First, a little history...
We first purchased a membership (in 1985) at the now defunct Cutty's Resort in LaPorte, Indiana. It wasn't long after that when we received a notice saying that the resort was taken over by All Seasons Resorts, and would be closed. Our membership was being moved to the (also now defunct) Rodgers Lake Resort at Dowagiac, Michigan. We didn't worry about it too much at the time, as the change was actually better for us, as it was closer. At some point, we were offered an upgrade to Presidents Club, which gave us more resorts to visit, as well as privileges. That resort and system stayed intact until sometime in the mid-90's, when bankruptcy forced it to be closed and sold off.
By then, we were in Mesa, AZ, and hadn't had any contact with All Seasons Resorts for several years. We found out what was happening through our friends in Mesa, who were also members, and had kept up with the happenings. Out of 76 resorts that they had under their system at their peak, everything was now bankrupt and down the tubes. The entire system was forced to shut down for a year, at which time they opened up another another name, Travel America, with only six resorts showing on the new web site. The last time I looked, that was also gone.
In 1986, we also bought into White Oaks on the Lake in Monticello, IN. at the time, my kids were not far from there, and the resort offered nice "chalets" that had enough room for us all to meet there. That never happened but one time in twenty years, so even that was a waste. In fact, because of our working, and then moving totally out of state, the use we got from the resort was nil. We "might" have visited "maybe" a half dozen times in twenty years. But...we were constantly looking to the future, and bought it as an "investment" for future traveling during our retirement years. And...it was supposedly a "deeded" membership, which we thought would protect our investment. Wrong again!
Shortly after we moved to Mesa, we were informed by letter that Western Horizon Resorts had taken over White Oaks on the Lake. Whereas White Oaks was a single membership park, and not an organization of parks, the Western Horizon Resorts group were several resorts throughout the country. We thought this was a great deal. They also offered us an "upgrade" to be able to use the AOR and Sunbelt groups of parks, so this expanded our travel abilities even more. We bought into the hype. Of course, each time we lost or changed a home resort, we also had to change our home resort at Coast to Coast, because without a home resort, you can't be a member there, either!
In the late 80's we also purchased a lot at the Yogi Bear Camping Resort at Plymouth Indiana. It came with a nice wooden deck, a storage shed and a fire ring, as well as a roughly 50-foot wide lot. We had to bring our own RV, but could have put a park model on the lot as a vacation getaway. We were living about 50 miles away at the time. Our goal was to use it at least a couple weeks in the spring and the fall, and on occasional weekends in between. With no dwelling on the property, our property taxes would be cheaper. But they are also in snow country and shut down all the utilities between October and April. You can still get in the park, but won't have water or sewer! So you really only get six months of full use out of the park.
We kept it for a couple years, but decided that for the $600+ yearly maintenance fee, we weren't getting enough use out of it, and sold it for what we paid for it. A deeded piece of real estate is OK, if you don't mind staying at the same place all the time. We had other plans.
More recent events...
As of this past spring, we were notified that Western Horizon was shutting down White Oaks on the Lake. We were offered a couple of individual resorts as alternatives, or we could join a Midwest section of Thousand Trails containing 13 resorts. Unfortunately, none of them were suitable, as we didn't plan to continue living in the Midwest. After a few emails back and forth with Western Horizons, we were offered a membership at their "home office" resort at Blue Mesa Ranch. We thought this was great as it met all of our needs in being at least 125 miles away from the resorts in the Southwest that we "would" use, as well as being the home office of WHR, AOR and Sunbelt Resorts! They also reduced our maintenance fees from $289 a year to $250 a year and "froze" them. What could go wrong?
As a reminder, we were supposed to be able to use any Western Horizon Resort for up to two weeks at a time at NO COST (other than our yearly maintenance fees of about 69 cents a day). Since then, we found that some resorts are charging a utility surcharge of $1 to $3 a night to cover mainly electric usage. OK...we could deal with that. To use any of the AOR or Sunbelt Resorts, it was a $9 nightly fee, and Coast to Coast reciprocal privileges with other resorts not in these three systems, was up to $10 a night, but on a point system now that equates to that much. You may think that is reasonable, but read on.
Earlier this week we received a notice from Western Horizon Resorts, informing us that Blue Mesa Ranch had been taken over by yet another company, Colorado Dream Vacations, LLC, as BMR had also had it's share of financial problems, and this "new" company was (supposedly) going to bail them out, as well as make "much needed" improvements, both physically as well as financially. The new owner/President was named as Lance Loken. We are familiar with that name because it was a Jim Loken who is also in the resort ownership business, including with many of the resorts already in trouble! From what I can see, the resort simply changed hands within the same family as a legal sideways move! Am I wrong?
Changes in affect...
According to a search of Google on "Western Horizon Lawsuits" I found several forums where it says that many things that were promised never happened, in maintenance issues and otherwise. One of the things they currently say they are changing is that BMR will no longer be open to the public. They say they are going to build a new guard gate, and reserve the resort for members only. If they are in such dire need of funds, is that really a good idea to create more expense while at the same time refusing other income? The public (non-members) can be charged full prices for everything in the resort, and that can add a lot of money to the coffers!
