China is diving head first into the development of campgrounds and its fledgling RV industry, according to industry representatives who recently participated in the 3rd Annual Hangzhou China Outdoor Lifestyle Show March 4-7.
Participating were Joe Laing of El Monte RV, a leading RV rental company with 70 locations throughout the U.S.; Bob MacKinnon of MacKinnon Campground Consulting, a designer and developer of campgrounds throughout North America and Australia; and Al Hesselbart, historian for the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind. Wolfgang Bock of Deutsche Reissemobil, the largest RV rental firm in Germany, also participated.
The foursome was invited to be part of a 10-person forum addressing Chinese media and government officials on concerns related to the establishment of a viable recreational vehicle industry and its related lifestyle in China. The international group was coordinated and hosted by N-Tours International, a tour promotion firm based in Beijing.
“What we got from the show is that there are a lot of Chinese people interested in RVing,” Laing told RVBUSINESS.com. “The question remains how that interest will work itself out. Everyone is unsure how the Chinese RV industry is going to further evolve. The thought I most expressed to them is they should use the American RV industry as a framework or guideline. We have the most successful RV market and the best RV market in the world.”
China has an existing camping population, but it is nearly all tent camping and the existing campgrounds are organized for tenters only, according to Hesselbart, who spoke on the evolution of RVing in America.
“They have a great selection of national parks and other camping attractions,” he said. “While they have the technology to build very fine recreational vehicles, there are at this time less than 50 RV campgrounds in all of China and no network of retailers or RV support businesses or publications.”
This year is the first that the Chinese RV manufacturers were given space in the show, which is the largest outdoor lifestyle show in Asia. The event showcased several small motorhomes all built on Sprinter chassis made by Mercedes Benz in China.
“A couple of outstanding 35-foot Class A motorhomes including slideouts were also shown, built by Chinese highway bus manufacturer King Long Coach,” Hesselbart said.
Chinese government has plans to develop 800 RV campgrounds within the next five years related to its many national parks and other attractions. Hesselbart said the Chinese officials feel that, at least for the present, the local RV lifestyle will be based on rental and not ownership of private rigs.
“They did discuss the establishment of a market for small towable units, but they are targeting the first development toward small, motorized units,” Hesselbart said. “It was somewhat surprising to the Americans that the Chinese use almost no automatic transmissions and all of the RVs were built with manual transmissions as were nearly 100 percent of the autos on the highway.”
In addition to the large forum at the show, the group met with several other camping-related groups and resort developers to discuss the types of conditions and services provided for RV camping in the U.S. and Europe.
“The group saw a dramatic enthusiasm to develop an RV lifestyle where their population is largely uninformed of the possibilities of self-contained travel for recreation or for business,” Hesselbart said.
There are 208 national parks in China, according to Laing, who shared information about the RV rental business.
MacKinnon spoke on site selection for campgrounds and the basic design strategy, and shared how to understand the market and market needs.
“I met with a lot of government officials and various industries and I got a strong impression that they are actively looking for ways to expand their tourism industry,” MacKinnon told Woodall’s Campground Management. “As I understand it the government has laid out a five-year plan and they have very specific goals for both national and international tourism.
“This show was a big deal. They showcased everything from patio furniture and umbrellas to RVs, and also outdoor recreation like kayaking and bicycling. Once the Chinese get the sequencing as to what needs to happen first, and they grasp the key ingredients, I think there will be some interesting growth in the country’s tourism.”
A noted RV historian as well as other American representatives of the RV industry are speaking at the Hangzhou International Outdoor and Leisure Fair in China March 4-7.
Al Hesselbart, historian of the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind., said he was approached by representatives of the Chinese RV industry while at the National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky., last December.
“I jumped at the opportunity,” said Hesselbart. “This is an exciting adventure and an honor. Somebody someplace thinks I did a good job, I guess.”
Other American RV representatives speaking at the event include Joe Laing, director of marketing, El Monte RV in El Monte, Calif., and Bob MacKinnon, owner of MacKinnon Campground Consulting, Murrieta, Calif. The European RV industry will be represented by Wolfgang Bock of Munich, Germany.
The men will be speaking to Chinese provincial government officials as well as industry trade leaders on their assigned topics.
Hesselbart will talk about the evolution of the RV lifestyle and its effect on American society.
“I am going to show the evolution of what camping was like from the World War I era up to today when 30 million people are a part of it,” he said.
“What they are looking for me to touch on is the future of the RV rental market in China,” Laing explained. “I will talk about what has happened in the United States in the RV rental market over the course of time and what we see as some possibilities in China. They have an affinity for this, but need education and understanding. They need to develop campgrounds, their publications and infrastructure.”
