Booking an RV campground stay just got easier and possibly more affordable as parks seek to replace temporary residents known as snowbirds who typically dominate the Southern landscape during the winter.
In fact, the number of seasonal and recreational residents in Florida alone jumped every year between 2005 and 2014, resulting in a 57 percent overall increase, according to data gathered by The University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Another BEBR survey found there are five times as many temporary Florida residents during the winter months.
But now that warmer weather is upon us, these snowbirds — typically retirees and RVers — return north for the spring and summer seasons. That leaves a void at many popular campgrounds, especially those vacation spots not located along the coasts, said Bobby Cornwell, president and CEO of the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.
"The snowbirds are huge in Florida," Cornwell said. "January, February and March are typically the busiest times of year, and that's all because of the snowbirds."
Aside from the Panhandle area, which is typically at its busiest during the summer, he said most Florida RV parks are typically only about one-third full after winter ends. That makes it easier for Atlanta-area residents to book spur-of-the-moment vacation plans to those areas, Cornwell said.
"You could draw a fictitious line somewhere around Orlando where snowbird business is everything," he said. "Those parks rely on that season, so it's easier to get reservations during the summer months."
There are often deals and incentive packages to lure local travelers to nearby getaways. Mike Gast, spokesperson for Kampgrounds of America, or KOA, agreed that most of the 41 Florida campgrounds operated by his company are less busy during the summer months.
KOA campgrounds overcome the slowdown, he said, by offering discounts, such as buy-one, get-one deals — especially for military veterans and seniors — and by hosting specialty weekends. For example, there are Christmas in July specials and the Care Camps Big Weekend, a fundraiser that helps send children with cancer to summer camps. Book a visit May 13 to a KOA campground, and pay $10 for the next day's stay.
"They have huge marketing arms and can create specials and incentives that can be advertised nationwide to campers," he said.
However, the majority of area RV parks are still mom-and-pop operations. One such spot is River's End Campground and RV Park on Georgia's Tybee Island, where snowbirds also represent a huge percentage of the clientele.
"It's almost like having two distinctly different business models," said Woody Hemphill, River's End camp manager. "After St. Patrick's Day, (our visitors) become mostly families and the weekend warrior crowd seeking a quick getaway."
About a four-hour drive from Atlanta, Tybee Island is a popular vacation spot among locals, Hemphill said. In fact, more than half of all River's End guests hail from Atlanta, Augusta or Macon.
"They don't want to go too far, but they still want to have that time with their family and get away while still having some of the comforts of home," Hemphill said.
And during more difficult economic times, River's End guests typically come more often for fewer days at a time, he said. Because of Tybee Island's year-round popularity as a coastal destination, he recommends making reservations well in advance, especially if campers want to book one of eight available air-conditioned cabins.
"Just the term camping might mean pitching and tent and backpacking to one person, but that's not camping to a whole lot of people nowadays," Hemphill said.
KOA has also increased its number of cabin accommodations in the past eight to nine years, Gast said.
"The cabins really open up camping to the local market," he said. "But people don't always think about that when they think about staying at a campground."
Gast said he has also seen campers find creative ways to stay comfortable during the summer, including the use of ventilated, air-conditioned tents.
"They can get very creative, but cabins are certainly the most comfortable way to go," he said.
Many campgrounds, including River's End and KOA sites, also offer specialized RV campsites that include added space and increased amenities, but those sometimes are in high demand.
"We certainly welcome walk-in campers at the last minute," Gast said, "but they may not be able to get just the site they desired."
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