Andy Cates Recounts RVC’s Formative Years
In this illustration from CNNMoney, RVC Outdoor Destination’s Andy Cates dons a pair of fictitious boxing gloves for his company’s competition with traditional campgrounds.
RVC Outdoor Destinations is in the business of bringing upscale to the great outdoors, the Memphis Business Journal reported.
Andy Cates, president, started the company in 2006 to redefine outdoor vacations and camping.
The company has developed a brand it calls the “Hilton of outdoor hospitality” in a business of mostly mom-and-pop operations, ranging from RV parks to cabin communities. RVC locations have gourmet coffee, fitness centers and many other high-end amenities that people normally don’t expect when “roughing it.”
“We felt and still feel there is an opportunity to disrupt an industry that has not changed in 50 years,” Cates says. “Specifically, to bring consistency and a great quality to that effort.”
The company’s first step was hitting the road for a year, sometimes renting a recreational vehicle and sometimes in a car.
“We visited hundreds of properties and talked to property owners, visiting the KOAs (Kampgrounds of America Inc.) of the world,” Cates says. “We knew that to really understand a business, you really have to be in the business.”
Cates realized there wasn’t a hospitality company that oversaw many of these sites and that most were owned by people looking for passive real estate investments.
RVC first bought Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., to serve as the company’s “test kitchen and laboratory.”
The company redeveloped the property and bought contiguous land to expand it. The purchase allowed RVC to experiment on development and operational sides.
The company hired Yale Spina, a seasoned hospitality veteran with experience at Harrah’s, Hilton Hotels & Resorts and Caesars Hotels & Casinos, to run operations.
RVC now has seven properties and is working to acquire another. It has offers on other properties but is growing cautiously, taking a long-term investment strategy.
One challenge which comes with creating a brand is marketing. For RVC Outdoors Destinations, the Internet was key to starting the company.
“If this was five years ago, before Google took over the universe, we’d have a hard time doing this,” Cates says.
Since many people perform vacation searches online, RVC focuses a lot of its efforts on search engine optimization, researching key words that high-end customers are looking for when searching for outdoor vacation sites.
“We’re noticing a trend in the market where people want Wi-Fi within their accommodations, but they also want their campfires,” Alex Embry, director of marketing, says.
In addition to social media interaction, the company also listens carefully to guest feedback, trying to respond quickly and resolving any issues. RVC added a pool at a Florida property to meet guest demands, even covering it to keep insects out. With repeat customers, RVC lets them know about news, packages and specials.
“We also give them insider info,” Embry says. “A new property we’re opening in Colorado, we let them know what’s going on. It gives them a more personal touch to our brand and they have a deeper relationship with us.”
RVC is trying to grow the right way primarily through three methods: buying an existing property which is well-located but needs to be renovated; purchasing a prime piece of land that is priced appropriately; and joint ventures.
The company is working with a property owner in Gatlinburg, Tenn., who has maintained and improved his property for years. The property should be flagged under the RVC brand next year, with the company providing management services, capital and other services.
“That is ultimately a great way for us to expand our footprint,” Cates says. “There aren’t a lot of those properties which are that high quality and who have owners who get it and who want that Hilton segment but have not to-date seen that option. That’s why we’re here.”