The Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners (WACO) 2013 Convention & Trade Show, the 50th edition of which took place Mar. 20-24 at the Holiday Inn Hotel & Convention Center in Stevens Point, has somehow developed into the nation’s largest state gathering of independent campground operators, drawing an impressive weekend crowd from several states.
In fact, WACO set records this year, reports Executive Director Lori Severson, by registering 642 attendees representing 127 parks, topping last year’s attendance of 595. “It’s up just a bit from past year’s on campgrounds,” Severson told Woodall’s Campground Management, “but way up on the number of people.”
How this particular show has been able to gain so much growth and momentum – providing a venue for 194 exhibitors in the process — apparently boils down to two basic techniques that, curiously, the campground arena itself tries to do at successful parks across the continent every day of the year: Get everybody engaged, and give them VIP treatment.
Severson says WACO has harnessed these two concepts for the benefit of the association and trade show through initiatives that keep costs down while increasing benefits received. Rather than raising prices for exhibit space or attendance, Severson said an essential lynchpin is finding different ways to pay for operations, such as certification and speaker sponsorships and openly encouraging attendees to buy from vendors instead of just browsing.
Thus, WACO becomes a buying show, which keeps the vendors happy enough to want to return each year.
“It’s both a personal appeal and a little incentive program,” says Severson. “On Saturday night after attendees have made all their purchases, they bring in their receipts and we draw from all the vendors at the show and the campground owners that are there. If the two match, they get $3,000. If we don’t pick a match, we continue to pick until somebody goes home with $1,500 cash in their pocket.”
At the same time, Severson says that WACO’s staff goes to extra lengths to take care of their vendors by doing little things like placing goodie bag in each booth and bigger things like negotiating for low prices at the host hotel. WACO provides plenty of help in carrying equipment in and setting up and hosts a vendor luncheon before the booths open and an appreciation dinner on Friday evening. “We know how it is,” she noted. “We’ve been there, done that. We do RV shows just like everyone does.”
With that kind of sales potential and that kind of treatment in mind, it’s no surprise that WACO’s trade show was oversubscribed this year. Fact is, the state trade group actually turned away about 15 companies for lack of space. Booth space is available on a first-come, first-served basis, Severson noted, except in the case of presenting sponsors, who are assured a spot at the trade show and may pick their locations.
About 15% of this year’s vendors were WACO first-timers, which Severson said is “unusual for us.”
The amount of relevant new state legislation impacting the RV park and campground sector has virtually exploded over the past year, according to Jeff Sims, director of state relations and program advocacy for the Centennial, Colo.-based National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds (ARVC).
While ARVC hires its own lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and a few state trade groups have their own legislative advocates, Sims focuses on bills that might represent either a boon or bust for park operators throughout the U.S. And he says the number of bills affecting the park sector grew from 637 in January of 2012 to 2,004 this past January — nearly a 300% increase.
“We’re able to monitor this activity on a daily basis, and then when we notice certain issues that will impact the industry – whether it be a small business issue or something that’s specifically related to campgrounds – we identify those things and report on them to keep people informed at the state level,” said Sims, who spoke with RVBUSINESS.com during the Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners’ (WACO) 2013 Convention & Trade Show, Mar. 20-24 in Stevens Point. “If it’s an actionable item, we try to assist in creating the action that’s necessary to impact that bill either positively or negatively.
“And these numbers show the bulls-eye that’s on the backs of small businesses right at the moment,” said Sims, a former Missouri campground operator and ex-ARVC chairman. “Local and state governments are trying to fund budgets and we’re seeing transient occupancy taxes and all kinds of tax issues – some of them on a county basis, some on a state basis – that are trying, for instance, to identify what a park trailer is for tax purposes. So, it’s our job to stay abreast of those issues.”
Naturally, he pointed out, some of these bills are really “off the wall,” like a South Dakota initiative that surfaced in late January aimed at “pharmacy audit integrity” that actually had embedded rules addressing RV park and campground advertising, reservations and campsite deposit requirements as well as refund policies.
“Now what has that got to do with pharmacy integrity?” asked Sims. “Absolutely nothing. I don’t know what the circumstances were behind that, but I notified the South Dakota Campground Owners Association immediately, which got with the appropriate senator and got the bill pulled.”
Aside from tax issues – especially additional transient occupancy taxes – Sims is also seeing plenty of proposed new regulations dealing with storage facilities, length of stay and evictions as 3,000-member ARVC tries to keep member parks out of landlord-tenant relationships altogether.
Park trailers, of course, are often in the lawmaking cross-hairs.
