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It’s Monday, and it’s unseasonably warm for early June in Bar Harbor, Maine, making it the perfect day to take in the local sights before tourist season really picks up. But even though Mt. Desert Narrows Camping Resort is a vacationer’s paradise — sitting on a rocky coastline a few miles from Acadia National Park — for many visitors at the campground today, there’s still a 9-to-5 grind to be had. People are clacking away at laptops from picnic tables, others slowly crunching up and down dirt paths on conference calls, and almost definitely, there are more tucked out of sight behind tent flaps and RV doors doing the same.
“We’ve really seen this more and more in the last couple years, [especially] with the pandemic,” says Julia Guest, office lead at Mt. Desert Narrows. “Lots of people working from their sites and by the main building, and kids doing homeschooling.” While we chat in the midmorning heat, another camper pops into the office to inquire about the Wi-Fi strength. “We have a guy from Spectrum on the way,” she answers without missing a beat. This, evidently, is a question she gets a lot.
It makes sense. More than 50% of campers said access to cell or Wi-Fi service has “a great deal of impact” on the length of their trips, according to the Kampground of America’s (KOA) 2021 North American Camping Report, which annually surveys thousands of households in U.S. and Canadian camping markets. That’s up 1,500% from 2019, when only 3% indicated Wi-Fi as a top factor when selecting a campground. The 2021 report also found that more than 80% of campers changed their camping habits in 2020 to include working and schooling, and a whopping 41% percent of all campers (and 51% of new campers) now say they “sometimes or always” work while camping.
What was once an oxymoron is now the increasing norm: Camping is very much on the grid. In fact, in a recent Good Housekeeping survey, only 6% of respondents said that limited access to technology was the biggest appeal for camping or RVing — a far cry from what once was. “The ethos of [camping and] RV travel has moved quickly from, ‘I want to get off the grid and not be able to access the internet,’ to, ‘I want this RV to be an extension of my office, my classroom, my life,'” says Jon Gray, CEO of peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace RVshare. Jen Young, co-founder and CMO of Outdoorsy, a global peer-to-peer RV sharing company, agrees, saying that in the past, camping “was all about, ‘Oh sorry, I can’t get cell service out here, I’m gonna be offline.'” But now, she says the script has flipped to,”‘Hey, I can get cell service wherever I am. Let me work with my family in Yosemite for the week.'” And that’s exactly what Americans are doing in 2021.
In the past year, according to the 2021 Airbnb Report on Travel & Living, people have been fleeing cities and flocking to remote destinations; in fact, the lodging company notes rural travel has doubled since 2015. Similarly, the 2021 VRBO Trend Report found that 61% of families are now more likely to visit an outdoorsy destination than an urban one. That’s likely because, with long-haul air travel largely on hold, Americans have been taking longer domestic trips and working from their destinations, a silver lining to the stay-at-home orders that pushed many people’s routines remote. For those privileged enough to work in a field that affords the luxury of a work-from-home model, a regimented five-day work and school week is no longer tethering them to their hometowns, leading to rise in what vacation rental marketplace VRBO has dubbed the “flexcation,” a longer vacation that mixes work with leisure and often takes place during less-pricey shoulder seasons. In fact, Airbnb reviewers who mentioned “remote work” jumped by 520%, year over year.
“The rules around how people work and live have changed forever,” says Young. “People have proven, in most jobs and businesses, that they can work wherever they have connectivity.” And with the Outdoor Industry Association reporting 28% growth in camping and Airbnb noting a spike in stays near national parks this year, there’s no denying that people have been heading to the great outdoors for longer stretches, and working all the while — even if that requires rigging their tents into a hotspot.
The great camping boom
To be clear, this growing interest in camping and RVing is not entirely pandemic-related. “We have seen year over year increases in camping… since coming out of the recession,” says Toby O’Rourke, president and CEO of KOA. But the COVID-19 outbreak sent numbers skyrocketing. After all, camping is self-contained, outdoors and socially distant by nature, a winning trifecta for pandemic travel.
In fact, it’s exactly what spurred me — and millions of others — to try out an RV for the first time this summer. I’m essentially the poster child for pandemic camping travel: The sleek 2021 Airstream I’m renting from Air Maine Adventures courtesy of Outdoorsy is a Class B campervan, which according to Outdoorsy data, is among the most popular type of rental this year. Class Bs are built on van chassis, so they tend to have the nimble maneuverability of a van while still offering all the cozy amenities of a motorhome. That’s likely why they’re seeing the highest year over year growth at 152%, per the RV Industry Association’s May 2021 Shipment Report, which is 64% higher than any other category of motorhome or towable. “There has been a focus on campervans specifically because of the efficiency, the better gas mileage, being able to park in a parking space and how well people have become at engineering the build-outs,” says Dave Ramsay, full-time van lifer, CEO and co-founder of Dave & Matt Vans, a lifestyle vehicle company based in Gypsum, Colo. that builds, sells and rents vans.
I’m also traveling in the off-season before campground reservations become sparse, RV bookings get pricey and parks and restaurants get more crowded — a flexcation must. My trip is over a week long, which is on par with Outdoorsy’s “average trip length of over six days,” says Young, and, of course, I’m working from my campsite with a panoply of connectivity solutions including campground Wi-Fi, using my iPhone as a hotspot when Wi-Fi falters, or, in remote locations that have neither cell nor Wi-Fi service, using the Wi-Fi hotspot baked right into my Airstream. (Air Maine Adventures’ slogan is “Freedom, Connection and Outdoor Adventure,” and the irony of “connection” in this case is not lost on me, but as a writer on deadline, appreciated all the same.)
