Best Parks in America is on a fast track to reaching its near-term goal of 100 to 125 affiliated parks. And part of the reason why Best Parks seems to be turning a corner is that its founder and president, David Gorin, modified its business plan this past year to better appeal to the top-performing parks with whom it seeks to do business.
Indeed, just two years ago, says Gorin, the Best Parks network of highly rated, non-franchise “independent unique parks” – none of whom pay royalties or sign long-term contracts — was stuck in the middle, its membership on hold in the 20-park range. “The mistake we made along the way was that we were going after a super-premium park as the affiliate,” he said. “Frankly, in the industry, there are not enough parks at that highest level to make a national network work. So, we’ve re-evaluated.”
After easing up a bit on its strict membership requirements and establishing more attainable criteria, it reached 40 parks by February of 2010, 61 by last May and 76 by WCM’s deadline, having added eight new companies over the winter, says Gorin, a veteran RV park and campground consultant, lobbyist, WCM columnist and former head of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC).
Gorin stresses that the major strength of the network, which was founded in 2004 and drew good crowds at its annual meeting in December in Las Vegas during the ARVC InSites Convention, is that it has continued to focus on parks with high standards. Each park meets at least one of the following standards: a combined rating of 9 by Woodall’s North American Campground Directory and/or a combined rating of 26.5 in the Trailer Life Directory of RV Parks & Campgrounds and/or an overall GuestRated score of “A” based upon RVer and camper reviews.
Gorin, himself a Florida park owner, shared his thoughts on where Best Parks in America is headed in the following interview with WCM.
WCM: Give us a brief overview of the startup phase of Best Parks in America (BPA).
Gorin: I had always expected that the campground industry would segment itself similar to the way the hotel industry has segmented itself. There would be brands that would develop over time with consumers, and consumers would decide where they want to go based on brand, and the brand would speak to the quality and type of facility it is. I expected by the end of the 1990s, this industry would start to do the same thing.
Instead it went the other way. Best Holiday Travel Parks, Thousand Trails, Outdoor World, Outdoor Resorts, some of those by the beginning of the 21st century started to disappear. I looked around and said there is something missing.
It looked to me like the upper end of the market was not being segmented the right way. You had KOA, which for the most part had nailed down the mid-range of parks. Yogi Bear (Leisure Systems Inc.), which was the other one growing, had staked out part of the family market serving families with young kids. Encore (ELS) was primarily a Florida-based brand catering to an older demographic. There was nobody who was targeting the upper end of the market.
WCM: So that’s why you set your sights on the high end?
Gorin: Yes, that’s why Best Parks in America decided to stake out a brand that speaks to the highly rated parks. The idea was that it would not be a franchise; starting a new franchise is a hugely expensive and difficult undertaking. I decided to create a national marketing group. Let me explain.
Back in the ’90s on a couple of occasions I had the opportunity to attend the Pow Wow, the International Travel Show sponsored by the U.S. Travel Association (formerly the Travel Industry Association).
The Pow Wow attracts travel buyers who are bringing visitors to the U.S. I went to those shows and there were several tour operators who were bringing over international campers and sending them in buses to go camping around the U.S. The RV rental companies, like Cruise America and El Monte RV, were booking rentals for overseas operators. Their clients were staying mostly at KOAs because they were the only name in the market and KOA at the time was really going after the international business.
I thought it would be good to create a marketing group to cater to that market. That (reaching the international camper) hasn’t materialized as a goal of Best Parks in America as of now. It may grow as an objective, to get the international business. KOA had a solid program for years to get international travelers. They pulled it back about 10 years ago because there wasn’t enough business…
WCM: What, in the beginning, did it cost to join Best Parks?
Gorin: The first parks paid a one-time $3,000 fee plus a commitment of $3,000 a year for advertising and marketing plus a $1,000 management fee per year, so it was a $7,000 buy-in. We had 23 parks in the system, but it wasn’t gaining traction at those rates. That’s when we decided to roll way back and look for another way of funding.
Originally it was for very high-end parks, for the 10/10/10, the cream of the cream. I looked around and there weren’t enough of those parks, so we had to roll the fees back and come up with a more objective way to rate the parks and bring them in and make it more affordable to a larger number of parks
WCM: What have you been promoting as the advantages of membership in Best Parks in America?
GORIN: From the beginning, we’ve been promoting a national marketing program, the license to use the Best Parks in America name and logo in park signage and participation in national group advertising. The package includes exterior signs for the entrance and park interior. We have a directory and a rack card and a website.
We also created Best Guests in America, a complimentary camping club that originally included a rewards program for frequent campers. We started with a rack card and then went to a small directory format, which is a precursor to the directory we put out this year.
WCM: Did you start out as an East Coast-oriented network?
