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The RV state? Idaho popular with the hotel-on-wheels tourist

Don Hartzell plays with 3-year-old grandson Gavin Robertson at the Ambassador RV Resort in Caldwell. Hartzell and his family were staying at Ambassador for a day on their way to Arkansas. Idaho’s RV businesses now offer spaces for long-term, short-term and overnight campers.
Don Hartzell plays with 3-year-old grandson Gavin Robertson at the Ambassador RV Resort in Caldwell. Hartzell and his family were staying at Ambassador for a day on their way to Arkansas. Idaho’s RV businesses now offer spaces for long-term, short-term and overnight campers. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Here is the recipe for a Treasure Valley RV resort:

Start with a couple of retirees who are ready for a life of sunshine and leisure. Add a family with three boisterous kids and a dog. Sprinkle in a single guy who’s in Southern Idaho for six months to work on a construction project, and a recent divorcee who got the Airstream and the family pet in the split.

Oh, and you might want to mix in a laundromat, swimming pool, dog park, full utilities and cable TV.

Kris Freedman, president of Grapevine 7, a family-owned RV-park company, says Idaho is an increasingly popular stopover and destination spot for travelers from within and outside Idaho. Others in tourism agree.

The tourism division within the Idaho Department of Commerce recently commissioned an “image study” to find out what potential tourists know and think about Idaho. Among the findings were that tourists who fall into the “active family” and “outdoor enthusiast” categories are interested in RVing and camping, as opposed to staying in hotels or vacation home lodging.

I’ll have someone come in, in a very expensive motor home, and they’re parked next to someone who’s got a trailer on the back. Soon they’re sharing dinner, they’re sharing stories. It doesn’t seem to have any social barriers at all.

Bobbie Patterson, owner of Arrowhead RV Park

Those groups also make up some of Idaho’s most loyal tourists. That could be why the Freedmans’ properties and others are getting a lot of business.

“Our clients here, and a lot of the people who come to Idaho, a lot of them are retired people. The generation that’s maybe more than 65, worked one job, lived in one house,” says Bobbie Patterson, who opened Arrowhead RV Park in Cascade with her late husband, Gerald, about 35 years ago. “A lot of folks have said, ‘To heck with that. I’m selling the house.’ 

Patterson retired in 2013 from her longtime role as chief of the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau. Now, she runs the RV park that Gerald built “with his own hands” into a park with 120 RV spaces and several cabins and yurts.

BOOKED SOLID

Freedman’s Grapevine 7 operates three RV parks and resorts in the Treasure Valley, two in Valley County and three in Arizona.

During summer, all five Idaho parks are at least 80 percent full on weekdays and 95 percent full on weekends, says Spencer Freedman, marketing director and property manager.

Kris Freedman says the company’s McCall park fills up for Fourth of July weekend in a matter of hours.

43 Number of states Grapevine 7 guests represented last year

5 Number of countries they represented

But “depending on what is going on that given week in the communities that facility is part of,” that occupancy rate can hit 100 percent, he says.

Patterson says her occupancy rate is similar. Most of the Freedmans’ travelers are from Idaho, neighboring Western states, Texas, Florida or Canada.

The Freedmans’ and Patterson’s parks both have small staffs. Grapevine 7’s park in McCall has four to five employees year-round and about 20 in summer. A dozen or so people work at each of the Treasure Valley properties.

Arrowhead RV Park also has some “work-campers,” Patterson says. They live in their RVs and work off the cost of their space. Two of her managers are work-campers who get $3,000 a month plus their space in exchange for running their operations.

INDUSTRY IS CHANGING, AS ARE CUSTOMERS

The company that Kris Freedman’s parents started in the 1950s near Denver, then moved to Idaho in 1986, has grown rapidly in recent years. Grapevine 7 acquired a park in Mountain Home two years ago and one in McCall five years ago.

In his years of work in the RV industry, Spencer Freedman says he sees RVers typically starting out as “your entry-level campers.” They graduate to RV parks with their larger but still modest recreational vehicles. As the years go on, they start wanting the comforts of an RV resort and the space to park their hotel-on-wheels style RVs.

“We are taking our business more towards the RV resort side of things, because that’s what most of the people are going to,” Kris Freedman says.

That is partly why the Freedmans’ company bought a property in Caldwell in 2005 and opened it as the Ambassador RV Resort. With 3,000-square-foot spaces and many of the comforts of home — shared as in an apartment building — the resort is popular with the Treasure Valley RV crowd.

The baby boomers want more amenities around them, as far as golf, sports, eateries, restaurants, lounges.

Kris Freedman, president of Grapevine 7, which owns several Idaho RV parks

“WiFi is as important as water and electricity these days for the RVers,” Freedman says.

Freedman and Patterson say their business depends on customers coming back year after year. So they will put together parties, barbecues, fire-pit gatherings and other social events.

Patterson and her husband began a totem-pole carving program for RVers, bringing in a master carver and about 60 people a year. The park now displays dozens of totem poles that have been carved over the years, including a totem pole Patterson carved to memorialize her husband and hold his cremains.

“The motivation here is people want to come to the mountains and enjoy recreating, and we’ve found they’re happier here if we provide them with activities,” she says.

Arrowhead RV Park also offers beading, painting, potlucks and ice-cream socials, she says.

A VACATIONING LIFESTYLE

And as RVs become more luxurious — some have two bathrooms and central air — more people are living in them, not just traveling in them, Patterson says.

There’s the obvious: the retired 55-and-up couple who visit parks in Idaho during the summer and head south to Arizona for the winter.

There’s the less-obvious: the newly divorced man or woman who starts out temporarily living in the RV, then decides it’s pretty convenient not to have to mow the lawn; or the family that is building a new home and needs somewhere to live during construction.

With the Treasure Valley’s construction boom, Spencer Freedman says his company’s properties in Boise and Caldwell have plenty of part-year residents, “working at the hospital for three months or working on a bridge.”

The Freedmans’ RV park in Eagle had 120 people on monthly rentals throughout the winter, he says. The monthly customers made up about 60 percent of the park.

“That kind of tells you how many people have taken it up as a lifestyle,” he says.

Patterson echoes that, saying some of her RVers figured out that it is cheaper to “park their RV in the park and still work in the valley somewhere.”

The cost of renting RV spaces in Idaho is about half the price of states like Arizona, she says.

$29 Daily rate at Arrowhead RV Park in Cascade for “full hook-up” — water, power, sewer, TV and WiFi

$330 Monthly rate at Arrowhead for full hook-up

Others will live in the RV during the summer, using it as a “mountain place to get away” instead of buying a cabin.

Patterson, with her years working in tourism and promoting the Boise area, says the RV arena is different. It is made up of tourists “who carry their beds with them.”

They may not be forking over $150 a night to stay in a hotel and dining out for every meal, but they are spending money on fuel, going shopping, paying for recreational activities and giving their time as volunteers at the local senior center. They spend money on medical care, she notes.

Patterson’s park and one nearby hold about 300 RVs, or 500 to 600 people, she says.

“It’s a real economic driver in a community where you increase the population by 30 to 45 percent,” she says.

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @IDS_Audrey. This story appears in the May 18-June 14, 2016, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine as part of a special section on travel.

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