“What we see for China is this is not something that will happen overnight, but we think this has great long-term potential,” Laing added. “If the RV industry develops in China, there is the potential for Chinese tourists to come and rent RV’s here in the United States.”
MacKinnon will present an overview of campground development.
“I will be talking to them about the key issues a campground developer is concerned about, including site selection, market conditions and design of a park,” he said. “I hope to walk them through what they need to look at when they are selecting a site, and get them thinking about key markets to look at. This is an important initial step in their determination to move forward with their own RV industry. The site selection and design are contingent on the market they are going to serve.”
Outdoor Lifestyle Hangzhou is jointly organized by the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Light Industrial Products and Arts and Craft, and Hangzhou Municipal Government. The event will be held at the Hangzhou Peace Exhibition Center. For more information visit www.outdoorhangzhou.com.
The upcoming visit to China is the latest in a series of cultural exchanges between the RV sectors of the two countries.
A large delegation representing the growing Chinese RV industry attended last December’s National RV Trade Show in Louisville, meeting with U.S. manufacturers and suppliers, touring the show booths and attending a reception the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) hosted in their honor, the RVIA noted.
The delegation of approximately 60 included Chinese manufacturers looking to form joint ventures with U.S. manufacturers, companies looking to develop campgrounds in China, government officials, and private equity firms. One delegation was led by the Beijing office of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Several RVIA member companies reported enjoying substantive conversations with the Chinese delegates about the burgeoning industry’s plans for the future.
“I was impressed by the number of Chinese representatives who attended this year’s show and the great interest in RVing that seems to exist among the Chinese people,” said RVIA President Richard Coon, who was interviewed extensively by Chinese media during the show. “Next year, the Department of Commerce hopes to bring an even larger delegation over and to schedule additional meetings between U.S. and Chinese manufacturers.”
In addition to attending the National RV Trade Show, some of the Chinese delegations also visited campgrounds in Nevada and California as well as RV manufacturing facilities in Indiana and California.
In May 2008, a delegation representing the American RV industry attended the 2008 China RV and Camping Show in Shanghai. The American delegation encouraged Chinese manufacturers to adopt U.S. standards and educated Chinese government officials on internal infrastructure issues within China that might affect the RV market there.
While there was plenty of good news to share this week at the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) InSites Convention and Outdoor Hospitality Expo in Orlando, Fla., several InSites speakers told park operators they will need to step up their marketing and customer survey efforts if they want to remain competitive and continue to build their businesses in the months and years ahead. They also need to find ways to maximize and improve guest satisfaction.
“I think the industry outlook really looks strong and robust, but challenging,” said Ron Beard, a Texas-based campground consultant. “I think what’s going to happen over the next five to 10 years is, possible, only the strongest, most focused operators are going to survive, at least in the upper tiers of the business. … And those that don’t quite get it … and (haven’t) locked in on how the business works and the expectations of their customers are going to settle down to the bottom of the business, possibly not making it or going out of business.”
The challenge, Beard said, is rising consumer expectations of what a private park should provide. “What used to be OK really isn’t that OK any more,” he said.
Park operators, of course, have a choice in whether they want to provide the amenities and service that growing numbers of campers now seek. “You can capture and promote and exceed those expectations. You can just barely meet them or you can turn your back on them,” he said.
Beard said it behooves park operators and the private park industry in general to figure out where consumer expectations are going and figure out how to meet and exceed those expectations on an ongoing basis.
Jeff Martin, an executive with Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground, said park operators should not underestimate the importance of providing their guests with a positive experience. “At Disney,” he said, “it’s all about service. It’s all about how we make our guests feel. I have guests in my lobby every single day that say, ‘I don’t care that I’m paying $116 a night for an RV site as long as I get the service,’ and that’s what they want. They want the magical memories that we provide them.”
Martin added that for Disney, the priority is “being able to deliver every single day for every single guest that world class experience they’re looking for.”
Of course, one of the best ways for park operators to hone their expertise in guest-experience arena to participate in the GuestReviews online survey program offered by ARVC. This “state-of-the-art” on-line survey service, developed and provided by Murrieta, Calif.-based MacKinnon Campground Consulting, measures 34 different guest satisfaction elements such as site conditions, service, restroom cleanliness, facility appearance as well as their overall camping experience. Survey participants assign letter grades for each survey category, and they will have the ability to type in detailed explanations of problems or concerns.
In addition to participating in the GuestReviews program, Linda Profaizer, ARVC president and CEO, said it’s also important for park operators to update their listings on the GoCampingAmerica website. Several park owners, in fact, acknowledged with a show of hands during an InSites meeting that they had not updated their GoCampingAmerica website listings during the past year.
