John Lindley

The hiring committee didn’t have to go too far when they looked for a successor for the retiring Bill Sheffer to lead the Michigan Association of RVs and Campgrounds (MARVAC). That man, named in early September, is John Lindley, who previously had handled the association’s legislative lobbying efforts while at Public Affairs Associates (PAA).

In addition to his dozens of years at PAA, Lindley previously served in a leadership role at the Michigan Association of CPAs, where he oversaw and expanded not just its government relations program, but all regulatory affairs and grassroots outreach for the more than 19,000 members.

It was that relevant experience plus his enthusiastic outlook that helped, Lindley, a Michigan State University graduate, land the job as MARVAC president and CEO.

Noting that Lindley had been instrumental in securing many of MARVAC’s legislative accomplishments, board chairman Ryan Krenek, of Krenek RV in Coloma, Mich., said the organization was “fortunate to have an outstanding and talented association professional ready to hit the ground running.”

“Because of his demonstrated record of service and growth in legislative outreach and association management, we have no doubt that John will seamlessly step right into this new leadership role with MARVAC,” Krenek said, adding that Lindley will work with Scheffer – who will remain on staff through 2022 to ensure a smooth transition. “MARVAC has always had an excellent staff and directors and, on behalf of the board, we would like to thank Bill Sheffer for his time as executive director. We are thrilled to have John join us! John shares the board vision of keeping MARVAC the industry-leading state RV association.”

Founded in 1941, MARVAC includes 52 RV dealer locations, 109 campgrounds and 66 other business members. Among its many initiatives, the association also operates five consumer RV shows highlighted by the Detroit RV & Camping Show, which in 2022 is set for Feb. 2-6 at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Mich.

And, make no mistake, Michigan is one of the nation’s top states when it comes to RVs and camping. The Michigan RV and campground industry supports 18,795 jobs, 1,173 RV businesses and $969.9 million in wages, MARVAC officials note.

According to the RV Industry Association (RVIA), Michigan continues to be one of the top 5 states for RV deliveries. In 2020, 16,571 RVs were shipped to Michigan, 1,336 RVs were shipped in the first quarter (January-March) of the year. In the first quarter of 2021, more than 5,270 RVs have been shipped to Michigan.

Also, according to the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (DEGLE), as of April 2019, there are more than 1,354 licensed RV parks and campgrounds in Michigan, which represent more than 157,000 campsites.

Lastly, a Michigan State University study shows that 10 % of all pleasure travelers in Michigan are campers.

Recently, Lindley sat down with Woodallscm.com (WCM) in the conference room of MARVAC’s offices in Okemos, Mich., which is just east of Lansing. What follows is an edited account of that interview.

WCM: John, tell us about some of the legislative victories you garnered for MARVAC while you were their lobbyist at Public Affairs Associates.

Lindley: Absolutely. Within the first couple weeks of joining the firm and starting to work with the association, there was an issue that wasn’t really controversial, but it was something that just needed constant attention and was very small. It was the ability for the dealers to recoup an administrative filing fee, and some of the titling paperwork that they had and to recoup that fee. We were able to get that legislation through in a very quick period of time.

Probably the most significant victory was including the recreational vehicle industry – specifically towables – in the sales tax difference here in the state. But it was – and I’m exaggerating here – a 25-year phase-in, or something along those lines. Gov. Rick Snyder – a C.P.A., I should point out – wanted to extend the tax implications of reform like that over a longer period of time. So, with our friends at the Auto Dealers Association, we worked hand in hand with them to speed up that phase-in. But again, to ensure that the towable were involved in that, that’s a big benefit to the dealer members.

WCM: And, more recently, you had to work to get RV dealerships listed as essential businesses in the early stages of the pandemic.

Lindley: The last two weeks of March of 2020 through end of June or so was easily the busiest time of my entire career. At the time with PAA, I had a book of probably about 14 clients that I was primary on, but here at MARVAC it was daily phone calls, daily conversations, daily email exchanges, and trying to work with the governor’s office and administration. Frankly, it was both the RV side and it was the campground side about getting them classified as essential businesses.

WCM: So, let’s transition to where you’re at now. What led you to become interested in this position?

