Cody RV parks boom as summer hits stride

CODY — As the hotel industry has suffered early this season, business is booming in the local campgrounds as people try to escape from the pandemic and enjoy the summer.

Dean and Betty Lawler came to Cody to celebrate Dean’s retirement. The Montana couple have visited Cody off and on over the years, a quick getaway from their home north of Billings.

This year, they came with a camper. In years past, they had camped in tents or rented cabins.

“With COVID it makes it nice,” Betty said. “We can do Walmart pick-up, eat our meals in the camper, use the restroom in the camper. We just have to stop for fuel.”

Around the country, stories have emerged about high RV sales. One dealership in Maine said its May sales numbers were double the previous year. In Cody, Midway Auto & RV said its sales were about 25% higher than last year.

“That would probably be more if we could stock more units,” said owner Keith Grant. As for why sales were up, Grant had a few ideas, and they weren’t solely related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We did hear that at the beginning of COVID, a lot of people wanted a home on wheels, wanted to get away, to isolate, to see their families,” Grant said. “Recently we haven’t heard as much of that ... There just isn’t a lot of other things to do. You can’t go to baseball games, to water parks, to amusement parks. People are using their time in the mountains.”

The average price for one of Midway’s RVs has been hovering around $28,000, and a 15-year financing plan has meant monthly payments are low, Grant said, which has enticed a lot of locals to make the leap and buy an RV for the first time.

About 70-75% of sales have been locals, while the rest of the sales have largely been done by people from Colorado, Montana and other parts of the Mountain West.

That high demand for RVs has been a boon for the local campgrounds. Ponderosa, KOA, and Trout Ranch Camp have all been turning people away because they’ve been full. And the campers coming have largely been in RVs or campers.

“A lot of ours are RVers,” said Skip Richardson, the owner of Ponderosa Campground. “Some are new to the RV world this year. They’ve heard on the national news that it’s a safer way to travel. You have your own kitchens, your own beds, your own bathrooms.”

Richardson thinks the closure of the Fishing Bridge RV Park has also positively impacted business. She said that forced those who want to visit Yellowstone to look at the neighboring communities, and that’s benefitted Cody.

“We’re promoting our town as best we can,” she said. “We try to send them to the local restaurants and shows. We understand that has made an impact.”

Since around the 4th of July the campgrounds have seen a jump in business.

“We’re down about 8% in revenue for accommodations,” said Jean Mickelson, the manager at KOA Holiday. “But people are spending money in other ways. We’re up [in sales] in the gift shop. Firewood sales are up 50%.”

Mickelson said August and September were already looking better than last year, with reservations up 10% for August and 22% for September, including a 21% boost in RV reservations.

And though the campgrounds have had to turn away potential customers, that hasn’t stopped them from working with each other to try to find accommodations for people in the city.

Both Mickelson and Richardson said that if they have no space they call around to the other campgrounds to see if there is space, something that can only benefit Cody.

“We have their numbers laminated next to us,” said Mickelson of the other campgrounds. “Maybe next time we’ll get them if we have room. The more they stay in Cody, the better it is for the city.”