Industry Insites – August 2014

Go RVing…..and Camping

In recent weeks, a series of meetings and articles have led me to now propose in all seriousness that it is time for the RV manufacturers, dealers and campgrounds to get together and broaden the focus of Go RVing to include camping. Imagine, a Go RVing…..and Camping campaign that stands as the industry’s national brand bringing together all the legs of the industry and wrapping Go RVing and Go Camping America into a single national effort.

The recession of 2008, 2009 and 2010 saw a dramatic decrease in the sale of RVs combined with a steady pace of RV park and campground business and a renewed interest in extended stay and seasonal camping. While RV sales have rocketed back to pre-recession levels, extended stay and seasonal camping has continued to capture the interest of Americans across the nation. And this strong consumer interest in this camping style has manifested itself in the RV manufacturing side in a couple of significant ways.

As the strength of seasonal camping hit home with the RV manufacturers, they have responded by creating and marketing the largest travel trailers and 5th wheels as “residential” trailers, seasonal vacation homes, and similar terms focusing on extended stay use in a single location. These units, while legally towable down the highway, are designed and built for destination use – parked in a campground and used as a vacation home by the owners.

These new trailers and 5th wheels have blurred the lines between the traditional RV and the recreational park trailers or park models. With the merger of the Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association (RPTIA) and the RV Industry Association, the RV industry has moved to recognize the critical importance of campgrounds as the home to these extended stay units and the role that these units will play in the continuing growth and expansion of the RV market.

In the last 18 months, under the leadership of RVIA President Richard Coon, RVIA has created its own Camping Committee, a Destination Camping Committee and the RV Park Trailer Committee. These committees are moving towards expanding consumer interest in seasonal camping and campgrounds with new research now ongoing with the Richards Agency that handles the Go RVing program, and with the Park Trailer Committee studying new promotional campaigns under the Go RVing umbrella to promote those units.

On the other side of the industry – at the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds (ARVC) – in a recent article on the direction of the campground industry, ARVC President Paul Bambei noted that ARVC remains underfunded and unable to conduct the kind of consumer promotion campaigns under Go Camping America that many feel are necessary to grow the park side of the industry. Having a successful Go Camping America website that attracts a significant number of visitors without having the resources to market camping to the non-camping world and really build the value of Go Camping America as a place to go to for camping information as Go RVing provides for those interested in learning more about RVs, is not enough.

ARVC funding has most likely bumped up against the upper limits of potential dues revenue it can generate. Membership expansion has long proved elusive with ARVC membership in the 3000 range for many years. Even adding another 1000 members at an average of even $400/member would only bring in $400,000.

And ARVC’s income from other sources – convention and trade show income, commissions or royalties from companies providing member benefits , sale of publications, and Foundation fundraising – may also be approaching the upper limits. With few national companies serving as product or service suppliers to the park industry, revenue and support from suppliers is also somewhat capped.

So how to fund a campground promotional campaign to educate and inform Americans of the joys and pleasures of America’s campgrounds?

The source of funds for Go RVing are the manufacturers who pay a small amount of money each time they purchase a certification seal to place on a new RV. Each RV sold has an RVIA certification seal affixed to it indicating it is certified to be in compliance with certain construction standards. RVIA sells the seals to the manufacturers and the cost of the seal covers the cost of the RVIA certification and inspection program and includes a Go RVing fee based on the type of unit sold.

Spreading the costs over the tens of thousands of RVs manufactured each year is a far better option than trying to extract more money from commercial businesses whose bottom line is directly affected by association dues, education and training costs and other non-operational expenses.

About 15 or 16 years ago, the ARVC board held a workshop session to discuss the feasibility of adding a $ .10/night “camper promotion fee” to each camping party. It was thought that this fee might even substitute for regular association dues both on the state and national levels. The board agreed to conduct a pilot test at 6 or 8 campgrounds to see if and how consumers would respond to an additional ten cents per night added to their camping bill. Although the results of the pilot project showed no negative consumer response, the ARVC board voted to table the idea and it has never been brought back to the table.

The Go RVing program relates directly to the purchase of a new RV. I would suspect that not a single RV sale has been lost or even delayed by the $40 to $60 fee added to the cost of the rig. And as a result of this technique of building support, the Go RVing campaign has annual budgets as high as $18,000,000 or more.

I’d propose that RVIA add to the cost of a seal an additional $15 and earmark the funds for the “……and Camping” component of a new Go RVing….and Camping promotion program. The collection mechanism is already in place and as RV sales have shown, the slight increase in cost of the RV is in no way an obstacle to the sale.

And, dare I say, that if this were to happen, RVIA and RV manufacturers might have considerably more influence in creating, setting and enforcing some key guest service standards among the campgrounds. The RV industry would be pleased to see the quality of the campgrounds improve substantially, and perhaps by working cooperatively with the park industry, RVIA and others in the RV side of the business might be more successful in influencing the park industry to up its game to a higher level.

While there is no doubt that RVs are used in many ways outside of camping, there is also no doubt that without quality campgrounds to accommodate the RVs and RV park trailers RV sales could suffer. With the RV industry moving more closely to the campground industry in recognition of the role the campground plays in the RVing experience, the merger of Go RVing and Go Camping America seems a natural and the industry leaders should begin now to move towards that unification.

Industry InSites July 2014

Competition Heats Up

Over the years, independent park owners that comprised much of the industry prided themselves on their openness and willingness to share information and experiences with other owners or new comers. This spirit of cooperation was a hallmark of the industry for many years. A rising tide – better operated campgrounds – would raise all boats – and everyone would benefit. While this spirit of cooperation can still be found in the business, there’s no doubt that competition is heating up among parks in many parts of the country. Several factors are contributing to the emerging competitive environment within the park business.