And as a first-time RV renter, I’m, again, in the majority. At RVShare, Gray says, “four out of five renters that we had last summer were new to renting an RV,” and from May through September 2020 at Outdoorsy, upwards of 90% of bookings were made by first-time renters. Back at the campground, I can’t help but notice that pretty much every single one of my RV neighbors’ rigs are rented, and in conversation, I learn the majority of folks are on their maiden RV voyages as well, hailing from all over the U.S. from Virginia to New York to Texas and beyond.
Like me, these first-timers may have at first been incentivized by limited vacation options paired with a good dose of cabin fever. Last year, “People weren’t getting on airplanes and going on cruises and [heading to] amusement parks,” says O’Rourke, which meant camping entered the conversation in a big way. “We definitely saw a huge spike in business and we’re still riding that wave.” In fact, the wave continues to swell: 2021 is already outpacing the record-breaking numbers of 2020. “Our advanced deposits right now are sitting at 67% above where they were in 2019 — and 2019 was our best year in [KOA’s 60-year] history,” says O’Rourke, who bought an RV of her own two years ago to camp with her husband and three children.
RVshare also saw business triple in the summer of 2020, and still, “we’re having an even better year this year,” says Gray. Last year’s July Fourth weekend set a company booking record, yet bookings are “already up 219% for the Fourth of July this year and growing from there.” Meanwhile, Outdoorsy, though only established in 2015, saw 72% of its all-time bookings in the past two years — and the company started this year with 145% year over year growth in bookings. Dave & Matt Vans also hasn’t yet seen signs of the trend slowing down. By March, summer rentals were already over 90% booked. It all checks out: The popularity of the RV and campervan lifestyle is at an all-time high of approximately 13 million households, according to the North American Camping Report in what Ramsay calls “an insane increase for a very steady industry.”
Not your average camper
As camping becomes more mainstream, the archetype of the typical camper is changing too. Young notices a broad demographic of “all age groups, a whole wide range of diversity in terms of families, including single parents, nuclear families, young millennial moms to Gen X and older couples, early retirees.” O’Rourke also notes that last year brought “sizable increases in the amount of diversity coming into camping.” The 2021 North American Camping Report found that 60% of first-time campers were from non-white groups, the highest since the inception of the report. “We’re definitely seeing new camper bases coming out which is really exciting.”
Remote schooling also played a role in the uptick of families with children at campgrounds, a key driver in the enthusiasm and interest surrounding camping, according to the North American Camping Report. Households with children accounted for three quarters of new campers last year, and when it comes to working from the campsite, couples with children also far exceeded others, at 61%. After all, why homeschool from the kitchen table or work from the basement when you can do both fireside or lakeside?
Of course, this is a trend that is only possible due to campgrounds and RVs becoming more connected than ever. In fact, access to technology allowed first-time campers to camp an additional nine days last year, according to the North American Camping Report. “We’re seeing, consistently, people choosing campgrounds based off the quality of and the availability of the Wi-Fi,” says O’Rourke. As such, campgrounds are scrambling to ramp up infrastructure and connectivity solutions to keep pace, realizing that “in the world we live in now,” O ‘Rourke says, internet is “more of a utility than an amenity.”
Yet even with these cell and WiFi improvements, some data is already hinting that there might be a slowdown in the camping craze this fall. At the Bar Harbor Oceanside KOA, for example, advanced bookings for the third week in September 2021 compared to a census of the same week in 2020 shows a 70% decrease in children, which suggests that as in-person learning returns, schooling from campgrounds might decline. According to the North American Camping Report, “first-time campers anticipate their camping in 2021 to be most impacted by… children being present in the home.”
The future of camping
While campgrounds across America continue to push harder to improve their Wi-Fi connectivity and amenities, there’s no denying that social distancing guidelines are loosening, vaccination rates are increasing and the pendulum is swinging back toward normalcy. Will people still be able to take their work on the road past this summer?
“I think we’re going to see the trajectory pointing upwards for quite a while,” predicts O’Rourke, a hunch that’s backed by what she describes as a marked spike in investments, additional land acquisition and improved amenities on campgrounds for the first time in 40 years. She’s seen “more and more people signing new construction contracts with us and actually designing and building campgrounds from scratch because there’s such a demand.”
Similarly, the Airbnb report posits that this on-the-go lifestyle is not a temporary reaction, but “a step toward a world in which living and traveling are one and the same,” especially since 74% of survey respondents indicated they’re interested in living somewhere other than where their employer is based. And while the future of office life is yet to be seen, research and advisory company Gartner found that over 80% of company leaders plan to allow employees to work remotely at least part-time post-pandemic, and 47% will allow employees to go fully remote. Beyond that, a recent Future Workforce Pulse Report by work marketplace Upwork estimated that nearly a quarter of Americans will be working remotely by 2025. Already this year, Google introduced a more relaxed approach to telecommuting by giving 20% of employees the OK to permanently work from home.
“The ability to live anywhere … is now part of the future of travel,” asserts the Airbnb report, and Gray thinks the popularity of camping is here to stay — even as international travel and traditional vacations come back into play. “This is an experience that people love,” he says. “Once you’ve tried something and really enjoyed it, it’s something you’re likely to come back to,” as evidenced by a Net Promoter Score he says is “in the top quartile of travel businesses.” Plus, according to VRBO, 67% of travelers who have taken a flexcation said they would do it again. After all, it gives a whole new meaning to the term “working remotely.”
The author was a welcomed guest at Mt. Desert Narrows Camping Resort and Bar Harbor Oceanside KOA.
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