For several generations of South Floridians, River Ranch has been a popular weekend destination. The camp resort, which sits about halfway between Yeehaw Junction and Lake Wales in Polk County, has long provided a more affordable quick trip alternative to the theme park universe just up the road. Although if it’s been a while since you’ve been to River Ranch – Westgate River Ranch, to use its full, current name – you might be in for a surprise.
Accommodations at a place billed as the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi River include the “Luxe Conestoga Wagon,” which looks much like the Conestoga wagons that took settlers across America, although said settlers probably didn’t have amenities including morning coffee delivery, a campfire lit each night by staff and a “personal glamping concierge.” “Luxury Glamping Tents” and “Luxe Teepees” offer similar services, while the “Saddle Club Rail Car” has 51-inch and 42-inch flatscreen TVs, much as the early pioneers would have wanted.
In terms of entertainment, the resort’s long-running Saturday-night rodeo continues. It’s now joined by a zipline, petting zoo, bungee jumping, archery range, horseback riding, tennis, a full-service marina … there’s a list.
For Westgate Resorts Chief Operating Officer Mark Waltrip, that’s all in keeping with what today’s camper wants. Westgate owns parks, resorts and timeshares from the Tennessee Smokies to Las Vegas to New York City. But River Ranch was unique.
“When we first bought it, we didn’t understand it,” Waltrip says. They needed to find the story, the defining experience. They found it, he says, in the story of America’s original cowboys, the Spanish settlers who came to Florida and introduced cattle. Guests wanted experiences tied to history. You can do a cattle drive. “Authentic’ is important. The design team kept bringing in cowboy artwork with mountains in the background; Waltrip said no. He got the marketing people to stop saying “western.” It’s a Florida cowboy dude ranch. The original cowboys were in Florida, and that was the experience River Ranch was going to sell.
“It’s really about connection, engagement,” Waltrip says. “You know that you’ve immersed someone when they join you in the journey.” There’s a scene towards the end of Field of Dreams, his favorite film, where a character explains that it’s money people have and peace they lack.
“That is the essence of creating experiences,” he says. “People will pay whatever they can afford if you give them the peace they lack.
“We are storytellers first,” Waltrip says. “When we’ve done that, the money will come. That’s the beauty of the ranch.”
More and more, that’s also the beauty of the camping and RV industries.
Karen Redfern heads the GoRVing program at the RV Industry Association. The RV industry, which includes everything from massive, six- or even seven-figure luxury motorhomes or fifth-wheel trailers to pop-up or teardrop trailers you can tow behind a car, has long been dominated by retirees. In recent years though, that’s changed. A demographics study the association released in March shows that more first-time buyers are Millennials or younger Gen-Xers. Younger Baby Boomers, empty nesters who are not yet to retirement age are also buying more. According to the study, RV ownership overall is up 62%.
The campground and camp resort industry has also felt that boom. Advance reservations at Jellystone Park camp resorts are off the charts, says Trent Hershenson of Jellystone franchisor Leisure Systems, Inc. The Yogi Bear-themed, family-oriented parks have long been a favored choice in popular summer vacation spots, but they’ve never seen anything like the past year. The company can track bookings at the 70 percent of parks that use its preferred reservation system – according to those numbers, bookings are up 130 percent from last year, which ended up being a record year for them.
Industry leaders freely admit that much of that boom has been pandemic-related – vacationing in your own space being seized upon as a safer way to travel. But they also believe they can retain many of these new campers. Much of the GORVing campaign’s work involves telling stories and answering questions from prospective or first-time RVers – making sure that once they’re in, they stay in. And research indicates many want to stay in. Campground giant KOA produces an annual report on the state of the industry. Their findings this year indicate that people who got into camping during the pandemic are looking to stay in – and in many cases, upgrade as they learn more about camping and RVing. “We actually asked people who purchased an RV last year if they plan to purchase a new RV, and 50 percent said yes,” KOA’s Saskia Boogman says.
What’s attracting and keeping them, industry leaders believe, is something with many different price entry points that focuses on experiences and lifestyle choices. It’s an evolution that’s taken the camping industry a long way from where it began.
With more than 500 locations across the United States and Canada, KOA is the most ubiquitous campground and camp resort chain in North America. Its South Florida offer includes two Broward campgrounds, one in Hollywood and one in Davie, as well as the campground at Lion Country Safari. But the massive organization started with a single campground in Billings, Montana.
In the summer of 1962, Billings businessman Dave Drum watched as family-filled cars streamed through eastern Montana on their way to the World’s Fair in Seattle. Sometimes people would just stop and sleep alongside the road. Not everybody wanted, or could afford, a hotel – but other options were limited. That got Drum thinking.
That first KOA, and others that came soon after, were fairly Spartan affairs. As with any successful brand, success came because customers knew what they were getting – in this case, a clean and safe place to pull off the road and hook up the camper or pitch the tent. Maybe there’d be a small store or even a swimming pool for the kids, but campers and RVers didn’t expect much of the places they stayed. It was a place to sleep, not the destination in and of itself.