First, on the heels of the recession of 2008-2009, many campers and RVers are staying closer to home and traveling far and wide less frequently. The local and regional markets are the primary source of business for many campgrounds and attracting local and regional business is increasing important and competitive.

Second, there are more large companies expanding their network of campgrounds by acquiring parks in many markets, promoting their brands with considerable financial resources and expertise, and providing real competition where it may not have existed previously. Companies such as ELS, Sun Communities, Carefree, RVC Outdoor Destinations, Yogi Bear Jellystone Parks and KOA are bringing new marketing energy to the industry and working hard to expand their market share.

The deep discount camping clubs – Freedom Resorts, Passport America, Escapees – continue to expand, adding a competitive factor into the marketing plans of many parks.
And of course Good Sam and the new Amerigo Camping Club have more than 1.5 million members combined that they are pushing to their affiliated parks.
And for the independent campgrounds and RV parks around the US, we can’t overlook the new competitive force of Kampgrounds of America. Always a force in the market with more than 500 franchised and corporate owned properties, the new KOA initiatives to re-brand their affiliates to better help the RVer and camper find a KOA that meets their needs and now their plan to launch major national television advertising, KOA is rapidly repositioning its brand to gain wider appeal to all segments of the RVer and camper market and to expand their markets into the non-camper segment by aggressively promoting their cabins. KOA has always been a powerhouse marketing engine within the industry, but now with these initiatives, they are changing the popular perceptions of KOAs as good but not great places to camp to great places to visit. Raising their standards and demanding that affiliates become better and better, they are likely to grab market share across the US.
Finally, the competitive field is being challenged by federal, state and county parks that are expanding campgrounds and upgrading to a higher and more developed standard in order to attract more business and raise rates to support public recreation and public parks. There is no doubt in my mind, that these facilities are going to increasingly challenge private, commercial parks for market share.

The future is clear for independent campgrounds – step up your game in all aspects of your business to compete successfully or risk being the victim of declining occupancy as others “eat your lunch” in your market.

With the growth of RV sales and the rising popularity of outdoor recreation and camping, it’s a new era for the park business, one that calls for everyone to be on their toes all the time.

Technology Comes to the Laundry Room

I remember being impressed when my kids were in college and they could use their credit cards or school-issued meal cards to pay for the washers and dryers in the dorm laundry. Great idea. But I was taken by surprise by the latest development in laundry technology that I saw recently at a campground.

Aside from the ability to charge your washing and drying on a credit card, there was a system that enabled a customer to receive a text on their phone when a washer or dryer became available and another text to alert when their washing or drying was finished. No more hanging around waiting for an open washer and wondering where the thoughtless person was whose wash was done, “why were’nt they here to take their clothes out so I can use the machine?”

A good step forward in delivering top notch customer service in today’s technology age.

Are Campground Game Rooms and Cable TV On Their Way Out?

I’m hearing that many parks are re-positioning their game rooms and arcades. As more and more kids and families are traveling with their own game devices, many of the formerly popular arcades are seeing the revenues decline, especially on video games. While there may still be a good market for pinball games, billiards or pool, air hockey and crane games, the old reliable video games are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

What’s your experience?

Along the with the changes in the game room business, it would seem that offering cable tv may also be on the decline, or at least about to head in that direction. With rapidly expanding demand for quality internet service with sufficient bandwidth to enable streaming of movies and television programs, combined with rising costs of providing cable television, it seems that the time may be coming to do away with cable television and put the savings into providing the best internet access possible. There is significant cost associated with quality park-wide wireless internet, but the savings on eliminating cable tv may compensate for the cost of providing high quality wi fi.

Anybody heading in this direction?

Digital Marketing for the Outdoor Recreation Industry

Industry digital marketing expert and RV Cooking Show hostess Evanne Schmarder is publishing a bi-weekly Digital Marketing Newsletter for the Outdoor Recreation Industry. The newsletter is available at no charge – drop Evanne a note at evanne@roadabode.com and ask her to add you to the subscriber list. If you agree that electronic marketing is the way to go for marketing your park, and even if you’ve got an expert social media marketer on your staff, you owe it to yourself to subscribe to this newsletter and keep up to date on the rapidly growing field of digital marketing.

Each issue is filled with ideas, tips, suggestions on how to improve your digital marketing and how to expand your reach.

And while you’re at it and contacting Evanne, ask her for a copy of her recently released Digital Marketing Benchmark Study, a valuable report on what your competitors are doing in the digital marketing era.

David Gorin Associates is a sponsor of both the Digital Marketing Newsletter and the Digital Marketing Benchmark Study. Digital is the wave of the future.

Industry InSites

Campground Management Myths
David Gorin

The other morning Marcus Lamonis joined me for my morning cup of coffee. Not literally, but with Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today show, there was Mr. Lamonis (ML) chatting with Matt and interviewing 2 small business owners both looking for capital to help build their businesses.

Business 1 was a couple with a new barbeque sauce they developed and are marketing. Business 2 was two men selling “crispy chick peas.”

Long story short, ML bought into the barbeque sauce business for $25,000 and to the chick pea business for $100,000. Wrote both companies checks on the spot.

As ML’s profile rises in the business and media world, and as he spreads his wealth around via the CNBC program The Profit and previously on Secret Millionaire, as well as on these segments of the Today Show, the question does come up – as ML is a key player in the camping industry, is this good for RV park and campground business? Other than being identified as the CEO of Camping World and Good Sam, is his rising image a positive factor, a negative factor or a neutral factor for our industry?

When KOA CEO Jim Rogers appeared on Undercover Boss, clearly the show created a positive image of KOA and camping. When Jim speaks at the RV industry’s power breakfast in Elkhart, at the RVIA annual meeting, at an ARVC annual meeting, he’s out there speaking about the industry, presenting new ideas, challenges, and views on how to make the industry better.

