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Entrepreneur Developing ‘Hilton of RV Parks’

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July 18, 2011 by   Leave a Comment

Entrepreneur Andy Cates, the guy who is credited with helping steer the NBA to Memphis, Tenn., is now driven to shake up the RV park and campground industry with his fledgling enterprise, RVC Outdoor Destinations.

Cates recently took a reporter from the Commercial Appeal to the newest — and nearest to Memphis — of RVC’s five upscale developments, Catherine’s Landing in Hot Springs, Ark. Cates is eager to show RV owners and outdoor enthusiasts how different Catherine’s Landing is from typical RV parks and campgrounds.

So different, he refuses to label his as “RV parks,” calling them “outdoor destinations” instead.

So different, RVC claims to have invented a new category for the industry, one that offers consistently beautiful natural spaces, upscale amenities, and fine-tuned customer service.

So different, RVC clamors for the kind of “segmentation” in the RV park industry that hotels enjoy. Hotel travelers, for example, instantly know from seeing the signs for a Motel 6, Hampton Inn or Hilton what to expect from each in service, amenities and price.

RVC considers itself the Hilton of RV parks.

In addition to the KOA’s, Jellystones and the independent campgrounds, RVC seeks to distinguish itself from the government parks, too.

“A lot of state and federal parks have incredibly attractive outdoor environments, but an underwhelming service culture and operating culture,” Cates says. “We’re trying to democratize phenomenal recreational land.”

So after reaching Hot Springs in under three hours, Cates first gives a quick driving tour of a competing, independently owned RV park that’s been, he says, “arguably the highest-rated in town.”

On a slow Monday morning, he points out at least four motorhomes worth $200,000 in a place that offers views of the surrounding hills, but no pool or access to recreational water.

The 41-year-old Cates motors on to RVC’s three-month-old Catherine’s Landing, nestled on 400 acres of a former dairy farm along the banks of Lake Catherine.

The entrance is a long, gently curving ribbon of asphalt that eventually reveals the welcome center/headquarters lodge designed by Memphis architects Hunter Fleming and John Harrison Jones.

The stone, metal and glass building, perched on a rise, is modern and striking, with an angled roof that opens the lobby’s glass wall to a terraced, saline swimming pool and below to the campground and Lake Catherine.

Cates leads his guests straight to the men’s restroom to show they sparkle and are extra private. Each toilet and shower stall, while illuminated in natural light from windows above, is a room to itself.

The lodge has a store, wine and coffee, large fireplace with a flat-screen TV, washers and dryers, a fitness room and even a “Wii-dia room” where families can play Wii video games on a large screen.

RVC doesn’t just provide Wi-Fi and coffee, he says. “We offer good Wi-Fi and good coffee.”

Manager Brad Boler and assistant manager Ian Horgan provide Cates a golf cart to tour the grounds.

He drives through the 120 RV spaces ($40 to $45 daily weekdays, $42 to $50 weekends), which are dotted with either motor coaches or fifth-wheel rigs. Circles of lawn chairs and clusters of bikes sit outside nearly every RV.

Planted among the concrete RV pads are young oak, elm and pine trees. The new grass turf has not yet been established.

Cates stops the cart to show the fenced dog park, saying, “A huge portion of guests have pets.”

He continues to the row of 25 RV sites that line the bank of calm Lake Catherine. If the water looks more like a pretty river, it was. Construction of Remmel Dam turned it into an 11-mile-long lake in 1924.

The golf cart reaches Catherine’s Landing’s 13-slip dock, where a pontoon boat and kayaks are available to rent. Cates points to an extra bathroom RVC built near the dock for the convenience of boaters and fishermen.

The tour continues to the picnic pavilion, its dramatically angled roof mirroring the lodge design and sheltering 20 picnic tables. There’s an ice machine and showers.

He drives the cart as far as he dares into the undeveloped Phase II property, gets out and puts his hiking shoes to use.

“I want to show y’all a neat hiking trail,” says Cates, a slim road cyclist who now speed-walks ahead of the pack into the woods.

Catherine’s Landing doesn’t accommodate tent campers, but does offer high-end camping — “glamping” — with five air-conditioned yurts ($50-$70 a night) clustered under a canopy of towering trees.

Each has hardwood floors, beds, a skylight at its peak and its own picnic table and grill. The yurts — vinyl wrapped around wood framing — sleep four to eight-plus, depending on their size.

Close by is the pavilion with bathrooms, showers and ice.

Atop the hill behind the welcome lodge sits 10 small cottages ($140 to $160 a night) that can sleep four people within their 400 square feet. Each includes a covered deck with ceiling fan, full kitchen and flat-screen TV. They’re actually little mobile homes, but it’s hard to tell by looking.

In future phases, RVC plans to sell the cottages and lease the ground they sit on.

Both the corporate and independent owners of other campgrounds might acknowledge how nice their new competition is, but question the business model.

After all, they’re receiving roughly the same per-unit revenue without nearly the costs RVC has born.

“On a per-unit basis, we’re way out there and we know that,” Cates says. “If the consumer does not reward us, we’re in trouble.” RVC must enlarge its scale exponentially, creating a network of many dozens of outdoor destinations across the nation, he says.

“… If we’re unable to grow this, I’ll feel very stupid,” he says. “We’re not doing this for just six properties.”

Eventually RVC may raise prices to befit its amenities, but for now the company is sharply focused on getting more and more guests.

In addition to Catherine’s Landing, RVC has locations in Pine Mountain, Ga., south of Atlanta, Carrabelle Beach, Fla., Live Oak Landing, Fla., and Mountain Springs, N.C.

 

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