By Andy Zipser
Owner, Walnut Hills RV Park, Staunton, Virginia
Never underestimate an individual’s power to effect change, especially if that person is hysterical. Case in point: this past Monday, the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, issued a “temporary stay at home” edict. Tucked away in the middle of this order is the one sentence that has upended our lives, commanding the “cessation of all reservations for overnight stays of less than 14 nights at all private campsites.”
The order makes no mention of any other sector of the hospitality industry, leaving hotels, motels, resorts, B&Bs and all other accommodations open for business. As icing on the cake, the order has been effective for more than two months, until June 10.
And, like that, we are teetering on the brink of insolvency. Ninety percent of our business is short-term campers, something of over-nighters traveling the I-81 corridor to residents within a 250-mile radius looking to camp with us for a few days.
So over the past week, we’ve burned the phone lines, literally called dozens of campers to tell them to move or cancel their reservations. Some are rescheduling for the fall, when we all hope that the virus pandemic will have petered out. Some accept rain checks, good until December 2021 and packed with a 25% coupon. A few accept our BOGO offer: pay for a week’s stay and we throw in a second week for free, to meet the arbitrary 14-day threshold of the executive order. Everything, in other words, does not have to return the deposits we have already taken – and yet, despite all that, a flood of red ink threatens to overwhelm us.
In just the first three days after the March 30 order we invalidated over $20,000 in reservations, and we haven’t finished working our way through April.
MAY STILL WAITING, including the fully booked Memorial Day weekend. Our occupancy rate for April is now looking for less than a third of last year’s 30%. I haven’t had the heart to start calculating what it will be in May, when the season historically starts swinging into top gear.
So okay – life is hard everywhere. Many companies are on the ropes, and the ranks of the unemployed are swelling by the millions. But the question that needs to be asked, at least that our lives are curtailed by executive fiat, is how a particular edict protects the well-being of the public. The state has a legitimate interest in writing behavior that further makes the pandemic that plagues the world. But short of martial law restricting everyone to their homes – presumably with roadblocks at state borders to keep out non-Virginians – people will travel. They need a place to stay, except for a highway shoulder.
So why were campsites singled out for special treatment, when all those sticks-and-brick accommodations are allowed to continue serving the traveling public? Why is the most self-contained, inherently socially eviating form of shelter pushed aside, but not facilities that turn over rooms every day that should be accessible through public corridors and elevators? Why are campers, whose residents have their own bedding, their own beds, their own bathrooms and their own cooking and dining facilities, considered a serious threat to public safety?
ENTER THE HYSTERICAL POLITICIAN — No, not Governor Northam, although he deserves a degree of opprobrium for his role in this sad mess. Rather, the problem occurred with a Virginia delegate who reportedly heard from a friend that there were too many people jostling in the state’s campsites on the Eastern Shore. The delegate then handed that advice out to others in the state government, complaining with a note of urgency that . . .
. . . “travelers to the campsites will eat all our food” and complain that “there are thousands of travelers from all over the country.” “People will die if we do nothing,” he was quoted as saying to a camping official.
That “something” landed with a thud just days later, as the panicky prognosis rippled into the legislative halls of the Old Dominion and seeped into the governor’s office. There was no prior consultation with the state’s private campsites, no heads-up about the draconian ban that was coming, no articulated reason for the knee cap we would all experience this week.
There are other consequences of the ban that is still emerging. One is the predicament it has created for RVers itself, including a significant number of Canadians and New Englanders who are still struggling to get home from their wintering grounds in Florida, the Gulf Coast and New England.
Interstate 81 traversed 325 miles of Virginia landscape, much of it hilly enough to require construction of separate truck lanes. The executive order means RVers are unable to reserve a site for the night anywhere along this part of their itinerary, and reports are that Pennsylvania is just as buttoned up. Be on the same highways as these over-tired fifth wheel and motorcycle coach drivers?
ANOTHER IS THE GAP the ban is exposed between private campsites that cater to transient and those mainly focused on the seasonal camper. The latter tend to have much larger properties (especially on the sun-and-surf oriented eastern end of state), with only a small piece of their income coming from overnighters, and most haven’t even opened for the season yet. For them, a two-month short-term ban is approaching a rounding error for the year’s financial results; For campsites like ours, it’s catastrophic. For them, with openings still more than two weeks away, there is time to lobby and push for a reversal; for us, every day under the “new normal” means that many more refunds and cancellations we have to absorb.
The most problematic consequence, however, is a more far-reaching distortion of our business model – one that can be irreversible for many, many months. Because if our ability to take short-term reservations is frozen, our only refuge is to start converting our overnight sites to seasonals. We make less money that way – but still more than when the sites are empty. But the long-term implication is that once we get past this pandemic and business elsewhere returns to something more familiar, we will still have to deal with commitments that removed even more overnight sites from the shrinking inventory of the Nation.
As for no other reason, that alone should ask dedicated RVers to petition Governor Northam to reconsider his ban. You and your friends can do that here.
Andy and his staff can be reached daily between 9:00 and 18:00 on (540) 337-3920. Or visit the park’s website.