Two strong industry leaders, ML and JR, taking different approaches to becoming identifiable business leaders coming from the RV park, campground and RV industry.

How are these men playing to our industry? What are these men contributing to the industry that has launched them as media figures and raised their stature, wealth, and value to the companies they lead?

Although ML is apparently tied closely to NBC, I won’t be the least surprised to see him show up one of these days as one of the “sharks” on ABC’s Shark Tank. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see him go toe to toe with Mr. Wonderful, Mark Cuban or one of the sharp women on the show? Can’t imagine ML is going to stay in the financial area with CNBC when a show like Shark Tank is a highly-rated major network star show.

And I predict that Amazon and Barnes & Noble will soon be featuring ML’s good looking features on the cover of a book for entrepreneurs……Marcus Lamonis’s Keys to Entrepreneurial Success (or something like that). A book must be in the works.

And after Camping World and Good Sam, what can come next?

Personally I’d like to see ML be more of a spokesperson for and to the park industry a la Jim Rogers. He surely has a lot to share with small business people such as park owners. Be interesting to hear him as a keynote speaker at an ARVC convention. Be interesting to see him make some investments in parks that are among the advertisers in Good Sam. Be interesting to see him spend some time with park owners who provide the experiences that make owning an RV and camping so special. Maybe Just ML in an RV traveling in different parts of the country – no cameras, no press – just ML interacting with many of the people who are the foundation of the success of the Good Sam Club and Camping World.

Can the Private Sector Withstand the Growing Power of State Parks?

Anyone following the RV Daily Report published each day by Greg Gerber has to be struck by the amount of news coming from various state and county park systems around the country. Most of this news announces new or expanded campgrounds in state and county parks, talks about fees either being increased or decreased in these campgrounds, or announces new cabin camping opportunities, group activity options and even RV storage and enhanced guest services.

For many years, the commercial campground industry has been quite concerned about the expansion and competition from public parks. The competition comes in many forms – lower camping fees, tax money used for expansion, the addition of full service RV sites a la the private sector, the addition of cabins, the use of volunteer workers, and similar benefits available to the public sector and unavailable to commercial park operators.

Since the recession of the last decade, the tightening of public budgets and the strong growth in the popularity of camping, state and local park systems seem to have stepped up their campground operations as they see this as a source of revenue to counter declining public tax dollar support.

In addition, state and county legislators are apparently subject to great pressure from local constituents who see parks and campgrounds in their backyards and supported by their tax dollars as very important services provided by government. And for legislators, a ribbon cutting ceremony at a new public campground or park makes for very good PR, especially around election time.

There’s no doubt in my mind that state and county parks are going to become a greater and greater force in providing campgrounds for both locals and visitors. The revenue is enticing and the economic impact of these parks on their local communities appears to be quite significant. Reports showing huge returns on investments in public campgrounds are hard to ignore and local tourist and recreation interests see them as a pot of gold.

The park industry needs to sharpen its game and face up to this growing challenge. Small local campgrounds catering to families and local and regional markets need to work longer, harder and smarter to hold on to their market share in light of what I see as stepped up public competition.

There are many dimensions to the relationship between public and private parks and while one dimension is competition, the cooperative dimension of the relationship can be beneficial to both sectors. Perhaps putting aside the difficult areas of the relationship and focusing on the areas where cooperation can help both parties is one way to approach the challenge. And perhaps the public sector needs to be open to a more moderate pace of development and compromise rather than moving aggressively into areas heretofore found only in the private sector.

I think this is an issue that will be moving up the ladder of issues to be addressed in the coming years.

Industry InSites

Campground Management Myths
David Gorin

As I write this column on February 10th, we’re slightly more than halfway through the winter. And a tough winter’s it’s been certainly for the middle and northern tiers of the country. For the southern tier across California, Arizona, Texas and Florida it’s been pretty good – not great but way more better than up north. So with an unusual winter weather-wise, what’s new in the park and RV business?

Class A’s Coming Off the Floor?

Sales of motorhomes of all types were decimated during the 2007 – 2010 recession. Class As hit the floor in 2009 with the sale of just 5,900 units. These units appear to be making a comeback sales slowly improving to 13,100 in 2010, dropping slightly to 12,700 in 2011, increasing to 14,582 in 2012, and to 19,054 units in 2013. This latest number amounts to approximate 6.7% of all RV sales falling into the Class A category, up from just 5.6% in 2012, 5.5% in 2011 and 6% in 2010.

Can Class As continue to make a comeback in 2014 and beyond? In 1999, the peak year for Class A unit sales, these motorhomes were 15.4% of the total RV market. Will the industry reach that class A penetration any time soon?

The impact of the decline of class A unit sales seemed for some time to have effected the site sales in class A motorcoach only resorts and the development of new Class A only resorts. Judging from anecdotal information gathered at the recent Tampa Super Show, the Class A only resorts seem to be making a comeback, at least as far as exhibiting at Tampa would indicate.

If RV sales continue their march upward in the next few years, sales of Class A will likely also continue to trend upward in terms of numbers if not in terms of a percentage of RV sales. Will the increase in sales lead to a further resurgence of Class A only resorts? From my point of view, I don’t see a need for many new motorcoach only resorts, at least until all of the current inventory is absorbed, and it appears there’s a way to go in that direction. And from a development point of view, going Class A only certainly narrows the consumer market. With new luxury Class C’s and 5th wheels, the luxury RV park market can continue to grow while serving the upscale luxury RV segment without limiting itself to just Class As.

