Charlene Nibert planned to celebrate her retirement from teaching on an Alaskan cruise. But it was canceled because of the coronavirus.
So Nibert, of New Port Richey, Florida, used the money she’d set aside for the cruise to buy a recreational vehicle. She and a friend are traveling along the East Coast, and on Aug. 6, they were at Roanoke County’s Explore Park.
“This is like the best vacation,” Nibert said, as she relaxed in a folding chair, noting the state’s beauty and cooler temperatures, at least compared to Florida. She’d already been hiking and biking and was contemplating kayaking next.
Nibert, 63, ended up in the Roanoke Valley because her traveling companion has a daughter in the area.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced summer vacationers to alter their plans. But rather than give up a vacation altogether, many travelers are seeking more remote options where they can enjoy nature but continue social distancing. It’s translated to a boom in business for RV dealers, campgrounds and Smith Mountain Lake home rentals.
When restrictions were lifted on campgrounds, visitors flocked to the cabins and yurts at Roanoke County’s Explore Park managed by Don’s Cab-Inns.
“It was like somebody flipped a switch and everybody was running outside,” Don Harrison said.
Camping, hiking, biking and tubing — all of which are available at Explore Park — offer people an opportunity to get out of the houses they’ve been cooped up in for months but still keep their distance from strangers, he said.
Harrison said he’s only been in business at Explore Park for about two years, so he was expecting an uptick in traffic as more people learned about his offerings. But the number of people booking stays is far more than he anticipated, which he believes is because of the pandemic.
Visitor data indicates guests have come not just from all across the state, but all across the country. More than 20 states are represented in the data, which logs visitors from May 1 to July 30. Most are from along the East Coast, but there have been visitors from as far away as Arizona and Texas.
Some out-of-towners have ties to the area, or have come to see family and friends but feel more comfortable staying in a cabin than a hotel, Harrison said. He’s also seen a number of first-timers for whom a cabin or yurt offers a nice middle ground between a tent and a hotel.
“I’m sure they thought, ‘Well, instead of going to some place where we’re going to be around a whole bunch of people, let’s go as a family, do some outdoor stuff and maybe be safer,’ so they come stay with us,” Harrison said.
‘If they snooze, they lose’
The pandemic has also prompted a surge of recreational vehicle sales. Joe Childress, general manager for Tonie’s RV in Salem, said the demand is unlike anything he’s seen before. Many people aren’t even attempting to negotiate a price.
Some dealers have jacked up prices, though Childress said he has not, even though he probably could get away with tacking on a couple thousand dollars given the demand. Finding a recreational vehicle right now is nearly as difficult as finding toilet paper was in March.
“They’re not even negotiating because they know if they snooze, they lose,” Childress said. “If they don’t buy it, there’s four more people behind them that want it.”
The boom in business presents some challenges. Childress said reserving a spot at a campground can be tough, especially on weekends, and that inventories of both recreational vehicles and parts are not being replenished quickly enough.
“The whole industry is trying to accommodate everybody’s surge in purchasing, but we can’t,” he said.
Many buyers are RV newbies, not familiar with the lifestyle, which Childress said could lead to many used units eventually flooding the market.
For the last six weeks, Childress said he’s been working 16-hour days, seven days a week. Getting all the recently purchased campers prepped and ready to hand off to their new owners is keeping the service side of the business busy. Childress said the next available service appointment isn’t until October.
“I’m actually happy almost all my inventory’s gone and I have nothing to sell,” he said. “I’m tired. I’m worn out.”
Under normal conditions, there might be eight to 15 people browsing the lot on a Saturday afternoon, Childress said. These days it can be more like 30 or 40.
“I’ve never sold so many parts in all my life; I’ve never sold so many campers at one time,” he said.
Recreational vehicles provide an escape, to which Childress credits their popularity in this moment. And, he said, people likely feel safer getting out in nature, “away from the world.”
Virginia State Parks have seen an increase in visitors.
“It has been probably one of our busiest summers ever we’ve had on record. We’re seeing Fourth of July visitation every single weekend,” said Dave Collett, western operations manager.
Those in the park system have always held the belief that nature is “a tonic for the mind, body and spirit,” but he said that’s especially true now.
While Collett said he’s excited to have so many users, many of them new ones he hopes will return in post-pandemic times, it has put a strain on staff and resulted in some issues of overuse and degradation of facilities.
Collett said he did not expect such a great influx of users; he said parking lots are full, with cars lining the sides of the road. Cabins at Claytor Lake, Smith Mountain Lake and Douthat state parks are always full during the summer and this year is no different, he said, but there’s been growth in camping, even during the week.
