Ahead of Labor Day, private campgrounds meet pandemic-era rise in camping demand
Campgrounds across the state say they're almost entirely booked for Labor Day weekend, the unofficial end of summer travel season. Even so, the private campground industry, which saw nationwide growth to meet a surge in demand during the pandemic, is concerned that the re-introduction of more travel choices could mean a precipitous drop in profits. That worry was a driving force behind opposition to an expansion of Custer State Park this past legislative session.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — With Labor Day weekend fast approaching, campgrounds across South Dakota say they’re at or near capacity, meaning the options for a holiday procrastinator looking to camp in a state park are limited in most cases to the first-come, first-served spots.
The holiday weekend Sept. 3-5 is the unofficial end to a summer travel season that saw visitation to the state down around 2% through July from last year’s record-setting numbers.
But the camping industry in the state, a major driver of the tourism industry, has gone under a marked change since the beginning of the pandemic, with most new developments in the private sector, a rapid market response to the record-setting RV sales in 2021 .
RV Industry Association President Craig Kirby attributed the pandemic-era surge in sales to the way the vehicles allow “people to enjoy an active outdoor lifestyle while also controlling their environment.”
One key difference between private and public campgrounds for serving the needs of travelers during the pandemic has to do with the availability of amenities like wireless internet, says Chris Hipple, the owner of Leavitt Recreation and Hospitality, the nation’s largest insurer of private campgrounds.
“In many cases, there was a mandate to work from home,” said Hipple, whose company is based in Sturgis. “You could load up your family and go to South Dakota and camp at a different campground every week, and, as long as you had Wi-Fi and cellphone coverage, you were able to function and people didn't really care where you're from.”
While there are no exact numbers on new private campgrounds since the pandemic started, Mary Arlington, the executive director of the South Dakota Campground Owners Association, a group made up of around one-third of the private campground owners in the state, said they gained seven members during the pandemic, bringing the total to 40 owners.
Hipple, who has a more nationwide view of the industry, said the South Dakota private campground market tends to be less “boom or bust” than states like Florida or California since it’s led by “individuals deciding to put up a campground rather than corporate investors.”
One of those new enterprises is River City Campground in Chamberlain, where owners Adam Donaldson and Anthony Farnsworth say they’ve filled about one-third of their 35 spots less than two weeks after opening.
“He and I were just talking one day because he can never find a camp spot. My father is from Wyoming, and he would come out and try to find a spot, but everything was always full,” Farnsworth said, referencing a conversation with Donaldson, who runs a water and sewer construction company. “So we talked and found some ground that's kind of close to town, and we went for it.”
The major worry for new campground owners, however, is an expansion of public campsites. In her budget address late last year, Gov. Kristi Noem called for 175 new campsites in Custer State Park, an expansion of nearly $10 million she said was necessary to meet a tourism boom that was leading to a “record boom” in park visitation.
That recommendation never materialized, as it was fought back by a coalition including environmental groups and the campground owners association, a group made up of around 40 private campground owners in the state.
Steve Saint, the president of the association and the owner of the Fort Welikit Family Campground in Custer, said the opposition was both about fairness and improved efficiency. Saint says that, while the state was estimating a price tag of around $56,000 for each RV site, he can build one for under $20,000.
“There are 45 campgrounds within 15 miles of the entrance of Custer State Park,” Saint said. “Our argument was that we pay taxes, just like everybody else, and the state was going to take that tax money, build a campground and then charge half as much.”
And, although the prices become more comparable at the higher end of amenities and comfort, the worry from private campground owners is that competition for visitors from re-opened resorts, cruises and other forms of higher-end travel will make the slight dip in 2022 the beginning of a worrying trend that puts some of them out of business.
“It's not gonna last forever,” Saint said. “I probably will never see the amount of people and how full we were in 2021 again.”