Many RVers I talked to at Tampa and at various parks in Florida are interested in luxury and the cost of the rig is not critical. However, the size of many class As is intimidating or simply considered unnecessary for much of the sophisticated upscale RVer market. I want the best but in a small, luxurious package. I want it simple and easy. And most of all, I want it to be reliable. The bigger the rig, the greater the possibility for mishaps and breakdowns.

Reservation System Choices Expanding

Of late, I’ve noticed two trends around the park business…….more and more park owners wondering how to best select a property management and reservation system and more companies apparently entering the park property management and reservation software business. This comes as no surprise as the park industry generally seems to be in the midst of a growth spurt and when business increases, new entrants are expected at all levels and in all business segments.

The latest entrants……..The Flybook, Front Desk Anywhere, RV Spotfinder, Go USA Camping, RMS North America

The latest entrants are best characterized by their new market approach, their background in related markets such as hotels, b & b’s, outdoor activities, their younger cutting edge team, and their stretch into the outdoor hospitality business. Expect you’ll hear a lot about these companies in the coming months.

The industry stalwarts……Campground Manager/Bookyoursite.com; Campground Automation/Sunrise; Digital Res International; Leisure Interactive/Hercules; Reserve America; Cottonwood Software/Campground Master; Vestivo RV/Reservation Management Solutions Inc.

These companies generally have a solid footprint in the park industry by virtue of their longevity in the market. These are well respected companies that have a long record of supporting the park industry and ARVC and are in to both the public and private campground sectors.

The up & comers…….Campground Connections; Open Book; Webrez Pro; Campworks, Centrum Systems.

These are generally new comers to the park business but have strong backgrounds and roots in technology and hospitality. Expect these folks to make noise in the coming years.

How to select a system for your park?

Selecting a system is a time consuming and tedious job that starts with park ownership and management doing an honest and deep assessment of what they want a technology system to provide. This entails carefully analyzing the park’s current business strategies, marketing, advertising, pricing, reservation practices and policies, activities, retail and rental operations, accounting practices, and information needs. And then, easier said than done, matching this analysis to the available systems.

Cost is always a factor and the systems vary widely in how they charge for services. The more bells and whistles, the higher the cost is likely to be. The more basic the system, the more basic the cost will be.

If you are just starting out in the process of selecting a Property Management System (PMS) or Reservation System or both, this might be an area where a consultant might be helpful, depending on your own level of knowledge and comfort with technology and park business. If you are thinking of switching from one system to another, here too a consultant may be helpful in working through the options and screening the park management from some very capable sales people. You don’t necessarily want to be sold on a system; you want to make your judgements based on needs and your assessment and not on a friendly salesperson.

Feel free to use the list of companies mentioned above to start your search on the internet. Each has a website and that’s always a good place to start to familiarize yourself with the products and services. And as with everything else these days, remember to check consumer reviews, talk to colleague park owners and seek out testimonials.

Good luck in your search.

Build New vs. Buy Old

Campground Management Myths
David Gorin

For some time, I’ve been on my soap box talking about the need for new product in the campground and RV park business. Why are there so few new parks being built? What’s the attraction to buying older parks and trying to modernize them to meet today’s consumer desires?

Well, the last two weeks or so, I’ve been hit between the eyes with two real life opportunities that have challenged and tested my ideas on new development vs. buying existing. Here are the two scenarios. What road is the best to pursue – developing new in an A location or buying existing in a B or C location.

Scenario One

The property is a 12 acre parcel located on a primary 4 lane highway less than a mile off an interstate highway exit in southwest Florida. The property is about 9 miles from the Gulf of Mexico beaches in a very prominent tourist area. I’d consider the location to be an A or an A-.

The land is approved for 109 sites including RV sites and cabins and no length of stay restrictions. The site is served by municipal water and sewer. Directly across the highway is a major high end residential and golf club and about 2 miles down the highway is the entrance to a very large and very successful residential, retail and recreational community. The curb appeal of the property is very good to excellent.

10 years ago the property owner and his son began building an RV park. 49 sites were developed, all with 50 amp electric and about 40’ x 70’ dimensions. An attractive entry road was completed and all the internal roads were asphalt. Individual sites were not paved. The park has never operated.

The owner’s son was the developer. Unfortunately, the son passed away suddenly at 44 years old. His father was devastated and for 10 years he could not bring himself to either finish the project or sell the property. The park was not completed and has never operated.

The seller is asking $2 million for the property and the improvements and is not interested in providing any financing. It is estimated that it will cost about $3 million to complete the remaining approved sites and rehabilitate the existing 49 sites. The existing roads need to be re-surfaced and the pedestals probably need to be replaced and electric meters added. The site also needs a swimming pool, restrooms, laundry and a clubhouse of some kind.

Because of the quality of the location, there is considerable demand for affordable RV sites. A review of the area indicates that monthly rental in the $500/month range is reasonable and annual leases could go for $4500 to $5000 annually. It is assumed that the park could be fully rented to RVs and park models within 24 to 36 months.

Scenario Two

This property is a 12 acre parcel located on a just off a primary 4 lane highway about 15 miles from a major interstate highway exit in central Florida. The property is located in a mid-size city and is along a commercial stretch of highway. While the area is known for its equestrian farms and there are many large equestrian estates in the general area, the park is not located in that area. Due to the commercial nature of the adjacent property and the uncertainty of future uses for the undeveloped land across from the park, I’d consider the location to be an B- or a C.

A road passing along the rear of the park is now being expanded from 2 to 4 lanes. How this will impact on traffic and noise along that part of the park is uncertain.

This is an existing and operating RV parks with 104 RV sites and 2 park model sites. There are no restrictions on adding more park models and there is no length of stay restrictions. The site is served by municipal water. Waste is handled with a septic system.

