'Big Rigs Best Bets' Explains Big Rig Friendly
For more than half a century, private park operators have relied on printed campground directories as the primary way to market their campgrounds, RV parks and resorts. But as consumers increasingly turn to the Internet to research their vacation and travel plans, printed campground directories face increasing competition from a growing number of travel planning websites. Today, in fact, several print directories are no longer published. Those that remain have developed searchable digital versions of their directories, which consumers can access through their laptops, smart phones and other portable electronic devices. In Woodall’s Campground Management’s (WCM) ongoing effort to delve into every facet of the RV park and campground business, we spoke with Ken Hamill, publisher of “Big Rigs Best Bets,” one of two remaining North American print campground directories. Based in Kerrville, Texas, Hamill and his wife, Ellanora, oversee production of the nation’s only campground directory that specializes in providing detailed listings of big rig friendly parks, both public and private. The publication retails for $24.95 and can be purchased at www.Big-Rigs-RV.com. Here are highlights of that conversation with WCM Writer Jeff Crider:
WCM: How did you come up with the idea for a directory that would solely focus on the needs of big rig RV owners?
Hamill: It was back in October of 2000. I had sold my business in San Antonio. My wife and I were with some friends at an RV park in southwest Colorado and the more wine we drank, the more disenchanted we became with existing resources to find RV parks. My wife and I later talked and thought, ‘why don’t we see if we could write a book about parks?’
WCM: So was your frustration that you had to sift through campground directories to find big rig friendly parks or were they just not described the way you thought they should be described?
Hamill: I’m not trying to be negative here, but we couldn’t depend on what (the other directories) said about the park. We didn’t know when we arrived there if (the park) could handle us or not and if it was a comfortable surrounding. But the main issue was being able to get in and out of the park.
WCM: So you’re saying that other directories could be unclear when they talked about whether a park was big rig friendly?
Hamill: There was no way to tell until we actually physically got there. Now they say “big rig friendly” in their listings, but those are questionable many times. It will say the sites are 30 by 60 (feet) or 25 by 40 (feet) or whatever they put there. There’s one size description. But we might get in there and (find that) the access to get in and out of there is very tight or that there are manmade obstacles. Although the space may be 60 feet long, which is pretty minimal these days – at least for a pull through – you couldn’t get into the site.
WCM: Why, in your view, are other directories’ descriptions of big rig friendly sites insufficient or inadequate?
Hamill: If you look at a directory, you will see listings that say “big rig friendly.” But the people that look at those parks (for other directories), many of them don’t have a large rig. Most importantly, they don’t look at swing room and access within the park. So you go around a corner. Is there enough swing room there? Are the streets wide enough? In our criteria, (big rig friendly means being able to accommodate) a 40-foot coach with a tow vehicle. When you get to the site, can you get in and out of there? Are the trees in the way? Are the streets wide enough?
WCM: So how do you determine if a park is truly big rig friendly?
Hamill: I visit it myself.
WCM: You really visit every park?
Hamill: 99.9% of the time I have physically been to the park and reviewed the park. There is one consultant that we rely on (for information about big rig friendly parks) because we know how he designs a park. If I can’t get to the park, then I may put that park in the book (if my consultant assures me that the park meets our criteria). Aside from that, I look at all the parks myself.
WCM: Big rig owners often say that the reason they park in Walmarts or other retail parking lots is because it’s hard for them to maneuver their rigs into campgrounds. Do you think your guide has helped counter the Walmart camping phenomenon by making more consumers aware of big rig friendly parks?
Hamill: There’s no way to measure that. I’m sure that’s true from time to time. But I think there’s more to the Walmart equation than not being able to get into a park. I think a lot of (the reason for Walmart camping is because) it’s free. I think that’s the primary reason people go to Walmarts. Our market base is not just half million dollar rigs or $300,000 rigs. We have a lot of fifth-wheels that buy the book. But (there is) a safety issue (with Walmart camping). Some folks don’t like to go to Walmart because of that. But I can’t really say with honesty that our book has directed folks away from Walmarts.
WCM: You also consider other factors, such as the overall feel of the park?
Hamill: Are the surroundings comfortable? Would you feel safe and secure staying there? Is there a lot of trailer park trash there?
WCM: So if a park doesn’t have a safe feel to it, it won’t be listed in your directory?
