While 2020 has brought a variety of challenges to the RV park and campground sectors, it also has been a busy one for most park owners as interest in RVing and camping has skyrocketed amid the COVID crisis. The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) has worked to meet all of the challenges the outdoor hospitality industry has faced head on, according to ARVC’s CEO and President Paul Bambei.
“The focus is always on the member and we keep our finger on the pulse of what’s going on,” he noted to Woodall’s Campground Management (WCM).
With more than 3,000 members, ARVC focuses heavily on advocating at both the national and state levels to ensure park owners can run their businesses effectively.
From helping state associations get parks declared “essential” in the early days of the pandemic to hosting regular webinars on key industry trends and topics to hosting the first-ever virtual Outdoor Hospitality Conference and Expo in early November, ARVC has been exploring a number of different arenas to make an impact in 2020 amid the COVID pandemic.
But beyond COVID, ARVC continues to highlight its education efforts and continues to expand the member-benefits program it offers. On the consumer side, ARVC recently updated its GoCampingAmerica.com website and released a GoCampingAmerica.com app, both of which are poised to be not only better resources for RVers and campers, but also offer better marketing tools to park owners.
Bambei took a few minutes out of his hectic schedule during the Holiday season to chat with WCM about the interesting year that was 2020 and to look forward at the promising 2021 camping season.
Below is our edited conversation.
WCM: Lets take a look back at 2020. I don’t think anyone quite expected the type of year that we had. Obviously, COVID was a large focus for everyone. What were some of the things ARVC was focused on in 2020 and how did things pan out for the association and its members?
Paul Bambei: We just had a meeting here recently with our partnering state executives, something we do on a quarterly basis, and every one of them reported that 2020 was a really good one in terms of economic performance. It was difficult obviously, dealing with the pandemic, all the new rules and regulations, but by and large, when we look back on 2020, as a camping year it was positive.
You come from that kind of year and you look at 2021, and obviously, what we want to do is keep that momentum moving in a forward direction. We think, given the things that we focus on to create value for our members, we are in a very good place. We never stop creating the value and what we are seeing is that the members really appreciated the work that we did here from Denver, Colo., and the collaboration with our state executives, to keep their businesses moving forward and being very productive this past year. We are going to just keep that going.
We have new assets that are being deployed really as we speak, to bring business to them. The latest of those is the GoCampingAmerica.com mobile app that we are rolling out. It’s intuitive when you think about it. People are away from their homes and using their mobile devices to search and find the parks that have the amenities they are looking for, within the location that they are looking for. It is high time that ARVC created a mobile app that allows them to find the park of their desires, and we are sure this is going to help bring business to our members’ front doors.
WCM: Some state associations have seen membership numbers tick up due to the work they have been doing during the current crisis. Has ARVC also recognized a growth in membership due to the work that it has done?
Bambei: Absolutely. We are currently in the reconciliation stage of billing with our partnering states and that’s when we see the year end statistics of the number of campgrounds that have been added to the scrolls. And again, from the reports from the state executives, the majority are on the upside from a year ago. So, that’s the clear indicator that people want to be part of this association.
When you have been through an experience, like we have been in 2020, I think these members, maybe for the first time, saw how we, in partnership with our state executive offices, really came to their need. And I won’t call it a crisis, but back in February and March, there were a lot of unknowns. They saw the activity, they saw what we were doing to get them declared as essential businesses, and it wasn’t an overnight thing. A lot of letters, a lot of calls, personal calls made to just about everybody on the legislative slate were made, and I think the members really appreciated it. They are showing it by remaining members moving into the new year.
I think we’re seeing growth in the non-partnering states as well, and a lot of growth in our associated memberships. People who are looking to get into this industry. We are seeing growth in both of those areas. I attribute a lot of it to the value that they see in being a member of an association like ARVC. Not only the advocacy work that we have done through this pandemic to keep campgrounds open, but also just the other many benefits that they have available to them.
WCM: You just rebuilt the GoCampingAmerica.com website and released a new app. Part of that includes a new partnership with Go RVing. You continue to build relationships with other associations in the industry, including the RV Industry Association (RVIA), that seem to have benefited members as well. Right?
Bambei: RVIA just redeveloped their website too, so we have been working closely with them. We are in it together in terms of creating the best consumer experience we can possibly create. And when I look back on 2020 it was a benchmark year in terms of really taking what has just been words in the past, at least to me, when we spoke about the community of the RV industry.
We always did the things that needed to be done to create a healthy community, but I think in the throes of the pandemic, it notched up tenfold. We just came together. I don’t know if it was out of self-reliance or what, but we were talking constantly and still are talking constantly with our connections over at the RVIA and RV Dealer’s Association (RVDA), and even broader than that, the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR) and the 32 associations that belong to it.
You just have this wonderful community that you can bounce ideas off, get reactions from and so on. It was a great year from that aspect as well.
WCM: What are some of the challenges that ARVC faced in 2020?
Bambei: Well, the most obvious challenge was the unknown of where this pandemic was going to take us. Nobody knew back in February and March what was going to happen. And there were a lot of anxious calls that we were having with the leadership of RVIA and RVDA, as well as our state partners, just trying to figure it out. That’s when we took the lead to really put the webinars together that were conducted throughout the spring and summer, and we are still doing some now.
