B.J. Thompson: Nurturer of RV Industrywide Unity
Editor’s Note: The following story appears in the current issue of RVIA Today, a publication of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
The year 2010 marks B.J. Thompson’s 25th year chairing RVIA’s Public Relations Committee. The first – and because of newly adopted term limits, the only – RVIA committee chair to serve for a full quarter century, Thompson has been on the front lines of dramatic changes in the RV industry. From the 1980s’ boom to the recent economic bust, Thompson has steered the public relations committee on a steady course, and his longevity makes him uniquely qualified to comment on how the industry has changed over the last quarter century.
Thompson was elected PR Committee chairman in 1985, when RVing was too often considered solely a pastime for retirees. Twenty-five years later, RVs have been updated with the latest technology like state-of-the art kitchens and top-of-the-line entertainment systems, and the appeal of RVing continues to grow. But, Thompson maintains, “the reasons Americans RV remain the same now as they were 10, 25, even a hundred years ago. RVing taps into Americans’ very basic but undying love of freedom and personal choice.”
RVIA Today asked Thompson some questions about the past and future of RVing as well as his time on the RVIA PR Committee.
What was the key to marketing the RV lifestyle to American consumers in 1985, and what is it now?
I think the key to marketing RVs has always been to effectively communicate the benefits of traveling and living in an RV. As an aside, words and images take up space and time so it’s important that our messages are on-target, and that we identify and focus on key message points. That’s why we need to continue to study the market and be aware whether the key motivators to RVing have or have not shifted. By knowing the key motivators and benefits to RVing we can show how RVing enhances what people enjoy doing, and that helps us to maximize our opportunities to convey those messages. RVing offers a wide variety of benefits that help enrich people’s leisure times. Now our job – as it always has been – is to effectively and efficiently communicate those benefits. The key is in doing it.
What is the most important change you’ve seen in the RV industry over the last 25 years?
The most important change, from my standpoint, has been the evolution of the funding mechanisms for the public relations program – and now the advertising programs. In 1985 there was much discussion in the Public Relations Committee about what we should do, how we should do it and – most challenging – how we could fund it. Back then, we in PR were still clawing for every dollar we could find to put some gas in our program, whether it was for an RV TV show, “Wish You Were Here,” or a nationwide retail program, or a spokesperson media tour.
We were fortunate in that some industry leaders shared our vision and stepped up with some pledges that were the beginning of what was then called the Market Expansion Program. The MEP was much better than what we had before, but it was limited. But because we were able to demonstrate significant success with the additional dollars we had, I believe we were then able to approach the previously unapproachable hurdles of an incremental funding mechanism for the marketing program. So, after a lot of angst, Go RVing was created and developed to fund marketing activities. It was no small feat to make it happen – it took a lot of vision and commitment from the leaders in our industry – but they got it done to the universal benefit of the entire industry.
What has been your most rewarding experience as PR chair?
That’s a tough one because there have been so many rewarding experiences. One thing I’ve particularly enjoyed is meeting the many challenges of these past 25 years by working with so many smart and fun people in the industry – both RVIA staff and members. I’ve been fortunate to be a small part of bringing together an amalgamation of various ideas and competencies to our common good and to see the results of those efforts. It’s still very rewarding to be part of a team, to create a plan, to help develop it and then to share in its success…it’s fun to work with the people in our industry to make good things happen.
What do you see as the biggest PR challenge facing this industry in the future?
I think we have to be careful about complacency and taking for granted the outstanding PR and marketing successes the industry has achieved. Also, we must not fail to consciously and constantly nurture the industry-wide unity that has brought us to this enviable place. Fortunately, I believe we have industry leaders who are fully aware of the importance of this challenge and are up to the task.
How would you describe the image of RVs 25 years ago and now?
Then, it was not uncommon to see RVs negatively portrayed as gas guzzlers, impeding traffic, driven by geezers, and parked in campground ranks just an arm’s length apart. People didn’t see the true appeal of RVing. But now, that has changed dramatically. RVs are commonly seen as cool, fun, exotic and exciting…something celebrities do … an adventure-vehicle that fosters family togetherness and makes leisure travel much more comfortable and enjoyable. And I like to think that the industry’s united public relations efforts has had a big influence on changing the way America now looks at RVs.