Lindley: Like I said, during my 10 years at PAA I worked with a lot of associations, and that’s really where I have some significant formal training and education is in the association management field. And before that, I spent the first 12 years of my career at the Michigan Association of CPAs. I was a vice president with that organization.

Very frankly, I missed it. And working with my association clients, from the outside, there were some aspects and I felt truly as though I had certain skill sets that were being underutilized, things that I could offer from an association management standpoint.

And working with the team here and the volunteer leadership, the board members and otherwise here for all 10 of those years – even before that actually; the Michigan Association of CPAs, also was a Public Affairs Associate client. So, I knew Tim Dewitt (longtime MARVAC executive director) and Bill when I was another client before I was their lobbyist. Some of those relationships go back a long way.

WCM: So, what do you bring to the table? What are some of your philosophies when it comes to association management?

Lindley: I’ve got some simple but important philosophies when it comes to association management and showing the value proposition of being a member. Very simply; you have to do a good job for your members. There’s no question about that. You have to show them value, but then you’ve got to do a good job of telling them that. You’ve got to tell them what it is that you’re doing on their behalf.

Sometimes that’s tangible, sometimes that’s intangible – and the intangible can be difficult to communicate. Like advocacy –‘We’re protecting your interests in the halls of the capital and Lansing’ – That’s tough to communicate because it’s an intangible benefit.

From both the campground and the RV standpoints, we’ve got to be able to make sure that not only are we providing the benefits that members want but that we’re telling them and communicating to them what those benefits are.

WCM: Maybe talk a little bit, if you don’t mind, on that feedback you seek from members to help drive whatever agenda could be on the table that particular day, week, month, year.

Lindley: Well, I’m sitting here in the office in Okemos. I’m not operating a campground, and I’m not operating a dealership. Right?

So, not to be cliche, but the question of what keeps you up at night is that feedback that we constantly need to be hearing from our members. iI’s incumbent on us to provide the vehicle for members to communicate that to us. We need to be present at all times and make sure that they know that when there are issues or roadblocks, they need to let us know.

I like to think that it’s a good business environment in the state of Michigan, whether you’re operating an RV dealership or whether you’re operating a campground. Certainly, we need to maintain that, but we also need to enhance that – if we can – and advance the interest of those members.

But we can’t do that without knowing exactly what it is that’s going to be beneficial to the members. We can make very good, educated, directional presumptions as to what is important to our members, but we still need to sit down across the table from them, have a cup of coffee, and find out what exactly it is they need.

WCM: What’s one of your main priorities for MARVAC in particular?

Lindley: I’ll answer that by telling you this: The Michigan Association of CPAs has roughly 19,000 members in the state of Michigan. You don’t have to be a member of that organization to be a CPA in the state of Michigan. But despite that, that organization has between a 90% to 95% member saturation rate. Meaning, 90% to 95% of the people who can be members of that organization voluntarily choose to be in the state of Michigan.

So, the question is, why? Because the level of quality of the products and services – whatever that happens to be. If it’s education, if it’s an affinity program – whatever it is – the level of quality is so high that on an annual basis, those members choose to renew that membership at a huge percentage rate, right.

That’s where our focus needs to be here at MARVAC. We need to be making sure that we’re providing the services and the product to our members that are going to compel as many as possible in the state of Michigan to want to be members of this organization.

WCM: Lastly, what’s your message to the RV and campground industry, perhaps in answer to where do you see each sector in the near future?

Lindley: The word that keeps coming to my mind is ‘opportunity.’ If you’re not evolving, then you’re going to be in trouble. Whether that’s as an organization or as a professional or as a personal human being. And we’ve got a wonderful opportunity here.

We’ve got some challenges like every other industry does. We’ve got supply chain challenges. We’ve got other things going on right now, but we’re in a great position in that the demand for the product that both industries put out right now is at an all-time high. So that presents an opportunity for us to take a look at how we’re meeting that demand.

We’ve got a whole new generation of people that are coming in. I view the RV and the campground industries as a lifestyle and more and more people are learning what the benefits of that lifestyle are. So, we need to grab them, we need to keep them and make sure that they want to keep coming back.

It’s about a series of opportunities right now. And when I look at the association here, I view the same thing. We’ve got an opportunity to take this association now to that next level, from a membership standpoint, and from the quality of the products and services that we’re providing our membership throughout the entire year.