Our Smart, Connected, RV Park of the Future

We’ve been on the road for over 5 years and have stayed in hundreds of RV parks. Some have been nice. Some have been dumps. The one thing that none of them have been is innovative.

It’s true. The most innovative things that campgrounds and RV parks offer are wifi and online reservations.

Those stopped being innovative 10 years ago.

IoT Meets RV

I’ve been writing about the Internet of Things for one of my writing clients (you know I’m for hire, right?).

For those of you who don’t live on the bleeding edge of technology, the Internet of Things is:

...the network of physical objects, devices, vehicles, buildings and other items—embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity that enables these objects to collect and exchange data.Wikipedia

Thermostats that learn your heating and cooling preferences, self-driving cars, fitness trackers - these are all different aspects of the IoT.

I got to wondering - what would happen if the campground industry met the IoT?

What would a smart campground look like?

Lower Costs, But…

RVers can forget that RV parks are a business. We hear conversations where people want all the frills for $20/night, but we have also worked for parks and have seen first hand the expenses & overhead they have.

My goal isn’t to just use technology to be different, but rather explore ways of using technology to lower the overhead of running an RV park. Those savings could be split - offering customers lower rates while also increasing park profit.

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Labor is the biggest area I’d want to minimize. I don’t want someone to have to:

  • Babysit the park 24/7
  • Answer routine, repetitive phone calls
  • Check in new campers
  • Clean up campsites in between outgoing and incoming campers
  • Clean and maintain a bath/showerhouse

I don’t expect that an RV park can be totally automated and unattended (like a gym or laundromat), but it should be manageable by one on-call person or couple.

...Also Increase Social Interactions

Most RV parks are laid out with the goal of optimizing profit - which is logical because they are a business.

However, in many RV parks we struggle to meet the other people staying there.

I’m curious to see if a differently-designed RV park would increase social interaction among campers.

Could an RV park use IoT technology to lower costs, use a layout designed to improve social interactions, but still be more profitable than a traditional RV park?

The IoT RV Park

Here is our recipe for our “smart yet social” IoT-based RV park of the future. What do you think - will it fly or flail?

Location

Our ideal location is a spot close to a popular but not big-rig (or working technomad) friendly state or national park.

Palo Duro State Park in Amarillo, Texas is a perfect example. It’s a gorgeous, scenic park well worth a visit. But the campground isn’t big rig friendly and there is little cell signal in the park. The other RV parks on that side of town are not well-reviewed.

There is open, flat farmland just outside the State Park entrance. Placing our smart RV park on that land would let us appeal to owners of large RVs, or RVers that depend on internet service. They could stay with us then daytrip into the state park.

Size

We envision a small to medium-size RV park with 25-30 sites. It would be large enough to generate a nice side-income, but not so big it requires constant attention.

We would not have seasonal residents or even long term sites. We’d want to cater to the RVers that are actually traveling. We’d expect an average stay of 2-3 nights.

Layout

Most private RV parks optimize for profitability so lay out their sites in parallel. This maximizes the number of RVs they can fit into a space, but it also kills social interaction.

You can’t see your neighbor. Their entrance door is on the other side of the rig from your entrance door. When you are sitting out under your awning, you have an entire RV between you and them.

We’d optimize our smart RV park for social interaction instead.

We envision a park laid out in a big circle. When RVs are parked in the sites their entrance doors and awnings would all face into the circle. You’d be able to look out your door and make eye contact with other campers.

We’d build a covered gazebo with open sides for shade and protection from rain in the middle of the circle.

Inside the gazebo would be a circular propane fireplace, outdoor sinks, cooking area, and picnic tables.

Sites

Sites would all be a large, paved pull-thrus. RVs and toads should be able to stay connected for overnighting convenience. Awnings would go out over a cement patio.

Sites would not have fireplace pits. They require constant cleaning (and we don’t want to detract from our shared fireplace).

