What innovations and changes can we expect in the caravan parks of the future?
Words by David Gilchrist
We all remember them. Those slow, balmy days in your favourite caravan park, lounging under the annexe with a view of a long white beach and a point break too good to resist. There was a time when that park within view of the perfect waves and the long beach was little more than a flat paddock, a basic amenities block and a few shady trees.
But, in time, that park changed. First came more powered sites, then the pool, the games room, and then the roads got wider and the available sites fewer. The park then put in a couple of camp kitchens, a new amenities block and a boom gate out the front. A kids’ playground complete with jumping pillow followed, plus organised family activities during school holidays. Free wi-fi and a coffee shop soon popped up near the office and the old pool was replaced by something straight out of a tropical resort.
During that time, other parks stayed reasonably minimalistic, giving themselves a fresh but simple makeover while others chose to develop to a point somewhere in between the resort-style park and the simpler sort of park. And, over time, we started describing parks as either caravan parks, holiday parks or resort-style parks.
To make things simpler, websites such as Turu.com.au evolved to help us sort it all out and make booking the right park with the right style at the right price easier. What’s more, these sites offered travellers detailed park information, photos and videos, so they could see what they were getting before they booked.
But with different styles of parks evolving and so many bells and whistles at those parks, it’s hard to predict what direction caravan parks will take into the future. It’s an important question, though, given the caravan park sector provides around half the national tourism bed capacity, generates about $7 billion in annual takings and provides at least 620,000 Australian holidays each year, according to Australia’s largest park group, Top Parks.
Within the menagerie of park choices, Top Parks has tried to make choice simpler. I popped into the Top Parks annual conference to try and get a handle on the changes afoot and to talk to park owners about the new direction of caravan parks.
The group, which was previously known as Top Tourist Parks, has rebranded its member parks as Top Parks. The change was announced just before the death of the group’s chairman Richard Davis OAM, aged 70, in early November. Davis was a key player in the tourism industry and had owned caravan parks, a motel and hotels in Adelaide and on the Yorke Peninsula.
And although a new brand name is a largely corporate move, more likely to engage a Bond Street financier than a caravanner on a ‘big lap’, Top Parks has, with the change, essentially split its parks into three distinct categories. Member parks will now be known as either Top Caravan Parks, Top Holiday Parks or Top Resort Parks, with each category describing exactly what is on offer.
Top Parks chief executive Stuart Livingstone said the categories were born out of research showing that people were seeking different experiences from their stay.
“Some travellers may want a quiet, grassy spot to park their caravan, however, others may want more such as a luxury cabin or villa, jumping pillow, waterpark and swimming pool for the kids,” Livingstone said.
Frank and Christine Edwards from Austin Tourist Park in Tamworth, NSW, know something about caravan parks, having bought their park as a derelict site in 1982.
With 33 years behind them, they remember the changes they’ve seen over that time. “We were using second-hand caravans as tourist accommodation because cabins hadn’t been invented,” Christine recalled. “Now we have the luxury cabins. It has been a really big learning curve over the years.”
Frank said owners and the industry had to change, or they’d be left behind. “You see what everyone else is doing and you think, ‘well, I can fit that little bit in; I can do a little bit here’. That means we can cherry pick the best ideas.”
He said the future of caravan parks was in providing big sites with easy access for the ever-increasingly big vans. “Bigger and better,” Christine agreed, “with more luxury cabins.”
The Edwards’ said they kept away from installing resort-style features at their Top Holiday Park because they didn’t match the market that was attracted to their park, even in the busiest time of the year during the renowned Tamworth Country Music Festival.
Clive Johnson from Mandalay Holiday Resort from Busselton, WA, said Top Parks’ new model would make it clearer to travellers what sort of park they were booking, beyond the standard facilities and level of cleanliness. “When a customer arrives into an area, they can see what type of park is there and choose the level of park that suits them,” he said of his Top Resort Park.
He said the new branding assured travellers that “someone has acknowledged that you are of that calibre or with the necessary facilities for a particular classification”.
Clive said that, like other parks, Mandalay started out as a very simple park with sand roads, mowed sites with trees, one amenity block, some water and powerpoints and not much else. “Then we built a set of swings the following year and the kids had to go and make their own fun,” Clive said. “But, as time changed, kids wanted to be entertained and so you build the entertainment for them.”
He said it was also more important to parents these days that there is a structured play facility that is safe for their kids.
But, in future, Clive said parks and the industry would have to start to recognise that more and more caravanners are self-sufficient and self-contained. “The caravan park operator needs to be able to embrace that and create a facility so that the caravanner is happy to come into a park and pay to stay without thinking that they are being over-charged,” he said.
Heath Atchinson and Kim Somerville from Fossickers Tourist Park in Nundle, NSW, said the changes to Top Parks was “the way we needed to go”.
Fossickers is a Top Caravan Park just short of an hour south of Tamworth and Heath said running a park like Fossickers needed “dedication, giving people an experience, a friendly smiling face and knowing exactly what your park is”.
He said Fossickers was a simple caravan park providing holiday accommodation for those not interested in up-market travelling. He said his park was best suited to grey nomads.
That means they concentrate on clean facilities, level sites and welcoming and informed customer service. “A lot of our visitors say that’s what they like about the park,” Heath said.
He said the new Top Parks branding means that, from the customer’s point of view, they don’t have to wonder what the park has to offer. “It’s all set out for them.”
Kim said the new branding would confirm travellers’ expectations because most travellers have already done their homework and know what each park has to offer.
Over time, Heath says that they may look at putting in a pool but said he is reluctant because the park is beside a river and there are already a lot of things to entertain young families in the area.
For them, the future is about remembering that “it’s just not about coming to the park and staying there. It’s about getting out and enjoying the local surrounds”.
For that reason, Heath says the key to their success is providing the best customer service and that includes understanding the attractions of the local area.
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