Indeed, these awards are quickly becoming an industry tradition – one that’s about to be renewed at the 3rd Annual RV Business Top 50 Dealer Awards reception and dinner on the evening of Wed., Oct. 6, at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas during the Recreation Vehicle Dealer Association’s (RVDA) annual RV Dealers International Convention/Expo, which takes place Oct. 4-8 at the same hotel.
To shed some light on the whole program on the eve of this year’s dinner, tickets for which are currently on sale through RVBUSINESS.com, RVB Senior Editor Bob Ashley interviewed those directly responsible for the program under the umbrella of parent company Affinity Group Inc. (AGI) — RVB Publisher Sherman Goldenberg, AGI Event Coordinator and Sales Director Chuck Lasley and B.J. Thompson, president of northern Indiana public relations agency of BJ Thompson Associates Inc.
Here’s the crux of that interview:
Q: Now in your third year with the RV Business Top 50 Dealer Awards, what are your thoughts about this whole endeavor and how it’s developed?
Goldenberg: We really couldn’t be more pleased with the progress we’ve made, especially taking into account the times — the roller coaster economy and the political headwinds we’ve experienced. That said, it’s gained in prestige, finesse and depth. We’re better at this than we were two years ago and are happy to be doing it again.
Lasley: And I think it’s also important to recognize the fact that we’re accomplishing what we set out to do – helping to elevate the best practices of the dealers. We are receiving more applications than we ever have.
Thompson: The program has gained in integrity, and we as coordinators and purveyors of the program have indeed, as Sherm said, gotten better at what we set out to do. That is, we’ve refined the applications so that they’re easier to fill out and still have pertinent information for the judges to judge. And the dealers in general have recognized the program as supportive of excellence, especially in the area of customer satisfaction.
Q: Why is it important, in your view, to recognize dealers?
Goldenberg: It’s at the very core of what a trade journal should be doing — in this case recognizing dealers for doing well in all aspects of their businesses. In these times, again, I feel that persevering and keeping one’s eye on the ball with regard to professionalism is even more imperative.
Thompson: As more of an industry generalist and industry promoter, I’m thrilled to see anyone or any organization support the industry in making it better. RVBusiness has stepped up to that in a major way.
Q: What should one glean from the dealers who were selected?
Thompson: That they are highly professional and provide excellent customer service, which is recognized by high consumer satisfaction.
Goldenberg: If they’re not doing that – if they’re not taking care of customers – then they may as well get into another business.
Thompson: For the industry to have a good reputation among those we hope to attract, we need to showcase the good dealers, the great dealers who take care of their customers. In any business, there are those who focus only on the sales. This particular program draws attention to excellent customer service practices.
Q: And how does this all correlate with RVDA and its convention?
Goldenberg: It completely overlaps with what the individual members of RVDA are likely to be doing every day in their businesses. The mission of the Top 50 dealer awards is to focus on the daily practices of good retailers. Good practices equal good dealers. It’s that simple. Let me add, we feel our associating the program with RVDA’s Con/Expo is a mutually beneficial arrangement that we hope continues through the years.
Thompson: There is a great synergism here. The RV Business Top 50 awards and dinner is better by being associated and timed with the RVDA Con/Expo, and we’ve talked with a number of dealers who are receiving the award who said that that they will be attending the Con/Expo because they’re receiving a Top 50 Award. So, RVDA in my view is enhanced by the timing of the dinner and awards program. Besides the logistics of tying in the RVDA Con/Expo, the program itself ties into what RVDA is all about: That is, to help its members become better dealers.
Q: What is the Leadership Alliance we see referenced so often in Top 50 promotions, and how does one become a Leadership Alliance member?
Lasley: The Leaderhip Alliance members are part of an elite group of suppliers. Each LA member has decided to be part of a movement helping to promote the best practices we are trying to promote here at RVBusiness. These companies underwrite and sponsor the program, but it’s more than that. They want to be part of a program whose entire purpose is to uplift, promote, enhance and strengthen RV dealers from all over North America. Our hope is that each LA member can be recognized for their contribution to the Top 50 which has had nothing but a positive impact on our industry.
Q: Is this program a big moneymaker for Affinity Group, RVB’s parent company?
Lasley: No, on the contrary, our goal for the RVBusiness Top 50 program is for it to pay for itself. It is our hope that Affinity can play a role in helping this industry grow. When that happens, the entire industry benefits, even if the Top 50 program is only at a break-even point in terms of revenue.
Q: Does the work of the Go RVing Coalition’s Committee on Excellence still play a role in all this?
Thompson: Yes, it does. The Go RVing Committee on Excellence spent a lot of time and effort developing some specific practices. We were able to use the committee report to develop certain questions in the Top 50 application. Thus, there’s a direct correlation from the Committee on Excellence to the application to what the judging panel reviews for the selection of the awards.
Q: How does RVIA, if at all, fit into this?
Goldenberg: While this clearly is a dealer-driven event, it’s part of a bigger universe, and it remains our conviction that the manufacturers, through RVIA, should at least have a seat at the table. Therefore, at this year’s dinner, we plan, for a time, to have the chairmen of both trade associations at the podium.
Lasley: It’s important that we have those organizations and their support of this program because, as we mentioned earlier, this isn’t just a dealer event. It’s an industry event. Everybody benefits when dealers utilize best practices.