We’d experiment with no picnic tables at the sites. We would try and encourage people to share meals under the gazebo instead.

Dog Run

We are not dog owners ourselves, but know enough RVers travel with dogs that a dog run is necessary. We’d have to keep poles stocked with poop bags handy.

No Bathhouse

Bathhouses are a time and money drain.

They need constant cleaning. People treat them poorly (we’ve yet to see a campground bathhouse without signs of vandalism). Toilets, showers and hot water heaters need constant maintenance and repair.

So - no bathhouse.

We’re not aiming to serve the tenting market. We’re designing to appeal to self-contained RVs only. And sure - some folks wouldn’t stay without that amenity but we’re not trying to please everyone.

Pay at the Pole

Up until this point we haven’t really talked technology. Let’s add some intelligence to our RV Park.

I can take credit cards on my iPhone. I pay for gas at the pump.

Why not pay for a campsite at the power pole?

Run your credit card, select length of stay, choose some options, and submit payment. Receipt comes via email.

This eliminates the need for an office and staff to run credit card transactions.

Hookups Optional

When paying at the pole we’d give RVers the option of purchasing hookups or not. Hookups would increase the price ($15 without, $25 with, etc).

Paying for hookups would turn on the water and electric, and unlock the sewer cap.

The water and electric would automatically turn off at check-out time.

Many people who boondock at places like Walmart would happily choose a quieter, darker, and safer option if it didn’t cost $35. They don’t always need hookups for a quick overnight stay. Our smart RV park would give them a cheaper option.

Handling Freeloaders

RVs are big. It shouldn’t be all that hard to detect if there is one in a campsite, and check that against the payment status for the site.

If the RV spent the previous night paid, hasn’t re-upped, and it’s past checkout time, the system could automatically charge their credit card for the next night.

If the site is occupied but has not paid at all, the system would have to alert management that a freeloader is present.

Remote-viewable security cameras would be a must. But - the technology to read license plates is already in use by many police departments. We could possibly use that here to track down freeloaders.

First Come First Serve

Taking reservations is a time and labor suck.

You need someone on the phone with access to a computer. You need software to manage the reservations. Databases go corrupt. Reservations get cancelled and changed. And then what about the deposit?

I know many RVers don’t like parks that are “first come first serve” - but I think most of that is the not knowing if there is an open site till you get there.

What if you could get a reliable, up-to-date view of the number of currently-open sites at any time?

Our smart campground would know which sites are occupied and paid for.

That data could be fed to both a website and an automated phone system. Potential visitors could check before coming, see the number of currently-open sites, and gauge the odds that they would get in.

Wifi

Oy, wifi.

Wifi is the biggest puzzle of our smart RV park.

On the one hand, it would be tough to market a “Smart RV Park” and not offer wifi.

We could install reliable, high-speed wifi and then offer it as another up-charge option while paying at the pole. If you bought wifi, you’d get an access code emailed to you. Your wifi access would expire when the campsite expires.

Don’t need wifi? Don’t pay extra for it.

The challenge with offering it is support. No matter how solid the park side of wifi, people will still have issues connecting. Wifi is hard to understand for some people, they don’t know how to connect their devices, or could lose their access code.

Many fulltime RVers have their own 4G-based internet setup anyway (we do, we can’t rely on campground wifi when our income requires being connected).

So maybe we don’t offer wifi at all. Better to not offer it than advertise it and have it be a crappy experience for people.

So Tell Us

What do you think of our smart RV park? Would you come visit? Would you be scared off?

Your comments below, please leave:

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34 Comments → Our Smart, Connected, RV Park of the Future

  1. Picture of KevinKevinJune 11, 2016

    Funny, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and talking to a recent owner, I’d prob be OK if I could implement a lot of automation since I hear you’re often MARRIED to your RV park (vs mobile home park) and need to be available a LOT.

