As campgrounds constantly evolve to encompass more activities and services like wireless Internet, restaurant facilities and full-blown water park features, owners and managers are constantly being called upon to wear more hats. The pace of technology and services also makes it easy to lose sight of campground fundamentals such as visible entrance signs and site markers as well as durable picnic tables, grills and fire rings. With that in mind, we spoke with several companies in the “fundamentals” business of campground signage and furniture to discuss the key qualities of their market and the products they offer.
RJ Thomas Manufacturing of Cherokee, Iowa
Products: Pilot Rock equipment including benches, picnic tables, and site amenities.
RJ Thomas Marketing Manager Bob Simonsen said that, although the business of picnic tables, chairs and signs may appear to be a relatively staid one from the outside, change is still a constant in their business as well.
“It seems like every year there are new designs and material applications to the familiar park benches and picnic tables,” he said. “Recycled plastic is still very popular, but there’s a growing interest in coated steel products, and a lot of benches now include plaques or other forms of custom signage. We’re also seeing a growing interest in ‘way finding’ signage for parks and trails and campsites.”
In general, Simonsen said they see parks and campgrounds moving away from “rustic” site furnishings made of wood and toward steel furnishing because of durability and color choices.
“For example, picnic tables using thermoplastic-coated perforated or expanded steel for the top and seats, those are becoming more popular,” he said. “ They are more expensive than wood, but they don’t require as much maintenance, and the labor savings can go a long way towards paying for steel tables.”
While no single product seems to dominate sales, Simonsen said that there is continuing consistent demand for products that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as more color choices. Animal- and bear-resistant trash receptacles are also on the upswing.
“Bears are becoming more of an issue for campgrounds in all parts of the country, not just the mountain states,” he said. “Campgrounds should look for products that have been tested. Our designs have been tested and certified by the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center (near Yellowstone National Park) using the Inter-agency Grizzly Bear Committee.”
RV Park Signs of Canton, Ga.
Products: Signs of all types as well as posts and mountings and customized sign tables.
With more than 20 years in the sign-making business, Tom Eubank launched RV Park Signs (RPS) with his wife Cornelia in 2012, and so far he says it’s been a great market for them.
“In 2015 our sales were up probably about 20% and we’re expecting to grow that this year to 30% or 35%,” he said. “So it’s been good to us so far and it’s a fun industry to work in.”
As avid RVers themselves, as they traveled around, the Eubanks noticed that quite a few parks appeared to need some help in the sign department, which led them to build a new market from there. From a generational turnover standpoint, Tom said his timing seems to be appropriate.
“At shows, I’d say half the people who are coming to our booth are people who are inheriting campgrounds from their parents,” he said. “They’re looking to make upgrades especially when it comes to things like marketing and visibility.”
As for the products themselves, RPS uses aluminum backing covered with 3M high prismatic vinyl, which is the same material the state departments of transportation use for road signs.
“It’s reflective, very visible and will go eight to 10 years before you’ll see any fading,” he said. “Now some sign people might not like that, but our business model isn’t to do a bunch of reprint business when signs wear out, but to have a lot of referrals.”
Their signs are printed in sections as large as four feet by 12 feet, but can be put together to create signs that are much larger.
Eubank said they are not targeting the entry-level portion of the market, which means competing with every Internet-based printer on the planet, but aiming toward those who want a more customized element. Along those lines, they recently released custom table products that can incorporate logos, signs or other graphics into a tabletop made with layered sheets of color-impregnated resin surrounding a solid wood core. This yields a product that won’t chip, crack or peel and has a long outdoor life, resistant to fading.
When it comes to trends, Eubank feels there hasn’t been much that’s specific in the industry, but a move by consumers to prioritize quality.
“Mostly, I’m just seeing the trend of people buying higher-quality stuff,” he said. “For example, we’ve had eight parks in the last year that have asked us to make high-end maps for them to hand out to customers when they come in.”
Digital Crayon Printshop LLC of Weston, Wis.
Products: Signs as well as decals, cards and promotional materials.
At Digital Crayon Printshop, owner Ray Diers says that price seems to be the top customer priority, followed by quality and durability, which is why he aims for the entry-level segment as much as possible. Diers uses high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic as the sign substrate with reflective 3M vinyl that is then over-laminated for UV and abrasion resistance.
“I do a good amount of volume in site marker signs, but interior campground signs have also been popular,” he said. “Those are things like speed limit signs, stop signs, trail signs as well as bike, ATV and snowmobile signs.”
