in Canada, Japan, and Mexico. International visitors to the United States comprised a significant percentage of KOA's customers, and vacationers from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and the United Kingdom, in particular, increased the U.S. RV rental market.

Vacationing in "caravans," as recreational vehicles are generally called abroad, is popular in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, notably, in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom. As in the United States, campgrounds abroad have been established by both government bodies and commercial interests. In the early 2010s, international campground operators included Holidaybreak plc (formerly EuroCamp), with 164 parks in 12 countries. National campground operators included Big 4 Tourist Parks (Australia), Azur Camping (Germany), The Best of British (United Kingdom), Top 10 Holiday Parks (New Zealand), and Caraville Resorts (South Africa).

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