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Tomaselli Hits The Great Outdoors Market

By Jenny Callison, posted Jun 2, 2017
Joel Tomaselli bought a campground in Ogden two decades ago. Now the Wilmington KOA sees more than 8,000 campers a year. The camping and RV industry remains strong as the activities continue to gain new followers. (Photo by Chris Brehmer)
Does Joel Tomaselli regret selling Lumina Station and refocusing most of his attention on the world of camping? It would appear not.

Tomaselli sold Lumina’s retail and non-condominium office space to a Myrtle Beach-based real estate investment trust in April 2015 and says he is happy to have simplified his business interests, concentrating on the KOA campgrounds he owns: one in Ogden and one on the banks of the Neuse River in New Bern.

The developer purchased Camelot Campground in Ogden in 1996, the same year he opened Lumina Station.

“It was a great piece of land, with a lot of future land value,” he said of the campground property. “It was one of the original KOA campgrounds, opened in 1972, but it dropped its KOA affiliation at some point. I converted it back to KOA in 2001.”

You can set up at one of the Wilmington KOA’s tent sites, but the campground is really aimed at people who want more comfort and convenience, Tomaselli said. The facility, considered an urban KOA, offers 10 cabins, 10 larger deluxe cabins and about 70 recreational vehicle sites, all with hookups.

There’s a swimming pool, camp store, dog park, jumping pad, playground, pirate ship, computer and game room and laundry. Wi-Fi is available, an amenity today’s campers expect, Tomaselli said.

During last month’s Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament, the Wilmington KOA was packed with a mix of vacationers and event-related visitors.

“We had a dozen or more parents of [UNCW] graduates as well as another dozen or more Wells Fargo golf staff and players,” he said. “Some golfers travel that way, in an RV, so they can bring their families.”

Camp Out

61 percent of respondents in a new survey say they have camped at least occasionally

30 percent say they camp every year

48 percent say they plan to camp more often in 2017 than in the past

Source: 2017 North American Camping Report, conducted by Cairn Consulting Group and sponsored by KOA 
Camping as an industry in the U.S. continues to increase in size. More than 1 million new households have started camping annually since 2014, according to the North American Camping Report released this year.

And camping is one of those recreational activities still strong across age demographics. Millennials make up 38 percent of the estimated 75 million active camper households, the report showed. The overall number of people camping is up from 2014.

All that means additional business for campground owners such as Tomaselli, who said he has been a longtime fan of getting out onto the road.

“I’ve been a camper since college,” he said. “When our kids were young we had an Airstream trailer and went up and down the East Coast with them. Then we bought an Airstream RV, which mostly served as a soccer wagon. Now we own a 23-foot Winnebago, which is mostly used for tailgating.”

In recent years, the Tomasellis have also rented 30-foot RVs from Cruise America and have met friends at campgrounds out West.

Tomaselli says his investment in the two KOA campgrounds has been a successful one.

“The business is growing by double digits in the past few years, and this year is the same,” he said. “We hardly felt the recession, compared to my real estate business, which was painful. Now, with low fuel prices, [camping] is booming. The economy is recovering, and millennials are discovering camping. Boomers are retiring and hitting the road.”

The recreational vehicle industry also is strong, according to Tomaselli.

“RV manufacturers are producing as many as they can; they are at capacity,” he said. “Many shut down or laid people off during the downturn, but the whole hospitality industry has recovered nicely and is stronger than ever.”

RV camping has increased 8.9 percent over the past three years in America, according to a new survey from the Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the Outdoor Industry Association trade group.

Tomaselli cited the celebration last year of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary as a factor in bringing more attention to camping and to the benefits of getting in closer touch with nature.

“Occupancy is a bell curve, with July Fourth at the top of the bell,” Tomaselli said about his properties. “Summer is always packed, and the shoulder seasons keep getting bigger. The Wilmington KOA sees more than 25,000 camper nights per year, with about 8,000 different individuals and families who visit. The average stay is three nights.

“A significant percentage of the population, this is how they choose to travel. It’s not unlike a marina and the people who live and travel on boats. It’s a friendly environment, a whole community of people, which you don’t get in a hotel. They meet and chat with each other around the campfire.”

Some locals choose to stay at the campground as well, Tomaselli said.

“It’s an affordable staycation, enjoyable for the kids,” he said. “We also have book clubs who meet here and stay overnight.”

As the owner of Lumina Station, Tomaselli was well aware of the development’s constant need for upkeep and enhancement. What has surprised him, he says, is that his campgrounds have similar needs.

“There is an endless supply of things that need improvement. The increasing size of RVs – we’ve basically had to rebuild the entire infrastructure, including electrical and sewer. The surprise was how much capital it takes for upkeep and to keep it modern,” he said.

Part of the modernization process was installing the technology that has streamlined management, notably the reservation process, Tomaselli said, explaining that when he bought the Wilmington KOA, reservations were done by hand in quadruplicate forms.

The first computerized registration system came along in the early 2000s and has continued to evolve.

“Now I can make a reservation through an app on my phone,” he said.

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