This park was developed in 1998 by an RV dealership that is located adjoining the RV park. The park was developed as a sales and marketing tool for the dealership. The dealership has used sites in the park for their customers taking delivery on a new RV or coming for service. They provide up to 3 nights for buyers of units and provide driving and RV maintenance lessons during that time.

The RV park is accessed down a road that runs a long side the dealership. The land opposite the dealership along this road is vacant. There is also direct access from the park into the dealership.

The internal roads are asphalt as are all of the sites. There is a 4000 sq ft combination office, store, clubhouse, restrooms, and laundry. This building is in good condition. There is a small fenced in swimming pool with a nice sun deck next to the clubhouse.

The seller is asking $2.1 million, and is offering to finance about $1.5 million at 5.5%, 30 year s amortization with a ten year balloon. In 2012, the park grossed approximate $330,000 including store sales (amount unknown) and about $84,000 in rent from the RV dealership for the use of the sites. Revenue was about $3000 per site. Occupancy from December to April runs about 85% and rental rates are in keeping with the surrounding area parks. There are 10 sites that are occupied on an annual basis. It is estimated that there is about $350,000 in deferred maintenance including upgrading the restrooms, resurfacing the roads and sites and adding electric meters to each site. The park is rated 9/8/8 by Good Sam.

Based on the above and assuming that financing was available for each scenario, which route would you take? Buy and develop the A property in a solid location but no current cash flow, or buy and upgrade the B/C property in a marginal location but with existing cash flow?

Thoughts? Comments? Please drop me an email with your ideas…..david@davidgorinassociates.com

Campground Management Myths Debunked – Part 2

Campground Management Myths
David Gorin

Last month’s column featured 5 popular campground management myths and this month we continue that conversation with 5 other myths that seem to be particularly popular these days.  And once again, my thanks to colleague Evanne Schmarder for sharing some of her campground management myths.

As always, reader contributions are encouraged.  Are there other campground management myths you’ve come across that you would like to share?  Leave a reply below so we can share them with our colleagues.

Myth 6 (we left off last month at Myth 5)

 Work Campers are Free Help. Or at least they are inexpensive help.

 Nothing could be further from the truth but it’s this campground  management myth that makes the concept of having RVers work in a park so attractive to many park owners.  Everyone who works in a park carries some cost equal to at least the federal or state minimum wage.  Federal law requires businesses to pay their employees and generally volunteers are not permitted.  Every worker must be compensated in some form, either cash or a combination of cash, living expenses and other benefits to which a cost is clearly assigned (electricity, use of a company car, etc.).

As an aside here, if you are hiring minimum wage staff, there’s a good chance you’re getting minimum quality people.

Myth 7

 ADA compliance isn’t terribly important; in all the years I’ve owned this park, I’ve had only one or two persons with disabilities as guests.

 Assuring that your park is compliant (or working towards compliance) with the various provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act is important for several reasons.  First, the ADA is a federal law and your business must be complying with federal laws.  Failure to comply can open you up to federal lawsuits brought by the US Department of Justice if a guest files a complaint with the Justice Department.  Second, parks that offer ADA compliant facilities and services and welcome persons with disabilities will find that niche market to be a profitable addition to their business.  Approximately 8% of all Americans have a disability that is covered by the ADA – and that’s a market that is as large as the RV market – about 8% of all American households own an RV.

Compliance with ADA not only makes your park accessible to people with disabilities, it also makes your park more attractive to senior citizens and to families with young children, both of whom share the benefits of ADA compliant facilities and amenities.

Myth 8

 A large majority of my guests come from more than 50-75 miles away.  There’s really no reason for me to advertise locally or be very involved or concerned about my community.

 When they review the geographic distribution of their guests, many park owners are quite surprised to see how many guests come from 25 miles or less from their park.  Local folks who own RVs are always looking for places to go and even just 25 miles from home can feel like a real vacation – even for just a day or two.

Being known locally, being involved in local civic, business and other groups will surely lead to referrals from people in your community who may have friends, relatives, friends of friends and so on.  Just 25 camper nights resulting from local referrals at $40/night is an extra $1000 in revenue this year and over the next 10 years as fees rise and your reputation grows locally you could be looking at way more than $10,000 in revenue as a result of local involvement.

One other thing.  You never know when you will have an emergency need that someone locally can help address.  People help people they know and like and that will help them when needed.  Buying locally, supporting community and being an active player in addressing community needs will put you in a position to where others will want to help you in times of need or trouble.

Myth 9

 I’ve owned and run many successful small businesses – a restaurant, a HVAC company, and a self storage facility.  And I own some rental vacation properties.  Running a campground is a piece of cake and I really don’t need to go to industry meetings and conventions.  Not much more I can learn.

 Like any business, while running a campground may not be rocket science, an RV park or campground has many unique characteristics and aspects not found in most other businesses.

There are very few businesses where the customer is in the “store” for 24 hours at a time, where you have to provide for their basic needs like water and heat or a/c, and take care of their hygienic and bodily needs.

There are very few businesses where the customers are in such close quarters with each other for long periods of time, where they are sleeping, eating and doing whatever else they do in a small box maybe just 15 feet from their neighbor, where they often share bathrooms with strangers, and where their conversation, music, television, and kids can be heard by surrounding neighbors.

And how many businesses are there where the owner or manager has to be a store keeper, a utility operator, a recreation director, a swimming pool operator, a social worker (to deal with difficult people and seasonal campers), personnel specialist, maintenance expert, and do all of this not just with the guest looking over their shoulder, but often their spouse and kids watching and commenting on every move.

Fortunately, there are numerous ways for the new park owner to gain the knowledge necessary to transfer from former businesses to owning and operating a campground.  Trying to build a successful campground business based on your previous business experience could be a fatal mistake.

Myth 10

Walmart is killing my site nights and taking my business.

