Trying to Keep Americans Camping With Treehouses and Yurts
Some families plan annual summer trips in a quest to eventually visit every major-league ballpark across America. Over the past two years, Patty Lin and her family have taken up a similar pursuit: campgrounds.
Ms. Lin, her husband and two sons had never gone camping together before the pandemic. But after their first experience in August 2020, they purchased a recreational vehicle and became frequent visitors at Jellystone Park campgrounds, collecting tie-dye shirts and snapshots with Yogi Bear and friends at various locations.
Ms. Lin said her family hoped to visit a new campground each summer, although they may not get to them all — there are currently 83 Jellystone Parks in North America, with plans for more locations concentrated west of the Mississippi River.
“It’s time where we can come together as a family,” Ms. Lin said. “We don’t see this ending anytime soon.”
As pandemic restrictions wind down, camping is showing signs that it may maintain its popularity even as many Americans become more comfortable with indoor activities.
The global market for camping and caravanning is expected to grow 6.6 percent from 2020 to 2025, according to Research and Markets. And the number of R.V.s shipped in 2021 jumped a record 39 percent from the previous year, according to a report from StorageCafe, a unit of the real estate software company Yardi Systems.
To capitalize on that increased interest, national campground companies like Kampgrounds of America and Northgate Resorts, which owns several Jellystone locations, are moving beyond triangular tents pitched on bumpy dirt patches. They’re adding accommodations akin to those found at resorts, and are tacking on theme-park attractions like zip lines and water slides.
“During the pandemic, I think people came and understood what camping was in the 21st century,” said Robert Schutter Jr., president of Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts, a franchise system owned by Sun Communities, a real estate investment trust. “It wasn’t looked at being this roughened type of scenario. It was an offering with very strong comforts of home while you still were able to enjoy the outdoors with your family.”
The trend toward adding eye-catching amenities faces pushback from fans of traditional camping, who favor “roughing it” over “glamping,” but camping companies are moving ahead undeterred.
Jellystone is perhaps best known for its branding association with Yogi Bear and other Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters (which are now owned by Warner Bros. Discovery). But in recent years, Jellystone has also become recognized for its inclusion of on-site restaurants, full-service cabins resembling upscale hotel rooms and water-recreation activities like “spraygrounds” that appeal to families like the Lins.
“We love the giant water parks,” Ms. Lin said in August during her third trip to the Jellystone Park in Mill Run, Pa. “The boys are out playing Gaga ball right now. We’ll go to the pool together and finish the night sitting around the campfire. We treat ourselves to one meal at the campground.”
Most Jellystone campgrounds average 240 sites, with about eight sites per acre. The company has more than four million guests a year, with visitors staying just over three days on average.
During the first year of the pandemic, about half the patrons were first-time visitors, renting lodging that ranged from cabins to yurts.
“The pandemic turned out to be a very strong boon for us in exposing what we had to offer,” Mr. Schutter said. “Now comes the real hard part to convince them that this is an alternative on an ongoing basis.”
Since 2013, Northgate Resorts has opened 19 Jellystone franchise locations, often on existing campgrounds bought from owners looking to retire. Conversions typically cost about $50,000 and take eight months to a year, if a campground needs to add only signage and Yogi Bear-themed elements. But extensive repurposing projects can take up to three years and cost millions of dollars, Mr. Schutter said.
Proximity to a city center, other nearby attractions and the ability to maintain a “quintessential camping feel” are factors considered when opening a new franchise, said Zach Bossenbroek, the chief executive of Northgate Resorts.
Camping companies are adding new amenities, like a jumping pillow at the Jellystone Park in Bostic, N.C.
“If it looks like any other piece of property you or I might pass on a daily basis, it probably won’t be exciting enough or seen as a scenic camping area,” Mr. Bossenbroek said.
One of Northgate’s Jellystone franchises, a 600-acre resort in Bostic, N.C., includes views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Hiking trails complement gem mining, pickleball courts and 10-foot-high treehouses with air-conditioning on a site that was a former Girl Scouts camp.
The Bostic resort, less than a two-hour drive from Charlotte, N.C., also has themed events like a luau week, Christmas in July and haunted trails around Halloween.
Northgate also operates non-Jellystone destinations like Camp Fimfo in Texas, which opened in July last year and includes “red carpet R.V. sites” with charcoal grills and fire rings. Hot tubs, fly fishing on the Guadalupe River and a tavern serving craft cocktails are some of the services offered on hundreds of acres nestled between San Antonio and Austin.
But the travel industry faces obstacles for growth, including rising gas prices, inflation and fickle vacationers. In northern Wisconsin, residents are battling campgrounds over the use of lakefront property. One Jellystone location in New York’s Hudson Valley has received complaints from locals about excessive noise and late-night partying.
But since most campgrounds are reachable on a single tank of gas, offer all-inclusive packages and allow for social distancing, many owners think the camping renaissance can withstand those hurdles.
Some traditionalists, however, believe too many amenities can dilute the camping experience. The industrialization of camping has negated the need for camp craft skills such as starting fires and setting up tents, said Tyson Murphy, an instructor in the outdoor studies and tourism program at Maryville College in Tennessee.
Dedicated campers have long enjoyed the relatively low cost of getting away for a weekend by packing not much more than a cheap tent and heading to a campground that had open space in abundance. Now, an influx of apps, booking sites and online reviews has turned once-secret locales into vacation hot spots that need to be reserved months in advance.
“I struggle with our ability to turn anything into an industry and the lack of purity as longtime campers might call it, where it’s just you and a tent in the elements,” Mr. Murphy said.
The inclusion of nontraditional camping activities at campgrounds is not new. Kampgrounds of America, which operates more than 520 campgrounds in the United States and Canada, was one of the first companies to offer amenities like swimming pools, water slides and tennis courts, Mr. Murphy said.
Today, Kampgrounds of America has three campground experiences — KOA Journey, KOA Holiday and KOA Resort — offering either the kind of rustic environment that Mr. Murphy favors or more of a vacation feel, complete with disc golf courses and electric vehicle charging stations.
Since 2020, 19 million households have tried camping for the first time, with one-third of that demographic citing the pandemic as a reason, said Ann Emerson, chief operations officer of Kampgrounds of America’s franchise division, citing a study by her company.
During that same period, Kampgrounds of America has added 51 newly constructed or converted campgrounds.
Even smaller, independent companies see potential in creating campgrounds flush with amenities not usually thought of when roughing it in the woods.
In Trenton, Maine, Wild Acadia Camping Resort was rebranded in July after operating for almost 40 years as a 12-acre amusement park on a 100-acre property. The camping resort covers about 50 acres and has R.V. sites and Wi-Fi and fiber-optic cable connections, as well as recreation options like a ropes course, a rock-climbing wall and trampoline basketball.
Early in the pandemic, the resort’s co-owners, Andrew and James Allen, realized they would not open the seasonal amusement park for the summer of 2020. The brothers spent more than $100,000 in engineering, permits and wetlands studies to begin transitioning into a camping resort. With Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park nearby, the Allens had thought about turning the amusement park into a campground since taking over the land in 2011.
“I definitely believe the industry will continue to grow in that direction,” Mr. Murphy said of resort-style campgrounds. “You even have people looking at a field or farmland or privately owned property and now they are going, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a lot of money to be made here if this is a campground.’”