Speaking before a capacity crowd of RV dealers, manufacturers and suppliers, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne opened the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) 2010 RV Dealers International Convention/Expo as keynote speaker of the general session Tuesday (Oct. 5) at the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
During her introduction of Kempthorne, RVDA Chairman Debbie Brunaforte noted that the former Idaho mayor, governor and U.S. senator was “an outstanding national leader who also has first-hand experience with RV history as a longtime motorhome owner. In fact, he drove here today in his RV.” Kempthorne served as Secretary of the Interior from 2006-’09 during the George W. Bush administration.
“He brought fundamental changes to the relationships of our national interests in environmental, conservation and outdoor recreation,” she said. “During his service in the U.S. Senate, Secretary Kempthorne led successful efforts to create a sustainable funding source for building and maintaining trails to promote the balance between resource protection and outdoor fun.”
Brunaforte noted that in recognition of his work, Kempthorne received the 20th Sheldon Coleman Great Outdoors Award from the American Recreation Coalition (ARC) in 2008.
Kempthorne, who noted that not only did he drive to the event in his motorhome but so did his brother, Mark, regaled his audience with humorous stories of camping with his family and his travels in his Fleetwood coach before his remarks took a more serious focus.
“There’s a lot of things happening in the world today,” he pointed out, “that makes briefs respites in the great outdoors that much more necessary. It helps to replenish our perspectives. We’ve all experienced the worst recession since the Great Depression. Perhaps few industries have felt it so much as yours. We’ve all read recent headlines that the recession is officially over — whether it feels like it or not. Many Americans are still out of work. The Wall Street Journal recently carried an article about your industry. It gave signs of hope and recovery, but many of you say it really doesn’t reflect what you’re personally experiencing in your businesses.”
Kempthorne, who noted that “I am no economist, and I’m not a member of your industry,” spoke of relying on close friends within the industry to gauge conditions.
“One of my barometers is one of your members and my friend, Tom Nelson, Nelson’s RV in Boise. I check in with Tom periodically to see what’s happening in his world. Through him, I’ve seen some of the trends and what his current experience is — and it’s beginning to be encouraging. But it’s encouraging because it’s doing things differently in this economy. Tom always says ‘I’m just an old trailer salesman’ — but I’ll tell you what: he’s a darn canny businessman. He’s ridden out this recession because he’s not afraid to innovate.”
The flexibility of innovating — recognizing trends and capitalizing upon them — was a main theme of Kempthorne’s speech, and he buttressed his remarks with figures provided to him from the National Park Conservation Association that showed that even as the country was beginning to emerge from the recession, the slight downward trend in visits to national parks had reversed.
“In 2009,” Kepthorne said, “there were nearly 286 million recreation visits to the parks — the highest since 2000.” He also noted dramatic increases in camping reservations through such sites as www.recreation.gov. “Americans still want American visuals, and your industry has continued to play a key role in helping them to get outside and enjoy it. You really are great stewards of the outdoors.”
However, Kempthorne also raised a cautionary note with his audience, pointing out that the quest for higher-mileage tow vehicles would impact their towing capacity. “In the years ahead, as these fuel-economy requirements phase in, there are going to be fewer and fewer vehicles that can be the family car during the week and still tow the family trailer of boat on the weekends.”
He warned that some people will have “a singular focus on an extreme ‘green’ agenda who do not care about your industry,” he continued. “They may not own RVs, they may not know anyone who does. They operate on their own agenda and view your products as something that nobody needs. But they are very influential in Washington; they know how to play the media game well and they understand the legislative process. The political climate in Washington is now favorable to them and they know it. But I’d like you to consider a different way of thinking about dealing with these threats.
“The strategy that will put your industry ahead of the curve and make it less likely that Congress or special-interest groups will put a ‘bulls eye’ on your products comes down to this: you can effect change on your terms, or be effected by change on someone else’s terms. You’re at a fork in the road, and as the noted philosopher Yogi Berra once said, ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’
So here’s my take: why not, as an industry, commit to offering your customers smart green alternatives — not for the sake of symbolically made green but for three very good business reasons. One, customer satisfaction. These alternatives are available, viable and can make the RV experience more enjoyable for our customers. And isn’t that what it’s supposed to be all about?
“Number two is profitability. All of the various green enhancements — things like solar panels, inverters, fuel cells — can be profit centers for your dealerships. I’m talking about additional sales, the installation, maintenance and repair revenues for your dealership.
“Number three is ‘narrative.’ Narrative is one of the newest Washington, D.C., buzzwords. It means that when issues affect your industry, your industry needs to have a credible, constructive narrative; a story to tell. For example, about innovative steps you’re taking to contribute to energy conservation or whatever issue is ‘in play’ at the time. When a reporter comes knocking, you want to have a compelling narrative about your industry.”
As an example, Kempthorne noted the changes he made to his own 2003 Fleetwood motorhome to allow him to dry camp “off the grid,” without tapping into onshore energy supplies.
“I have a fuel cell,” he said. “It uses methanol as a source of energy. In essence, this is wood alcohol, and it’s what NASCAR racers use to fuel their cars. Its purpose is to keep my house batteries charged so that as I use appliances I’m constantly replenishing the batteries. I found that the ideal situation is to partner the fuel cell with a solar panel; they have a synergy of two different power sources. So I added a solar panel. Solar panels just make great sense. I also upgraded my inverter. So with the combination of these three items I can now camp off-grid and enjoy the comforts of my RV and not live in austere conditions.”
As Kempthorne noted, however, many dealers overlook the profitability of such items. “When my brother, Mark, bought his new motorcoach, he drove it off the lot with no inverter and no solar panel. No one suggested the advantages of having these items added. The financing option makes the additional monthly payment really negligible.” His brother lost out on the components’ versatility — but more importantly, Kempthorne stressed, the dealer lost out on the sale and future maintenance and repair revenues.
“I love this industry,” Kempthorne said. “And I think that while sales will continue to return for new rolling stock, there is much that we can do to strongly suggest — and in fact, I would say that we must do — to remain viable. When it comes time for narratives, you have a strong one — to tell about embracing 21st century technology … keeping you on the leading edge and making it better. Lifestyle and experience in the outdoors.”
“The bottom line, you are all survivors, Kempthorne concluded. “And therefore, you are leaders. Everyone in this room is a success story. You have demonstrated that you know how to adapt and achieve great things … I think you have a golden opportunity to seize this. You are already stronger; you’re stronger because of what you’ve had to come through. But you have come through it.”
Kempthorne was preceeded to the dias by Rick Horsey, chairman of the RV Learning Center board of directors, who updated the audience on educational opportunities available to dealer personnel year-round through the RV Learning Center. In introducing Horsey, Brunaforte noted that the longtime chairman will be stepping down later this year after 10 years as head of the RV Learning Center board, but added that Horsey will continue as a volunteer leader of RVDA and will remain a member of the RV Learning Center board of directors.
The 2010 RV Dealers International Convention/Expo continues through Friday.