The bushfire crisis of 2019 coupled with the global pandemic was a double whammy that no one saw coming. Australia’s tourism sector has literally buckled under the pressure of zero international visitors and decimated Christmas, New Year and Easter periods as lockdowns and border closures twisted the knife.
The caravan park industry, which relies heavily on peak times for financial survival, took a huge hit, with revenue falling 33 per cent — roughly $405 million — in January to July 2020, compared to the more than $1.2 billion generated in the same period a year earlier. In April alone it plummeted by $208 million compared to 2019 according to the Caravan Industry Association of Australia (CIAA).
JobKeeper payments has kept this industry afloat, but its leaders have adapted, pivoted and are now enjoying a huge boom in demand as international borders remain firmly shut and the caravanning lifestyle enjoys an unprecedented renaissance for old hands and newbies alike. Here, we chat with parks and industry representatives as well as travellers about how the industry has fared thus far, and what the future looks like.
Without the regular stream of tourists, park operators had to get creative about making money. Some were buoyed by accommodating travellers already on the road but unable to cross borders. Others became temporary accommodation for frontline workers or those in emergency services who needed to relocate.
Grant Wilckens, co-founder and CEO of G’Day Parks, Australia's largest regional network of holiday parks including Discovery Parks, says he and his team went into overdrive as soon as lockdowns began to happen.
“What became clear early in the pandemic was that we needed to pivot our revenue streams,” he says. “Over the years we have proactively expanded to a ‘mixed’ park model, incorporating workforce parks to complement our tourism offering.
“Through the rise of the pandemic, we focussed our efforts on corporate clients to keep the business in motion, providing accommodation for stranded FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) workers in northern WA. We also took the front foot in actively petitioning government health departments to promote our cabin accommodation as an option for self-isolation as opposed to hotels.”
As governments took tentative steps to reopen, parks swung into action to instigate COVID-safe plans to make visitors feel secure — cue hand sanitiser, contactless check-ins and fastidious cleaning regimes of shared facilities.
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. He says caravan parks are one of the safest places to holiday given the level of self-containment in most modern caravans and distance regulations that already 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.
Fast forward to 2021 and caravan parks are reaping the benefits of a domestic tourism boom.
“The caravan park sector has bounced back quicker than other accommodation sectors,” says Peter Clay, General Manager Insights and Advocacy with CIAA.
“And 1.7 million overnight caravan and camping trips were undertaken in Australia during January 2021, a 10 per cent increase from January 2020. This is in comparison to other commercial accommodation, which remains 15 per cent down on the previous year.”
It’s inspiring such confidence that significant investments are being made. NRMA Parks recently opened a $1.1 million water park at its Coffs Coast park, the NRMA Darlington Beach Holiday Resort, and is investing in two more of its ‘glamtainer’ shipping container-style accommodation.
Shoalhaven City Council in NSW is upgrading pools, playgrounds and cabins at its 12 Holiday Haven Parks, and has plans to increase the number of ensuite and drive-through sites to accommodate increasingly larger vans on the road.
G’Day Parks has taken investment to the next level, spending more than $100 million on new properties, including golf courses, resorts and convention centres, which takes its portfolio value to an eye-watering $1 billion.
The demand is twofold — those already loving the lifestyle and those who are perhaps revisiting their childhood love of the great outdoors, and those who spent money on cheap holidays to Asia or Bali and never considered caravan parks as a holiday option.
Paul Morton, sales and marketing manager with NRMA Parks, says the company is increasingly welcoming newcomers.
“We've seen a big increase from those who would typically holiday overseas or do cruise ship holidays, as many have just now cottoned on to the fact that we offer similar experiences for families without the need for busy airports etc,” he says.
“We've also had a lot of demand from younger couples looking for their next ‘Insta-worthy’ getaway and taking up stays in our glamping tents.”
Morton says regular caravanners haven’t been forgotten, and parks are expecting an influx, particularly over the next six to 12 months.
“We expect this to grow as many start to receive their orders of new caravans and campers from manufacturers who have not been able to keep up with demand,” he says.
Holiday Haven’s 12 parks in the Shoalhaven region in NSW are experiencing similar patterns, says Phillip Perram, Department Manager – Commercial Services with Shoalhaven City Council. The group offers a broad range of accommodation including cabins, safari tents, group accommodation, as well as ensuite, powered and unpowered sites.
“Demand has increased across all areas but most definitely sites (powered, unpowered and ensuite sites) have experienced greater demand than during a normal year,” he says. “Sites had growth of 29 per cent for 2018/19 and over 70 per cent growth for 2019/20, when standard average growth for sites has been 4 per cent year-on-year.
“There is also a noticeable trend in cabin bookings, particularly from new guests.”
RISE OF THE RESORT PARK
Parks are well positioned to cope with this new demand given the rise of the ‘resort park’ over the past few years. New facilities have been constructed that are more akin to amusement centres than the sleepy parks of old, with pools, water slides, jumping pillows, games rooms, on-site cafes and restaurants, and even doggy daycare services.