Thompson: Manufacturers play a very key role in providing nominations because of their day-to-day contact with dealers. Manufacturers know which dealers are trying hard to do the right things to elevate the satisfaction of customers. So, we have asked them to provide us with the names of their better dealers. The size of the dealership doesn’t matter in those nominations. What we are looking at is quality. If a dealer has just a few employees and their sales are minimal in a smaller market, if they are doing a great job in customer satisfaction, the program is designed to promote that dealer.
Q: What is the purpose of using a third-party format to administer the application process?
Goldenberg: We realized since Day One that we needed to build a firewall of sorts between the industry – ourselves included — and the selection process. Therefore, we have created an independent body, which we call the panel of experts — which is overseen by BJ Thompson Associates — to coordinate the actual selections. As a result, we as a trade journal staff never even take possession of the applications. They remain on the other side of the firewall with BJ Thompson Associates.
Thompson: The process is not perfect, but it’s good and it’s credible. I’m pleased to be associated with a program that genuinely wants to raise the bar of professionalism of the industry for the entire good of the industry.
Q: Who is on the panel?
Goldenberg: They are well known industry people. We don’t publicize their names, but we will tell anyone who really wants to know. Just give me a call at (574) 457-3370 and I’ll tell you who they are. That’s how upfront we are.
Q: You’ve chosen a rather controversial personality for your keynote speaker this year, haven’t you?
Goldenberg: Controversial? Yes, I guess I’d agree with that description. You know, when we talk each winter about what we want in a keynote speaker, our goal more than anything else is to be relevant — to provide food for thought to an intelligent crowd of business people, not just light-weight jokes and dinner chatter. So, on the brink of the national mid-term elections, we thought that bringing to the table a high profile national political commentator — of any political persuasion — would be the thing to do.
Having said that, we can promise you that RVBusiness or its parent company are not in the business of endorsing any one political viewpoint or any named candidates, and that’s even more the case in the upcoming mid-term elections.
With the Tea Partiers and the current liberal administration, with those in favor of more austere spending and those supporting more stimulus expenditures, with issues like immigration and the mosque at Ground Zero, these are indeed wild and crazy times. And we trust that those who join us for dinner on the evening on Oct. 6 will come away invigorated — whether they agree with Ann Coulter or not. As quick and provocative as she is, we can assure you that Ann Coulter’s not going to change anyone’s mind. So, the experience should be fun and worthwhile – like a New England town hall meeting.
The leaders of the RV industry’s marketing communications program reported how Go RVing advertising and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association’s (RVIA) public relations are working hand-in-hand to protect the image of RVing and build RV demand at the association’s Annual Membership Meeting Wednesday (June 9) in South Bend, Ind.
In a presentation during RVIA Committee Week titled “Go RVing: We’re Back in the Saddle Again,” Go RVing Co-Chairman and CEO of Winnebago Bob Olson, and RVIA Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Gary LaBella told RVIA members that investing in Go RVing’s new “Ambassadors of Affordability” ads was a wise decision during the recession, according to a press release.
“We were under severe economic constraints last year,” said Olson. “Continuing to advertise and deciding to develop new creative in such a year were bold moves to keep our industry on the offensive.”
The new ads emphasize savings, which research shows is a smart move given how the economy has affected consumer thinking.
“We’ve always promoted value and affordability as big advantages of RV ownership,” said LaBella. “But dramatic changes in consumer behavior due to the recession have now made value and affordability even more important to purchase decisions.”
Following the “Back in the Saddle Again” report, LaBella was joined by B.J. Thompson, chairman of RVIA’s Public Relations Committee, to present “The New Consumer and the Road Ahead,” a look at RVIA public relations activities, as well as an overview of findings from a new communications planning survey conducted by Harris Interactive.
LaBella and Thompson reported that the image of RVing has remained strong, and that media has widely reported core RVIA messages.
“The key to our successful outreach is the industry’s continued investment in PR,” said Thompson. “An investment that has protected our image and deftly positioned in the industry to capitalize on our nation’s growing economic recovery.”
After showing an 11-minute video of news and entertainment programs featuring RVs, the duo provided analysis of the new Harris Interactive research.
“Among the findings, the survey showed that statements focused on family togetherness and cost savings rate equally with RV owners and non-RV owners alike,” said LaBella. “Messages that mention families saving money while enjoying a great outdoor experience will appeal to a wide cross-section of consumers.”
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.
B.J. Thompson of B.J. Thompson Associates and a member of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) board will represent the RV industry and discuss recent RV innovations at Rep. Joe Donnelly’s panel “Investing in Tomorrow’s Jobs Today” to be held Monday (April 6) at the Elkhart, Ind., campus of Indiana University – South Bend.
The panel will also include Larry Philips, with the Indiana University – South Bend School of Business and Economics, Donnelly and several other panelists to be announced later. Donnelly represents Indiana’s second congressional district, which includes part of Elkhart County.
Registration, with coffee and pastries, will be from 8:30 to 9 a.m. EST, with the panel discussion taking place from 9 to 10 a.m.
Pre-registration for the free event is encouraged by calling Mark Hoipkemier in Donnelly’s office at (574) 288-2780 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.