“I would definitely describe KOA for a lot of people as a nostalgia brand,” Boogman says. “That has been both a blessing and a challenge for KOA.”
That’s because many people might remember it as that earlier, more basic thing – whereas today, there are KOAs that offer deluxe cabins, glamping tents – heck, Dave Drum probably would not have imagined a KOA in Florida where you can hear lions roaring in the distance.
“We want owners to be able to own their campground,” Boogman says. “We are seeing KOA owners be incredibly innovative in what they are offering. People are looking for those unique experiences; KOA is really focused on modernizing the offerings. I get a lot of wow moments.”
KOA’s evolution hasn’t come by accident; the company that produces an annual state-of-the-industry report has studied and researched exactly how customers’ needs and wants change.
“We realize as more people come into camping, they want to have a very comfortable experience,” Boogman says. “Modernization is very important to us.”
Jellystone Parks have historically offered a bit more in terms of entertainment because of their family focus, but they’ve definitely worked to up their game in recent years. “Our customer has switched and become more focused,” Trent Hershenson says. “We are an entertainment destination.”
They know the person they’re marketing towards – a mom, aged 35 to 45 with kids aged 6 to 12, who is doing the research for that summer’s family vacation. Even if they’re going to an area with a large tourism offering like Branson, Mo., or Wisconsin Dells, they want the option of lots of things to do without leaving the resort. So a Jellystone Park might offer a pool with water slides. Family events like foam parties or movie nights. Visits from Yogi and his pals. Events and experiences that aren’t quite theme park-esque in scope, but that go way beyond a simple campsite and campground store.
“If you want to go on hikes and cook over the open fire and make s’mores, you can certainly do that at our parks,” Hershenson says. “But if you take the kids hiking for an hour and they say, ‘Mom, I’m bored,’ at a traditional park you’re responsible for your own entertainment.”
It’s the idea of the camp resort rather than the campground. Hershenson says that even before the pandemic, the average Jellystone family had a household income of $100,000 or more. It went up even more in the past year as more higher-income families looked for vacation options closer to home.
That said, people are quick to stress the many price entry points for camping and RVing, both in terms of where you stay and what you stay in. A used pop-up might set you back less than a grand on Craigslist, and most camp resorts also offer tent sections.
“The value that we provide is still really strong compared to other family options that are out there,” Hershenson says.
Mark Waltrip notes that at Westgate River Ranch, you can pay a lot for total luxury, but you don’t have to.
“A family that doesn’t have a lot of means can come pitch a tent for $40 or $50 a night and watch the rodeo,” he says. “The sky’s the limit of what people can do, and it’s all about creating that authentic immersive experience, but also realizing that it’s got to be accessible.”
The early part of 2020 was a good time to be in the camp resort business. “Last year up through March 1st we were doing great, up double digits,” Trent Hershenson says. Then … well, you know what then.
“Reservations plummeted, cancellations went through the roof.”
Across the country, parks went through the same thing.
“Nobody was prepared, obviously, for what would occur,” KOA’s Boogman says. “There was a big dip initially.” From March through May, KOA was down 43 percent. It was, she says, “pretty scary. We were going to be on our 11th year of growth and then that period hit and we were like, ‘Oh my goodness, what are we going to do now?’”
As restrictions went into place, parks temporarily shut. From its headquarters in Cincinnati, Leisure Systems sent out frequent emails to Jellystone Park franchisees with guidelines and suggestions. But state and local rules were different across the country, and reliable information was a moving target.
“We were just trying to share as much best practices as we could find,” Hershenson says. “It felt like almost every six hours you were getting new and conflicting information.”
At Westgate, leaders got so frustrated that they wrote up their own guidelines. Waltrip is proud of the work they did.
“We actually published our detailed operating procedures – what we clean, when we clean, how we clean,” he says. By April, they had their procedures up on westgatecares.com, where anybody in the industry could use them.
“The response was overwhelming,” Waltrip says. “Because people wanted to travel, they just wanted answers. They wanted facts.”
RV sales also hit a brief wall. But by late spring, a new trend was emerging – one that people in the industry hadn’t necessarily expected.
“Everything started to come back,” Karen Redfern says. “It started with just the consumer saying, ‘OK, we may not be able to be in enclosed areas with large groups, but when you’re outside, what better way to get outside.’
“There were so many factors that all of a sudden consumers started staying, ‘That’s how we can keep some of that normalcy in our lives.’ It was really quickly that consumer demand picked up.”
A time that looked like a struggle to survive turned into a record-breaker. “We had the best fall season we have ever had,” KOA’s Boogman says. “We were up across the system by 25 percent.
“It’s a naturally socially distanced activity; even if you’re in an RV park where the sites are closer together, you’re still six feet apart. You’re traveling with your own equipment.”
The trick now is to keep those people camping – and according to their research into that, the outlook is good.
“New people came out camping last year and they are for the most part here to stay, which we love to see,” Boogman says.
For Redfern, that’s not surprising. “It’s for everyone,” Redfern says, “and it’s a welcoming community.”