The Park Industry Needs to Be On Its Toes, Keep Its Guard Up, Be on Level Orange Alert

It’s a wickedly crazy world out there today. We all know about the real big stuff business owners everywhere are contending with today…the erratic gas prices, the almost weekly ups and downs of consumer confidence and consumer spending, the seemingly impossible to deal with unemployment levels, an international monetary crises that threatens the economic markets around the world, the unrest in the Middle East countries (Yemen, Syria, Libya, Egypt), and the natural disasters that seem to be occurring more frequently and with greater devastation and consequences. These dark clouds hang over the general American economy and business community and are substantially dampening consumer and business enthusiasm across the board.

These are daunting issues big enough to make grown men and women business people wonder why they are trying to win in business. While the park industry needs to watch and respond to changes in these global issues and area, the industry also needs to stay at the top of its game, on it’s toes, with it’s guard up and attention levels at Orange. Being caught flat-footed is not a good idea. Nimbleness and attention to all circumstances will be rewarded; heads in the sand will be punished.

Here are a few things to think about.

The US Department of Interior has announced to great fanfare the National Park Service will build and operate a new campground in Brooklyn, NY – with possibly as many as 600 sites. If the NPS can pull this off successfully, where to next? Is the park industry about to be staring at the face of a new and expanded era of public land campgrounds being build in National Parks and tilting the competitive balance between public and private sectors that has grown into perhaps what is best characterized as a peaceful co-existance over many years?

The Florida Dept of Environmental Protection and the state parks in FL are fast tracking the proposed private development of as many as 56 new state park campgrounds. I may be missing something here, but in a state like Florida with literally hundreds of RV parks and campgrounds from one end of the state to another, unemployment rampant and the tax base eroding, why would they want to add maybe 5000, 6,000, 7,000 or more campsites into a industry that is already facing a shorter season and falling occupancies as a result of the economic situation of many winter Florida visitors who are reducing their lengths of stay to compensate for higher prices and the poor economic picture? And, on top of this, the last time I looked, development of new anything in Florida was pretty close to a standstill. I’d love to see the feasibility study done by the FL state parks that indicated that there were private individuals out there ready to invest in building a new campground under the thumb of the state government. Either the development levels will be so low as to maybe make financing construction doable, but cutting too many corners will lead to an inferior product that won’t sell at market prices or anywhere near market.

Just announced this week, the Obama Administration has created the Federal Interagency Recreation Council to develop and provide increased access for Americans to public lands and parks. A laudable goal no doubt and likely to be perhaps a valuable new program for the RV park and campground industry. I find it worrisome though that the federal government – yes, the federal government – in a time of budget deficits and many national priorities is now going to be advocating and promoting recreation on public lands. While I understand the connection between recreation and public health, this is a stretch in terms of governmental activity. Who will be the beneficiaries of the work of this Council? You can be sure it will be the snowmobilers who will secure more and more trails on public land. It will be the rock climbers, mountain bikers and hikers who will have improved access and trails on which to pursue their hobbies. It will be the horseback riders, the motorcyclists, the cross country skiers, etc. And the RV manufacturers who will see an increased number of campgrounds on public lands (a longtime objective of the RV industry), fully capable to handle RVs of almost any size and with utility hookups at each paved site, while the existing campgrounds in gateway communities will experience declining occupancy in face of this very difficult competition.

Recently, the Virginia Campground association in move to finally recognize the reality that the VA State Parks were actually operating their parks on a commercial business model, extended an invitation to the state parks for a full voting membership in the association. All 24 state park campgrounds were invited to become voting members of the VA campground association and ARVC. Their response…citing a lack of funds and budget they agreed to enroll maybe 3 parks as members. Sounds curiously like what we sometimes hear when talking to owners of private parks – oh, I’d like to join but I just don’t have the money.

And the new America’s State Parks Alliance that is promoting state parks as attractions and overnight venues as people travel across America. Competition from state parks across the US is not coming, it’s here now.

And here’s another indication of where things may be heading. The Kentucky Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet announced that the state agency plans to apply for a liquor license to sell alcoholic beverages at five Kentucky state parks.

And Lazy Days, the largest RV dealership in the nation either still operating under bankruptcy protection or perhaps just recently out of bankruptcy announces it is laying off 50 employees – not what Florida needs at this time. And John Bleakley Motor Homes, operator of 3 RV stores in Georgia and formerly the largest Blue Bird dealer and one of Monaco’s top 10 dealerships, announced its closing its doors. And not long ago, Dave Altman, a major RV dealer in California closed up his stores.

Trust me, the purpose of this article is not to assume the title of Downer Dave, but to simply point out that as I said up front, staying nimble, staying informed, and staying alert and on your toes every day is very important in today’s world. And most of all keep in mind that in the worst of times, the best opportunities may be found.