The 110,000-plus Winter Texans who migrate to the Valley for two to six months each year represent an economic bonanza for the region. These visitors help keep everyone’s taxes lower and support expanded retail. McAllen alone collects $35.4 million in local retail sales tax from visitors (including Mexican nationals). Winter Texans shop and eat out frequently, visit attractions, and pay for repairs or upgrades on their RVs. A significant portion own second homes (mobile homes, park models or brick cottages) in gated senior communities.
The Valley has over 500 RV parks, ranging in size from five spaces to 1,435 spaces. Refugees from the frozen north have long migrated south seeking warm weather and a low cost of living. But the ground rules are changing for RV parks. Baby boomers, retiring at the rate of 10,000 per day, represent challenges for park owners. Yet successful parks are adapting, re-investing in their facilities and reaching out to the next generation of retirees to stay viable.
Tradition & change
Palm Gardens RV & MH Park is the oldest park around: in the 1920s, the owners of an orange grove west of Harlingen began allowing travelers in small trailers to park amid the trees in exchange for picking citrus. Today the 235-spot park is owned by a Michigan investor. Local attorneys and hotel owners have invested in RV parks in McAllen and Edinburg, too, as alternate revenue streams. Some established mom-and-pop operations have grown and prospered, a few have disappeared under retail center asphalt, while an increasing number have been acquired by major corporations or silent partners.
In 1978, Maria Polonski and her late husband bought a citrus grove in Mission and built Split Rail RV Park. Under the guidance of Polonski and her son Stephen, the family-owned park rents out 230 spaces to temporary and year-round residents.
“We have turn-over, naturally, being a senior park,” said Beverly Glaser, who came to Split Rail in a motorhome 10 years ago, fell in love with the park and became park manager. Like her, other people who have RV’ed for a long time decide to stop traveling at Split Rail. “One couple right now has a motorhome on consignment, because they want to be here full time. We keep a list of units for sale.”
Inducements to stay include amenities such as the pools and water aerobics, tai chi, dance, Spanish and exercise classes; the library, quilting and Friday afternoon jam sessions. “We had about 80% occupancy last season, and that was better than the year before,” Glaser said. Pancake breakfasts, luncheons and potluck dinners, organized by committees, foster a close-knit neighborhood. Security in the gated park is achieved by 24/7 video surveillance and nightly security patrols.
Inside the clubhouse, where trophies from the Fiesta Citrus parades are displayed, Split Rail’s activity director eliminated china painting as an activity, because it doesn’t appeal to younger retirees. “I can’t say Winter Texans now are asking for different things. They are into what we have,” Glaser said. They find out about Split Rail from the website, brochures and satisfied residents, who take brochures home with them.
“The Winter Texans of today don’t look like the Winter Texans of yesterday,” said Kristi Collier, president of Welcome Home RGV. “The parks are challenged with a new, younger, more adventurous demographic that is not necessarily committed to one park or region. Our responsibility is to make sure Winter Texans feel welcome and that their overall experience is a positive one.”
Collier started Welcome Home RGV in 2008 after seeing an opportunity to market to Winter Texans in search of activities and vendors. What started as an annual directory and website this year has a weekly publication, connections to the decision makers in numerous parks, and the Winter Texan Expo. “People love our brand. We have a really great following.”
A Valley resident told Collier she wanted to retire and become a Winter Texan, because they are always out having fun. “My shift this year is introducing the RV park lifestyle to local retirees, change the mindset of who is a Winter Texan,” said Collier, who has nurtured the group called Converted Texans, retirees who stay in the Valley year-round.
At VIP-La Feria RV Park, managers John and Ruth Dearinger spent the summer on building, street and swimming pool repairs before the 360 spots start filling up. “If it needs being done, we do it,” Ruth said. Between fixing laundry room machines and re-lettering the lots and meters, the Dearingers showed off the awards that VIP captured in 2013 and 2014: the Texas Medium-Size Park of the Year given by the Texas RV Association.
“I’ve had a lot of new people calling and booking for this season,” Ruth said. She posts park and Valley photos frequently on VIP’s Facebook page and website. Some photos have up to 400 hits within a few hours. “It’s very important for people to see what your park looks like,” John added.
VIP’s managers are responding to the new demographic. “The younger ones are more active and want more out of the park activities,” Ruth said. A new husband-wife activity director team, brimming with ideas, will be on hand this season, organizing adventures as well as the expected activities either around card tables in the two clubhouses, in the pools or on area golf courses.
A Michigan man bought the park 21 years ago. “He’s not looking to sell it,” John said, given the good ROI.
Telling the story
“New retirees want more experiential opportunities. We have those opportunities here, but we haven’t been telling our stories,” said Nancy Millar, vice president of the CVB at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. To counter that, the CVB, South Texas Tourism and supporting cities and businesses have hosted journalists to write positive things about the Valley, directed at the Midwest and Canadian markets, the homes of Winter Texans. “It’s not only the individual businesses selling to Winter Texans that benefit.” The sales tax they generate and the property taxes they pay lessen the burden on full-time residents.
While still many RV parks are privately owned, the number owned by national corporations is increasing. Equity Lifestyle (under the Encore brand) has 10 parks in the Valley including Fun–N–Sun RV Resort, the largest RV park in the region.
Fun-N-Sun RV Resort hosts a winter population of approximately 1,800 on 1,435 sites, which include park models, RV spots and cottages. A new activity director is expected to add even more variety to a menu that includes lessons and clubs for ballroom, line and square dancing, a large exercise facility, and a huge arts and crafts selection, according to Tony Silvestro, the park’s manager.
The park’s well-kept appearance is vital to retain and attract Winter Texans from the Midwest and Canada. “Our residents spread the word to their friends and that brings in new people,” said Silvestro.
You may not sell directly to RV park residents now, but maybe you could, maybe you should. As a market, they are, for the most part, educated, adventurous and have a steady income. And the sheer number is intriguing: 110,000 coming this winter to a park near you!
October 2015 cover story by Eileen Mattei. For more stories from the October edition, click on the “Current & Past Issues” tab.