Up until late 2019, the caravan park industry across Australia had been faring very well. Whether it be long-term hauls or short peak-season sojourns, the increasing numbers of Grey Nomads and family vanners alike had fed regional and coastal communities with a sustainable income.
Then came the devastating bushfire season that destroyed property and stole precious tourism dollars over the Christmas and New Year periods. Travellers were forced to steer clear, and parks and local businesses watched as their lucrative peak season revenue went up in smoke.
And, just when the industry was preparing to buffer the losses with plans for a robust Easter period, bolstered by eager Australians keen to take up the Empty Esky or Holiday at Home challenges to support regional tourism, COVID-19 hit. Double whammy indeed.
The proof is not just in the almost non-existent road traffic and deserted townships, but in the industry stats. According to accommodation figures released by the Caravan Industry Association of Australia, caravan park revenue across Australia plummeted by 90 per cent in April compared to 2019, representing a loss of approximately $208 million. May has picked up a little but is still down 76 per cent, around $92 million, compared to May last year. And there are seasonal complications, according to CIAA CEO Stuart Lamont.
“One of the biggest challenges is the timing in relation to the season,” Lamont says. “For example some parks in southern states were able to have a relatively decent summer, whereas parks who had their summer impacted by bushfires or those located in the northern parts of the country whose season typically wouldn’t begin until April have lost the momentum that brings.”
Thankfully, the future looks brighter as Australia flattens the curve with respect to the virus and governments begin to ease travel restrictions. At the time of writing several states still had their borders closed, but park operators are reporting increased bookings as Australians look to escape their lockdown living rooms.
HOW ARE PARKS COPING?
NSW has been one of the worst-hit states, and the turmoil has been particularly hard-felt given the industry’s sturdiness, says Lyndel Gray, CEO of the Caravan and Camping Industry Association NSW.
“There was growth in NSW year on year for a number of years and we had our best year ever in the stats for the end of December, but we have obviously had a big impact since then,” she tells Caravan World. “Without question it is tough — the parks take about half their income over that Christmas period as well as Easter so to lose that income was significant, but most have put money away for a rainy day.
“I think our businesses are long-term businesses — they have been in business for many years and have seen the good times and the bad times. I am always impressed with how resilient our holiday parks are.”
Government subsidies for small businesses, including JobKeeper, have been a “game changer”, says Gray, in allowing businesses to keep staff and stay afloat. This is particularly relevant to smaller family-owned parks.
“Coming out of the fires with limited cash flow, people have needed to grab on to every program available to retain their staff,” she says. “In a business like ours, in hospitality, you have invested in great staff and you want to be able to hang on to them. It has been a lifeline for businesses of all sizes.”
Both the CIAA and the CIA have also successfully lobbied governments to allow caravan parks to remain open during the pandemic for essential workers and to accommodate the estimated 200,000 travellers on the road when the pandemic hit who were forced to backtrack home.
A PARK OWNER’S PERSPECTIVE
Aussie music legend and TV personality Frankie J Holden and his wife Michelle are co-owners of Tathra Beachside caravan park on the southern NSW Sapphire Coast. The pair, along with business partners Gary and Narelle Hetherington and Tim and Carmen Risby, have invested heavily in the park over the last 10 years to offer an array of beachfront RV sites as well as on-site accommodation, a pool, camp kitchen and water park for kids.
Holden says the township has been through the ringer in terms of unexpected events including local fires in March 2018, and the park has certainly felt the strain of a massive decline in tourist numbers.
“It was a massive fire in March 2018 but it only affected Tathra — a tree fell on the power line,” he says. “It destroyed 70 homes and we lost four villas. So 2019 was a recovery year and then in 2020 the fires didn’t impact the Sapphire Coast directly but all the tourists got sent away. Of course, we opened up again after the fire threat was over at the end of January and then COVID-19 happened, so it really has suffered a triple whammy.”
Holden says he and his partners had enough foresight to capitalise in case of emergency, and have been able to keep staff thanks to JobKeeper, but now it was time to be thinking for the future.
“It has been very bad for the whole area, and moving forward now is when people will start to realise how bad the effect is,” he says.
But Holden is hopeful things will turn around and there will be a resurgence in the love Australians have for caravanning and camping; something that inspired Michelle and him to buy the business.
“I did immediately fall in love with the notion of a caravan park when Michelle and I were co-hosts of TV travel show, What’s Up Down Under,” he says.