Profaizer also encouraged park operators to respond to questions they receive through ARVC e-mails from Jeff Crider, ARVC’s publicist, because the information they provide they provide him can help raise awareness about their own parks, while helping raise awareness about camping for the industry as a whole.
Pat Hittmeier, chief operating officer at Kampgrounds of America Inc., said private parks also need to step up their marketing to consumers who live within a day’s drive of their parks. In fact, the latest KOA survey found that 57% of campers spend the previous night home, a statistic that not only underscores the fact that more people are camping closer to home, but the relative scarcity of vacation time that Americans have. “They just aren’t traveling as far as they used to,” Hittmeier said.
Combine a global economic recession with fears of pandemic disease, and it looks to be another dismal summer season for the travel industry. But for one sliver of the accommodations industry – the small business-dominated private campground business – things are looking up, according to BusinessWeek.
All the gloom and doom about job loss and the economy translates into “one more piece of good news for me,” says Rick Yeager, whose family owns Rose Point Park Campground in New Castle, Pa. He employs up to 10 people seasonally; annual revenues are about $350,000. Bad news is often good news for family campground owners, he says: “People are not going to go on a cruise, and a lot of them will look for a closer vacation that’s more secure. Sad to say, but September 11 was actually a boost for our business because people were afraid to fly or go to Disneyland.”
There are about 8,000 privately owned or operated campgrounds in the U.S. The industry is dominated by small-business and family-business owners, says Bob MacKinnon, a former Disney executive who started a campground consulting firm, MacKinnon Campground Consulting, after he retired. (He says another 8,000 campgrounds in the U.S. are owned and operated by national, state, and local agencies.) “There are mega-parks out there that have thousands of campsites, corporate players that own multiple campgrounds, and KOA, which is a franchisor with close to 500 parks nationwide,” MacKinnon says. “But over 50% of the industry is still individual owners who have small parks. Many are multi-generational family owners.”
Gene Zanger, one of the owners of Casa de Fruta Orchard Resort in Hollister, Calif., has four generations of family involved in running the RV park that started as a cherry stand in the late 1940s with a loan from A.P. Giannini, the founder of Bank of America. Today the operation is a must-see stop off the main inland route from Southern California to San Francisco and includes a restaurant, train, carousel, seven fruit stands, and a tasting room for Zanger Family Vineyards. “This summer we’re real hopeful that people are going to come out. Reservations are above last year for the season and we’ve recently been getting more phone calls,” Zanger says.
A big part of the reason, of course, is that the cost of a local camping vacation is far less than a trip that includes airplane tickets and hotel accommodations. A study by PKF Consulting and sponsored by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Assn. found that the average camping vacation would run 21% to 67% cheaper than a fly-drive-hotel vacation. “Historically, when there’s been downturns in the economy, our segment of the industry has done pretty well. We will remain fairly stable because we’re so value-oriented, even in times of recession,” says Mark Anderson, president of Camp Chautauqua in Stow, N.Y., and chairman of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC).
Even though gas prices and the credit crunch have pushed down sales of campers and trailers over the past two years, people who already own RVs continue to get as much use out of them as possible. Far-flung campgrounds suffered last summer because of record-high gas prices in most of the country, Anderson says, but most people camp within 200 miles of home, and the industry as a whole was not hurt too badly.
Campground owners spend much of the off-season upgrading and adding to their properties. Anderson says his family spent this spring supervising the installation of new road paving, higher-grade electrical outlets (even tent campers require electricity these days, he says) and remodeled restrooms. “We just switched a lot of our heating over to natural gas from propane and oil,” he adds.
Like many of the most successful campground owners, the Zanger family will incorporate more social activities this summer for their guests. Campers love old-fashioned options like hay rides, ice cream socials, nature hikes, and crafts classes, he says. In recent years many campground owners have also added more up-to-date amenities such as outdoor movies, cable television, yurts, cabins, and Wi-Fi.
But it may be the nostalgia factor that is the campgrounds’ main draw. “People come for the experience, not because they want to stay somewhere cheap. They want to make a campfire and be in a place where kids can run free and they don’t have to watch them every minute,” Yeager says. That feeling of safety within the boundaries of the private campground, where some families return year after year, may be especially attractive in a society where stress and fear often dominate.
“This reminds me of the north side of Pittsburgh in the ’30s and ’40s,” Yeager says one customer told him last summer. “It’s a throwback to where people grew up, when they knew their neighbors and everybody talked to everybody else.”