Recreation: Do not wait on tenting reservations | Enterprise

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Editor’s note: This article was published in Record-Eagle’s special release Momentum ’22. Click for more stories from Northern Michigan’s economic powerhouse here to read Momentum in its entirety online.

BEULAH — Most commercial campgrounds close for the season a month before the family-friendly Halloween on the last day of October each year.

Campgrounds aren’t waiting for colorful decorations and costumed children to be sent trick-or-treating from place to place.

Turtle Lake Campground in Beulah is holding its Halloween a month early, scheduled for September 16-18 this year. Timber Ridge Resort, southeast of Traverse City, gets an even earlier jump, hosting its Halloween party on August 19-21.

If you’re looking to reserve a spot for those festive Halloween events, you might want to take the same approach as the establishments: don’t wait.

“Before we closed (for the 2021 season), July 4th and Halloween weekend were booked,” said Heidi Alt, who runs Turtle Lake Campground with her sister Sara Boylan.

Located at 854 Miller Road in Beulah, Turtle Lake Campground has been operated by Alt and Boylan’s family since 2011, led by their father, businessman Keith Bonney. Just over half of the campsite’s 307 pitches are for temporary use. Alt said there is a roughly two-year waiting list for seasonal spots.

Timber Ridge is also reporting brisk reservations for the 2022 camping season for its approximately 300 sites and 50 cabin sites — including yurts, park models and basic cabins. The Timber Ridge Resort is located at 4050 E. Hammond Road.

“Right now we only have limited availability for certain weekends between June and August,” said Timber Ridge manager Meranda Lambert. “July is crazy and August is pretty busy. Reservations look excellent.”

A similar story is told across the region, such as at Lake Leelanau RV Park at 3101 S. Lake Shore Drive. The 196-site park is located on the west side of South Lake Leelanau.

Lake Leelanau RV Park Manager Jennifer Rhodes said the campground has been full in July and August for about the past decade. Rhodes said May and June early in the year and September and October late in the season could be a little more unpredictable depending on the weather.

No more.

“Now June and September feel like high season instead of low season,” Rhodes said.

Smaller campsites have also seen a big surge in reservations. Joe and Tina Cooper and daughter Jessica have operated Kalkaska RV Park & ​​Campground since purchasing the 100 site facility in 2019.

“It’s a park big enough that we need a little help, but not so big that we can’t manage it on our own,” said Joe Cooper.

Cooper said the phone for the 2022 season started ringing on Jan. 2, and the calls steadily increased as the calendar drew closer to spring. Some campers have booked a pitch for this season in 2021.

“We have some people making reservations as they walk out the door from the reservation they just enjoyed,” he said.

Continued Momentum

Campgrounds at Michigan State Park saw a record 1.45 million overnight reservations in 2021, according to information from the Parks and Recreation Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. But that record may not last long.

Reservations in January 2022 were up 8 percent from the first month of 2021, and in February 2022 they were up 2 percent, even with rising gas prices.

“There can be multiple reasons, whether they’re experienced campers looking to stay longer, or first-time or repeat customers coming back,” Jason Fleming, director of resource conservation and promotion at DNR’s Parks and Recreation. “We’ve seen higher numbers over the past two summers, but we’ve seen an uptick in other areas as well.

“For example, state forest camping has increased in recent years and we’ve seen record revenue from it, but you could see that in some places back in 2017 and 2018.”

Fleming said the state didn’t see any major cancellations in early March over concerns about gas prices in general or the economy as a whole.

Rhodes said Lake Leelanau RV Park has experienced some cancellations due to fuel hikes, but just as often it gets calls from people wanting to extend previously planned stays. Rhodes said she thinks travelers might not be able to move around as much or eliminate trips to the upper peninsula to accommodate them.

“You see people extending because they don’t want to drive around,” she said. “You will stay more in one place. For every eight cancellations, we see eight extensions.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has often been cited as a trend accelerator – both positive and negative. It proved to be a huge boost for camping, which was already on the rise years before the word COVID entered vocabulary.

“It was going in that direction before the pandemic,” Rhodes said. “Camper sales have already been on a huge increase. It just fueled that momentum even further.”

Quick recovery

The dynamic with which camping was built came to a standstill in the spring of 2020 – like pretty much every other industry. This created uncertainty in industries focused on accommodating and catering to tourists.

Timber Ridge, owned by Gordon Waggoner, opened up a handful of its cubicles to accommodate medical staff and even Uber drivers. But it wasn’t the same. That all changed when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reopened campgrounds.

“After the governor opened up Traverse City, it took off,” said Lambert, noting that many spring 2020 reservations came from people who lived four hours or more from TC. “It went from zero to 60 (mph). The phones followed.”

“In 2020 we were a little nervous,” Cooper said. “We were surprisingly busy and then surpassed it in 2021. By any industry standard, camping and RVs are exploding.”

Like any other industry, campgrounds have had to adapt to changing safety protocols in dealing with COVID, especially in 2020.

“2020 was a different year,” Alt said of Turtle Lake Campground, which also has a 35-place horse camp that hosts four shows annually. “Our office, where I spent most of my time interacting with people, was closed.”

Lambert said Timber Ridge has changed some of its campground activities. Check-in has been changed to limit contact. The food order at the lodge has been changed.

“You just had to work with what none of us knew, and people were figuring it out at the same time,” Lambert said.

But while other industries have had to make major adjustments to keep people distant and safe — particularly in the early months of the pandemic, before vaccines were available — camping had the built-in benefit of being outdoors.

As social as you want to be

“Camping is unique,” Lambert said. “You can be as sociable as you want, or as (much like a recluse) as you want to be.”

“When COVID was a thing, people didn’t want to be inside,” Alt said. “But camping allowed them to be with the family and grandma could see the kids.”

Add in the confinement of everyone else for the last nine months of 2020 and most of 2021, and the camping continued.

“We’ve had a really good year,” said Cooper, noting that Kalkaska RV Park had a lot of families in 2020, some of whom used WiFi to work from their RVs. “People were desperate to get out and get back to their lives – and camping was something that people felt safe doing. A camper van is the perfect place for social distancing if that’s what you want to do.”

“(The year) 2021 was definitely a production year,” Alt said. “2020 was good, we just didn’t build anymore. In 2021, when everything opened up, they said, ‘Let’s go out.’ Every weekend we were busy from the end of school until the start of school. It was even busy on weekdays and from there we supported a consistent crowd.”

Lambert said staffing at Timber Ridge was a minor issue in 2020, but staff did their best and guests were understanding. This helped many campgrounds set records the following year.

“We’ve had an incredible year,” said Lambert. “Every year we did it a little bit better. Part of that was the high rate of returning guests.”

“We’ve had (a record year),” Rhodes said of 2021 at Lake Leelanau RV Park. “Years before the pandemic, we were growing sales every year.”

And the future doesn’t look any less bright for camping in northern Michigan in 2022 and beyond. The early phone calls and reservations made earlier and earlier are proof of this, even in economically uncertain times.

“The way the phones are ringing, we’re going to be fine,” Cooper said.

“Last year we set a record and this year we’re at the same level and haven’t even opened yet,” Alt said of Turtle Lake Campground, which opens May 1 to seasonal campers and May 15 to everyone else.