Why Camping Evolved to Keep up With Travel Trend

Penny-Pinchers Looking to Get Away This Summer Trigger Uptick in Visits to Campsites, Parks With Perks

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When Gaynell Garcia began planning a family reunion for this summer, she had to make a decision: Rent a home, book a hotel or go camping? She decided to rough it. Well, sort of .

Her extended family -- more than 50 kids, parents and grandparents -- will meet this Fourth of July weekend in the Rocky Mountain foothills at the Jellystone Park in Larkspur, Colo., which in addition to the usual tree-lined campsites touts a heated pool, 24-hour laundry, remodeled bathhouses and free WiFi. "We have a pretty large group going so we wanted to make sure we could accommodate everybody," said Ms. Garcia, who will make the four-hour drive to the campsite from her southern Colorado home. "With the economy and everything, we just thought [camping] would be the best option."

Camping is emerging as the top choice for many families this year, as the industry touts new amenities to draw penny-pinching vacationers who still want to get away, but can't afford shelling out big bucks for airline fare, posh resorts or pricey home rentals. The road to recovery started last year, when revenue for the nation's more than 13,000 privately run campgrounds and RV parks grew 3% after falling 4.8% in the wake of the recession in 2009, according to a new report by IBISWorld, which provides market intelligence on a variety of industries. Although hurt somewhat by the recession, camping didn't fall as fast as other travel segments, such as hotels and motels, whose revenue plummeted more than 9% in 2009, according to IBISWorld.

Camping goes posh
Camping goes posh Credit: Illustration: Martin Kozlowski

The camping uptick is expected to continue for the next five years as more retiring baby boomers hit the open road. Growing up in the "height of the Boy Scout movement," boomers have a "permanent appreciation of the outdoors," IBISWorld notes in the report. "This generation is expected to be wealthier and live longer than any prior generation, making them prime targets for an RV lifestyle."

Even the RV industry, which got pummeled during the recession, is coming back, with wholesale shipments on track to grow by 7.4% in 2011, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, which says improving credit conditions are outweighing higher fuel costs and sluggish employment trends.

But campsites are not taking future growth for granted. Many sites are upgrading facilities to lure picky campers who are often looking for more than just a patch of dirt to pitch a tent. Consider the Jellystone Park franchise, where several sites are adding "splashgrounds" and water slides. Sites are also adding more rental cabins to attract visitors who don't own an RV, or don't like to sleep outside. "People who don't normally consider themselves campers can still have the outdoor experience," said Michele Wisher, director of marketing for Leisure Systems, parent of the Jellystone franchise, which covers 78 camping locations nationwide and whose same-park revenue is up 14% this year.

At the sprawling, 893-campsite Ocean Lakes Family Campground in Myrtle Beach, S.C., visitors can now enjoy drop-off laundry service while parking their RVs on special slabs of concrete meant to keep the sand away. Other amenities include golf carts and a full calendar of activities, like dinner and a show for $16 a person. Peak-season rates run $62 a night for a basic campsite to $2,650 a week for a beachfront, six-bedroom vacation house. Camping is "becoming more sophisticated as the travel industry itself is more sophisticated," said Barb Krumm, the campground's marketing director.

And that includes marketing, as a leading association seeks to bring cohesion to the traditionally decentralized industry, which is dominated by independently owned, often family-run, sites. The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, which represents 3,300 mostly privately owned member campgrounds, is overhauling its gocampingamerica.com website to include more information on individual sites, including videos. The association is also reaching out to consumer packaged-goods marketers in hopes of luring more brands to campsite stores, which today typically carry a bare-bones offering of snack foods and basic medicines. Campgrounds are "like mini-cities. But they remain a relatively untapped market for branded consumer products and services," said Paul Bambei, a former cable TV executive who was named the association's CEO and president late last year.

Mr. Bambei is working with the Outdoor Channel in hopes of getting brands to buy ad time on the network for vignettes that would plug products like a camping lantern, while directing viewers to the association's website. And he is also pushing for deals with retailers such as Michelin, in which they would share revenue with campgrounds in turn for referrals from campsite staff. "We're in a perfect position to direct the consumer to the place they need to go," he said.

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