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Trouble is brewing in RV country



Trouble is brewing in RV country

The trailer camp industry is teetering on the brink of a full-blown existential crisis at a time when there has never been more demand among Canadians

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Nikki Ferreira had been married to her husband Steve for 20 years. They worked together, raised a daughter and knew one another’s quirks, and what she unequivocally understood about her spouse was that it was next to impossible to talk him out of any idea that got lodged in his brain.

These ideas frequently involved the accumulation of “toys,” including the cruiser yacht Steve purchased for $94,000 in 2014 because he had grown up around boats and felt it was time he had a boat of his own. Then came the purple Dodge Hellcat, a muscle car bought on a whim, even though he wasn’t much of a car guy.

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But as intimate as Ferreira was with her husband’s impulses, she still wasn’t prepared for the moment in 2021 when he said they should go look at some trailers.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what he was thinking; my idea of camping was a night at the Hilton,” she said. “I said, ‘Where is the money for an RV going to come from? Our daughter is going to university.’”

Steve answered a legitimate question with what has become a legendary family line: “Well, she is smart enough already.”

And that’s how the Ferreiras, who had never been camping with a recreational vehicle, or camping period, came to own “Smart Enough,” a 42-foot trailer — a.k.a. recreational vehicle — they bought for $89,000. They subsequently upgraded to a 45-footer with two air conditioners and a full shower. The trailer is larger than their first home, and it is currently parked as their summer residence at Shore Acres Park RV Resort on Lake Erie, just outside Port Dover, Ont.

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Shore Acres Park RV Resort on Lake Erie, just outside Port Dover, Ont., is one of about 2,000 privately-owned mom-and-pop-style campgrounds in Canada.
Shore Acres Park RV Resort on Lake Erie, just outside Port Dover, Ont., is one of about 2,000 privately-owned mom-and-pop-style campgrounds in Canada. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

“Some people may roll their eyes and go, ‘That’s not real camping,’” Ferreira said. “At the end of the day, the RV is where you sleep, but the objective is the same: to get out, hike, bike and play in the water.”

Yet today’s campers still want the luxuries they’ve grown accustomed to at home, such as air conditioning, flat-screen TVs and enough wireless access to livestream the Blue Jays game, and RV manufacturers are trying to offer those kinds of amenities as well as develop fully electric models.

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At site map of Shore Acres Park RV Resort on Lake Erie.
A site map of the Shore Acres Park RV Resort. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

These RVs of the near future are going to come rolling into national and provincial park campgrounds, as well as roughly 2,000 privately-owned mom-and-pop-style campgrounds that are already struggling to satisfy the hydro-hungry demands of a generation that views roughing it as having to make do without Netflix for a night. Meanwhile, there is an RV mechanic shortage and a tax code that has walloped some park owners with an unexpected bill for being classed as “passive investments.”

Factor in inflation, and the RV camping industry is teetering on the brink of a full-blown existential crisis at a moment when there has never been more demand among Canadians for RV campsites, nor more interest among institutional investors to buy up RV parks from weary owners.

“It is definitely an interesting time in the industry,” Cara Csizmadia, president of the Canadian Camping and RV Association, said. “Campgrounds in certain regions have been experiencing brownouts on their property, because every single RV is running an air conditioner and they are already at capacity for electricity draw.”

Csizmadia grew up camping. Her grandfather, father and uncle built custom box-top trailers in Calgary, and grandpa taught her and a mess of cousins to fish and ride bikes at B.C.’s Okanagan Lake Provincial Park.

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“I spent a lot of time in the dirt,” she said.

In other words, she loved camping, and she wound up marrying into a family that owned an RV park on Calgary’s outskirts. In the wee hours of the morning during the Stampede, you could find Csizmadia flipping pancakes on the griddle for the park’s 175 RV campsites worth of campers.

“It was a great lifestyle,” she said.

It has been a few years now, but the campground she co-owned and operated, which includes 24 acres of land next door to a major city, was valued at $5 million, and generated $900,000 in revenues annually. If that sounds like a gold mine, it should be noted that the annual bill for hauling out sewage was $185,000, and the monthly electricity charges during the summer high season could hit $15,000.

