It’s pretty common knowledge that February and March are really busy months for the park industry no matter where you might be. In the sunbelt, it’s the height of the winter season where parks are going full blast and hopefully full occupancy. In the northern tier of the country, parks are busy with booths at RV and camping shows in their market areas and with state and regional association conventions. Just ask Jeff Sims how busy he is from mid-February to the end of March!There are two important RV industry events that seem to float a bit below the radar of most of the industry – the annual session of the National School of RV Park & Campground Management held the 3rd week of February and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association Annual Meeting, typically held in early March.
I was pleased to be able to attend both meetings and would like to share some observations with you on these two events.
I’d like to think that one of the most significant legacies of my role in the industry since 1987 is the National School of RV Park & Campground Management held annually since 1994 at Oglebay Park in Wheeling, WV. The recently concluded session was #20! We estimate that more than 1000 individual parks have had owners, managers and other personnel attend the school over the years. One of the most frequently asked questions about the school is “how did the school wind up at Oglebay and not in a more central and accessible location?”
The quick answer: Oglebay is part of a public park system – one of the first in the nation that operated under a rule that said it must be self-sufficient and not rely on tax dollars. Early on, the professional park executives at Oglebay realized that they had to develop a year round base of visitors to keep the facilities operating and financially viable. So they added a holiday light festival that became one of the East’s most popular tour destination between Thanksgiving and late January. These folks also decided that they had expertise in the park business that could help other public park systems improve their operations. This led them into doing consulting…..and that led to a relationship with North Carolina State University and thus Oglebay became home to a number of NC State and other recreation-oriented schools throughout the winter months. A great strategy for asset management. In 1992, as then the National Association of Campground Owners was looking for assistance in creating hospitality training programs, Al Daniels, owner of Normandy Farms Family Campground in Massachusetts, received a training video produced by the Oglebay Department of Continuing Education, headed up by Bill Koegler and Lisa Railing. To make a long story short, Al forwarded the video to NCOA headquarters and the contact with Lisa about the video led to a visit to Oglebay and thus the School of RV Park & Campground Management was born.
The key players in the early days included Al Daniels, the chairman of the new Foundation, Erv Banes, president of the Natl Association of Campground Owners and a park owner from Frankenmuth, MI, and Herb Strauss, a national board member and NCOA Treasurer, and yours truly. We were joined by representatives of the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service. (Please forgive me if the titles are not quite right – been a long time).
Right from the outset, Oglebay provided very important administrative and early financial support and they continue to do so to this day. With the experience of operating many schools for many years, they have the infrastructure and systems in place to efficiently manage and operate many aspects of the school. In addition, the resort itself has been a model in meeting changing consumer wants and needs, keeping up to date and reinvesting in its facilities and amenities. All providing an excellent laboratory for hosting the park school.
And that’s why the school is at Oglebay and hopefully will remain there for many years to come. It is a retreat center, a resort, a hospitality laboratory and a wonderful school host – perfect for an RV park and campground management school.
The just finished school session that concluded on February 24th, is perhaps the most outstanding session the school has experienced. There was a sense of purpose and seriousness among the students that combined with a positive and energetic spirit we haven’t often seen in years past. The student body is as diverse as can be imagined in this industry ranging from younger men and women moving into family businesses, a Desert Storm and Iraqi war veteran building a new park, several students from Native America tribes in Utah, to owners or managers of large independent or franchised parks.
And the school faculty really hit its stride this year. It’s always been an excellent group of volunteer instructors but this year the combination of this student body and this faculty seemed to jell just a step ahead of previous years. This year’s school session seemed to be a home run.
Having praised this year’s school, I must admit that the real word on how good the school was has yet to be received. Each year, the students evaluate each class and provide feedback on content and teaching. Takes some thick skin to read those evaluations some times but I’m anxious to see if the student feedback matches my comments on the quality of this year’s school.
When I think about what contributed to the success of the school this year, what was new and different? There are two significant factors that come to mind.
First, the connection among students through a closed student and instructors only Facebook page created, monitored and motivated by Board of Regents Member and instructor Tracie Fisher was a great innovation this year. I think this Facebook communication played a key role in building and fostering relationships among the students and between instructors and students before, during and after the school. I think it was a major contributor to the spirit and seriousness of this year’s school. Thanks to Tracie for introducing this social media connection to the school.