In addition to signs, Digital Crayon has the capacity to offer custom-printed clothing or promotional products like drawstring coolers, foam stress relievers and notebooks. They can also produce signs up to four feet by eight feet and Diers has plans to expand beyond the square and rectangle.
“In 2016 I plan to start using a CNC router to cut out signs so we can offer custom shapes with curves,” he said. “That should be available as an option by the summer.”
Frosty’s Park Equipment of Morristown, Tenn.
Products: Picnic tables, benches, grills, fire rings and trash receptacles.
Frosty Kimbrough has been in the business since 1982, starting with a single picnic table design and expanding his product lineup with the input of campground clients.
“Basically we’d just talk to campground owners, see what they wanted and tried to give them something better than what they had,” he said. “They just want something that will hold up. The public is hard on equipment, but it’s the basis of their business. If the campers are happy, then they keep coming back.”
Kimbrough said that they sell more grills than anything else, although they also sell quite a few of their customized bear-proof containers.
“We sell a lot of those in the mountain resort city of Gatlinburg, Tenn.,” he said. “They get a lot of bears coming out of the Great Smoky Mountains there.”
When it comes to corporate philosophy, Kimbrough said he keeps it simple.
“We don’t have a fancy catalog, but if you give them a good product and do what you say, then they’ll order it,” he said. “You keep doing right by them, and they’ll keep re-ordering it.”
Diversified Metal Fabricators of Smithville, Mo.
Products: Tables, benches, bleachers, grills, fire rings, bike racks and umbrellas, among others.
At Diversified Metal Fabricators (DMF), rather than thinking about their market as a place to sell a set collection of products, the company’s employees and leaders angle more to reach customers on a problem-solving basis.
“For us, it really is just about finding a solution,” said Kevin McEvoy, national sales manager at Diversified. “We want to get to a customer, talk to them and see what their needs are. If we don’t offer it and don’t have the capacity to build it, we want to find them somebody who does.”
Founded in 1981 by veteran Werner Beldo, the company began with picnic tables, benches and trash cans and expanded from there, now serving customers in every state as well as federal contracts at military bases in 12 countries.
“We do a lot of custom work,” McEvoy said. “One customer had purchased a bunch of really amazing table umbrellas and couldn’t find a table to fit with them, so we developed specialized tables for them and then contacted the umbrella manufacturer to show them our solution. Once we solve a problem, we try to locate other people facing the same issue and be proactive in offering help.”
For their part, McEvoy said DMF doesn’t see a huge trend away from wooden furniture mostly due to its lower cost, and while DMF employees try to encourage customers to go for steel, they’re happy to accommodate.
“We have a long section of Missouri parks under contract and as a gift to state, we picked up a wood table line,” he said. “It isn’t a major money maker for us, but it helps them save money.”
There has been a continued interest in ADA-compliant equipment, however, and it’s a niche they’re proud to serve.
“A youth sports coach out of Kansas contacted us about helping them build a Miracle Field for kids with special needs,” he said. “So we developed team benches and bleachers that were just for them. That was one of the things we’re most proud of.”
Great Outdoors Direct of Madison, Wis.
Products: Tables, benches, bike racks, fire rings, grills and outdoor furnishings.
As the camping and RVing season begins again in 2016, General Manager Tom Reed at Great Outdoors Direct says that the company’s sales projections are looking positive despite a slower 2015.
“The show season has begun and our sales managers have all begun to travel the circuit,” Reed said. “It’s been positive so far.”
The company’s Gerber Table brand has been serving the industry since 1969, and became a part of Great Outdoors Direct in 2013.
“Most of our products are basically just the same high quality for years,” Reed said. “We do our best to build a great product and provide excellent customer service and support, and that’s been working for us.”
In general, Reed said he notices a trend in campgrounds and parks to expand beyond the bare basics.
“It seems like campgrounds are starting to decorate a bit more instead of just staying basic like they used to be,” he said. “That has definitely helped our recycled plastic furniture line, (released in 2015), which seems to be taking off and selling well for us.”
Unlike the cell phone industry or others with built-in obsolescence, the main challenge in the furniture business from a sales perspective is the slow turnover in products that result from building durable products, he added.
“Our tables last too long as far as I’m concerned,” Reed joked. “On average it’s a 12- to 14-year lifespan, so we’re just hoping a lot of parks continue to expand.”