Whatever money was left at the end of a camping season had to last the family until the beginning of the next one, and there were always improvements to make. For example, Csizmadia and her ex spent close to $200,000 converting 30 campsites to 50-amp electrical service.

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A view of the camping experience in decades past hung at Shore Acres Trailer Park.
A view of the camping experience in decades past hung at Shore Acres. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

It wasn’t so long ago that a 15-amp hook-up or darkness lit by flashlights and a Coleman lantern were the norm. The latest trend has some parks installing 100-amp service in what amounts to an electrification arms race. In case you are wondering, that is enough energy to keep the lights on in a 2,000-square-foot house.

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“Consumers are becoming accustomed to a level of service that is outpacing park infrastructure,” she said.

No wonder, then, that some mom-and-pop outfits are reaching for the phone to call Anthony Lanni. He is an executive vice-president at QuadReal Property Group Ltd. Partnership, which is wholly owned by British Columbia Investment Management Corp. (BCI), the province’s public-sector pension fund responsible for the retirement welfare of its 740,000 members.

The check-in board at Shore Acres Trailer Park. RV resort occupancy levels shot up after the pandemic and haven't dropped off since.
The check-in board at Shore Acres. RV resort occupancy levels shot up after the pandemic and haven’t dropped off since. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Parkbridge Lifestyles Communities Inc. is among the fund’s real estate assets. The company was founded in 1999 and is now the largest RV resort operator in Canada, with 31 parks and an eye to adding more.

“We are always looking,” Lanni said. “This is a key component of our business.”

Talking about RV resorts put the Vancouver-based executive in the mood to tell a few camping stories of his own, including the time he hooked himself in the eyebrow fishing, and another time when the family van conked out somewhere near Edmonton and his Italian immigrant parents somehow managed to keep the fun rolling onward and made it to an RV park in Invermere, B.C.

BCI bought Parkbridge, among the largest manufactured housing community owners in Canada, with more than 60 communities, for $790 million in 2010. RV resort occupancy a decade ago typically ran at 90 per cent for the season, and that kept creeping up over the years until the pandemic.

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Remember the early COVID-19 days and that feeling of being penned up in your home and that you really, really needed to get out and get moving once the lockdowns were lifted? A lot of that movement involved Canadians visiting their local RV dealership.

Already home to some 2.1 million RVs as a nation, consumers set a sales record in 2021 by buying 55,000 RVs, or about 10,000 more than in a typical pre-pandemic year. Lo and behold, Parkbridge’s RV resort occupancy shot to 99 per cent and it hasn’t dropped off since, proof that a once relatively sleepy corner of the real estate investment market has been recast as a slam-dunk revenue generator.

Parkbridge and other established industry players, such as Michigan-based Sun Communities Inc., have now been joined by the likes of — surprise — Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., which entered the space with its “luxury” RV camping and glamping offerings. Pressure from investor groups, big and small, has pushed some longstanding mom-and-pop outfits to cash out, even if they may not have been looking to sell.

“COVID really shone a spotlight on the industry in a way we had never seen before,” Csizmadia said. “And as we have emerged from the fog, we have seen some of our legacy owners that have been running incredible operations for 30-40 years being sold to these big investor groups.”

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Fear not, small-business supporters: the Parkbridges of the planet collectively only own about 15 per cent of the Canadian RV resort market. But that figure is growing as people who could never have imagined themselves in an RV are now spending their summer holidays in RV parks.

Make no mistake, there is big money at play. Canadian campers spend $12.2 billion on camping-related expenditures, according to a 2023 report by the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association of Canada.

Consider the case of Nikki Ferreira, who has gone all in on RVing. In addition to her day job as co-owner of a landscaping business with her husband, she is the site administrator for Ontario RV Owners, the largest RV-related Facebook group in Canada, with close to 30,000 members.

Group members use the site as a clearing house for RV-related questions, such as: does U.S. Customs and Border Protection allow raw frozen dog food to cross the border? The answer: best call the border protection people directly to find out.

Posters on the site share park recommendations, safety tips — always be sure to check on your trailer tires, folks — breakfast suggestions and the names of reliable, RV-savvy mechanics. They also post photos of their RVs and the adventures they undertake in them, including one family’s journey to the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind.

