The senior management team at the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds (ARVC) — including President and CEO Paul Bambei, Senior Director of Education Barb Youmans, Senior Director of State Relations & Program Advocacy Jeff Sims and Membership Director Candra Talley — have been out in force in recent weeks, canvassing the various state and regional campground association conferences to update park owners on the latest news and benefits emanating from the Denver, Col.-based organization.
Among those conferences, Youmans and Sims were at the Northeast Campground Association’s (NCA) 53rd Northeast Conference on Camping and Trade Show wrapped up Saturday evening (March 18) in Nashua, N.H., while Bambei addressed attendees at the Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners (WACO) 54th Annual Convention and Trade Show in Stevens Point, Wis.
Their message to those attendees – as well as in a lengthy conversation between Bambei and Sherman Goldenberg, publisher of Woodall’s Campground Management — touched on three general areas of ARVC’s efforts on behalf of its some 2,900 members: Advocacy, Education, and Network Connection.
Below is an edited version of WCM’s interview with Bambei.
WCM: So, as we sit here in a Florida hotel lobby during the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association’s (RVIA) RV Leadership Conference, what in your opinion is the current state of affairs at ARVC, both for you personally and for the association in general?
Bambei: I have no complaints. This is going into my seventh year and it was a bit tumultuous in those early years, a lot of things going on, but I’d say for the last three or four it’s been very positive, we’re getting a lot of good things done. The board has been very helpful in setting a strategy that I think is futuristic, so I have very few complaints.
WCM: Let’s take that one more step. If you had to critique your organization, what would you like to improve?
Bambei: What I’ve learned is our marketing is not as sophisticated as I know it can be. You have to approach it as a multi-touch opportunity. If you just think you can send one beautiful four-color mailer to a non-member and expect them to convert overnight, it doesn’t work. So our whole plan is to sequence the number of things that we’re going to do to stay in touch with not just the member, but also with the nonmember, and hopefully over time convince that nonmember to come over.
WCM: Is this in response, at least in part, to recent membership policy changes with regard to state affiliations?
Bambei: We used to call it affiliation relationships. It’s now changed slightly to partnering relationships. If you’re a partnering state, you sign up for a dual-membership scenario where a member pays both the state association and us.
We made a big decision as a board last year to allow choice and flexibility for each of the partnering states, and the overwhelming majority stayed as 100% partners. But what we did was we created a new layer that allowed them to get to as low as 75% and still stay as what we call a dual member, a member of their state association and ARVC.
A couple of states (California and Wisconsin) chose to go their separate ways, and it’s going to be interesting to see how that evolves over time. I think they’re going to miss what we do and within a couple years they, hopefully, will come back.
They’re very close to that 75% threshold, but they didn’t get there, so our policy now is very black and white. You either maintain that 75% threshold or you don’t.
WCM: Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about one of your three tenets: Education. You have some rather big news to report on this front, do you not?
Bambei: When Barb Youmans came in — about the same time I did back in 2010 — she was hired to revamp the educational program of ARVC. Being a former educator herself, she knew how to do it and the way she felt it needed to be done took us six years to get there, but our education program is now accredited by a third-party professional accreditor, a group called IACET (International Association of Continuing Education and Training).
It was a very rigorous process to earn this accreditation. I’m not kidding you, the application journal was at least 8-10 inches thick.
The biggest thing that comes out of this is through accreditation, you’re very similar to a university where you have to manage and administer transcripts, and the units of education that document what the student has definitively learned are called CEUs (Continuing Education Units).
So here’s the scenario: Under our program now, let’s say you have an aspiring middle manager at a campground, somebody on the rise, who maybe fills the shoes of the manager or becomes the heir apparent for the owner at some point. You want to be able to mark that person’s educational progress. Through CEUs you can do that.
Maybe the subject matter that they’re weakest on is risk management, which is a big deal to a park owner because insurance premiums ride on whether your park is risk averse or not. So we have content that is built around that subject matter, and an aspiring manager can learn how to be more risk averse. And they will earn a CEU for that.
WCM: And this education program is online?
Bambei: It can be, and that’s a very important component of our education program. Last October we introduced for the first time online education. But it also could be at the two schools run by our foundation: the one at the National Training Center at Oglebay Resort in West Virginia, which is always held in February, and for the past two years we’ve opened up a new school at Metropolitan State University in Denver in July for all those people who couldn’t get to West Virginia in February.
WCM: And their curriculum, which is now accredited, is all designed around campground management, right?
Bambei: Well, Outdoor Hospitality Education Program is the umbrella name, but it’s pretty far reaching. We try to look at the content through the eyes of that park manager, or even the entry-level person working at that park, and step them into more sophisticated concepts.
WCM: This sounds like quite an undertaking.
Bambei: It is. There’s no question about it. We’re dedicated to this, though, because education and training is a great benefit of ARVC. It’s a reason why people should belong to a national association. So we’re taking it very seriously.
This is why we feel it’s so important to have truly committed partnering states because — again, I’m telling you things that are pretty novel for ARVC — this winter we brought all of the partnering state leaders in, the state executives who are largely responsible for their own conferences back home. We brought them in on our dime — that’s part of the novel approach right there; in my tenure we’ve never paid to put them on a plane, come out and spend two days at a hotel that we host, and send them back without them paying a dime of it.
By all accounts it was a huge success. It was a great learning environment on how to be an event planner, which was the core of what we taught them. You have to be a certified event planner to administer CEUs, so we needed people who were educated on how to do that. We trained them ourselves. So 22 state execs from these partnering states went home with the knowledge of being event planners and they can now deliver CEUs at their state level, whether it’s at their conference or a fall retreat or something similar.
