RV snowbirds contribute millions to Coast economy

Susan Perkins shows list of activities offered to guests at Gulf Haven Campground on the beach in Gulfport. After Cruisin' The Coast the first week in October, the RV park will be home to snowbirds for the winter.
Susan Perkins shows list of activities offered to guests at Gulf Haven Campground on the beach in Gulfport. After Cruisin' The Coast the first week in October, the RV park will be home to snowbirds for the winter.

The population of South Mississippi is about to swell as baby boomers from across the country and Canada head south for Cruisin’ The Coast and a winter away from snow and ice.

Many of them bring their RVs and spend almost half the year on the Coast, bringing business to the local RV parks, restaurants, casinos and RV suppliers. The total RV industry impact is $269 million in Mississippi and $69 million in the 4th U.S. Congressional District, which stretches across the three Coast counties and north to Hattiesburg.

“About the first of October the snowbirds start coming through,” said James Lee, whose family owns and operates Indian Point Campground in Gautier. The first time they stay two or three days. The next year they stay a month or two. “By the third of fourth year they’re here the whole winter,” he said. Usually they go home in April.

On 186 acres, Indian Point has 200 sites, 36 cabins, two swimming pools and, “We have deep water access all the way to the Gulf,” Lee said. The West Pascagoula River is only about 300 yards away for freshwater fishing and bird-watching. Two viewing areas are in place so campers can watch the birds, deer, squirrels and raccoons, and another is under construction. The RV park stays full much of the year, he said, with guests from as close as Hattiesburg and Meridian and from as far as New York and Canada.

A University of Michigan study commissioned by Recreation Vehicle Industry Association in 2011 says the typical RV owner is 48, married and with an annual household income of $62,000. The study shows 9.3 percent of RV owners are age 55 and over, while 11 percent of owners are 35-54.

RV park owners in South Mississippi say almost 100 percent of their customers after Cruisin’ The Coast in early October are seniors, and they are drawn to South Mississippi by low prices, less traffic than in Florida, the casinos, wildlife and fishing.

“Our big thing was to eat seafood up and down the beach,” said Bob Hight of Georgia — and wherever he and his wife, Candy, park their 40-foot RV. Right now that is at Gulf Haven Campground at the beach in Gulfport.

“We travel full time,” he said. They live — and work — in their RV with their two dogs.

He is retired. She works at a table inside the RV with a view of the beach a glance away from her computer screen. She can do her work for a credit card processing company from almost anywhere, “As long as I have Internet,” she said. WiFi is more reliable in some campgrounds than other, so she uses a cellphone as a back-up hot spot. Occasionally she has to travel from work and flies out of whatever airport their camper is near.

While she works, he uses binoculars to scan the horizon. “I’m just watching the sea lanes,” he said. He also has a view out to the islands and of bananas being unloaded at the port in Gulfport.

They’ve been living in an RV for about a year and have stayed in eight states. Their Class A trailer has a king-size bed with a full bath and washer and dryer at one end and bunks and another half bath at the other end for when the grandchildren join them.

“This one has a lot of storage,” he said, but it was still a challenge to downsize. They have a big-screen TV and their own satellite and a tiny Christmas tree. At a park like Gulf Haven, they live for about $600 a month, including utilities. But Hight said people need to think about the lifestyle before they invest in a camper.

“Some people buy an RV and don’t like it,” he said. There are considerations like the right truck to pull the RV. “You don’t just run out and buy it and hit the road,” he said.

“We didn’t know if we’d enjoy it but we really did,” said Carlie Fears of Missouri. She and her husband, Ron, camped near home a few times before making their first long trip to Gulfport for camping on the beach. They’ve outfitted their RV with a ramp for their two English bulldogs — and brought along a wagon to cart them to the beach. It’s much easier to accommodate pets in an RV than a hotel, she said.

“What we like about it is the people we meet,” she said.

Sue and Dan Perkins operate Gulf Haven Campground with its 77 sites directly north of the breach and for the seniors who fill the campground in the winter, they have a steady variety of activities.

“Every Saturday night is movie night,” she said. Her husband is the dealer for Texas Hold-Em and the caller for bingo on Monday Game Night. The seniors play canasta on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday is potluck dinner. Since they travel in the RVS from the Northeast and all over the country, the campers make food and share recipes from the region where they live. The campground offers exercise programs and craft projects and space for a jigsaw puzzle that is always in progress, and the Gulfport senior center and community center are right behind the RV park.

Snowbirds like to take the advantage of the program where the sixth month is free, Perkins said, and the five months are discounted. That means the snowbirds celebrate the holidays with their RV family. “Thanksgiving we fry turkeys and they bring the fixings,” Perkins said. They also celebrate Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day with parties.

“There are thousands of camping spots along the Coast in the tri-county area,” said Wesley Stinchcomb, general manager of Camping World at the Woolmarket exit in Biloxi, and during Cruisin’ The Coast RVs will fill nearly every empty lot along U.S. 90 in Biloxi.

Camping World has more than 100 locations and the Biloxi branch is about to grow. What is now a compact parts and retail store will expand to 25,000 square feet by about February and will allow them to offer necessities and extras like flags and novelty lights to add bling and personality to an RV.

Gas prices staying low has helped the RV industry some, he said, but people who drive or pull RVs don’t really care about gas mileage, he said.

A report from Recreation Vehicle Industry Association said gas prices would have to more than quadruple for RV vacations to lose their economic advantage over other methods of travel.

Sales of RVs have been brisk this year, with 28,350 shipped to retailers in July, according to RVIA. For the first 7 months of the year, shipments are 11 percent ahead of 2015.

By the numbers

  • 8.9 million households owned an RV in 2011, up from 7.9 million in 2005.
  • 39 percent of RVers had children under 18 living at home.
  • RV owners age 35 to 54 rose to 11 percent in 2011 from 9 percent in 2005.
  • RV owners age 55 or older rose to 9.3 percent in 2011 from 8.6 percent in 2005.
  • RV owners age 35 to 54 posted the largest gains in ownership rates, rising to 11.2 percent in 2011 from 9 percent in 2005.
  • RV owners travel an average of 4,500 miles and 28-35 days traveling each year.

Recreation Vehicle Industry Association