Considerable investment has been made in on-site cabins, glamping tents have been installed and novelty ideas such as NRMA’s glamtainers have been adopted.
While this style of park has been attractive for on-road caravan owners who prefer to park-hop rather than freecamp, it’s a revelation for those who don’t own an RV.
Vicki Giggins and her wife Caroline usually plan at least one overseas holiday to Bali or Thailand each year with their two sons, Fraser, aged 8, and Grayson, who’s almost three. The Melbourne-based family also usually take a winter long weekend in Queensland. But COVID-19 canned all those plans, and so the family trialled a close-to-home stay at BIG4 Marong near Bendigo. Giggins now says they are hooked.
“Holiday parks have so much to offer in one place,” she says. “They've catered 100 per cent for families with facilities that keep the kids amused — and even the adults. You don't have to leave the park if you don't want to!
“The more things to help entertain the kids, the better. Bare minimum is a pool and playground. But most come with a games room, jumping pillows, skate ramps, basketball and/or tennis and if you're lucky a splash park and water slide.”
The family stay in a cabin, which Giggins says is reasonably priced, and they appreciate the ability to self-cater. The family has since spent five nights each at BIG4 parks in Ballarat, Mildura and Swan Hill.
“The kids love all the facilities — playground for the youngest and the eldest enjoys making new friends.
“I love that he can run around with his ‘gang’ all day, check in when he wants to swim or eat! It's that taste of freedom we had when we were growing up.”
And even when borders re-open and Bali is back on the cards, Giggins says ‘parklife’ is here to stay.
“I think we'll definitely incorporate more long weekends into our lives as the days are long when you're at the holiday park since there's so much to do!” she says.
A SIMPLER RV LIFE
But the problem with resort parks is that they can be expensive, as the costs of facilities are rolled into the price. That doesn’t suit all travellers, particularly anyone on a budget, those without kids to entertain or travellers who simply prefer a different ambience.
There’s a growing body of caravanners shunning the big players in favour of smaller, old-school parks that are less crowded, offer fewer snazzy comforts, and are cheaper.
Leah Clements and her partner Mark Kane have been travelling full time with their Ford Ranger and 18ft River Dominator since August last year. The pair are working intermittently on various farm stations in between time spent being ‘tourists’ and routinely review caravan parks as part of their Vantastic Aus blog on Facebook (facebook.com/vantasticaus). Clements says there’s been a noticeable rise on the cost of sites at caravan parks.
“We understand that the costs involved in running a park and insurances etc are considerable,” she says. “However, we are seeing the cost escalate, particularly along the coastlines as it is very busy as people are now exploring Australia due to COVID.
“We prefer the old school parks as often we just want to pull in for a night or two to regroup and plan. For us they are often cheaper than the parks which are offering it ‘all’. Really all we, along with many other ‘vanners and RVers, want is clean amenities, power and water and perhaps a laundry.”
Free camping is now so much more popular given the resources available to find spots off the grid, but also the eagerness of caravan manufacturers to offer full or semi-offroad vans, or at the very least optional water and power options to be self-sufficient. This trend will only continue, says Clements, given rising park costs, lower availability of spots in a saturated market and increased crowds of travellers with shiny new RVs.
“I think anyone on a budget is choosing to free camp as much as possible, but often it is not even because of the budget,” she says. “We choose to free camp as we want to enjoy some space and quiet and not be sandwiched on a site surrounded by others at times.
“I think many full time travellers, grey nomads and everyone in between enjoy and seek out free camping for this reason. We just don’t need or want the resort style option all of the time.”
YIKES TO PRICE HIKES
While on the subject of prices, as lockdowns were lifted and borders re-opened, social media chat among RV owners has been peppered with complaints from caravanners about parks charging above rack rates for even basic unpowered sites. Supply outstripped demand and, in some cases, prices went up — particularly in popular areas.
Whether it’s an opportunistic way to recoup losses from a horror year or isolated spikes in peak rates spurred by massive demand, the CIAA says its property data suggests the average daily rate remains steady. The average daily rate for a powered site in January 2020 was $68.98 per night nationally and in 2021 it was $70.35, while the average daily rate for an unpowered site was $54.29 in January 2020, and in 2021 it was $54.69.
However CIAA’s Peter Clay concedes that hikes have been occurring as the industry ramps back up again.
“What we are seeing is that caravan parks, as with the entire accommodation and aviation sector, are increasingly using dynamic pricing models,” he says.
“With greater demand for caravan and camping, and people seeking to book holidays as late as possible due to uncertainties around state borders and their ability to travel, prices can increase in some locations.”
It’s clear that while the pandemic suckerpunched the caravan park industry at the beginning of the crisis, it is now enjoying huge rewards. As its visitor demographic diversifies, the industry is adapting to meet those needs while still maintaining a core focus on their traditional audience — RV owners.
As demand rises, prices surely will also, and the general advice seems to be that if you’re planning to stay in a park, it’s best to plan ahead, and don’t forget to book.