And if their moves don't work, what is to say that they will also fail, and lose the resort to yet another entity, that may not honor past memberships at all? Don't say it can't or won't happen! I've seen at least two of our past parks turned into housing developments!
So now, they say that there were too many different prices and features in past memberships, and they are offering us three new options. (1) Pay $299 a year for this one resort at Blue Mesa Ranch, and $5 a night to stay there, plus a hidden $3 reservation charge! This does not include any of the other WHR parks that were in the system! They are ALL in financial trouble, and no definitive answer has been given as to our access to them, even though they are all based in the same exact offices! (2) We could also pay $499 a year, which would allow us to stay at this resort only, with no nightly charge, but the reservation fee would still apply! Or (3) we have the option to opt out and leave our membership on the table...losing not only the $9500 (plus past maintenance fees of roughly $7250 over the past 29 years) already paid, as well as access to the other WHR resorts, AOR Resorts, Sunbelt Resorts AND Coast to Coast...as you have to have a home park (at WHR...where else?) in order to join AOR or Sunbelt! With no home resort we also lose Coast to Coast!
Our own humble (as much as they can be) opinions...
First of all, as former resort managers, we fully understand all the problems and issues with running membership resorts. Ever since their inception in the early 70's they have been highly dependent upon volunteer help within the resorts to help cover costs. The memberships were never enough to cover all the costs of resort development plus the maintenance costs. That's why many of them continually offered "upgrades" to offset these costs. And also, there was a lot of mismanagement and imbezzling of funds going on that they never want to admit. Some salesmen literally walked off with cash and the membership was never confirmed and sometimes denied. As a manager, I know that such things happened before we got to the resort we managed!
Also, the costs of maintaining off-site offices and personnel just add that much more to the overhead of every individual park! The resorts that do well end up having money stolen from their coffers to help support the ones that are failing, until that is not an option anymore! It isn't just one resort that must sustain itself...it must help to pay managers and people that will never be seen on the resort, as well as to bail out the failures within the system! And they have tried to do the development of the resort all from that one membership fee that you and others paid! Then, your continued maintenance payments pay for the maintenance. But if they don't sell enough memberships, not only the development costs are short, but also the ongoing maintenance fees! No business can operate like that!
Also, the internet was not around when the concept was devised. The volunteers are still willing to help, but that's not enough anymore. People have become leery of the high sales pressure membership sales (in both resort as well as time-share sales), and with the economy being what it is, people are simply not shelling out the money for long-term commitments like they once were.
Those that had already bought in, but changed their minds for various reasons, were also dumping the memberships on various sales platforms for next to nothing, just to get out from under the ongoing maintenance fees. That drove down the price that savvy buyers were willing to pay, hurting the financial situation even more. Many just dropped their memberships without selling them with the attitude of "catch me if you can" as my credit isn't that important to me!
Also, the Internet has literally exploded within the last few years, with all kinds of sites and apps to show people how to camp for no cost or little cost. Sites like FreeCampsites.net, and the advent of new low cost membership sites like BoondockersWelcome.com and HarvestHosts.com, as well as discount sites like PassportAmerica.com, have eaten into the sales of membership resorts.
A third item, is that since the recession, there has been a surge toward lower cost methods of travel. Large RV sales have gone down drastically, while smaller Class B and B+ van conversion campers have increased. With smaller RV's you have less cost and can go a lot more places! This also affects the sales of memberships, because the membership resorts have turned out to be more luxury resorts for those who can afford the larger motorhomes and fifth wheel RVs, but often don't travel any further than their resort because of fuel costs.
Some resorts, especially close to the cities, have made it at least uncomfortable for smaller RVs and especially home-built conversions...if not downright against their rules. Even our resort in Mesa where we lived for ten years, has a rule of "no soft-sides or pop-ups", and no home-built conversions of any kind. In other words, if it wasn't factory built with solid sides, standing room, and self-contained...AND less than ten years old...they don't want you there! Also, some people simply want to get away to the same place all the time, for whatever their reasons, and don't mind where the resort is, as long as it's convenient for their needs. In other words, they aren't "travelers". Just because you live in an RV, doesn't make you a true RVer!
Even when available, is "free" really free?
Here's the reality...although the thought of "free" or low cost full-hookup overnight stays seems great to start with, we have learned that there aren't any guarantees with any of these memberships. That "free" option can be taken away from you at their whim, just by changing the rules, and forcing you out, as I feel is happening to us now.
But for "true" RVers like us, who travel for the sake of traveling and NOT to the same destination all the time, these resorts aren't always where we want to be! We looked at one resort, which is not that far off our travel route, and which we would only use for one night enroute to "someplace else", and then we read the directions. It totaled nearly 25 miles off the route...one way...which would have to be doubled to get back on our route again! At 10 MPG, that's another 5 gallons of gas, at $2.25 per gallon, which amounts to another $11.25 just to be able to get to that resort to stay there for a night! Add $9 for camping fees, another $3 reservation fee, plus another $1.65 a day just to belong to the "system" of resorts, and suddenly you are up to $24.90...(not including any utility surcharges...just for a place to park your RV for just one night! That's nowhere near "free"!
