Camping, a French passion and a thriving business

Don’t expect to find a little corner of paradise after mid-July at the Beaurivage campsite in Bellerive-sur-Allier: it’s full. Same story for Les Amis de la plage in Ars-en-Ré: no chalet (the fancy name of the mobile home) ready to welcome you with your family at this time. The edge of the forest, near the island of Oleron, is also filled up. If you covet the shores of Brittany, Landes, Languedoc or Vars, it promises to be just as cotton.

For the tourist season 2022 promises to be a record within “outdoor accommodation”. In April, the industry recorded a 40% increase in bookings compared to last year. The foreigners are back, the French more fans than ever. Managers are wondering where to find the 40,000 or so seasonal workers who run their campsites. In May, the Homair chain was looking for 300 candidates, with no diplomas or experience required.

To tell the truth, the sector has been surfing on a growth of 7% per annum for a long time. The Covid pandemic – apart from the general air gap in 2020 – has even reinforced the trend. In 2021, while we were still under the regime of the mask and the cotton swab in the nostrils, the French campsite had already returned to normal activity (-0.8% compared to 2019), with the hotel industry still suffering a painful -15%.

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Inexpensive (48 euros per night on average), outdoors, if not in nature, and often over-equipped with swimming pools and slides, camping is popular. For the 7,592 spaces in the area, it is a blessing: the market is worth 2.8 billion euros for the housing part alone, not including the sale of motorhomes and the various economic derivative effects.

The investors were not wrong. In the last ten years, the kings of tents and bungalows have fallen victim to voracious bottoms. Especially since a well-run campsite by the sea often generates a 45% operating profit. The network of four- and five-star Sandaya campsites, created ten years ago by Pierre&Vacances’ former number 2, has thus tripled in size after being acquired by Apax and then InfraVia Capital Partners funds.

Vacanceselect, another Tohapi-branded heavyweight, has been owned since 2015 by the Permira fund, which is now, according to Agefi, looking to sell it to another fund. Why not PAI Partners, owner since 2021 of ECG – European Camping Group – (Homair campsites, Marvilla Parks, but also Roompot in the Netherlands) and which intends to become a leader in Europe? “We target sites with a minimum of 300 pitches, below which it is difficult to get a good return on investment,” explains Bertrand Monier, at PAI Partners.

Long driven by a multitude of small players, the camping industry tends to become more concentrated. Independents join the most established franchise chains, such as Yelloh! Village, Flower Campsites or Airotel, the only ones who can give them visibility on the Internet. Note also that the sector has escaped the ogres of Booking.com and only marginally uses online agencies such as Campings.com or Camping and Co to refuel.

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However, these independent, often family businesses, find it difficult to resist the call of millions. Because the biggest are looking for good deals to sell in a limited market – it is impossible to create a new campsite by the sea.-Garonne recently, and aims for around ten acquisitions a year. Sandaya has taken over nine campsites since last summer, including a five-star in the Ardèche.

Among these gluttons there is also a family, Houé, who owns the Capfun group (172 campsites, almost 400 million euros in revenue) and multiplies acquisitions, in France, but also in Spain (there are 8 addresses) and in the Netherlands (13) addresses). They have also got their hands on the travel organizer Vagues Océanes, which sells places on 41 campsites.

Rising figures appear in this moving arrangement. This is the case with the Huttopia chain, which since its establishment in 1999 has focused on a return to more nature and ecology. The founding couple Céline and Philippe Bossanne now manage 65 locations in France, North America and China. Another infamous phenomenon, Camping Paradis’ dazzling breakthrough. Reinforced by the TF1 range, this chain of franchisees, co-founded by Olivier Lachenaud, has gathered 75 campsites to its blue panache since its launch at the end of 2019. “Initially it annoyed everyone, but they helped to wake up the sector”, sportingly comments Jean-Luc Martial, managing director of Flower Campsites, who defends a more family-oriented model than “boom boom”.

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