    I also thought about the 30 site lot (for small but good income) and creating a good campground atmosphere. Someone recently did that in Downtown Tucson I believe. (may be worth an interview)

    But I think your circle idea is cool. Not sure the overnighters and the social people are the same. I might want to focus on one primarily, (socials) and if overnighters choose, then fine, but I wouldn’t personally cater to them unless that was a really strong market. 

    While in Pigeon Forge I got another ‘great’ idea. Someone had a plot of land paved over and lined with #s and you walk up to a machine and enter your parking spot # and pay with credit card. This particular lot gave only 1 option - $8 for all day. At over 100 spots in a tourist town, I image every spot was filled at least 2x making a good minimum $1600/day. I could try to live off that. Very little maintenance - they usually hire someone or have city personnel ticket unpaid cars couple times a day. Could do similar with campground.

    Online registration is pretty easy these days also.  I love the idea of paying opens the hookups but there are a couple issues still I think…

    How do you police bad campers - just because you don’t have a bathhouse doesn’t mean someone wont deface your gazebo, leave the gas on your fire pit, or in general be a pain to everyone - noise, trash, etc.

    So, in some ways, you can always upgrade the place, but I just don’t think you can eliminate the human for best practice.  Even technology fails and while it makes life easier often, it can also foul things up.

    Somewhere/somehow there needs to be a good human available to make it amazing, otherwise it IS just a glorified parking lot, but with people sleeping in it :)
    Kevin

  2. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkJune 11, 2016

    I don’t see a park being totally unattended. An owner or manager could live onsite for security, grass cutting,  and the odd tech issue but be otherwise employed.  Good remote-vieawable security camera coverage would go a long way.

    But one person/couple should be able to manage it vs. needing a bunch of camphosts.

    I don’t see a need for registration - all we need is a credit card transaction and the asscociated data you get from that.  Just remembering we used to have to take license plate info at previous campgrounds, asked why, and never got a solid answer.

    The parking lot approach is interesting. We did go down the “could it function like a parking garage” path with pay as you exit type functionality (even charging by the hour rather than night), but couldn’t get around needing open exit/entry for toads/motorcycles, etc.  Although maybe an emailed barcode/barcode reader would do that.

    One central paybooth would certainly be cheaper/easier so long as it can communicate with individual sites.

  3. Picture of LoriLoriJune 11, 2016

    I like a lot the ideas. Perhaps if you really market the social aspect, that will draw people who want to interact, and weed out the loners & curmudgeons. It’s always possible to get some folks who don’t like noise and activity, who will complain and bring down the experience for the whole “circle”.  I’ll also add that as a parent I like the circle idea - being able to see where my kids scurry off to and who they’re playing with. :)

  4. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkJune 11, 2016

    @lori -it would be an interesting social experiment to see if more sociable people would self-select into coming, knowing the arrangement.

    Certainly there are RVers that just want to keep to themselves - we see that in the campground now where they will walk right past and not make eye contact.

    Maybe a playground in the circle as well?

  5. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkJune 11, 2016

    It also occurs to me that as the owner, not having reservations means you could get some free time for yourself by looking ahead on the calendar, finding days when no one has paid through, then blocking that time out as unavailable.

  6. Picture of Debbie GriffinDebbie GriffinJune 12, 2016

    I love it!  We pay for amenities that we never use, like restrooms and wifi.  This is a great idea!  Except I really do like making reservations.  I would be really irritated checking the website and seeing open spaces that were taken before we could arrive.

  7. Picture of TammyTammyJune 12, 2016

    Circle spots are not big rig friendly, hard to maneuver in and out and usually means no patio down.  Personally, hubby and I aren’t all that interested in meeting the neighbors.  I don’t want to hear others conversations or have them hear ours.  The dogs would go crazy being in a circle where they could see and be seen by everyone else.  The bird would constantly be talking and screeching.

    Ad for an IofT park, no thanks.  We are too connected as it is and less human interaction with park staff isn’t a good thing.  Look we fulltime and work from home, we need a cellular or Internet connection.  But that doesn’t extend to interactions that have always been handled by humans.  After working hours, we step away from electronic and focus on being human.