And for those on computer, there is no guarantee of cell service or decent WI-FI that far off the main road, either. We run an internet business. We HAVE to have access...one way or the other! In park WI-FI is often so slow as to be not dependable.
In comparison, I looked at FreeCampsites.net, and found a totally free parking spot, right on the route we would be following! And there are at least a half dozen others around it that are closer to the main road than the membership resort! I may not have the brightest light in the attic, and I'm not made of money, either, but even if I were, why on Earth would I squander it on foolish stuff that I don't need!
We have no kids traveling with us, so we don't need a lot of entertainment to fill an evening. Everything we need is available on our computers. All we need is a place to stop and eat, and grab some sleep. Even if they had amenities, we wouldn't use them! We have solar power and propane appliances. Everything that we need to do for one night can be done right inside our RV, including keeping the compressor refrigerator running and using the microwave for short periods of less than a half hour. When we leave, the van can help recharge the trailer batteries until the sun comes up high enough to add its input. The privilege of staying in an organized campground is NOT worth nearly $25! I would much rather reserve that money for something that IS worthwhile, like more traveling, or entrance fees to see something that we would get a lot more enjoyment out of than driving 50 miles out of our way to park at someplace which we have no time to enjoy!
So, I think you know where I am going with this. We have until January 1st to have the form back to them, with either a payment or a box checked that we have had enough and want out! Doing so would put a total of at least $50 a month back in our pockets and allow us many more options to go where WE want to go, and not where we have added costs and feel obligated to go just because we are already paying for it!
Don't get me wrong...I am not against memberships in general. Memberships which are not tied to specific places within the same management can be a very good thing. The places like BoondockersWelcome.com and HarvestHosts.com, as well as PassportAmerica, are individual members who have chosen to become a part of that organization. As with any group like that, members will come and go as members do, but nothing about the membership is dependent upon the financial stability of any member nor as a group of members. The membership costs next to nothing, as compared to membership resorts, and it benefits all concerned. Both businesses as well as people will come and go as they always do, but the organization itself will remain stable.
There are also much more stable camping organizations to belong to than membership resorts. We recently joined Escapees RV Club, more for their mail forwarding program than anything else, but have found that they also provide many other benefits which make it VERY worthwhile! Even they have a resource for finding free and low-cost campsites, contributed to by members. And it only costs $10. But you have to belong to the main group first, which is currently $39.95 per year. Yes, there is a charge for using the RV sites, but then again, they operate as business, and don't expect the membership cost to fund all the development of those resorts, nor do higher maintenance fees pay for the maintenance of the park nor offices and personnel that you will never see! Some of the resorts are company owned, and some are privately owned, but they all have to operate as individual entities. Even if one runs into financial trouble, it isn't going to affect the entire system like with membership resorts that the members pay to develop and maintain! And if one should ever fail (highly unlikely), it simply drops out...without taking your money with it!
There are also other organizations that seem to have learned a lot over the years and made changes to the way they do business, in order to meet the members needs. One main benefit of some is in the ones who refuse to let their memberships be sold at discounted prices through other sources. They actually buy the membership back or sell it for you. They also divided their system into districts, to accommodate the fact that people weren't traveling as far when the gas prices were higher. That also localizes the expenditures to certain areas and prices can be controlled better (i.e., why pay coastal prices for land and maintenance when you only travel in the Midwest?). One that comes to mind is Thousand Trails. We have not been members of them at any time, so I can't speak from first hand experience, only from observations that I have made from watching the industry from an objective position. Thousand Trails seem to have their act together and appear to be financially stable. If I am wrong, please, someone who is a member in the know, correct me!
Please note that there is a big difference between membership resorts, and being a member of a club! Escapees is a club. BoondockersWelcome is a club. Harvest Hosts is a club. Passport America is a club! Membership resorts are a whole different animal, and the way they operate is completely different than a club! Don't confuse the two!
I'm sure some of you have also purchased memberships in resort camping organizations, and I would like to hear your input regarding your experiences. If you haven't joined, why? If you have joined, would you do it again, knowing today's resources? What are your recommendations when looking at one for possible purchase?
We will be making up our minds within the next two months, but based on everything I know, and have researched, the membership camping no longer fits our needs, and even though it would mean losing the $9500+$7250 that we have already invested, I have no problem cutting our losses. There's no sense in putting good money after bad.
As far as the second part of this post...yes...our plans are still intact. Losing the membership aspect won't affect us in the least! This is mostly due to the fact that for the past two years I have been researching the subject and reading the blog posts of many others out there who are already doing what we want to do, and the majority of them DO NOT depend upon membership resorts! You can't stick your head in the sand and refuse to read, and expect to learn anything about anything! Because of my constant reading, I know that there are actually better ways of traveling, and for less cost, than depending on membership resorts! I couldn't care less whether they ALL go out of business, other than them taking a considerable portion of my money with them when they go!
So please, let me know your thoughts on the subject!