 If you are simply providing amenity-free, no hook up, parking lot camping and charging for it, yes, you may be losing site nights to Walmart to those campers looking for that type of overnight camping.    Walmart (and other parking lots) offer amenity-free, no hook up, parking lot camping for free so if you are offering a similar experience and charging for it, you will probably lose some business.

However, if you are a full service RV park and are priced appropriately for your market you will attract those RVers who seek a full service RV park experience.  You and Walmart are competition with each other the way a Motel 6 is in competition with a Hilton. Both levels of accommodations will attract a specific market each night.  Motel 6 customers will always go to a Motel 6; Hilton customers will go to Hiltons.  Only rarely will a Hilton customer go to Motel 6 or a Motel 6 customer go to a Hilton.

Yes, sometime Hilton guests will stay at a Motel 6, but that’s generally when no Hilton is nearby.  And yes, some campers will stay some nights at Walmart, but generally that’s when there is either no full service campground nearby, or it is difficult to get to, or the price is out of the ballpark.

How to compete with Walmart for campers?

Here are some ideas:   Add value to your overnight experience – offer a complimentary continental breakfast each morning; provide a discount coupon for use in your park on a return trip; charge non-overnight RVers full price to use your dump station; offer a travel rate for arrivals after 7 pm and departure by 8 am; offer complimentary shuttle service from your park to Walmart for guest shopping, etc.

I don’t mean to minimize the damage a Walmart parking lot can cause to a nearby campground.  But Walmart’s focus is on retail sales.  Your focus is on overnight camping.  Walmart knows more about retail then you do – and you know more about RV parks and RVers than Walmart.  Focus on your strengths and think out of the box.  Rather than wasting time and energy on Walmart, put that time and energy into attracting more guests to your park.  It’s not always about the money.

Campground Management Myths – We Want to Hear from You!

Comments?  Criticisms? Suggestions?  Weigh in on the campground management myths discussion by leaving a reply below.

People of the Park Business: An Interview with Mark Douglass

Mark Douglass, President & CEO of the RVing Accessibility Group
Mark Douglass, President & CEO of the RVing Accessibility Group

People Who Make Things Happen in the Park Business

The plan is to each month share the thoughts, ideas and wisdom of people who influence RVers, manufacturers, RV dealers, park owners and others with active interests in the park business. I hope you find these interviews interesting and invite your feedback and suggestions to improve the value of this space.

 Introducing Mark Douglass, President & CEO of the RVing Accessibility Group

With all of the angst and exasperation among park owners over the need to install swimming pool lifts and other ADA modifications, I thought it would be good to introduce Mark who is a disabled RVer with 17 years of RVing experience.  Mark was born with mobility disablement and experienced numerous surgeries in his first 18 years to where he could be mobile without depending on his parents or a wheelchair.  Later in life, Mark has experienced more mobility disabilities, and has been permanently disabled since 2001.  Mark has managed an RV campground and has experience dealing with disabled RV travelers from various backgrounds and with various disabilities. Having experienced the challenges of being a traveler with a physical disability, Mark has a passion to help the outdoor recreation industry, specifically campgrounds and RV parks, learn how to be ADA compliant, providing accessibility to their customers with disabilities.  Mark also provides like travelers and their caregivers with relevant and accurate information about campgrounds and RV parks that are accessible.

Mark is a graduate of Oklahoma State University with a Degree in Marketing and a Degree in Business Management, as well as a minor in Business Psychology.  Mark has over 35 years of sales and marketing consulting, quality assurance, and technical specification writing.

Mark spoke at the recent meeting of the Virginia Campground Association and is interested in speaking at state meetings in the coming year.  Mark also consults with park owners to help them evaluate and correct ADA dificiencies in their parks.

DG How did the RV Accessibility Group come about and what are the primary objectives of the organization?

Mark::  RVing Accessibility Group (RVAG) evolved from years of traveling while experiencing serious mobility issues (difficulty walking), requiring the use of a wheelchair during our RV trips.    As a result of my own physical disability and the caregiving by my wife, who experienced as much frustration as I when it came to enjoying the campgrounds, we decided to keep track of campgrounds we would return to for future travel.    Camping and RVing is often harder for the caregiver than the person with the disability.  We never knew if I would ever walk again.  After going through nearly 16 surgeries ending with a total ankle replacement in 2010, I regained most of my mobility, in and of itself a miracle.  We searched the internet for organizations that published wheelchair accessible RV parks, only to find none that were up to date.  It was shortly thereafter that we decided to use our own experience in an effort to help others who are where I have been and help them find ways to enjoy the RV lifestyle and all the outdoors has to offer, regardless of disability.  Our primary objectives are two-fold; 1) to identify and publish RV parks and campgrounds that provide a level of wheelchair accessibility that would provide an overall environment conducive to one’s dignity and independence, and 2) to educate the RV and campground industry on accessibility standards and awareness to help them come into ADA compliance by providing accessibility assessments to identify barriers for removal and developing a transition plan for implementation of ADA compliant standards and features.

DG:   When you speak before campground owner groups, what are you hoping to achieve with these presentations?

Mark: :  When speaking before campground owner groups, it is my hope that campground owners would begin to look at their facility with a different set of eyes.  Not everyone has 2 good legs or perfect eyesight.  Perhaps rent a wheelchair and see just how accessible one’s park really is, starting with the RV site.

 DG As you know, over the last year or two there’s been considerable concern among park owners and other segments of the hospitality business over the swimming pool lift requirements. Compared to other accessibility issues and concerns, do you feel that pool lifts should be a high priority in providing accessible campgrounds or do you think we should be focusing on other barriers that might exist and might be more important in the near term?