“I really did enjoy its egalitarian nature — one caravan could be owned by a plumber, but in the next caravan could be the bloke who owns Reese Plumbing, but they just happen to like caravanning and camping and their kids play together and they have a beer together.
“I think now there is a sector of the market who used to go caravanning and camping when they were kids and haven’t done it since and they are bringing their kids or grandchildren.”
HOW CAN PARKS RECOVER?
The short answer here is you. Tourist towns need tourists to survive and many are banking on a boom in domestic tourism given the current global landscape.
Lamont says CIAA research points to a large growth in domestic travel off the back of campaigns such as Empty Esky, and its own ‘Help a Mate’ fighting fund and website keeponcamping.com.au, designed to get campers and RV owners back into regional areas.
“Our recent research indicates that 19 million Australians would consider staying in a caravan holiday park and with international travel not possible for a while, now is the time to see Australia,” he says. “And on a positive note, 80 per cent of our audience has indicated that they intend to take a caravan and camping trip in the next two months.”
Holden says his park’s bookings have picked up in recent weeks following several NSW government announcements.
“Since word of the restrictions lifting got out, we are seeing a good, strong, steady increase in bookings and not just in the immediate future over the next couple of months, but into next year even,” he says.
“In the last month I have started to feel optimistic. I can see that we are going to get through it and that ultimately things will slowly get back to where they were. I think people will realise that seeing Australia is a great thing to do as well as taking cruises down the Rhine River.”
Holden says he hopes families will pack up and embark on road trips as they are a key economic driver to recovery.
“Families are the ones that do spend up big in the towns and they spend widely,” he said. “Mum and dad will want to go to the pub or bottle shop and the kids will want to go to the fish and chip shop and amusement parks. At this point, the next time families will be expected is September school holidays so that is still a while away and will be an issue.”
One of the key aspects of enticing travellers is safety — after months of messaging about social distancing, hand sanitising and hygiene plastered across the media, it’s appropriate for the RV industry to be taking precautions.
Lamont says health concerns are a major priority for the industry, and operators have already proven they are up to the task.
“Businesses have quickly adapted to new operating conditions to help prevent the spread and be COVID-safe, from increased cleaning routines to reducing touchpoints through contactless check-in, as well as adding signage to amenities and shared facilities,” he says.
“Australians have done an incredible job abiding by the regulations to get us to this point and we are hopeful that people will continue to be mindful of their own behaviour and interaction with others.”
In NSW, park operators have been sent a comprehensive template for safety protocols including advice on signage, social distancing, limiting numbers in communal areas and government mandates to record the names of all guests to be kept for 28 days in case contact tracing measures are required.
“It’s a guideline for them which talks about cleaning all parts of the park, how they should handle check-ins and all sorts of things, and they are actively using that,” says Gray. “Everyone remains hopeful but we do need to be realistic — we are working in an environment that we haven’t had to operate under before.”
Caravan parks are, according to Holden, one of the safest places you can go for a post-COVID-19 holiday given the level of self-containment in most modern caravans and distance regulations that govern parks.
“There is a degree of self-isolation already as the level of self-containment is huge and we are mandated by fire regulations to have 2.5m between every caravan and annexe to the next door neighbour and the same for our cabins and villas,” he says. “At Tathra Beachside, we have more ensuite sites than non-ensuite sites, so not a lot of people use the facilities.”
In terms of a resurgence, he has faith that the parks industry across the country will be buoyed by good old fashioned Aussie spirit of mateship.
“I think we are going to see more people travelling and spending in Australia and helping their fellow Australians,” he said. “Most people who live and run businesses in the regions aren’t doing it to become billionaires; they are doing it because they prefer that lifestyle and they prefer to bring their kids up in a less crowded lifestyle.
“If you are coming and staying in the regions you are not putting money into the pockets of some millionaire or billionaire; you are helping mums and dads and families support themselves and that’s a great thing to do. It’s a good thing to come away from a holiday thinking ‘I helped someone’.”
For more info about planning a trip visit: letsgocaravanandcamping.com.au
To find a holiday park in NSW, visit the Caravan and Camping Industry Association of NSW website: caravancampingnsw.com
To visit Tathra Beachside caravan park, call 1300 527 010 or head to tathrabeachside.com.au to book then travel to 2 Andy Poole Drive, Tathra NSW 2550