The Business of Snowbirds in Arizona

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Nancy Bale and her husband last owned a home in Colorado before they decided to sell and travel state to state, so where do they go in the winter? Arizona, of course.

Welcome to the snowbirds.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, they suddenly seem to appear in large numbers and take over the road, shops and RV parks. With them comes something good for the state: money.

Statistics on snowbirds cannot be easily found. Data of winter visitors in Tucson are kept but are not separated into a separate snowbird database. According to a study done by Arizona State professors, during the 2002-2003 winter season, more than $600 million was put into the Arizona economy by snowbirds living in RV/trailer/mobile homes.

Researchers estimated 300,000 snowbirds in Arizona for that season. Elizabeth Farquhar from the School of Business at ASU, also worked on the study said they stopped collecting snowbird data due to changes in “bird behavior.”

“We used to survey RV parks, since most were using mobile homes as their winter residencies. We found however, that increasing numbers had second homes, eliminating check in records, which made it difficult to know when they came and left,” said Farquhar. 

According to the Arizona Office of Tourism, no studies on snowbirds have been done in the past 6 years. With a research cost of over $100 thousand and a lack of funding, the department had to prioritize which studies to conduct.

“Our agency is currently looking into an other winter visitation survey,” said Kiva Couchon, the Arizona Office of Tourism public information officer and communication manager.

“We cant to know and understand the economic impact,” Couchon added.

According to Couchon, a snowbird study takes a lot of coordination of people and they are looking into more partnerships to conduct the study.

“What’s not to like?” said Carmen Geoggrion, a snowbird from New Mexico. Geoggrion comes to Tucson to visit friends and family and shop.

“The traffic here is fantastic compared to Phoenix,” she said.

According to Mariam Saleh, a former business owner on Tucson’s 4th Avenue and Rhonda Valentino, a real estate agent for Tierra Antigua Realty, Snowbirds generally come from the upper-mid west states such as Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and other states including Washington and Oregon.

Saleh, says that January to April is the strongest time for business from snowbirds. However, she adds that, “from time to time, I would see some snowbird business in November and December. “

With December being a time for students to return their families, business can be expected to be slow. With Saleh’s business, she saw the opposite for a combination of reasons. November to Deccember sales would increase due to the holidays.

“If I were to characterize “winter break” spending I would roughly estimate 35 percent local shoppers, 20 percent tourists, 25 percent snowbirds and 20 percent students,” Saleh said.

As for what did Saleh’s business supply to cater snowbirds? Toys.

“I ordered more toys for children during snowbird season. They were much more likely to spend money on nice homemade gifts for grandkids than a parent with young children,” Saleh added.

For snowbirds, it is all about the weather, restaurants and activities Tucson has to offer, such as the Tucson Gem and Mineral show and the 4th Avenue Fair.

“Weather is the biggest thing,” said Michael Tantillo, a snowbird from Chicago who has been coming to Tucson for 11 years. “Chicago is full of high humidity and it’s cold,” he added.

Valentino believes that snowbirds bring a lot to Tucson’s economy.  According to Valentino, a new change that started about a year ago is the snowbirds’ ages.

You can now find snowbirds in their 50s who “make purchases now while they are still working and when prices are lower,” Valentino said.

Snowbirds, who come from as Valentino puts it, “states that have a nasty winter,” are now shopping for homes in southern states as their second residence.

From her experience, when a snowbird starts house hunting, especially in this buyer’s market, they rarely give up.

“They usually make a purchase before they leave,” said Valentino.

Snowbirds also contribute greatly to RV parks. Pericles Wyatt owner of Desert Trails RV Park located west of the Tucson Mountains near Ajo Highway and San Joaquin road, has owned the RV Park for 14 years and greatly depends on snowbirds for business.

“This business wouldn’t be here without them,” Wyatt said.

Wyatt sees snowbirds leaving the cold weather behind from northern states and even from some parts of Canada. His biggest state visitor is Colorado.

“Without the good weather we would not attract them,” he said.

Wyatt fully understands the value of the snowbird and knows that any business can and will benefit from visits of snowbirds.

Wyatt said he believes that snowbirds are self-sufficient and that more RV parks are needed to boost Tucson’s economy.

“The more RV parks the better for the economy,” said Wyatt.

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