    We may not be the most social of people but having a real life person to interact with is always better.  Our 44’ toy hauler, 54’ with patio, just doesn’t fit in circle type parks.  We’ve learned to avoid them at all costs.

  8. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkJune 12, 2016

    @tammy - So you aren’t interesting meeting neighbors but you do want to interact with park staff?

  9. Picture of TammyTammyJune 12, 2016

    Park staff for park related stuff, check in, questions, etc.  Otherwise we are perfectly content at home, which is what our toy hauler is, not being bothered by the neighbors.  When we want to socialize we leave our home and go out into public spaces and places. 

    Look if I didnt want the S&B neighbors to know all of our business, why would that change in the toy hauler?

  10. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkJune 12, 2016

    And how would pointing your RV a different way let your neighbors “know all your business”? ;)

  11. Picture of TammyTammyJune 12, 2016

    If you can’t see my front door it makes it more difficult to determine who we are, etc.  Privacy is paramount in shared environments and I wouldn’t sacrifice that for the fastest, cheapest wifi connection on the planet.

  12. Picture of DarlaDarlaJune 12, 2016

    I think you have some good ideas here.  We are FT’ers so my perspective is that.  Sometimes we are very social and sometimes we are not.. just like when we lived in S&Bs;, so while your circle appeals to the social side of me, seeing everyone all the time doesn’t appeal when we just want to be alone.. I’d also like my own picnic table. 
    The first come first serve doesn’t appeal to me at all, we don’t stay in those because we’ve been burned a few times and ended up in a Walmart parking lot.  Also, no live person on site doesn’t appeal to me either.  If I have a drunk next door partying at 2 am, I need someone who is going to deal with it.  I’ve workamped in RV parks and know the issues from that end so I think you should definitely have someone on site 24/7. 
    I like the automated pay and connectivity ideas.  We are early 50’s and do well with electronics but some older folks might need help there.  I’m sure neighbors could help them if no one on site.  I will say though that even with no cell phone or wifi, being in the park we want to go to so we can walk out the door and hike rather than get in the toad and drive there is really great for us.  I do work a remote job so you might get us for an overnight even then since I need to have a connection when I’m working.  Maybe offer a shuttle to the popular park you are near with set multiple drop off and pick up times? 
    I like that you are thinking outside the box.  You can’t make everyone happy, but you might find a good niche.  Good luck!

  13. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkJune 12, 2016

    @darla -

    But would you have “gotten burned” if you could have looked at site availability before driving to the park?

  14. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkJune 12, 2016

    I’m also amused by the fact that our imaginary RV sites aren’t big enough..;)

  15. Picture of Cherie @TechnomadiaCherie @TechnomadiaJune 12, 2016

    Like the automated ideas for checking in and paying, love the self sufficiency (we never use bath houses) and the focus on the travelers not long term stays. Those suit us well. Anytime we don’t have to talk to a human to reserve and/or check into a site is awesome.

    Fast WiFi I don’t think is nearly as important as just being well placed to at least two major carriers towers that have plenty of capacity - most RVers who depend on internet bring their own anyway. Building infrastructure for high speed needs for short term visitors seems like unneeded overhead.

    But honestly, the forced social would absolutely mortify us.

    In general we try to avoid RV Parks and having neighbors within our view. We go out of our way to have a very private patio/yard area. So the inner circle nature of this would feel very invasive to us, and totally not our style.

    We like to be social and regularly attend larger convergences.. but we also absolutely need our alone time and privacy (umm.. hello.. naked time with windows open ROCKS!).

    We need to be able to step out our door, and not feel like people are going to pounce on us. And we have absolutely no desire to see/hear our neighbor’s daily activities. RV Park living is the part of RVing we dislike probably the most.

