Without a doubt, my involvement in my industries significantly improved my business. We began our involvement nearly 3 years before our purchase. Both the RV park and my role a campground owner benefited greatly, from inception of the idea to the day we sold.
Before deciding on a campground to buy or build (we considered both) we joined the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds (ARVC), then under the management of David Gorin. We first used the industry’s networking and educational opportunities to help us decide between seeking an overnight vs destination park, as well as a 12-month operation vs partial year.
While taking the first year of ARVC’s School of RV Park & Campground Management (then taught in West Virginia), many fellow students commended our approach. They shared that they wished they’d attended before buying or renovating because they would have done things differently.
Because of that encouragement, I returned the second year and graduated from the school even before I became an owner. I remember being a sponge, trying to absorb it all since I wasn’t sure what pieces would apply at our eventual campground. Would we have entertainment? Water sports? I didn’t know, so I listened intently to it all.
Through that networking, we learned of and then attended a multi-day class by Darrell Hess & Associations. It opened our eyes even wider, not in fear but in ways to evaluate the potential of a campground that’s for sale.
Our search was widespread, so we attended state association meetings in several states. Three still stand out as the most incredible experiences for this wannabe.
Our first was in New York. Bob Klos was the Executive Director and he was most welcoming. He visited with us at length, was interested in our direction, and ensured that we met the right people while we were in New York. Our friendship continues to this day, even though we didn’t buy in New York. Michigan and Ohio also provided great opportunities for us.
While we tried to remain flies on the wall, so as to not take away from the actual owners in attendance, we absorbed as much as possible!
From our earliest introductions to the industry players, we called upon these vendors as we searched for and negotiated on the purchase of our new business. When a potential property was in need of site upgrades, we knew who to call for estimates for our business planning. We knew who to call for retail inventory, mark-up suggestions, and insight on hot new items vs the traditional gotta-haves in a store. Through the classes we understood a lot more about our insurance coverage options.
Those were just a few examples. Having all of this insight helped us project financials, plan floor space and evaluate acreage usage as we considered the current property conditions vs the potential we could create. Our business plan easily fell into place.
Through these meetings we noticed the obvious. No two associations ran their conferences in the same manner. Some had break-out seminars and some didn’t. Some had huge expos and some didn’t. Some had a dress-up banquet night while others didn’t. Some had a lively auction, and some only had silent auctions.
What they had in common was VALUE! And that value has continued throughout my 20 years in this industry.
I’ve attended many other state conferences since those pre-purchase days. First, it was my own desire to attend out-of-state association conferences to make more industry connections and to learn the most I could absorb. Later it included trips by ARVC, who sent me to provide their annual report. ARVC was then under the management of Linda Profaizer.
Whether I was in the Midwest or in a far-off state such as California, Washington, Oregon or Alaska, VALUE was always present!
After selling my park, I continued attending as a consultant in our industry, and now I host three of those events a year, one for each association in which I am the Executive Director.
VALUE. So, what is the value? It’s what took my park from being ousted by the Good Sam program (while we were in the process of purchasing it) to achieving a 5W Woodall’s rating (back when they awarded up to 5Ws). The congratulatory letter I still have from Woodall’s says that rating put my park in the top 8% in the country.
Our continued involvement in the state and national associations, and applying what we gained from that involvement is what made a huge difference in our ratings, our service, and our overall business!
The VALUE included networking, sharing, comradery, continuing education, purchasing power, access to research and statistics, and local, regional and national legislative advocacy support.
The networking was at least three-fold:
- Fellow Park Owners: Sharing woes with others who walk the same walk as you is a great means of hearing ideas of how to overcome those woes. We also marketed for one another since our guests tend to be avid travelers.
- Industry Suppliers: They’re a wealth of insight beyond just their necessary products and services. They have heard stories from hundreds or thousands of other park owners. They know the trends as well as what’s been working or not working for others.
- State Tourism Partners: This opened the door for partners in tourism across my state to refer travelers to my RV park. It was also a great means of learning more about what my state offered to tourists so I could more comfortably encourage my guests to take it all in (sometimes getting them to stay extra nights). It also strengthened these partners’ understanding and appreciation of RVers and campers.
APPLICATION. My RV park wasn’t the same any two consecutive years. Differences included the physical improvements we made, the different staff we hired with differing strengths and skill sets, and the differences that we built upon each passing year.
Buying a park that was being ejected from Good Sam meant our earlier years required physical renovations. The project list never shrank; it was in perpetual motion. New projects were added even as we marked off completed projects. We were constantly applying new ideas. Even after I no longer needed to be a complete sponge at each conference, I still returned home with new relationships and with many new nuggets of ideas, especially regarding new technology and new industry or societal trends.
