(Spoiler Alert: I don't know the answer.)
It's a question I've been asking every day since March, and I'm not the only one. On what would be our last trip away in one of the vans in March, the temperature was finally starting to increase, and I thought we could finally look forward to summer again. At the time I had no idea just how profound the effect of Coronavirus would be on the industry, let alone the country.
The timing could hardly have been worse for campsites and the businesses that rely on domestic tourism. Most campsites (and B&Bs, Cottages, cafes, ice cream vans...) are small, independent businesses and few have cash reserves to fall back on. In the first few months of the year, owners often use deposits to refurbish accommodation ready for the new season, so most have little money in the bank. Easter bookings are relied on to inject some cash into the business.
Working in a seasonal industry, there's usually a hive of activity in early spring as you start to get everything ready for the months ahead - in my case making improvements to vans, sourcing and converting new ones, making sure everything is serviced and ready to go, and breathing a sigh of relief as the phone calls and emails start to come in. As the clocks move forward an hour and the temperature starts to gradually climb, you're reminded of all of the possibilities that come with spring and summer, and start to look forward to all of the adventures that you and your customers have got planned for the year ahead.
But just as things were about to get going, we were stopped in our tracks, and of course with good reason. The current guidelines state that people in England should not travel to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, where the public is still being told to avoid any travel which is not essential. Holidays are not permitted, and you aren't supposed to stay overnight anywhere other than your main home. Naturally this includes campsites, and also extends to 'wild camping' – the practice of pitching your tent or parking your van on any bit of public land that suits. Under normal circumstances wild camping is only legal on Dartmoor in England and across most areas of Scotland, but under current restrictions it is strictly prohibited in both countries, and anyone caught will incur a large fine. Based on the current guidelines, we're not able to rent out vans until at least June.
What changes have Manchester Camper Hire made?
One of the biggest changes we've made at Manchester Camper Hire is that we've created video tours to show you around your van. This means less face-to-face time when you collect your campervan, gets you on the road quicker, and gives me more time to clean the vans. Whilst the vans always go out clean, we've now added an extra level to this including disinfecting keys, steering wheels, and door handles to minimise risk. You can get a quote, book, pay, and even sign the hire agreement online, so everything is contactless.
As things seem to change day by day at the moment, we appreciate you might be forced to change your booking. Bookings affected by travel restrictions can be changed as often as you need to with no charge, and our prices are the same all year round, so you won't lose out.
We sell out every summer, and this year will be no different, so it's also worth considering a UK holiday later in the year. All of our vans have heaters, and some say autumn is the best time to go camping! (And no, we won't increase our prices!)
So with that in mind, how about June?
Perhaps it's optimism, or maybe just naivety, but ever since this thing started I've been convincing myself that it won't be for too long. I tend to look for the glimmer of hope in every press release and statement from the government.
Recently we were told that non-essential businesses would be able to open their doors from early June, if they could meet the new safety and security guidelines. If estate agents and garden centres can open safely, then a campsite MUST be able to?! Whenever I'm away, whether it's in a van or a tent, half the point is to get away from the crowds in the city, and - no offence - to avoid people as much as possible!
Campsites often have generously sized pitches spread over large, rural locations, so they should mostly find it easy to tweak their businesses a little to make them safe.
First, they can restrict access to those who've pre-booked, to ensure that the number of people on site doesn't make it difficult to maintain social distance.
Secondly, when taking bookings, take all payments by card or online, and send any arrival info necessary by email so that check-in can be contactless too.
Finally, increase the frequency of cleaning toilet blocks and wash-up areas, as this is one of the only parts of a campsite where there's the potential for cross over. Marked queues for toilets also seem likely, and we could even see some sites introduce time-slots or ticketing systems for kitchens and shower blocks. To increase capacity, how about using all the portable toilets that would normally be going to the cancelled festivals? Glastonbury alone would have been using 3,000!
Sadly, the little extras that sometimes make a campsite unique - play areas for the kids, wood-fired pizza vans, cafes, shops and pubs - will most likely have to stay closed for now.
So June, then?
Well, maybe not. If camping trips ever went perfectly to plan, it would all be fine. But they don't! After you're finally packed and on the road, someone remembers that the dinner you'd prepped for the first night is still in the fridge at home. So you nip into the co-op just down from the campsite. The next day, you need to entertain the kids so you head to the beach...but so does everyone else. And then everyone wants an ice-cream, and then the toilet, and then back to the co-op....and hundreds of people all doing this is the problem, typically in areas with narrow paths, tiny shops, and a smaller choice of places to visit.
Most of the remote, rural communities we like to visit are also home to people who - at least when it comes to Coronavirus - are more vulnerable. Over 25% of Cumbria's residents are over 65, compared to around 18% nationally.
Not only that, but small communities just don't have the resources for dealing with an outbreak.
Put it this way - Caithness General Hospital near Wick has 44 beds, Manchester Royal Infirmary has over 1700! Whilst the communities we like to visit will of course be keen to get their own local businesses up and running again, it would be madness to do it at the expense of their own safety. It's no wonder that the Lake District national park's chief executive asked people not to travel "because of the impact you will have on the local communities".
So, when can we go camping again?!
Well, on the 28th of April, minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, announced that tourist hotspots will be off-limits “for some time to come”. Two days later, prime minister Boris Johnson told the daily briefing that it was important to “get tourism going again”. You can see why it's difficult to be exact about this!
However, since the latest update to advice in May, most campsites in England are now preparing to reopen in July, with social distancing measures in place and reduced capacity, so that people can pitch their tents and move around without coming too close to their fellow campers.
Whilst in an ideal world, it's theoretically possible that some campsites will be able to open from the 1st of June, realistically I'm slowly starting to accept that as long as campsites are (unfairly!) kept in the same category as hotels, it's more likely to be the 4th of July. Of course, a second wave of coronavirus infections would certainly see any reopening dates pushed back indefinitely. Different regions in England may also see restrictions lifted at different times, depending on the localised level of risk posed by Covid-19. Until we know more, the best thing we can all do is to stay at home as much as possible, and not head out to the national parks until the time is right.
This will be over soon, and when it is, we'll be right here waiting with some very bored and lonely campervans desperate for adventure! Until then, please be patient, look out for each other, and stay safe!
Thanks for reading! Nick 😄🚌
P.S....if you need a bit more of a campervan hit during quarantine, here are a few books that you might like to read to whet your appetite ready for the summer.