    So when in social atmospheres, we try to find spots that give us maximum privacy so we can be fully re-charged to enjoy the social time. A tie into RVillage for organizing and announcing social activities would be super however, allowing us more introverted folks know when things are happening. But honestly, if we’re just passing through for a couple nights, being social is way down on our list of things we have preference for.

  16. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkJune 12, 2016

    Heh - so maybe a park with two sides: “<—- Introverts | Extroverts—->” ;)

    Thanks for the comment Cherie!

  17. Picture of Buddy keownBuddy keownJune 13, 2016

    I think it is a great idea.  I’m so sick of “rv parks that are full of full time residents and workers living in them with loud trucks starting at 5:30 a.m. going to work.  Sorry but I don’t think they should be able to call them rv parks, more like work camps. This is just my opinion

  18. Picture of Sunny ShoresSunny ShoresJune 14, 2016

    I love that this is even being discussed! Can’t wait to see it on crowdfunding or an a brochure

  19. Picture of Danielle TateDanielle TateJune 16, 2016

    Oh my gosh! I laughed at your “introverts/extroverts” reply Michael! That would mean we’d need two sites/trucks/rv’s - one for me (the introvert) and one for Hubs and Son….the extroverts. 

    I like the pay on-site idea.!

  20. Picture of Mike MottMike MottJune 16, 2016

    I don’t see an issue with reservations.  If you have automated, pay-at-the-pedestal check-in, you could also reserve and pay for those pedestals online through a computer or mobile friendly website, and then simply have a sign on the pedestal that would flash on “RESERVED”.  You could have a typical cancellation policy just like any other park and once the site is sold it is sold..you get your revenue.  The only drawback is the customer who choses to stay an extra night even though his site is sold in advance…how do you deal with that guy?

  21. Picture of SuzanSuzanJune 16, 2016

    I like all the automated ideas, but I’m not into forced socialization. If we want to meet and hang with our neighbors, we will make the effort. But if for some reason, we want our privacy, then we want our privacy.

  22. Picture of Bob WattsBob WattsJune 16, 2016

    I actually love the idea. This coming from a guy that hasn’t stayed in a campground or RV park in over 20 years. And I am an extrovert for sure.

    I’m the type person that will strike up a conversation across the gas pump. My wife? Well she tends to more of an introvert. So like Danielle, I too laughed at your introverts/extroverts reply.

    Believe me, like Cherie and Chris, I like my alone time thus the reason that I primarily boondock when we get out. I suspect that will change as we transition to full time next year.

    So again, I love the idea, primarily because I’m a bleeding edge tech type person, and have become much more social over recent years. I would totally stay at a park like you have described Mike.

  23. Picture of TevisTevisJune 16, 2016

    Love the discussion!!  I have been working on an article similar to some of these ideas but ending up in a different concept. Yes to using technology for more, no to catering to big rigs and social extroverts and the Kim-BA-ya circle.  Sorry but I would rather see private sites of all sorts (personally I am a single in a camper van off the grid who uses bath-houses).  Would like basic wifi and a bath house and a separate gazebo/social area and dog run.  Keep the discussion going, folks!  Great ideas need good collaboration with many voices!!

  24. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkJune 16, 2016

    @susan - This isn’t “forced” interaction. You’re an adult…no one is going to make you do what you don’t want to do.

    I just would love to see what would happen if all the physical barriers to interaction were removed.

    You could still send “don’t bother me” non-verbals in any number of ways.

  25. Picture of Mike MottMike MottJune 16, 2016

    The prior comment sparked something for me on amenities…I would pay extra for a site with a dog run included.  Seriously!

  26. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkJune 16, 2016

    @Mike - The puzzle with reservations would be creating a website / backend where people could manage things themselves. Making/keeping a reservation is one thing. It’s all the exceptions that we see human intervention currently handling:

    Breakdowns on the way in so wanting to bump a day back.

    Wanting to reschedule altogether.