The other significant factor this year was the week-long presence of Karl Littman, owner of a VA campground, school graduate and advocate, and Chairman of the ARVC Foundation. Karl’s personality and persona, his enthusiasm for the school, his public comments and speaking, his youthfulness that matched many of the students, his great big smile throughout the week, and his regular visits to the library late at night to work with the students all made him a star for the week and added greatly to the spirit that pervaded the school campus. Thanks Karl for devoting your week to promoting the school and the Foundation. It’s good to have someone at the helm of the Foundation that really “gets it” and can convey the message.
Facebook and Karl Littman…..the new sauce on an already great recipe for success.
Thinking of coming to Oglebay? February 20 – 25, 2014. See you there?
The RVIA Annual Meeting
I remember former RVIA President David Humphries once telling me that one of his principals of association management was whatever the association board decides is important enough to do, must be done thoroughly and the right way from the outset. Anything less, any cutting corners, means it’s not all that important and it’s an activity that should be skipped.
Although Dave is now happily (I expect) in retirement, his successor as RVIA president, Richard Coon and the entire RVIA operation surely continues to subscribe to that philosophy. And the RVIA Annual Meeting I attended on March 4 and 5 surely reflected the importance and the serious nature RVIA attaches to its annual meeting.
Although there were less than 100 people at the meeting, from my perspective, it was truly a first rate experience in every way. Outstanding presentations by speakers Jim Rogers of KOA, an economic outlook presentation by Dr. Lowell Catlett and a panel of top industry executives from the dealers, bankers, manufacturers and suppliers highlighted an information packed morning session.
Jim Rogers is a charismatic speaker and an excellent spokesperson for the camping sector. There’s probably no one better to keep the RV manufacturers in the loop and help them understand the campground sector. It is generally quite refreshing to see a new interest among manufacturers in the park business. For many years, there seemed little interest in our business. Whatever the reason for the new outlook, it’s certainly appreciated.
The actual membership annual meeting included carefully constructed and expertly delivered details of RVIAs activities over the last year. Excellent RVIA updates provided by Richard Coon, Mack O’Bryan (RV IA’s VP of Administration and essentially their Chief Financial Officer), and Jim Ashurst (RVIA’s Vice President of Marketing/Advertising and the head of Go RVing) covered the most important areas of association activities. And a special presentation by the president of the American Recreation Coalition, Derrick Crandall, on the outlook for outdoor recreation on public lands was outstanding, providing the industry with a complete picture of this important topic. With public lands being a primary place RVers travel to, the ability and receptivity of these lands to camping, campgrounds and RVs is critical.
I was quite taken by the financial report. RVIA is the custodian of a very healthy reserve, approaching $21 million if my recollection is correct. With an annual budget of over $8 million, have 2.5 times operating budget in reserve really is at the top of the scale in the association world. With it, RVIA is in a solid position to weather the economic downturns that may come along but is also well positioned to take every advantage of circumstances and conditions
Coming out of the recession, the meeting was upbeat with a bit of caution in the air. The class A motorhome sector is showing signs of a somewhat resurgence. The towable sector is carrying the industry. RVIA’s manufacturing membership is down from a peak of around 105 to now about 67. Richard Coons pointed out that at its peak, on average manufacturers were selling around 2500 units a year; today, with fewer manufacturers and rising sales, the average has risen to about 4500 units per manufacturer. So fewer manufacturers serving a growing market hopefully will lead to stronger companies better positioned to face any future economic disruptions and possibly able to step up product research and innovation – the backbone of any real expansion of the industry.
One interesting discussion heard in the hallways and over lunch centered on how to remove some of the hassle factor that accompanies the ownership of an RV. Jim Rogers in his presentation talked about all of the buttons, switches, gauges, and dials, the need for more new owner training and simplifying the life of the RVer. Many retirees that own RVs take on that ownership as their new job. Younger owners who don’t have the time or inclination to spend hours preparing, fixing, adding or subtracting from their RV are likely to find the rig to be a real hassle then a pleasure. Maybe I’m reading my own views into the conversations that I heard, but be that as it may, in many cases the hassle factor is impacting on sales – especially of motorhomes.
Congratulations to RVIA on not only a successful Annual Meeting, but a good kick a….. year!
Two great events – the management school and the RV Industry meeting. Two views of the industry from different perspectives.