Hamill: We don’t comment on (safety issues). We only have about 1,200 parks in the book. I’ve looked at a lot of them more than once and about 700 or so that have not made the cut. If I wouldn’t feel comfortable and secure staying there, I won’t include them, and I don’t care about how big their sites are.
WCM: So, when somebody calls up and says they want to be listed in your directory, you tell them you’ll visit their park and include them only if they meet your criteria?
Hamill: That’s correct.
WCM: How often do you turn people down?
Hamill: Quite a bit. Every year we send checks back to people who want to advertise in the book. Of course, they’re not accustomed to that. I have to politely decline.
WCM: How do you find out about big rig friendly parks?
Hamill: We take every lead. Some come from parks, though the majority are from RVers. We take those seriously and put them in a file and I will try to go and look at those parks.
WCM: Which leads are better, the ones from parks or the ones from consumers?
Hamill: The ones that come from park owners, I’d say, the vast majority of them, I can’t put in the book. But the ones the come from our readers, the vast majority are going to get into the book.
WCM: It sounds like park operators take liberties with what they describe as big rig friendly.
Hamill: I think it’s getting better.
WCM: This sounds like the kind of thing that could actually hurt a park operator if they misrepresent the size of their sites.
Hamill: Exactly. It’s not only the size of the site, but also the accessibility of the site that’s key.
WCM: Looking beyond size and accessibility, what else do you look for in parks that are trying to position themselves as big rig friendly?
Hamill: I think 50-amp service is essential these days. A lot of the public parks are upgrading to 50 amps. They’ve seen the need. But I also think (parks need to pay attention to) Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is almost as important as a sewer connection, and that’s the God’s honest truth. If a park doesn’t provide adequate Wi-Fi, then they are doing themselves a disservice. But things are changing so rapidly. I kind of defend the parks. Everybody has a device or two that they are traveling with – a computer or a smart phone, a tablet or all three. They want to see videos. It’s not just about e-mailing your kids. It’s a tough job for the RV parks to stay up with that. But I think they need to continue to improve what they have to some degree. Some parks are doing it and some aren’t. I think that’s important not just for big rigs, but any size rigs.
WCM: Tell us more about the mix of both public and private parks in your directory?
Hamill: We’ve got a blend of upscale resorts, interstate overnight stops, destination parks and suitable public parks that we think make sense to most of our reader base. Five percent to 7% are public. The rest are private.
WCM: We’ve talked about some of the challenges private parks face as they try to accommodate big rigs. What are the biggest issues public parks face with big rig owners?
Hamill: The biggest issue is trees. They don’t cut their trees back. I can’t tell you how many public parks have got overgrown trees. You can’t get (in or) out of the park without scratching your rig.
WCM: Do you have a mobile version of your directory that works on tablets, cellphones and iPads?
Hamill: Yes, two years ago we engaged a firm to design a very innovative and navigable platform for our book. Our book this year has 504 pages and there is a lot of information in there. It really turned out nice. It’s totally different from anything else in the marketplace and it contains all of the content that’s in the book. It is compatible with all computers, all tablets, all smartphones, even the new e-readers like the Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook. It’s membership driven. It’s a $24.95 buy-in or a $15 buy-in when you purchase the book. The book will be compatible with any new devices that come out.
WCM: What’s your thinking about print directories vs. online directories? Do you think the circulation of print directories will decline with the growth of online campsite listings or do you think there is always going to be a need for print directories?
Hamill: I think there will always be a need for them. We are fortunate in that our book is spiral bound. It’s 5.5 inches by 8.5 inches and it’s user friendly. It’s not really bulky. Since we brought on our online version, our hard copy sales have not decreased.
WCM: What is your circulation?
Hamill: Over 11,000 and growing daily, including print distribution and online paid memberships.
WCM: How many issues of “Big Rigs Best Bets” are in circulation?
Hamill: There’s got to be 60,000 or 70,000 out there (from multiple years).
WCM: You’ve been publishing “Big Rigs Best Bets” for 13 years now, so you’ve obviously identified a viable niche in the campground directory business.
Hamill: The concept was accepted in the marketplace, so we pursued it and brought it where it is today to the point where we are certainly a factor in the marketplace, along with our credible and selective approach. We’re very busy. We’re doing very well. But we’re not for everybody.
WCM: You’ve been publishing your directory for 13 years now. To what do you attribute your continued success among big rig RV owners?
Hamill: I think it’s that the existing publications out there do not meet their needs.