    Having a reservation but now needing another for family/friends and it has to be the closest site.

    I booked online hoping the site would be big enough but now that I’m here it’s not.

    And yes - the issue of people not leaving by when they need to and the next reservation coming in - that would take human enforcement for sure.

  27. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkJune 16, 2016

    @tevis - thanks for chiming in. Obviously one campground doesn’t need to make everyone happy - but I figure the more introverted aren’t as likely to be in campgrounds to begin with. They can be terrible places to get privacy no matter the layout..;)

  28. Picture of NormNormJune 16, 2016

    Loving your ideas and the conversation.  Really like the concept of a pay at the pedestal over nighters park for in route stays-just pay for site and electric if that’s all I need.  Can take or leave the socialization factor as I would be on my way early and to bed early.

  29. Picture of Jessica CurrenJessica CurrenJuly 06, 2016

    I love to work out - so having my door and front port facing everyone would actually be fairly mortifying.  Maybe in that case we’d all need a “back porch” as well for privacy. :)

  30. Picture of Ben BenOctober 03, 2017

    I have a 12 space rv park in Texas that I live 4 hours away from. Always wandered about self pay hookups. Anything like that on the market yet ?

  31. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkOctober 03, 2017

    @ben Closest we’ve seen is at Flying J truck stops where you buy access to the dump station inside and get a code. At the dump station you enter the code and the drain unlocks. 

    I think all the pieces are on the market - but haven’t seen them together in a pay at the post arrangement .

    Yet.

  32. Picture of Bob TullBob TullNovember 21, 2017

    I very much enjoyed finding this article and thread.  There is a huge opportunity that I see with the automated RV sites.  I’m sure a packaged solution will be available soon that has the controls mentioned.

    @Michael The points that you brought up with an online reservation system are valid, but I still think it is a critical component.  As you mentioned it’s not intended for long term stay, so I think a no refunds or changes policy could be acceptable.

    Another use case for the automated site I thought would be interesting is micro RV parks near in or near residential neighborhoods for visiting family/friends.  There could be multiple parks spread out in a suburban area and only a few sites at each one.  The challenges would be contending with local/residential codes and high property costs, but if the concept was proven scaling would be very easy.

  33. Picture of Carl LaytonCarl LaytonDecember 15, 2017

    What I want: 
    1.  Someone on site 24/7 to deal with dogbark drunkguy brokestuff etc.  This is a business; it’s called MBWA (Management By Walking Around). 
    2.  All RV parks need constant attention, no matter the size.  It’s a business. 
    3.  Circular layout on two way road.  Outside facing sites for privacy, inside facing sites for social mavens. 
    4.  No fire place, but need a grill pedestal.  I’m not shlepping my food to a central gazebo just to cook 2 burgers. 
    5. And while your at it, gimme a 6 ft picnic table/workbench. 
    Build more than one fire gazebo; I hate Kumbaya. 
    6.  No dogs!  (My personal opinion) have a separate loop for dog owners. 
    7.  A couple portable toilets at either end of the park in case nature calls when you’re away from your house. 
    8.  Pay at the cellphone!  Why bother with card scanners at all? 
    9.  When paying at the cellphone, all the hookup options can be selected.  This is already an option on reservation systems at most public parks. 
    10.  Freeloaders; see # 1. 
    11.  No first come first serve.  See 8&9.  Reservation Technology is already working well for this. 
    12.  Get crappy wifi for free, pay for streaming grade. 

    About me;  My parents created a family campground in 1959 in Maine.  At it’s peak in the early to mid 60’s it could accommodate 300 campers.  Back then a large trailer was a mammoth 20 feet long!  Mostly it was tents and tent trailers and smaller 16 foot trailers. 
    Now we full time in a 40 foot Monaco motorhome. 

  34. Picture of Crissa BoyinkCrissa BoyinkDecember 16, 2017

    Carl,
    Sounds like you’ve done some daydreaming, too, about your “ideal” campground.

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