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November 1st, 2013

Memo From Frank & Dave

I just came back from an event in Chicago, in which Sam Zell – the largest owner of RV parks in the U.S. – did a question and answer session. He had an interesting observation on RV occupancy. Back when gas prices were low, people drove around more in their RV and stayed in one place for only short periods. However, with gas prices high today, the same customer is going to one spot and staying put. Zell put some estimates on this concept, namely that the demand for the “destination” RV parks nearl y doubled in the process, as the number of nights in that desired end of the road averaged 5 nights from the prior 3 night stay. So the bottom line is that the industry has seen growing demand for “destination” RV parks and waning demand for “overnighter” parks. So when you’re looking at RV parks, make sure to stick with the “destination” – that’s where the future of the industry is. And just like us, Zell is very bullish on the demand those 10,000 retiring baby boomers per day is going to have for RV’s and travel.

Only In California – But Why Does It Have To Be That Way?

RV Park In California

The Santa Barbara Auto Camp is perhaps the best looking RV park in California – depending on your tastes – and has been featured on over 40 magazines and newspapers over the years including Sunset Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Its pedigree is impressive, having been built in 1922 and in continual operation ever since. Every inch of the park has been architecturally upgraded to the highest standard. The 35-unit park is currently for sale for $4,650,000. But what can all RV operators learn from this work of art, and apply to their RV parks?


Tasteful, architectural-grade signage is not as expensive as you think. In the case of Santa Barbara Auto Camp, it’s just metal lettering on a stark concrete wall. If you break down the cost of that sign, any operator could probably build a concrete wall and put metal letters on it for around $2,000. I found a website that sells the letters for $75 each, so the lettering alone, on the Santa Barbara sign, cost $1,500. That means that architectural grade signage costs maybe $1,000 more than boring signage from Fastsigns. That’s a small price to pay for the immediate drive-up appeal.

Creative landscaping

Notice the fact that Santa Barbara Auto Camp has exceptional landscaping – but is that really that expensive? For example, there are grass rows set into the concrete slabs in the common areas. Having some sections cut-out of your concrete expanses and planting grass, shrubs and trees is not really that costly. Taking areas of grass and adding unusual shrubs and trees is not going to break the bank. Keeping shrubs pruned into interesting shapes is not really that time intensive. I can find a multitude of large, quality shrubs and trees at any Home Depot at low prices. I bought some beautiful blue spruces this year for my property at only $75 per tree for a 7’ tree, by waiting and buying them at the end of the season. It’s amazing what a positive reception you will get from rich landscaping, and the cost is very affordable.

Common area details

Note that Santa Barbara Auto Camp has curving concrete paths where they would normally be straight. That is has upscale outdoor furniture instead of the cheap plastic stuff from Wal-Mart. These type of touches are no longer that expensive. I bought some ornamental benches this year for only $199 per bench at a company called Ballard Design. And you can simply form and pour concrete additions to your straight path to change the shape for a couple hundred dollars, as well. Taking the road to better aesthetics in your common areas is not price prohibitive, and raises the overall value of your property much more than the cost.

Maintenance to a new level

You can see form the photos that the Santa Barbara Auto Camp is meticulously clean. That the painted surfaces are freshly painted, and the paving is jet black. Note that there’s not one bit of trash on the ground or broken chair. Many RV park owners are not as demanding on maintenance as they should be. It sets a bad precedent for the customer when you are not maniacal about keeping things clean and painted. And the cost to do so is minimal

Raising expectations – more Neiman Marcus and less Wal-Mart

At Neiman Marcus, it is expected that the stores always be clean and well-designed, and the customer is always treated like royalty. At Wal-Mart, the stores are always dirty and not very aesthetically pleasing, and customer service is almost non-existent. Which type of business do you want your RV park to more resemble? Which one, do you think, will result in greater customer retention, referral and repeat business? Sometimes, the difference is just a mental attitude that “we are going to be the best RV park in town” and “our customers are the #1 priority” and then acting out those messages. Santa Barbara Auto Camp appears to be on the Neiman Marcus side of the spectrum – and that’s a good place to be. Attitudes are free, and they have a huge impact.


How do you make a 35 space RV park worth $4,650,000? Well, being in California helps a lot. But there’s a lot about the Santa Barbara Auto Camp that can be applied to your RV park to increase its value. And the cost of taking your RV park to the next level is not as high as you might think.

Town & Country Magazine Article Features RV

RV Wedding

It was an unexpected sighting to find an RV in a wedding article in prestigious Town & Country magazine. The article suggests that a unique honeymoon would be to leave the ceremony in an RV and go out and travel across America. Of course, that idea’s not new. Just buy or rent the film “The Long. Long Trailer” with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Jr. The movie is based on two honeymooners in an RV trailer in the 1953. Hopefully, the modern newlyweds can have as much fun as Lucy did over a half-century ago.

A Park Model Is On The Way

RV Park Deals

I recently rode behind this RV park model on its way to a destination somewhere in the Midwest. One of the first things you will notice about park models versus mobile homes, is that the park model does not have wheels and axles. That’s why they look so much more like stick-built structure than mobile homes do. A park model can sit on the ground, while the mobile home is always an annoying 3’ or so up in the air, with the required skirting to hide that fact. While park models are – based on square footage – more expensive than a mobile home, they look much better when in position. There has been a huge demand at many RV parks for overnight cabins, and these park models can be a real money-maker in the right locations. So next time you get stuck behind a load like this, just think what a positive sign it is for the industry.

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