Interview with Eicke Schüürmann of LeadingCampings
Tell us a bit about you and your business, how did you get started and why?
The LeadingCampings (also known as The Leading Camping and Caravaning Parks of Europe) was founded in 1994 by 3 entrepreneurs, one from Spain, one from Italy and one from Germany. Through my journalism work, I became aware of LeadingCampings and joined the group first as press and public relations officer in 2005, and then as managing director in 2007. With the motto ‘do good and talk about it’, we are a free group of independent European camping resorts aiming to improve the public image of camping and to promote environmental sustainability. I can’t believe that after 26 years we’re still the only European group of independent camping entrepreneurs. Given that so many camping vacations are abroad, it makes logical sense to raise cooperation in this market from a national to international level!
What do you think is unique about camping? What do you love the most about being part of the camping industry and the campsite owners and companies you work with?
Camping is simply uncomplicated. Even though it’s become a ‘grown-up’ tourism business, at its heart it remains a young and uniquely people-oriented industry. The happiness and relaxation of our guests is contagious and helps create a working atmosphere that is far more peaceful compared to other industries.
Also, there’s something innate about camping. Just think about it for a minute. We’ve only been using computers and sitting at desks in artificial light for a maximum of three generations, whilst people worked in factories and on assembly lines for a good five generations. We can count these generations with just one hand! If we look back 500 generations, they typically operated agriculture and animal husbandry and were settled. Here, counting with fingers is more difficult. However, this is nothing – absolutely nothing – compared to the 10,000 generations before that, which lived nomadically and rested around campfires. The innate desire for this way of living resides deep within us, and from it feeds the longing for travel, road trips and camping amongst nature.
How would you describe the typical campsite owner or camper, what are some of the things that all campers share?
In the past, the typical campsite owner was a farmer who switched from keeping cattle to keeping campers! Joking aside, most long-established campsites have a farming history. But nowadays, second and third generations are at the helm, with more of a professional skillset and background.
What all campers share is their penchant for nature and, by extension, their respect for nature. I find that campers, regardless of their politics, are also a largely greener tourist. But other than that, no two campers are alike. Sociologically speaking, we are in the midst of a major shift. On the one hand, we have our traditional once-a-camper-always-a-camper campers. These campers are often retired and know camping inside out. They’ve worked their way up the camper career ladder from tent to caravan to motorhome and are proud owners. This generation also tends to value idleness negatively and therefore quite enjoy the busyness of everyday camper life.
On the other hand, we have a very new generation of campers: young people in search of “instagrammable moments”, for whom camping is a welcome means to an end, a way to get their mountain bikes, SUPs or surf kites to the appropriate place, or to display a certain lifestyle online. I’m generalising but they have greater financial resources than their parents’ generation at a fairly early age. They tend to camp with a roof tents, a tent or a camper van. Here, pride of ownership takes a back seat to the value of the experience and so renting is common. While the mature campers want camping to remain its rudimental self, warts and all, the new generation of campers prefer their creature comforts. Above all, they want everything to be easy to find and fast to book, hence the emergence of sites like CampInn.com to help them on that journey.
How have you seen the world of camping change over the past few years?
Although classic camping is currently experiencing a boom, campsites are also changing rapidly and we’ve seen great growth in glamping accommodations such as sleep barrels. Multi-star campsites are becoming full-range providers and are often superior to hotels and resorts in terms of equipment and facilities! Pitches are growing in size to accommodate ever-growing vehicles, and soon charging points for electric cars. Recently, we have seen the emergence of separate RV overnight areas, which are often located near cities or big events, have very short stay times, and divert some of the motorhome traffic away from the more rural campsites. Moreover, we’re seeing more and more information and booking platforms such as CampInn.com spring up. But although the customer journey is increasingly becoming digital and mobile first, camping remains a business of human encounters – especially at the campsite itself. At LeadingCampings, it’s our priority that people to come as guests and leave as friends.
How have the campsites you work with felt about opening their sites this year, given the Covid-19 situation?
No-one could have predicted this year. Two thirds of our campsites have a year-round opening and thriving winter business, so the travel restrictions and subsequent border closures hit them mid-season. This threatened their survival and we immediately put contingency plans and budgets in place. Luckily things relaxed over summer and business improved for the Central European campsites, especially in the German, Dutch, Danish and Austrian ones, as people discovered camping as a relatively safe way to travel. Some campsites actually still managed to make a record season out of it! However, things look worse the further south you go. Croatia, Italy (south of Lake Garda), large parts of France, Spain and Portugal all suffered immensely. Here, it will take years to even come close to matching the turnover of 2019.
How are you and they feeling about the opportunities as well as challenges over the next few years?
Predictions are for crystal ball readers, but one thing is certain. For years, camping has been the ugly duckling of the travel industry. Now, it’s the swan! We’ve never seen so many new campers. Although this was great, it was also somewhat challenging since many of campers were unused to the do-it-yourself nature of camping. For instance, we had a couple recently with a newly purchased camper who complained after a week because no one came to change the towels and bedding!
It’s critical that the camping industry uses this boom to continue innovating as well. One lesson from the pandemic is that private sanitary stations, such as a private rentable bathroom, are a great idea. LeadingCampings already offers more than 600 of these units. Touch-free technology is also a wise investment.
Are you a camper? Tell us about the last memorable trips you did camping – what you enjoyed and experiences you would like to share. Why camping?
Although my travels often involve a wide range of transport and accommodation, I’ve been a camper since birth. In fact, I’m almost certain that I was conceived in a caravan! All my childhood memories are full of camping adventures and I think of these times fondly. At the age of 19, whilst everyone around me wanted a fast, sporty car, I converted my first van into a camper van. Today, I still have a small compact touring caravan that we bought 10 years ago. We also had a dog who came on all of our camping vacations with us! The caravan survived the dog and continues to take us all over. Most recently, it took us to the Julian Alps in Slovenia, where we spent the summer hiking and biking. It’s a bright memory in this particularly dreary year! And why camping, you ask? Well, most simply because the world is your oyster. When you camp, breakfast is not served from 7:30 to 10:00 a.m. If I wish, it can be at 3 in the afternoon and I can bring my breakfast table right to the bank of a gurgling mountain stream!
Where would you like to go camping post-Covid?
In more remote areas in the Balkans. I prefer smaller campsites, ones with hidden gems. However, for me, the campsite itself is not too important since it’s only a base camp. I also rarely stay in one place because beautiful landscapes and cultural sites usually require round trips.
What are your top camping hacks or tips for campers – new and experienced?
First of all, less is more – don’t lug everything around ‘just in case’, it wastes space and adds useless weight. The smaller and more manoeuvrable the camping vehicle, the better the experience. I also like to take my own bike, because the ergonomics are right and rental bikes are often the wrong size for me. And if you want to try wild camping, you should have a good, regulated solar system and a light, as well as an energy-dense lithium iron phosphate battery on board!
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