Big Crowd Attending 50th WACO Convention
One of the nation’s largest campground conferences gets underway March 20 in Stevens Point, Wis., as representatives of more than 150 campgrounds and 190 vendors gather for the 50th Annual Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners (WACO) Convention. The four-day event should draw upward of 600 attendees, dwarfing other U.S. campground trade events – even outdrawing the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds’ (ARVC) conference. WACO speakers include outspoken Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and ARVC CEO Paul Bambei. How is this accomplished? Lori Severson, WACO executive director and a campground owner since she purchased the Champions Riverside Resort near Galesville in the rolling hills of western Wisconsin late in 2011, shares some trade secrets in this interview with Woodall’s Campground Management. Severson, in her 10th year as WACO exec, credits her board, the 183 member campgrounds and 259 vendor members in general for supporting the association and the conference. WACO has garnered the support of several present and former members of the Green Bay Packers, who are avid campers and figure prominently in many WACO events each year, to help promote the association. Severson also credits her relationship with the Campground Association of Management Professionals (CAMP), of which she is president this year, for its networking results. Following are excerpts from that interview which appears in the February issue of Woodall's Campground Management.
WCM: Now with the holidays in the rearview mirror, Lori, how’s the planning for your 50th annual convention coming along?
Severson: Great! We will have some amazing presenters. Even the governor, Scott Walker, will be attending and address the convention Thursday night. He has been very supportive of the campground association and what we do. The Secretary of Tourism, Stephanie Klett, also will be one of the speakers. She has been great to work with.
WCM: How many people do you expect this time around?
Severson: We had 595 last year. I’m sure that will be matched and topped. We’ll also have speakers and visitors from Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois attend.
WCM: How have you and WACO been able to build this annual event into what it’s becoming today – the industry’s largest?
Severson: Two things stand out in my mind. We are eager and happy to steal other peoples’ ideas. We worked hard looking at different industries, not just the campground industry, to see what they do. My relationship with CAMP has been very successful for all of us. We get to see what works and what doesn’t work.
WCM: Can you give some specifics?
Severson: We make sure our relationship with vendors is a win-win for all of us. We have a great relationship with the host hotel. We have control of the entire hotel during our convention. We make sure the hotel doesn’t charge extra fees. That could get expensive. The vendors get the same room rates we do. Our members are hard-core when it comes to buying. We tell them to buy from the people who spend money to be with you. Our members are awesome about that. This didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken us some time to make this work.
WCM: Interesting. Can you provide some other tips?
Severson: The most important thing is to find out the barriers, the reasons that keep your members from attending. We went over every possible issue. Make sure the site is pet-friendly. Kids were a big issue. We provide a camp at which they will be learning like in school, because school is often in session during our convention.
Then, there’s cost to attend the convention. We took a long look to make this work. Obviously, you can get more suppliers only if you get a good price and get people to buy at the show. The cost took us a long look to make this work. Obviously, to get more suppliers works only if you can get a good price and get people to buy at the show. And you have to make sure your members know that’s how it works.
WCM: So, how has the Wisconsin economy fared through the recession and recovery? Has this helped or hindered the association and its members?
Severson: The economy hasn’t hurt us. That’s for sure. America’s families are still looking for that great campground experience. It might not be at DisneyWorld, but they’re looking for something to do, and boy, can we provide the fun. Our state is great in getting the word out. And R&R seems to be more important in today’s economy. The stress levels are higher. People recognize what a reasonable cost camping can be. No matter what your family loves to do, campgrounds can provide so many funky things, whether it’s for all adults, for all kids, or back to nature and rustic settings.
WCM: You certainly seem to have a good relationship with the state government of Wisconsin.
Severson: We have worked hard to develop it. Unfortunately, within the state, campground officials change from time to time and it can make a difference as to who is in charge. Sometimes that relationship goes well, but changes are made and mess things up. It’s a continuous improvement road.
WCM: By the way, how’s it going with that campground that you bought in 2011? How was your first year as a campground owner?
Severson: I definitely understand the issues a lot clearer, now that I’m an actual owner. I laugh at that because I thought I understood it all. I think ownership showed me what a true benefit being a WACO member really is. You know, 26 campgrounds showed up to help us out when we got started. That was amazing. You can make so many mistakes when you start out running a campground. They really helped us out in so many ways, even with little things.