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The Recreational Vehicle/Mobile Home Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Indiana.
The Recreational Vehicle/Mobile Home Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind. Photo by RV/MH Hall of Fame

Elkhart just so happens to be the world’s RV capital — and that is no exaggeration. Almost half of all RVs on the road today were manufactured in Elkhart. The industry traces its roots in the area to the early 1930s, when a young clothing store clerk named Wilbur Schut was bedazzled by the trailers on display at the Chicago World’s Fair. Milo Miller, a fellow Hoosier, was among the exhibitors in Chicago. The travelling salesman built an RV so his family could travel with him.

Schut identified this as a brilliant idea and one that required expanding upon, so he bought Miller’s RV manufacturing company and relocated it to Elkhart. The rest, as they say, is RV history, including the latest industry chapter, headlined by Thor Industries Inc., the world’s largest RV manufacturer, which is working to develop a fully electrified RV that Canadian campgrounds are not built to accommodate.

“We could have all the money in the world and we couldn’t, in some cases, increase the power at our park because that power just doesn’t exist,” RV park owner Warren Sheridan said. “It is not a simple phone call to Hydro One where you say, ‘Hey, would you guys mind turning the dial up?’”

Sheridan and his wife Marnie own Shore Acres next to Lake Erie. They are, by definition, a mom-and-pop operation, but perhaps not in the traditional sense. Marnie grew up on a peach farm on the Niagara Peninsula and Warren in a nearby small town. They were a couple of “country bumpkins,” Marnie said, who met as teenagers and did the responsible thing by going to university, moving from the country to a city west of Toronto and establishing their careers.

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Marnie, a teacher, became a homemaker once their kids entered the picture, while Warren beavered away in financial services marketing. All was well enough, except for a persistent entrepreneurial itch that the pair had to own their own business. They didn’t know what the business would be, and they definitely didn’t envision becoming RV park owners. But then a realtor friend called them up in 2014 and told them Shore Acres was for sale.

“It was almost like a too-good-to-be-true moment,” Warren said.

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Shore Acres Trailer Park owners Warren and Marnie Sheridan now own three RV parks bordering Lake Erie.
Shore Acres owners Warren and Marnie Sheridan now own three RV parks bordering Lake Erie. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

The park’s previous owner, Gordon Ivey, established Shore Acres in 1962 and nurtured the place by planting native tree species and gardens. There was plenty of green space, a private beach and a lot of happy campers.

The Sheridans didn’t buy the business right away, but they didn’t take long to decide that they would. They have since bought two additional RV parks bordering Lake Erie. All three parks are within a 75-minute drive of their home, which is where you could find them on the verge of the Canada Day long weekend, fielding calls from their park managers.

The issue of the moment was a neighbouring farmer with a blueberry patch. The berries were ripe and required safeguarding from blueberry-loving birds, a defence strategy that involves bird bangers (think noisemakers) sounding off at 5 a.m. The situation required some neighbourly negotiation.

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“The long weekend is a wacky one,” Warren said. “We are kind of like firefighters at the fire station waiting for the call. Don’t be overwhelmed by the glamour of our job.”

Troubleshooting septic clogs, unkinking water lines, ensuring there is enough ice in the freezers, making sure the novice RV driver wheeling through the front gates can back up their rig without knocking over a tree, gently informing campers that it is not an awesome idea to run a hair dryer, microwave and air conditioner at the same time because the system will crash and, foremost, soaking in the vibe of working in an environment where people are on holiday and generally in a great mood are among the universal headaches and joys of park ownership.

“We love what we do,” Warren said.

Nikki Ferreira also loves what being part of the RV nation has brought to her life. Why buy a $1-million cottage when you can park a $100,000 trailer next to Lake Erie for $5,300 from May 1 to Oct. 31?

Some RV-owning friends were joining the Ferreiras at Shore Acres for the weekend, when a typical Saturday night might involve a potluck dinner with some fellow campers followed by a bonfire.

“It is like family here,” Nikki said. “Something else: you’re not waking up with a stiff back from sleeping in a tent.”

That level of comfort is cherished among RVers, but the push to make trailers a complete home away from home is causing park owners some significant financial aches and pains as they hunch over the dollar amounts required to keep the modern camper happy.

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