Resort campgrounds draw budget travelers

As a former limousine driver in San Diego, Louis Tejeda knows the oceanfront hotels in Coronado, the hot restaurants in La Jolla and the hip clubs in the Gaslamp Quarter downtown.

But on a recent Saturday morning, he sought something more affordable in these tough times. That’s how he found himself in Chula Vista, where he and his five grandchildren planned to splash around in a heated pool, ride bicycles, roughhouse in a playground and listen to guitar music by the light of a roaring campfire.

The price for all of this fun: $57 a night to park his 12-foot tent camper at the Chula Vista Kampgrounds of America site.

“I wanted to go somewhere that’s economical but where the kids can have a good time,” he said standing next to his camper.

With the slumping economy and rising unemployment putting a death grip on travel budgets, Tejeda has joined a growing number of vacationers who are camping -- without roughing it.


Travel spending nationwide has taken a nose dive in the past few months but business remains brisk at many “resort campgrounds,” privately owned suburban parks that offer family-friendly amenities such as pools, free Wi-Fi, furnished cabins, arcade games, hot showers and laundry service.

Resort campgrounds, including the KOA camp in Chula Vista, are not immune to this recession, but campground owners say the weakening economy has attracted more vacationers looking to save a buck without having to sacrifice comfort and fun.

“People still want to get away but are looking for more affordable vacations,” said Linda Profaizer, president and chief executive of the National Assn. of RV Parks and Campgrounds, a trade organization that represents more than 3,700 privately owned campgrounds across the country.

She’s optimistic that recession-wary vacationers will continue to make use of resort campgrounds.

“Our industry will do well this year, not break records, but do well,” she said.

Other campground franchise owners have also reported strong business.

“Typically, we do well when the economy is down because we are an economical alternative but still a fun family option,” said Michele Wisher, spokeswoman for Ohio-based Leisure Systems Inc., which owns a chain of 70 Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park campgrounds. The company added three new Yogi Bear parks in 2008.

Resort campground owners are so optimistic about the future that many are making hefty investments in the business.

In Cobb, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, the owner of the town’s Yogi Bear park spent nearly $500,000 to upgrade the park’s miniature golf course.

At the Flying Flags RV Resort in Buellton, northeast of Santa Barbara, work crews are completing $1.3 million in improvements, including a new fitness center, luxury cabins and upgrades to the campground’s RV sites, landscaping and electrical system.

“We think this is going to be a strong market,” said Dan Baumann, general manager of the park.

Montana-based Kampgrounds of America, a franchise with nearly 500 campgrounds throughout North America, reported that revenue in 2008 was the second-highest of any year in the last decade. Registration numbers at KOA are up 39% over the last 10 years.

KOA, which began with one roadside campground in Billings, Mont., in 1962, has added 50 new campgrounds across the country in the last two years.

Resort camping has benefited from several trends in the travel and tourism business.

While Americans continue to travel, they are spending much less. According to a survey of 2,200 adults conducted for the U.S. Travel Assn., an industry group, almost two-thirds of Americans plan to take at least one overnight trip during the next six months.

But because of the slumping economy, nearly 85% of those surveyed said they would cut back on spending, according to the February survey.

Hotels have been hit hard by travelers’ cost cutting, with the national hotel occupancy rate dropping to 53% in February, a 10% slide from the previous year, and revenue per available room falling 17%, according to Smith Travel Research Inc.

One alternative to hotels -- tent camping at state and national parks and forests -- has been declining for years, perhaps due to a growing aversion among American teens to spending time outdoors, according to several surveys and polls by outdoor equipment manufacturers. Per-capita visits to California state parks dropped nearly 15% in 2007 compared with 1978, according to state figures.

Recreational vehicles -- rolling homes, complete with showers, beds and kitchens -- temporarily filled the lodging demand between hotels and tent camping until gas prices began to soar above $4 a gallon in 2008.

In recent months, lower gas prices have made RV vacations cheaper, but resort camp owners say the hottest trend at the campgrounds are smaller, rolling tent campers that can be towed by a pickup or SUV. Also popular are one- and two-room log cabins that offer some of the amenities of home without the cost of a hotel.

The KOA site in Chula Vista, within walking distance of supermarkets and shopping centers, has more than campsites. It also offers 26 one-room cabins that sleep up to four people starting at $69 per night. The cabins include bunk beds and electrical outlets but guests must share a communal kitchen, bathrooms and showers.

“With the economy the way it is, people are turning in their RVs and they don’t want a tent so they go with the cabins,” said Clint Bell, general manager of the KOA site. Bell plans to add three new cabins this year, a bike path and a grass field for baseball and Frisbee play.

Charles Prato Jr. and girlfriend Carmella Rondinelli of San Diego rented a one-room cabin at the Chula Vista KOA site and shared it with their four girls, ages 4 to 10. Prato dismissed the idea of taking the family to a hotel. “Too expensive,” he said. Camping? “I don’t want to camp in the dirt,” he added.

Prato sat at a picnic table in front of his cabin, sipping a beer while the girls were inside putting on their bathing suits for a visit to the campground pool.

Later, the children would rent bicycles and ride around the campground while he and Rondinelli prepared dinner in a communal kitchen. Prato scanned the park and grinned. “Everything you need is right here.”




Diversions for a tents situation

Despite the recession, resort campgrounds are investing in new amenities, including:

* Campland on the Bay, San Diego, is spending $50,000 on a skate park.

* Flying Flags RV Resort, Buellton, is spending $1.3 million to add three cabins, a fitness center, electrical and sewer upgrades and landscaping.

* Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in Cobb, Calif., recently spent about $500,000 to build a miniature golf course.

* The Kampground of America facility in Chula Vista recently built a dog park and plans to add bicycle paths and a grass playing field.

* The Vineyards Campground and Cabins in Grapevine, Texas, plans to spend $1.5 million this year to add RV sites, cabins, a gatehouse, store, landscaping and a sewer system upgrade, plus geocaching and kayak rentals.

Source: Times research