“I think that’s here to stay,” adds Sims. “I think that as long as budgets are slim and municipalities and local governments are going to be looking for new ways to generate revenue they’ll be constantly looking at park trailers and saying, ‘oh, that’s not an RV.’ Now you and I both know what a definition of an RV is. It falls in that category. It’s licensed just like a vehicle. It’s treated like personal property. It’s not meant to enhance the property value of the park. So, we’re seeing them try to tax park trailers as real property, and it’s a problem for a park owner.”
At the same time, Sims was working recently with Wade Elliott, president of Preston, Wash.-based Utility Supply Group, and Bruce Hopkins, vice president of education and standards for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), on an issue regarding electric pedestals that would have considered them separate structures requiring double ground rods and significant added cost.
“It was way overkill and a huge cost thing,” says Sims, who sold his 233-site Branson-area park in June of 2007. “But the average park owner may not ever know about it because it didn’t come to fruition.”
Private park operators and industry officials have noted for several years now that growing numbers of Americans are camping closer to home as a result of rising fuel costs.
But while this poses a marketing challenge for parks in far-flung locations – which cater to smaller numbers of long-haul campers – there is still a significant contingent of dedicated park operators who are betting their futures on the enduring appeal of camping in remote sites.
Many of them attended the spring convention of the Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners (WACO), including Michele Johnson, a Southern California native who recently purchased Schatzi’s 4 Seasons Resort, a secluded campground with cabins in Wisconsin’s North Woods. The region was popular with Chicago-based mob figures in the 1930s and 40s.
“People seek out these kinds of places,” said Johnson, one of 565 park operators and industry officials who attended the March 14–18 convention at the Holiday Inn & Conference Center in Stevens Point, Wis. “People still crave places to go to get away,” said Johnson. “We’re at the end of the road on a lake. It’s pretty secluded, and the fishing in amazing.”
Still, most park operators attending the WACO convention told RVBUSINESS.com that they are drawing the majority of their business from cities that are less than 100 miles away.
But that, of course, is not the only trend private park operators have been talking about at WACO’s convention or at any of the other significant spring events in the RV park and campground arena, including the ARVC Michigan Spring Convention & Trade Show, March 26–28 at the Causeway Bay Hotel & Conference Center in Causing, Mich.; the Northeast Conference on Camping and Trade Show, March 22–24 at the Sturbridge Host Hotel & Conference Center in Sturbridge, Mass.; the Mid-Atlantic Campground Conference, March 6–7 at the Dover Downs Hotel in Dover, Del.; and the Carolina Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds Convention & Expo, Feb. 6–7 at Lakewood Camping Resort in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Many park operators continue to see rising demand for seasonal campsites.
“We’re getting phone calls daily from people asking about them,” said Becky Gussell, co-owner of Sherwood Forest Campground and RV Park in the Wisconsin Dells, which has 181 overnight and 37 seasonal sites.
Stoney Creek RV Resort and Campground in Osseo, Wis., which has 70 sites in 65 acres, is also seeing growing demand for seasonal sites, primarily from families and retirees who live within 70 to 100 miles of the campground, said co-owner Joy Levake.
Scott Kollock, who co-owns Vista Royalle Campground in Bancroft, Wis., said he is seeing growing demand for seasonal sites, too. About 150 of his 275 sites are now occupied by seasonal campers, he said, noting they use everything from park models to travel trailers and fifth-wheels as destination camping units.
Johnson of Schatzi’s 4 Seasons Resort is seeing strong demand for seasonal sites as well. “We have so many people calling trying to find seasonal spots that we are already full (for the season) now,” Johnson said of her park, which has 29 sites and two cabins.
Park operators are also seeing continuing growth in demand for rental units, including park models, site built cabins and yurts.
“Our rentals are just about filled every weekend this summer,” said Randy Sondalle, co-owner of Pineland Camping Park in Arkdale, Wis., a noteworthy achievement for any campground owner three months ahead of the summer season. Pineland has three cabins.
Gussell said Sherwood Forest Campground and RV Park is also seeing continuing strong demand for its 15 rental cabins and two rental trailers, a trend that bodes well for the nation’s park model and towable RV manufacturers, which are increasingly marketing units for seasonal and rental use.
Lori Severson, WACO’s executive director, said a record 192 businesses displayed their products and services at the association’s tradeshow. Vendors included RV pedestal supplier Wade Elliott of Kingston, Wash.-based Utility Supply Group, who noted that his sales figures for January and February exceeded last year’s figures for the same period.