Gorin: Not really. Arizona had two parks at the beginning, and some in California came in early. We had 23 parks in 11 states but it was hard to get any traction. We had to go much bigger than that. We’re looking for 100 to 125 parks.
WCM: Do you have representation among KOA or Leisure Systems parks?
Gorin: We now have one Yogi Bear park; we do not have any KOAs. We’ve had inquiries from KOAs. I’d be more than happy to welcome them. They have their own restrictions on branding. I understand that. For that reason, we probably won’t focus on those parks. If they come to us, they will have to take it up with their franchise company first.
WCM: What pitfalls did you encounter along the way?
Gorin: Generally, we encountered what any new venture encounters: skepticism. Will this work? Are they going to stick around? A lot of the parks that joined us early on, I’m proud to say, had confidence that I could do it. All the parks that joined initially are still in the system. We haven’t lost any of them. We rarely lose any of the parks that come in.
WCM: You mentioned that you had to roll back the fees to further grow the Best Parks network. What can you tell us about that?
Gorin: As of March 1, 2011, the base membership is $750 for the standard benefit package. We have added two additional tiers of membership, for $4,000 and $5,000 a year. These include a variety of marketing-related programs, research, custom-designed action plans based on a particular park’s customer breakdown and target marketing, and some excellent staff training programs. We are now able to work with each park to craft a unique marketing program to take advantage of their affiliation with Best Parks in America.
This is not a cookie-cutter approach. They (affiliates) don’t pay us royalties. We don’t dictate color schemes or uniforms. We focus on the uniqueness of each property and are seeking to create a consistent guest experience at a high level throughout the system that will drive repeat business, recommendations and referrals.
WCM: So, is your business model fashioned after any other?
Gorin: Best Parks is modeled most closely after Leading Hotels of the World and Leading Hotels of the U.S. Their primary benefit to their affiliates is a central worldwide reservation system. We can’t do that with Best Parks unless the affiliated park has its own online reservation system. We don’t have at this time a central reservation system but it’s under consideration.
The industry has divided itself up among several different reservation systems, and I’m not ready to take on the challenge of trying to get Best Parks affiliates to link into one reservation system. However, if we are going to achieve our objective of providing a high quality and consistent guest experience, eventually there will need to be a national or international reservation system.
You see, Best Parks doesn’t have a lot of requirements. We’re just telling parks you have to have a sign outside identifying it as a Best Parks in America member. Parks do not have to include our logo in their marketing. Some don’t do that. They may think their listing in a directory will be sufficient. But Best Parks in America is more than a website and a print directory. If we can succeed in getting the properties to work in unison in promoting the brand and each other, it will bring great benefits to all.
WCM: Tell us about your Strategic Partner Program.
Gorin: BPA Strategic Partners are an important part of the Best Parks in America family. We have 13 now. These special companies have been nominated by BPA-affiliated RV parks, have a long track record of serving the park industry and provide a unique level of quality service and outstanding pricing for BPA affiliates.
Every one has to be able to provide a value to the affiliates. We also ask that Strategic Partners help us grow by recommending that their customers who qualify consider affiliating with Best Parks. To be a Strategic Partner you also have to agree, if asked, to share your expertise with the group.
WCM: Tell us, if you would, about your new RVer Advisory Council and how that’s working out.
GORIN: In looking at some of the RVer forms online, I saw there were some misunderstandings among RVers. So I decided I needed to get some feedback and help from RVers as to how they view brands and Best Parks in America and what we need to do to be more available to consumers, to bring top-of-the-mind awareness of the brand and have a group that periodically could advise me and provide counsel and advice from a consumer point of view.
We had a very nice response. We’ve selected the people who will be invited and the invitations went out the first week of March. The first meeting will be in the next couple of weeks. In the spirit of transparency, we put out a special message on Best Parks’ website to RVers, explaining to them what Best Parks is all about and how it works and tried to remove the myths and gossip that goes out. The message is on the front page of www.bestparks.com. The consumer is ultimately the key to the success of BPA.
WCM: Are you profitable?
Gorin: As a for-profit company, it’s there to make a profit. But this business has not yet turned the corner to profitability. I think there’s quite a ways to go to become profitable. I’ve funded the company up until now, but we’ve got to take some steps to continue the progress and that’s going to require some additional capital that may require finding a partner or investor to help fund future growth.
WCM: David, you wear many hats in the RV park and campground sector. How do you keep it all straight and stay sane?
Gorin: Fortunately, the campground I’ve been working on for the last few years now doesn’t require my time and direct involvement. The other work I do for consulting clients, for the Virginia Campground Association, government affairs work for ARVC, writing and teaching, is just great and exciting.
I’m about to open an office in Longboat Key, Fla., and I have a part-time assistant who helps in what will remain my primary office in McLean, Va. I think that keeping very busy is a key to my sanity. I’ve always believed that if you ever slow down, you don’t get up again. So, I just keep moving,