Mark:  Each campground should track their amenity use frequency and establish priorities based on customer use.  For families, many times pool time is expected.  To assume that a person in a wheelchair does not want to get in the pool is a bad assumption.  Maybe they don’t, but just maybe if there was a way, they would.  A very common response we receive to this issue is that “we have never had anyone in a wheelchair ask to use the pool”.  As a former high school swimmer who not only grew up in a wheelchair, but ended up in a wheelchair in 1997, I can tell you that for me there is nothing more invigorating than a visit to the pool on a hot day.  The pool lift accessibility requirement became law January 31, 2013 while the majority of other accessibility standards have evolved beginning with the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, followed by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and amendments thereof, ADA/ABA Guidelines of 2004, ADAAG for recreation and play areas, including 2006 Accessibility Guidelines by the U.S. Access Board and the most recent 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, not to mention the 2012 International Building Code.  With this much time between now and then, there really is no reason why campgrounds should not be fully compliant.

DG:   Why should park owners be concerned about full compliance with the ADA? Other than complying with federal law, are there advantages for the park owner in complying?

Mark:   Park owners should be concerned about full compliance because it is the law and not just the right thing to do.  The advantage for park owners complying with the law include attracting a large segment of the RVing population, that often times feels unwelcomed, yet has significant discretionary spending power.  Another advantage is the avoidance of severe penalties that can be assessed by the U.S. Department of Justice or litigation through the private sector.  A common response regarding this issue with campground owners is, “that’s why I have general liability insurance”, yet they fail to understand that in some instances a disability discrimination lawsuit can result in significant monetary damages (in some cases more than what insurance covers, if insurance covers the judgment at all for an ADA non-compliant element that should have been compliant), renovation mandates, and even business closures.  When properly marketed, a fully ADA compliant park can expect significant exposure through various media outlets, increased reputation, increased traffic, increased revenues, and increased repeat business.  Furthermore, there are federal tax credits available to help offset accessibility renovations each year an inaccessible element is made ADA compliant.

DG:   If your campground is fully accessible, how can a park owner market that accomplishment and what might the rewards be and what might the challenges be?

MarkThere are numerous ways to market a fully accessible park/campground.  When done effectively, the results can be truly amazing.  Few websites are dedicated to fully accessible parks.  While the RVing Accessible Group is leading the way in this endeavor, the challenge is finding a “fully” accessible park to publish.  It is like finding a needle in a haystack, if there truly is a needle to be found.  One of the challenges that many park owners face is the issue of people without disabilities co-existing with people who either exhibit disabilities or have invisible disabilities.  It is unfortunate, but with younger generations, there is still the stigma associated with being around a person with a severe disability and staring at such a person.  Disability etiquette and more education is the key to bringing all groups of people into the same world. 

DG:   What can you tell us about the issue of internet and website accessibility? Is this something that should be of concern?

Mark:  Internet and website accessibility is becoming more of an issue as more people with disabilities resume or begin their camping experience.  Many people with visual impairment have screen readers where what is written on the screen is read to the website visitor.  For those with cognitive and intellectual disabilities, some websites are designed where one can mouse over a picture and the picture will be described with the history that goes with it.  While these issues may become more of a concern over time, statistics show that the majority of people who go camping and have a disability have a physical disability.  Yet, all disabilities need be considered and accommodated.

DG:   Finally, what words of advice would you like to share with park owners about RVing and camping and accessibility? What messages do you have for our readers?

MarkI know that when I was a child born with severe clubbed feet and unable to walk that I was fortunate not to be made fun of until I reached Junior High School when the name calling began and even then it was by only a few “bullies”.  By age 18 I had more surgeries than most people have their entire life.  Later in life, after a near fatal car accident, I ended up permanently disabled, and again, endured numerous surgeries to eventually regain my freedom of mobility recently. 

Having been on both sides of the fence, serving and being served, there is one word that brings all people of all ages and disabilities together;  Love.  All living human beings have a beating heart and all have feelings, although some may not appear to care.  I encourage all park owners to treat their employees and customers as they themselves would want to be treated.  Live and exercise the Golden Rule.  I encourage those with disabilities to stand tall and be strong.  Don’t ever give up.  Quitters never win and winners never quit.  So, never quit!  I am an example of one who gave up on ever walking freely again, only to find a solution of a total ankle replacement to give me my freedom back.  The pain was unbearable at times and I told the surgeon that if the implant would not work, to amputate my foot as I would rather lose the foot than live with the pain.  By the grace of God, the implant worked and I am now committed to helping others with disabilities find ways to enjoy the great outdoors.  We all hear how much longer we are living today.  Having said that, life is still too short.  Get out, enjoy life, and enjoy all that Mother Nature has to offer.  Be grateful for what you have and not for what you don’t.  Life is a journey!  Live It!!

RV Park and Campground Management Myths Debunked

After many years (maybe too many) in the park industry there seem to be some popular beliefs held by park owners. I recently spent some time talking with Evanne Schmarder, a full time RVer, host of the RV Cooking Show, co-author of Unconventional Wisdom Works and the instructor of the Digital Workshop and digital marketing expert.  Evanne and I came up with what we think are popular campground management myths being perpetuated through the park industry.

Evanne Schmarder
Evanne Schmarder

Below are some of the campground management myths we’ve identified.  Among the readers of this article there’s likely to be some others you’ve come across.  Why not share them with us and we’ll include them in future Myths columns coming down the line.

 Myth 1

 A campground is a seasonal business.

 Yes, the doors may be open 6 months more or less but the use of the off-season period is critical to growth and success. Every park has at least two seasons – peak or prime season and planning and rejuvenating season.   During the open period the days are often packed with the day to day trials and tribulations of running a business with hundreds or even thousands of people on the property 24/7.  The off season is key to planning, strategizing, expanding, hiring, buying, marketing, educating, and installing.  And it’s time to relax – but not too much, vacation – but not too much, and otherwise energize and re-vitalize. 

