Evanne Schmarder

Evanne Schmarder is the principal at Roadabode Productions, a firm specializing in digital marketing strategy, consulting and education for the outdoor recreation industry and is the co-author of “Unconventional Wisdom Works.” She’s also the host and producer of the RV Cooking Show. Evanne gets great satisfaction out of helping business owners maximize their marketing potential and can be reached at [email protected] or (702) 460-9863. The following column appears in the November issue of Woodall’s Campground Management.

If I were to stop a pedestrian on the street and ask them the difference between a Super 8 and the Ritz Carlton, what type of response do you think I’d get? Chances are, I’d hear about the differences between a budget hotel that serves its purpose and an upscale lodging experience that exceeds expectations or, as the Ritz sees it, legendary service. The general public is very comfortable distinguishing the difference between hotel brands but much less so understanding the equally diverse options of outdoor hospitality providers. And there’s no question, the diversity of what we have on hand is astounding. Many parks now offer unique lodging options including yurts, cabins, rental RVs and glamping accommodations. Our product can proudly hold its own beside hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts.

Our industry provides an opportunity for consumers to create a rewarding experience, be it a rustic wilderness retreat, an action-packed family vacation or a relaxing resort experience. Camping is the stuff family traditions are made of. S’mores are timeless and gourmet versions are served in high-end restaurants. Perky TV hosts’ fawn over the luxuries of a mega-motorhome parked on their set. With this kind of attention, you might imagine that our sector of the hospitality industry has hit the mainstream.

We are an economic powerhouse, too. According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2012 Outdoor Recreation Economy report, the direct impact camping recreationalists provide the economy in spending equals over $143 billion and creates nearly 1.4 million jobs. No matter how you slice it, that’s big business. Yet, for some reason, our sector of the industry – the primary reason RVs and tents exist – remains at arm’s length when it comes to certain types of promotion.

Go RVing Casts A Very Wide Net

In 1997 RVIA and the Go RVing Coalition launched its first of a long and successful series of industry promotion campaigns. Its “Wherever you go, you’re always home” phase garnered 2 billion impressions over its three-year run. The latest phase, “Away,” is on target to deliver 2.9 billion impressions across a broad platform of outlets from a digital presence with a mobile component to TV to print to promotional partnerships. With this $10.3 million media plan, the campaign is expected to continue to boost awareness of the wonderful world of RVing. Consumers everywhere are asked to answer the dreamy question, “Where is your away?”

My “Away” this summer had me traveling throughout the western half of the U.S. At every opportunity (and to my husband’s dismay) I stopped at welcome and visitor centers across the land. I picked up visitor guides and perused brochure racks with an eye toward our industry. Turns out, if on the remote chance that an RV park or campground was listed in a guide, it was typically at the back of the book in a very inconspicuous manner, perhaps as a nod to a small print ad. Very few parks were represented in the brochure racks. Typically, camping guides were kept behind the desk, only available when requested. Any historical representation of road tripping was exclusively by car. The promotional opportunities busy traveler rest stops could provide did little to promote our special brand of outdoor hospitality. That’s a shame because the great American road trip could just as easily – or preferably to many – be in an RV.

Is All Publicity Good Publicity?

In a recent discussion, a peer quoted that old gem supposedly coined by PT Barnum, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” But I disagree. On the flip side of the successful Go RVing campaign, stories of violence, crime and drug manufacturing continue to surface to the top, capture attention and dog the public’s perception of RVing, RVers and RV parks and campgrounds. When dastardly deeds occur in suburban neighborhoods, apartment complexes or city dwellings, the non-camping public can put the crimes into perspective as it relates to their experience of the world around them. They simply don’t frequent those areas. But when news of misdeeds in relation to RVing or camping are aired, the entire industry as a whole can suffer.

The Task at Hand: Market Your Park

Fortunately for us, with housing starts up and unemployment numbers down, consumer confidence is rising and that’s great news for our industry. At the 2011 ARVC Outdoor Hospitality Conference someone expressed the notion that flat was the new up. Although up is always preferable to flat, to many park owners and operators flat was a welcome alternative to what was happening in other sectors of the industry. From all indications, RVing and camping has remained steady over the past few years; Americans that own or have access to RVs continue to take full advantage of the value of a great outdoors vacation.

Today, almost on the other side, we’re challenged with continuing to grow interest in RVing and camping – attracting new camping consumers, communicating the enduring intangible value of our special brand of hospitality, educating the non-camping public about the benefits we provide to both individuals and the economy and working to extend our hospitality reach.

What marketing and media actions can you take at your property to improve the public’s perception of what we offer? A beautiful and accurate website? A robust and relationship-rich social media program? Video testimonials from satisfied customers? Or how about your special version of the Ritz’ pride and joy: flawless execution of the basics? Legendary, indeed!