Despite concerns that high gas and grocery prices and economic uncertainties would affect RV and outdoor travel, that wasn’t the case this year and a panel of experts shared trends for 2023 showing people plan to do as much or more travel in 2023.
Nick Ewen of The Points Guy hosted a recent webinar and questioned panelists including Jon Gray, CEO of RVshare and Toby O’Rourke, CEO and president of Kampgrounds of America (KOA). Alyssa Ravasio, CEO of Hipcamp and Rob Blood, president and founder of Bluebird by Lark Hotels also participated.
Ewen asked the panelists to share one surprising change they saw in 2022, before addressing future trends. Gray responded, “The thing we learned about our customers is how resilient they are. The big question for 2022 after incredible high years in 2020 and 2021 was would that stay in 2022?”
He said despite gas price increases and air travel increasing, RV Shares had a good year with over 30% growth in bookings and revenue. He said the higher gas prices didn’t drive much of a change in behavior and their data showed on average RVer’s were paying $35 more because of the price increase.
“Big perception had low actual impact,” he said.
O’Rourke agreed saying 85% of their business is RV’s and they anticipated a major impact because of gas prices but instead people changed how they camped, staying closer to home or taking less trips.
“It was a surprise coming off arguably our best camping year but people found a way to keep camping despite gas prices being up and as gas prices went down, we saw a direct increase of even more camping,” she said.
Ewen asked the panelists if they agreed with respondents of the RV Share survey, 99% of whom said they plan to travel for leisure in 2023. All of the panelists agreed.
“In past recessions camping comes through very well,” O’Rourke said. “There’s a high likelihood people will continue to keep camping—they view it as an affordable way to travel. If they already own an RV they’ll probably use it more. All things considered, over 60 years camping has been resilient.”
Gray agreed. “When there’s a recession people travel, they just pare back—shorter trips or shorter (booking) windows. They go to drive-to locations so they spend less and take the same amount of trips.”
Since most RV travel is domestic, he said it bodes well for outdoor travel. “With people being able to work outside the office that’s increasing the number of trips per traveler—we expect that to continue over time,” Gray added.
Ravasio of Hipcamp said one of her board members said, “We are in a societal shift that’s the biggest transformation to our culture since WWII—a lot of things are changing—work from travel, longer stays and a spiked interest in farms and food tourism.”
Ewen pointed out that in RV Shares survey, 59% of respondents said they’d travel for relaxation in 2023, which is actually a decline and asked Gray for his thoughts on that.
Gray responded the kinds of trips people were taking due to flexible work was likely what was driving the number down for relaxing trips.
“The most exciting insight from the survey was an increase in “hush trips”—56% were very or extremely likely to take a trip, but not take time off work. They’ll explore where they are after work hours,” he said.
Gray also said that ability was “an amazing enrichment of people’s lives to do their job where they want to be. As an industry for campers it’s wonderful, but also a call to arms for WI-FI capable of Zooms and it also opens up (camping) to a new demographic that didn’t camp before.”
All the panelists agreed that WI-FI is now a required utility versus a luxury and the availability of Starlink has helped.
O’Rourke said WI-FI is a requirement at all KOA campgrounds and quality WI-FI to serve the new demographic of campers.
“Some people don’t want to be connected but for those who do, it’s a requirement,” she said.
Gray was asked if interest in RV’s was still high even after borders were opened and air travel increased.
“Absolutely,” Gray responded. “Camping is part of mainstream travel now. It stayed high in 2022 despite those other options.”
He explained RV travel has expanded—campers are getting RV’s delivered to where they want to be, “It’s the beginning of maturation of outdoor travel.”
Gray also explained there are categories inside outdoor travel—whether it be the farm experience that Ravasio mentioned, or because RV’s are pet-friendly, or they want to be near a water slide or Orlando’s theme parks.
“The outdoor travel space is many times where it was pre-pandemic,” he said.
Ewen also asked the panelists if there were any destination landscapes that stand out.
O’Rourke responded, “The big story for us this year is cities have rebounded. In 2021 people wanted more remote, off the beaten path locations, this year Nashville, Orlando, Vegas, New York City have come back bigger than pre-pandemic. National parks are down and cities way up, but we expect that to normalize next year.”
Ravasio said half of Hipcamp’s listings are outside the state where campers live and she agreed with O’Rourke on cities being more popular. She said they are working with “cool data about nature experience destinations like star-gazing, eclipses and along the migrating Monarch Butterfly path. Helping people discover those gems and get excited about those less-trodden paths.”
As far as the perception that camping is “rugged” the panelist shared there were now acceptable levels of camping styles.
“Camping and RV-ing is as rugged as you’d like it to be,” Gray stated. “It can be quite primitive or they can literally camp on Disney World property.”
He mentioned a recent Margaritaville campground with “incredible amenities” and said RV’s are meant for comfort as compared to tent camping.
O’Rourke said, “What’s great is now everyone’s a camper—there are lots of ways to camp—cabins, tents, Rv’s, yurts, tree houses. As glamping is emerging there are very upscale amenities in campgrounds like massage tents—glamping is very self-defined.”
As for whether the emergence of first time RVers that exploded during COVID-19 has continued, Gray said first-timers have cut back to about two-thirds from the 75% they saw in 2020 & 2021 and those once first-timers are now returning. Gray said they’re still seeing a majority of RV users as families, with less than 20% just couples camping.
O’Rourke said when she started with KOA 12 years ago the demographics were mostly Baby Boomers. “Over time that has shifted to dramatically younger millennials and two-thirds are families, but in the fall when school starts we do see an older demographic or couples,” she said.
Lastly, the panelists were asked what features or amenities they’re offering or plan to offer to make outdoor travel more enticing. Location and experience seemed to be the commonality between all four.
Gray said, “The big one for us is still delivery. It gets people off the bench about RV travel and we want to make it as seamless as possible—as good as staying in a hotel where they show up and the vacation begins.”
O’Rourke said location is definitely a focus as well as people’s passions, like sustainability. “Glamping options are one area on everybody’s radar,” she said. “And EV charging—campgrounds have the infrastructure to be charging stations across the country.”
Ravasio said offering extras and local experiences like offering a farm-table dinner, horseback riding, etc. is their focus.
Rob Blood agreed saying the focus at Bluebird by Lark Hotels is access to experience along the journey and at the destination.
“Because many of us are looking to live our lives in a more meaningful way than we did pre-COVID,” Blood said.
The forecast for outdoor travel in 2023 and beyond is continued growth and very exciting.