 Myth 2

 During the winter people planning for summer camping  understand that we can’t always respond to calls or emails right away (or read during the summer, people planning for winter camping….).

In today’s world, campers (like most of us) want immediate gratification.  We are ready to make reservations now…we want answers to questions now.  Any obstacle to fulfilling my needs now make it very likely that I’ll go elsewhere until I find a business that meets my needs.  If they don’t respond during the winter (or summer) why would I expect they’d do any better when I’m camping there.

Meet the consumer on their terms.  Always have a system in place to meet those needs.

Myth 3

No one’s complaining, so everything must be ok.

All of my comment cards are positive and most of my on line reviews are great.  Sure, there’s the occasional disgruntled camper who takes it out by posting a nasty review on Trip Advisor or RV Park Reviews, but we really don’t get any complaints.  So things are really going well.

No one’s perfect.  Complaints are the best way to learn what needs to be improved.  Seek out complaints.  Don’t disregard any complaints – even those like the mosquitoes were really bad.  There are ways to deal with any complaint.  Use complaints to continuously improve your business.

And it’s common knowledge  that a majority of people who have real complaints won’t really voice them.  They will simply move on to another park and you may never no why.  Keep careful track of your first time guests and whether or not they repeat within a 12 month period.  For every camper who stayed at your park and never returns there may be an unresolved or unknown complaint. 

Myth 4

On the job training is sufficient for campground staff.

If you want a truly high quality staff that can offer your guests the highest standards of hospitality and service, it’s a good idea to have both a formal training program for all staff and to seek out off site opportunities (Chamber of Commerce seminars, local community college  opportunities, state and national industry meetings and education, etc.).  On the job training is one part of a training program.  Manuals, check lists, shadowing, meetings, on line webinars and training, and mentoring programs are also part of a training program.

You can never over-train.  Sending employees to off-site meetings and education opportunities both provide valuable training to the employee while reinforcing how you value the employ and want to help them do better in their jobs and qualify for bonuses or advancement.

Myth 5

We’re a rustic campground so our guests don’t expect much.

Rustic campgrounds are great and have a large market of people who love the rustic atmosphere and ambiance in many campgrounds.  However, that doesn’t mean they don’t expect your park to be the best rustic park it can be. 

Keep in mind that rustic does not equate with old and poorly maintained.  Rustic does not mean old restrooms that appear dirty no matter how clean they may be.  Rustic does not mean buildings in need of a paint job.  Rustic does not mean small, unlevel RV sites or tent sites with tree roots and rocks where the tent goes. 

The challenge to be a rustic park is to be a modern rustic park capable of providing guests with high quality facilities, amenities, services and activities in a rustic setting. 

Do you have some myths you’d like to share? I’ve got many more that I’ll share with you in the coming months but I’d love to hear from readers about the campground industry myths they see.  Post a reply below and you just might see it in the next Myths column.

Good Sam faces competition from new RVer club AmeriGO

This This Should Be Interesting……and Exciting

In this corner…a newcomer with a highly touted team backing it up – it’s AmeriGO RV Club.

In the other corner…the time tested and unbeaten champion – The Good Sam Club.

In case you missed the announcement on September 16th, the former executive management team of the Affinity Group announced the formation of the new RVer club AmeriGO RV Club.  The press release named former AGI CEO and Chairman Joe McAdams as holding that role in the new AmeriGO club and named Joe Daquino, former Publisher of the Trailer Life Directory and a Senior Vice President at AGI as the President of AmeriGo.  Affinity Group was the owner of the Good Sam Club and Camping World,  both companies now owned by Good Sam Enterprises.

Although the press release does not name other AmeriGO executives, it may be safe to assume that several other former Affinity Group executives might be also be associated with AmeriGO.

As most people know who follow the RV and RV park businesses, Good Sam Enterprises and Camping World is headed by Marcus Lamonis, an aggressive and obviously talented businessman who has in the last couple of years moved to raise Good Sam’s image and Camping World’s image and footprint on national television and on the NASCAR racing circuit as well as in 100 or so communities across America.

The press release description of the AmeriGO member programs and benefits sure seems to mirror the programs and benefits available to Good Sam members (insurance options, RV extended warranties, road service plans, RV financing options, and campground discounts).   Encore RV Resorts and Thousand Trails owned by Equity Lifestyle Properties (a company where McAdams served as President for several years after he left Affinity Group) and Carefree RV Resorts have signed on to offer AmeriGO members a 10% discount on camping. 

Competition is a good thing, we’re told.  Let the battle for the RVer begin.  With an estimated 10 million RVers in the US and with an estimated 1 million Good Sam members, there should be ample room for both Good Sam and AmeriGO.  And with about 9000 commercial campgrounds in the US and about 1300+ Good Sam Parks, it’s likely that there’s ample room for AmeriGO in the park market as well.

Can AmeriGO capture the newer, younger RVer market?  Are those folks joiners?  Can Good Sam come up with a way to overcome it’s image as the older, less affluent RV owners club and reach into the younger market?

Will park owners be besieged with new opportunities to partner with or market to these clubs of RVers?  How will the parks be impacted by the new comer and by their long time relationship with Good Sam?

What surprises do Joe McAdams and  Marcus Lamonis have in store for RV dealers, park owners and RVers?   Given past history of both executives, we can expect some dramatic actions as McAdams tries to pilot the new AmeriGO to success and as Lamonis works to protect and grow the Good Sam club in the face of this new competition. Stand by. 

It should be interesting to see how all of this develops in the coming months.   For sure, the competition is going to be good for RVers.  Any time the consumer has two or more companies going after them, it usually works to their advantage.

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