The WACO conference included more than 20 educational seminars as well as guest appearances by several former members of the Green Bay Packers football team, including William Henderson, Santana Dotson, Bill Schroeder and Gilbert Brown, who was known as “The Gravedigger” for pretending to dig a grave to bury the unfortunate member of the opposing team he just demolished.
Gilbert Brown grew up in inner-city Detroit and went on to a successful football career — 10 years as a defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers and one season as a Super Bowl champion.
Wealth, fame and “The Gravedigger” nickname he earned opened many doors, but Brown could never have predicted they would open one to … the joys of RVing, according to USA Today.
Brown, his wife and four kids, ages 1 to 16, love to load up their recreational vehicle, hit the road and camp. “I’m 39 years old, and I never knew what a S’mores was,” Brown says. “Growing up in Detroit, there is nothing really in that area as far as camping.”
He was introduced to recreational vehicles when his Gilbert Brown Foundation, which contributes to 144 children’s charities, partnered with the Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners (WACO) to raise money. Every time a campground hosted a fundraiser, he would go.
Brown now owns an RV and has inspired friends to do the same. He encourages people — especially those in urban areas — to at least try it once. “Get the kids outdoors instead of sitting in the house playing PlayStation,” he says. “Nobody’s got money to get four or five kids on a plane and go to California.”
Newcomers to fun
A new generation of Americans searching for ways to have fun in a wobbly economy is giving a boost to the 100-year-old RV industry.
Wholesale deliveries of RVs to retailers totaled 84,500 in the first four months of 2010, nearly double the total from the same period last year, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) reports.
Some RV camps and resorts are seeing double-digit percentage jumps in occupancy and in new faces, according to Linda Profaizer, president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds (ARVCs. “It had been mainly the 55-plus,” she says. “The fastest-growing segment is the younger market — 35 to 47 … younger people entering the market with families.”
Reasons: affordability, a return to simple pleasures and a desire to get kids outdoors and away from electronic screens.
Don’t own an RV? They can be rented and delivered to a campsite at any of the 14,000 RV camps and resorts in the U.S. and Canada. About 8,000 camps are privately run. The rest are in public parks.
Campgrounds and resorts are adding amenities to offer more than simply a site to pitch a tent or park a pop-up camper. Their goal is to keep city slickers entertained and comfortable.
“We have a class of individuals looking to enjoy all the comforts of home without necessarily having to pay the price of a resort,” says Rob Schutter, chief operating officer of Leisure Systems Inc., franchiser of 75 Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp Resorts.
The industry targets niche segments — from hardcore outdoor enthusiasts and snowbirds to urban families who may no longer be able to afford plane tickets and hotels but still expect amenities.
“I call it ‘glamping,’ ” says Kenny Johnson, recreation director at Campland on the Bay, a San Diego RV resort that has a sandy beach, skateboard park, cafe and game room. “It’s like a city inside a city.”
“It’s unbelievable,” says Aaron Justice, 35, who joined RVing friends at the camp. “It has an arcade, market, laundromat. You really never have to leave here.”
Justice, who works in construction and lives in Temecula, Calif., usually flies to visit family in Tennessee. “Times are tough, so it makes sense to come here,” he says.
A range of activities
What camps offer:
- Fun. Giant water slides, skateboard parks, wine tastings, zip lines, restaurants, carousels, swimming pools and playgrounds are among an expanding list of amenities. Geocaching, a high-tech treasure hunting game that uses GPS devices to locate hidden treasures, is popular. Some want to get away from it all and seek camps out of range of cellphone towers. Others want wireless access. “We’re in the entertainment business, the experience business,” Schutter says. “We can still cater to people who desire a rugged experience or a true family experience, sitting around the campfire and cooking S’mores.”
- Comfort. “Park models” that look like cabins but can be moved like an RV have become popular rentals. Higher-end models offer bathrooms, kitchenettes, separate bedrooms and real beds. Cheaper units are more primitive.
- Proximity and cost-savings. Parks within 150 miles of a metro area are in demand because they can be reached in a couple of hours, says industry consultant David Gorin, who owns the Holiday Cove RV Resort in Cortez, Fla.
Robert Franz likes to vacation near his home in Berryville, Va., in case he is needed at work. His family goes to Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resort in Luray, about an hour away.
His five children love the swimming pool and slide, he says. “If my kids went to Disney World, they’d be bored,” he says. “Here, the boys will go from the paddleboat to the basketball court. … I can turn them loose.”
Brown, the former football star, recalls his introduction to RVs. “It was eye-opening,” he says. “Once you experience something like that, it’s contagious.”
The Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners (WACO) Convention was held March 18-21 at Stevens Point, Wis., with 281 people representing 105 campgrounds attending. The trade show, one of the largest campground industry trade shows of the year, attracted 178 vendors.
Special guests included former Green Bay Packers players Jerry Kramer, Gilbert Brown, Santana Dotson, William Henderson and Fuzzy Thurston.
“The overall mood was very positive,” said Lori Severson, owner and president of Severson and Associates. “There was lots of energy and excitement. Many of our vendors stated it was the best convention they have ever been too.”
Seminars included: Legislative Issues with Kathy Kilgore; Learn How to Maximize MicroSoft products; Activities, Crafts, Ideas, Oh My!; CPR; NR115 Update; Aquatic Facility Risk Management; Personality Styles Training; First Aid; IT Information; Train the Trainer for Campground Inspections; Team Building; Things to Do that Cost Almost Nothing; Blow Them Away Guest Services; Creating a Profit Center in Your Store; Propane Safety from Wisconsin Propane Gas Association; Uniform Building Code; Employee Handbooks; Best Idea and Facebook 101.
Other topics were Tavern Topics; Love Thy Neighbor Legislatively; Developing a Campground Newsletter; Maintaining Your Equipment; Themed Weekends for Your Tavern; Manipulating Data; Website Marketing; Show Me the Green – Can you Really Afford Not to Be Sustainable?; Environmental Health; Reducing Resource Usage; Fighting Fair; Picture Perfect; Overview of Employment Law; Food Safety; Going Wireless Without Going Broke; Financing For Your Campground; Build Your Facebook Now; Ladies Lounge; Handling Zoning and Planning Issues; Banking and Financing Today; Show Me the Money; Zoning Issues and Answers; and How to Say It.
Officers elected were:
- Judy Butcha, Duck Creek Campground, Pardeeville, president.
- Dawn Button, Evergreen Campground, Wild Rose, secretary.
- Dave Schneider, Indian Trails Campground, Pardeeville, treasurer.
There was a WACO Auction and Hall of Fame Presentation also held during this year’s event, and two legislators were on hand to discuss and work through any legislative issues facing the state’s campgrounds.
The date of next year’s WACO Convention will be March 17-20, 2011.
A suspect national economy had little tangible effect on the Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners’ (WACO) Spring Convention March 18-22 at the Holiday Inn Convention Center in Stevens Point, Wis.
The event drew 650 campground owners, staff members and trades people. The campground count was 127, up from 106 last year. And the trade show featured 178 vendor booths, up from 150 a year ago. Furniture was removed from the convention center lobby to make room for the additional booths, WACO staffer Ruth Jaszewski reported to RVBusiness. The meeting is routinely the largest gathering of campground owners from a single state in the year.
She called it “a very positive convention,” both in terms of attendance and campground owner morale. “They (campground owners) feel the camping industry will not be that affected (this year). People won’t travel as far but will still come to the campgrounds that are closer. And reservations are up from last year,” Jaszewski said.
Among the guest speakers were Mark Anderson, chairman of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), and Beverly Gruber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association (PCOA).
Kathi Kilgore, WACO’s lobbyist, outlined key legislative matters affecting the campground industry this year. The two major issues facing campgrounds deal with the mandatory start of public school and with raising the minimum wage, she told RVB.
WACO helped draft the existing Uniform School Start Date legislation, passed in 2001, which mandated public schools could not start before Sept. 1.
“This year, we are seeing an effort to repeal that law,” Kilgore said. “That is a big threat I am very nervous about. We are seeing organizations that were dormant or neutral before becoming more active.
“The other challenge is there is a majority of legislators who have not dealt with this issue before. We will now have to educate the new legislators and re-educate the folks that were here before,” she said.
The start date will be a bargaining issue, she said. “As a tourism industry, we would like to see Labor Day but a compromise (in the present law) was Sept. 1,” she said. Some schools formerly started as early as Aug. 18.
Such an early start date last year would have been harmful to the state’s campgrounds last summer, she noted, as the weather the last two weeks of August was “fabulous” and owners made up for a lot of business they lost earlier in the season due to the extensive flooding across the state.
The minimum wage hike would be to $7.60 an hour and indexed to the Consumer Price Index, she explained. She fears the legislation will “open the door to other HR issues like mandatory sick leave and to bigger precedents,” she said.
She encouraged WACO members to lobby their state legislators on the two issues.
WACO will hold its 2010 convention the third week in March and most likely return to the Stevens Point site, Jaszewski said.