We basically just took the hands of our members and said, “Let’s walk through this together.” And we learned together, and we had expert advice from people that heretofore were never really people that we knew existed, but we brought them into the fold and had them share their advice, whether it was legal or health related. I think that really helped us shape the guidelines that we put out in May to again, help the campground owners understand what they needed to do to remain Centers for Disease Control (CDC) compliant.
Not everybody used them, but a lot of them did use them. They were like the Bible to help them understand what they needed to do to remain CDC compliant. I think with that safeguard in place, the consuming public understood that a campground is a good place to take their family and enjoy the outdoors and know that they are going to be safe. That’s why you saw the record crowds this spring and summer. Ever since Memorial Day it’s just been full to the brim.
WCM: Your 2020 Insights and Trends Report was recently released, and it included some stats based off of COVID-related questions. What stuck out to you the most in the report?
Bambei: From my standpoint, the surprise that was revealed in that report was that even though over 50% of the campgrounds said that COVID caused them to have better years than last year. There were a fair number that said the opposite, that COVID negatively impacted them.
I’m thinking of states like Alaska, which wasn’t on the call with our state executives, but we’ve heard this year that they really had a rough year. You look at parts out in California that not only had to deal with COVID, but they had to deal with the fires. When we make these broad statements that it was a great year, we always have to keep those comments in check and understand that not everyone had a great year. Some of that was revealed through the research.
Then there’s always the Canadian border issue. Campgrounds that are up along the border rely on the business that comes down in the summer. States like Maine, and even today, in the winter months, where states in the Sunbelt are really just kicking off. They’re reporting that they’re having good advance registration business, but they’re also not sure what that Canadian factor is going to do to them.
There were many parks that could not open up fully, whether it was a pool or a rec hall, any place that had people congregating was questionable for many of them. Many of them did not open those amenities to the public. And yet, they still had a record draw, so maybe what that says is that people really want to be outdoors more than anything else. It’s always nice to have the pool for the kids and those kinds of things but it’s not a requirement. And I think it’s been proved.
Another valuable piece of information coming out of COVID and the report is that the pandemic has really not slowed expansion plans much. Parks are still telling us that they not only have the ability for expansion, but they have basically the same plan for expansion that they showed last year. Which is great for the industry because we have got more RVs coming into the market and more people because of the pandemic are getting outdoors. I think that ultimately is what’s driving it.
I think that is driving the need for expansion. Owners are seeing a lot more campers out there. They are thinking, “now if I can add 20 more sites to my park, or whatever it is, I can make even more money the next year because this demand is going to go up.” Someone who’s buying a new RV is not going to be using it one season and not another because of the pandemic. That’s an investment that they’ve got, and they’re going to continue to use it. I foresee that this growth of campers is going to continue for the next few years, at least. Even when we get beyond COVID.
WCM: What is ARVC focused on in 2021?
Bambei: We’re all still in the midst of this pandemic, obviously, and we learned a lot from the experience in 2020. What we noticed was that many of the state governors were using the same language to create their executive orders for establishing essential businesses. They were lifting that language from the agency known as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). We didn’t know that until we started poking around in Washington D.C. and learned that’s a resource that the states are going to for their order language. We’re trying to get ahead of that game and be proactive going into 2021 by establishing a relationship with CISA, we’ve already reached out to the chief deputy.
The Biden administration has yet to name the official CISA director, but once that person is named, we will hopefully have laid the relationship groundwork to move very quickly to be proactive in the language that we think is needed to make essential business universal for campgrounds across the country. That transition will be taking place here very shortly, we hope. We are already identifying key senators and congressmen that we know are already on that agency’s docket in terms of what they do to inform the agency.
We’re going to have our friends that are aligned with us make that happen early in the year. But that’s just bracing for pandemic related visits. I still believe that it’s going to be a fantastic year in 2021 and we’re going to be there holding our webinars, doing the things that are necessary to be in lockstep with the community of campground owners and suppliers, and all the people that we work with, to make sure that they succeed.
We’re working on our growth opportunities, we are not just talking, we are actually assisting states that are moving closer and closer to becoming partnering states of ours. That’s a big step for a state because they have to set up a board, they have to set up bylaws, a website, a leadership structure, and that’s all new stuff to states that have never done it before. We are working with two states in particular right now. Moving them closer and closer to the end zone. We expect in early 2021 to bring them into our fold and let them start enjoying what are other partnering states have enjoyed for years.
Without naming any particular states, we are also in very healthy discussions with states that have formerly been partnering states and are considering coming back.
Beyond the United States, we’re very close to a final agreement with the Canadian Camping and RV Council (CCRVC). I’m reluctant to get into too many details, but we have a partnership agreement with them that just passed our board, and my next task is to send that agreement to the CCRVC and get the counter signature that makes it official. They have discussed it verbally on their end as a board and are very encouraged. Their primary desire is to have better education and training and they came to us as the industry leader. I think going forward, you’re going to see a lot of the content that we develop being shared with them as well.