For the combined months of June and July, camping was up 5.4% at Claytor Lake, 17.4% at Smith Mountain Lake and 21.8% at Douthat, according to data provided by Collett.
“We’re the convenient and affordable and safe vacation versus people going to the beach or going down to Disney or things like that,” Collett said. “So we’re seeing a lot more staycations.”
Still, there have been challenges. Collett said swimming beaches opened late, and some hours and services, like snack bars, were reduced.
Wilderness Adventure at Eagle Landing, in Craig County, this year added a variety of camping options to its offerings, which also include cabin rentals and summer camp.
Hangout Weekends, which involve live music, food and access to the various outdoor activities offered on the property, have been a big draw for campers.
After being “cooped up” for so long, people are anxious to get outside and enjoy some of the activities, like live music, they used to, said Alyssa Adkins, director of administration and operations.
“Just have a good relaxing time, which is so important, de-stressing in these times,” she said. “That’s kind of the atmosphere that we want to provide for people.”
She said the Hangout Weekends have been so successful that they’ll extend into the fall.
The Wilderness Adventure cabins, which are ideal for vacationers looking for a less rustic experience, have also been consistently booked, Adkins said.
Less supply, more demand
When the coronavirus forced businesses to close and governors ordered people to stay at home, Jeanette Childress, broker at Lake Retreat Properties in Huddleston, expected this summer would be a slow one for rentals at Smith Mountain Lake. But she was wrong.
“It’s actually been a boost for the area,” Childress said.
Five or six times a day she has to tell would-be visitors that no rentals are available. June, July and August were all essentially booked solid. Reservations typically begin to fall off in mid-August as football practice begins or kids head back to school, Childress said. But this year, bookings are spilling into September.
There have been some cancellations — mostly when Virginia was in earlier stages of reopening — but Childress said nearly all the homes were re-booked with other vacationers.
Childress said she believes people feel safe vacationing at the lake because it’s remote. If they choose to, travelers can spend their entire visit in the rental home, interacting only with their own family. And the majority of visitors, as in a normal year, live within a four-hour radius of the lake, meaning they can drive rather than take a train or plane, which many are avoiding.
It seems travelers keep an eye on COVID-19 case numbers as they plan a trip. While they’ve watched numbers soar in some popular vacation spots like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Virginia Beach, that’s not been the case at Smith Mountain Lake, Childress said.
“Smith Mountain Lake has really proven to be a retreat, which is what they’re looking for,” she said.
A vacation at Smith Mountain Lake this year doesn’t look too different from pre-pandemic times. Childress said the biggest difference is that some eateries, like the popular Landing Restaurant, have not reopened their dining rooms.
Lake Retreat Properties typically manages about 60 rentals, but Childress said this year, a handful of property owners took their houses off the market, either because they didn’t want strangers coming in and out of the home or because they planned to shelter there themselves.
That means even fewer homes available to renters, during a season of a greater demand.
“There’s nothing normal about this,” Childress said. “We have never had a year like this, where there’s nothing available.”
Tammy Schiemann, owner of RSI Rentals in Moneta, said summer is always busy at Smith Mountain Lake, but she estimated a roughly 20% increase in business over a normal year.
The vacationers are a mix of families for whom visiting the lake is an annual ritual and those who are trying it for the first time, in search of a more remote option after their beach or cruise plans fell through, she said.
“It is a great choice coming here to the lake to be able to stay in your home and not encounter large crowds of people,” Schiemann said. “They can stay in the home or get out on the water and be able to social distance.”
She, too, said the season is extending into September; with many schools and workplaces operating remotely, families can continue visiting in the fall so long as they have internet access.
Most everything that people come to the lake to enjoy is still available to them, Schiemann said, as marinas and boat rental companies are open for business.
When booking a reservation, callers often inquire about cleaning protocols. Schiemann said RSI Rentals has extended the turnaround time between guests to give cleaners more time to prepare for the next arrivals.
Christopher Finley, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce, estimated a 20% to 25% increase in traffic at the lake, based on the number of visitor guides requested online, walk-ins at a visitor center run by the chamber, inquiries made via phone and website visitors.
“I’m pleasantly surprised that the market is on a gradual road to recovery. It’s encouraging by the trends that we’re seeing,” he said. “At the same time, in the event that additional restrictions are imposed, that could very well change.”
With 500 miles of shoreline and ample outdoor activities like fishing, boating, camping and hiking, Finley said Smith Mountain Lake is well-suited for social distancing.
“I think people feel safe if they’re outside in open spaces, and we’re very fortunate that within the three counties that Smith Mountain Lake borders, we have an abundance of offerings that will attract people to come and visit, whether it be individuals, whether it be couples, whether it be families,” he said.