And the other cool thing about this is we are building a stable of speakers who are pre-approved to be CEU-certified speakers. Basically we’re creating our own internal industry speakers bureau. This will make it easy for a state executive out in Virginia, who every year when they have their conference — and each state executive will tell you this is true — a large amount of their time and energy goes into “Oh, gosh. I’ve got to go back and build my speaker lineup for my own conference.” Not that they have to go to our speakers bureau, but if they’re really wanting to be efficient they will have anywhere from 10-20 speakers who will be available to them that can deliver CEU-certified class curriculum at any time.
WCM: And do you see this developing over the next two, three years?
Bambei: I think the rhythm will be dependent on the acceptance factor. There’s an “education within education,” if you will, where all of our members who, in our view, are in need of education will have to buy into it. They have to really see the value of this, and that is why we are taking it to the streets. We want to expand into the nonpartnering states.
The goal is you could earn CEUs while you’re at our two-day event, whether it’s in the northwest, northeast. It’ll be a regional conference where we try to draw from the surrounding five to six states.
The idea was to initially have one of these education conferences in Texas in July, but we started rethinking that and realizing that they’re still in season down there and it’s hot as blazes. And it’s still very close to the TACO show (Texas Association of Campground Owners). We didn’t want to interfere with that, so we are probably going to change the venue for a different time and maybe a different place than Texas. It’s all to be determined and we’ll announce it as soon as we’re able.
WCM: So what about this other event you’re having in North Conroe, near Houston, that will have already taken lace by the time people are reading this?
Bambei: That’s going back to what I said earlier about our marketing efforts needing to focus on interpersonal relationships and multi-touch opportunities to tell our story.
What we’re doing in Texas is our first foray into holding one of these social gatherings in the Houston area. We’ve invited ARVC members and nonmembers in Texas, as well as some of the surrounding states. It’s a social gathering. It’s nothing more or less than that. It won’t have any PowerPoint presentations. It’s meant to be relaxed, to familiarize people who don’t know about education or our portfolio of benefits, as to what they could be taking advantage of if they were a member.
WCM: And you’ll be hosting these at multiple locations over the next year or so?
Bambei: We’ve set up this test where we’re going to conduct three of them in Texas this year, and the hope is that if it is successful in converting nonmembers to ARVC members, that you can take this model and plug it in anywhere in the country.
It will be very labor intensive and there’s a lot of cost involved just to get our staff and some of our area board members out to it. But I have confidence it’s going to work. If nothing else, we’re not relying on anybody else to tell our story, we’re telling it ourselves. And we know for a fact there’s something around 1,200 campgrounds in the state of Texas, using that as an example. We have a very small percentage of those today. So the opportunity is great down there, and if we can convert even a single-digit percentage, that’s significant. I would call that a success.
WCM: You also have a survey of both ARVC members and nonmembers in the works. Tell us about that.
Bambei: As the national association, we felt strongly that we needed to be a leader in data mining and understanding the trends of our industry. We put research in the field this spring and it’ll conclude by early summer. Our preliminary report is scheduled for end of summer, and we’ll probably tweak that a bit and deliver it at our 2017 Outdoor Hospitality Conference & Expo, which is Nov. 7-9 in Raleigh, N.C.
The idea is when it comes to the operating metrics of our member parks, we wanted to get a good, reliable, 95% valid answer to all kinds of things: What is the vacancy rate Monday-Thursday vs. weekends? What is the rate structure that is typically being offered? What are the successes versus the non-successes that can be concluded from what parks are charging? There are all kinds of P&L metrics that we’re seeking, so I don’t want to talk too much about it at this point.
We’re paying a pretty penny for this. We haven’t done an operations study quite like this since 2012 and it’s high time. Our goal is to do it every year, or every other year after this one, just to keep refreshing the data. A leader needs to be on top of the data, because that’s how good management decisions are made and we hope to have a published report later this year.
WCM: Let’s shift gears once again and talk about advocacy, another focus for you and one that ARVC has become an aggressive force in sticking up for the campground owner.
Bambei: So we talked about education being a primary benefit of our association. Right alongside of it is public affairs advocacy. And the two very unique things about what we do: No. 1, we always keep our lobbyists in Washington D.C. on guard for anything of a federal nature that we need to understand and protect our members from.
But, more importantly, we dive deep into the grassroots level through a continuous monitoring of all local legislative and regulatory issues and that’s easily a full-time job.
We have a dedicated staff person, Jeff Sims, who does the monitoring, and oftentimes he’s up at 4 and 5 in the morning beginning that process that will take many hours throughout the day to do right.
Anything having to do with our industry we earmark the keywords through a third-party source that helps us identify what’s bubbling up. And when we identify it, we pounce on it. And if we don’t fight it ourselves, we often send it out to our partnering states to fight locally.
WCM: And more and more over the past year, ARVC is working more in conjunction with the other trade associations, specifically RVIA.
Bambei: That’s very true and there are many other things that aren’t necessarily hair-on-fire issues.
I’ll use the HUD example of a couple years ago when the 400-foot porch issue came at us. What we realized, working with RVIA, is that we have an army of nearly 3,000 members scattered all across the country who can be activists in letting their politicians at the local level know what our issue is. Through that process, we fight it. RVIA gave us the template to make an easy online letter-writing campaign that worked.
The opportunity of the moment is with the new Trump administration being very pro-small businessperson. There are going to be a lot of legislative and regulatory opportunities to advance our agenda rapidly and, again, working with RVIA and RVDA (Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association) to get the job done is what we’re all about. So the collaboration is there and will continue to be there.