As Memorial Day Nears, Conditions Ripe for Strong Rebound in Summer Camping
Favorable weather, falling gas prices, and campsite reservations are pointing to a strong rebound in summer camping.
The trends mark a reversal from last Memorial Day, when record snow packs, flooding, and rising gas prices dampened participation going into the holiday weekend.
In Virginia, overnight visitation to state parks from Jan. 1 through April 30 was up 18.5 percent. Reservations for the summer months are also trending well ahead of their levels of a year ago, despite an 8 percent increase in overnight camping fees that took effect Jan. 1, 2012. Sue Smith, acting reservations manager for Virginia State Parks, attributed the growth to the weather and a strong marketing plan, including the celebration last summer of the park system’s 75th anniversary.
“Believe it or not, there are still a lot of people out there who don’t know Virginia State Parks exist,” she said.
At ReserveAmerica.com, the year-over-year growth in reservations outpaced the growth in inventory in March and April, said Gary Evans, general manager of camping for Active Network–Outdoors. The company operates ReserveAmerica.com and Recreation.gov, which consumers can use to find and reserve thousands of campsites managed by local, state and federal agencies, as well as private operators like Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA).
“April was off the charts in growth year over year, and May is strong as well,” said Evans, who noted that warmer weather made it possible for many higher elevation campgrounds to open earlier than last year. Evans said he thinks new tools the company added last summer that enable campground managers to upload photos of their sites have also spurred reservation growth. A new mobile app that allows people to view campsite availability in real time should boost last-minute reservations this summer, he added.
Among KOA campgrounds, camper nights for the January through April period were up 5.5 percent and bookings for Memorial Day are running about 7 percent ahead of last year. Sales of KOA’s $24 Value Kard, which provides discounts on overnight camping fees and other loyalty rewards, are up 11 percent. KOA finished 2011 with 2 percent fewer camper nights than 2010 levels after extensive spring flooding closed several campgrounds in the central United States over the Memorial Day weekend. Hurricane Irene had the same effect along the East Coast during Labor Day weekend in 2011.
“It was such a mild winter, and people who budget for home heating or snow removal did not have to pay those expenses, so they may have a little bit more money going into summer,” said KOA Vice President of Communications Mike Gast.
He added that many Baby Boomers who had postponed travel plans in the wake of the 2008 stock market crash are finally ready to move on and enjoy their retirement.
KOA camper nights have grown the most in the Northeast and South Central states, but are still down about 5 percent in the Southwest region that includes California, which accounts for one in 10 KOA campers.
At California’s state parks, reservations for July rentals of RV and primitive campsites were up about 1 percent as of late April. That’s the same pace as a year ago, when reservation growth slowed dramatically in the wake of fee increases that raised the maximum cost of RV hook-ups and primitive campsites by 32.3 and 16.7 percent respectively.
Retail sales of camping gear through March provide a mixed signal of consumers’ intentions. Sales of outdoor hardgoods increased 1.6 percent to $381.1 million in March in the retail channels tracked by SportScanInfo for OIA VantagePoint™, matching the growth seen in February. While sales of packs, bags, hydration and tents were down in the low-single digits, sales of sleeping bags, coolers/containers, trailers and racks and other camping and hardgoods were up in the same range.
Falling gas prices may encourage more people to explore the outdoors this summer. On May 7, the national average price for a gallon of regular self-serve gasoline was $3.78, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report. This was four cents cheaper than the price one week earlier, 15 cents cheaper than a month earlier and 20 cents cheaper than May 7, 2011, AAA reported. Just as important, retail gas prices declined in 28 of the 31 days monitored, indicating that prices may have peaked at $3.98 a gallon in early April. In 2011, by contrast, gas prices did not peak until June.
All of this to say, the U.S. seems poised for a stellar camping season — and the resulting economic boost as outdoor lovers buy equipment, fill their cars, dine in restaurants, and inject tourism dollars into destination communities.