Have you ever wondered what are the different types of campgrounds and RV parks out there? On the surface it seems pretty easy with options between private and public parks yet when you dig below that surface you will discover there are huge variations between campground and RV park ownership and management hierarchies. the following delves into a simple topic that becomes rapidly more complex the further we look at it.

Private Campgrounds and RV Parks

Private campgrounds and RV parks are plentiful in the US. The last of the “small businesses” in America we have  an affinity to this group because they are primarily led by “mom and pop” owners or families operating in an entrepreneurial manner to provide accommodations to their guests. By our count there are about 6-7 thousand private campgrounds and RV parks in the United States that allow short term, transient or overnight stays (all three phrases represent the same type of guest… someone or a group looking to camp a few nights). The number swells to about 15,000 private parks when you add in locations that cater to long term, seasonal guests, or mobile home/ park model style guests. At CampgroundViews.com we don’t generally list the long term, seasonal or mobile home/ park model style parks due to their limited interest to campers/ RVers searching for a short term destination.

For the short term occupancy private parks you will recognize major names like KOA, Sun Communities, Encore, and Thousand Trails as they are large franchises and privately owned chains of parks operating across the US. Oftentimes first time campers think all private parks are KOAs and are quickly surprised when they learn that KOA locations only account for about 500 parks nationwide. When you add in the Sun RV Resort, Encore and Thousand Trails you still only reach about 800 RV parks and campgrounds operated or franchised by the “big chains”. The remaining parks are independents, smaller franchises, less diverse investment groups, small businesses and the like. These remaining 6000 or so parks are found in all 50 states (yes there are even a handful in Hawaii) and they can be further segmented down.

To dig deeper there are a few different variables we look at from a business side but as a camper/ RVer you really will find interest in the general classification of parks:

  1. Urban Lifestyle and Limited Accommodation Parks (ULLP) The ULLP are generally found in or close to major urban centers and larger cities. These parks will have basic amenities but are generally designed on a tighter footprint to maximize their occupancy per square foot. Located in high land price/ rent regions these parks are constantly gauging profitability (and even viability) against becoming a vacation destination. Most ULLP parks cater towards longer term guests with a few short term sites available. They are generally quiet with most of their guests living in the park while working in the area. These parks tend to charge higher than average rates due to limited inventory and competition.
  2. Rural Lifestyle and Limited Accommodation Parks (RLLP) The RLLP are similar in focus to the ULLP style park with the biggest difference being location. Generally operated by “mom-and-pop” style owners these parks are generally situated in the rural outskirts of a major metropolitan region or near a major transient employment location (power plants, regional hospitals, oil fields etc) these parks focus on providing longer term accommodations to the short term, and generally highly paid, workers who come and go at these projects. The parks normally have limited accommodations, not because of real estate rates, but more as a function of the development and ownership of the park by operators using the business to “make a living” and building it with limited funds. These parks tend to charge lower than average rates due to their eagerness to get people into their sites.
  3. Rural Recreation Destinations (RRD) By far some of the most fun private parks RRDs are designed, marketed and managed as destinations for various audiences to come out “get away” and enjoy some family fun. Generally these parks will have at least one major draw or activity but often have many combinations of these too including fishing lake(s), ponds, swim lakes, pools, water parks, clubhouses, playgrounds, scheduled activities and nearby recreational opportunities. RDD locations appeal to vacationers and those looking to get away. The majority of these parks are seasonally open during peak travel times with some open year round. These parks have undergone massive improvements in infrastructure over the last few years with a large majority of them providing high quality outdoor accomodations. Rates for RRD parks run the gamut from inexpensive to pricey. On average these parks will charge 25-20% more than the average nightly rate found across the US and are generally worth every penny.
  4. Member Recreation Destinations (MRD) Membership parks come and go as trends in the industry. Back in the 80’s and 90’s membership destinations were a popular way for investors to develop parks  but during the market downturns of early 2000 and 2008 these membership style resorts struggled (with some closing). Generally located within 2 hours of a major metropolitan area MRD parks are marketed as an affordable alternative to trying to find a nice place to camp. Guests pay fees that usually include an upfront “sign-up” fee, an annual fee and a nominal nightly fee when they stay.

    MRD parks are making a comeback in recent years as lower cost alternatives to the booming RRD style parks. The most popular and widely known of the MRD style parks are Thousand Trail parks owned and operated by Equity Lifestyle Properties (ELS as they are known). ELS also owns the Encore chain of parks and depending upon the membership package guests can stay in a “zone” or travel and stay at all parks. Various rules on length of stays exist but for frugal campers the costs can come in significantly below the average nightly cost of non-MRD style parks.

    MRD parks have not kept up with the investment and improvements found in RRD style parks in recent years. Due to their capital structure and general inability to charge higher rates for improvements MRD parks can show signs of deferred maintenance. MRD parks by and large do allow non-guests to stay for limited periods of time when occupancy allows. their rates are generally around average for the industry.

  5. Destination Accommodations (DA) DA parks are located near major destinations and rely upon that location as the primary draw for guests to stay. They tend to skimp on amenities and provide an average (and sometimes below average) level of service.  These parks are most often found just outside popular National Parks, major cities and popular tourist attractions. Built and managed on a budget they tend to be parks with owners always evaluating whether the property would be “better off as a hotel”. These parks, in our opinion, give RV parks and campgrounds a bad name as they accommodate a lot of novice campers who start to think that all parks are this way. These locations charge a premium price and are not worth the amount they bill.
  6. Destination Parks (No acronym needed) Destination Parks are located in prime destinations OR are parks that can meet any of the above criteria with the exception that management/ ownership has made a concerted effort to provide above par (excessively above par) accommodations. These are parks that you want to visit and stay at because of their access to a destination (think major National Park, the Ocean or Disney World) AND their amazing accommodations. Sometimes Destination Parks take advantage of both aspects combing a great destination with amazing accommodations (examples include Ocean Lakes Family Campground and Lighthouse Point near Sandusky OH). These parks provide the ultimate camping accommodations with amenities or access one would expect of this type of park. Their rates are premium for the industry (and usually worth every penny)

Wow that ended up being a mouthful of information! To dig deeper click here to discover the various types of public parks available.

Leave a Reply