RELEVANCY. Now, our journey began before the internet blossomed. When asked if the associations are as relevant and valuable today with all that’s at our fingertips online, my answer is that I’m certain you can find products by surfing the web but you’ll miss out on the relationships and on the industry itself.
Are these relationships necessary? Oh my, the priceless wealth of knowledge and the flood of ideas that flow during in-person conversations, whether at a trade show booth or in the lounge after hours when the park owners and suppliers gathered more casually … that is hard to re-create solely online! In-person visits share a lot more than a Twitter tweet or an Instagram picture, or even a blog post.
Some argue that relationships can’t be made online and other have found their soulmates online and are now celebrating a dozen years of bliss. My theory is: This industry needs the face-to-face relationships!
Did you know that the industry, the state, the entire country … whatever entity you care to consider … it is run by the 5% who show up!
- Am I going to vote for John Doe to be on the state association’s Board of Directors if he’s never attended the conference?
- Will he really know the members and their issues without attending?
- Am I going to vote for Jane Doe to the ARVC Board without her having an understanding of a state association’s operations and methodology?
- Will she have an appreciation for the differences between states and the issues on a larger scope?
- Does someone who never leaves their park fully understand and appreciate why some policies exist in an association?
Face-to-face encounters and time at conferences create relationships that strengthen our industry.
Someone in our industry needs to know all of the key players who can assist our industry with regulatory bills. It’s all too easy to pass unfair or damaging regulations when we’re not closely monitoring the bills and taking action.
Someone needs to be on the association’s Board but we don’t want just names … we need informed and passionate individuals to guide our non-profit trade associations. That doesn’t happen by staying at your campground every day of the year.
IT ISN’T A JOB – IT’S A BUSINESS! You have a business, and it’s most likely your largest investment. Running your business requires your time. It’s more than just:
- Answering a phone
- Registering guests
- Maintaining the property and
- Greeting the guests.
For the viability, value and relevance of your business’s future, the business owner should also focus on:
- Bill paying
- Filing taxes
- Training for re-certifications
- Staying current through continuing education (because the world doesn’t stop evolving just because we graduated from some school) and
- Awareness and action on current affairs in the lodging, small business, outdoor recreation, (maybe housing) and the tourism industries.
In my book, those lists partly outline the difference between an employee of the campground and the owner / manager of company. Your state association and ARVC can assist you with some of the second list there and, when you apply yourself, they can help you do a better job at all of those tasks.
VALUE OF A VILLAGE: In addition to networking and education, I attended, absorbed, pondered, and implemented, but it wasn’t just me. It was no small feat to take a park from its lowly Good Sam situation to one which earned a 5W rating. It took a village! We organized the village: colleagues, suppliers, employees, guests, family and more.
I knew park owners in nearly every state (honestly, I can’t recall any from Hawaii), and I knew industry supplier members in all trades and from far and wide. All of these people helped my park in some way or another:
- I tweaked ideas others shared at ‘cracker barrel’ sessions.
- I took notes in ARVC seminars and vendor-hosted webinars.
- I visited vendors at expos.
- I listened as others shared their horror stories.
- I willingly shared, and others reciprocated.
Through these relationships I even met quite a few who took my rack cards for their guests. How awesome it was to host guests traveling from SD, PA, ME, FL or AK who were on a road trip from colleagues’ parks. It’s a two-way street in our industry. Those who participated all gained.
Our industry’s networking is magical in many different ways: operations and management wisdom and knowledge, vendor referrals, guest referrals, etc. Would these have been established had I stayed at my campground claiming I was too busy or understaffed to leave my park for a conference? My park was open all year. It was never ever easy for me to leave, but I left many times each year to attend state, national campground conferences, board meetings, and even other tourism conferences. It was simply too valuable!
Oh, and don’t give up after just one conference. I didn’t create lasting friendships at the school because it was my first introduction to so many new people. Still, here’s an interesting realization.
Some years later I looked at my class picture from that school and realized I had later become great friends with many who had been in my class.
How did that develop? Repeated encounters. We found ourselves serving together on our state Boards, on the ARVC Board of Directors, ARVC Executive Committee, and on other committees.
Remember, the world is led by the 5% who step up! Please, show up!
P.S. Improvements at my park continued to the end but not at the intense level of the first six years. My journey of owning a campground allowed me to reap the best harvest during the final four years. It was then that I also gained the most pleasure in being a park owner. Oh, and I can attest to this:
There is truth in the adage that the best two days of a campground owner’s life are the day they buy and the day they sell!