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Bray: Operators See Benefits in Group Camping

March 16, 2017 by   - () Comments Off on Bray: Operators See Benefits in Group Camping

Sue Bray

The following column is authored by Sue Bray, a well-known personality in the RV community, primarily due to her lengthy term as vice president/executive director of the Good Sam Club. In 2009, she was inducted into the RV/MH Hall of Fame. The column appears in the March issue of Woodall’s Campground Management

For many of us, the lure of RV travel brings independence. Unlike other forms of travel, we’re able to make our own choices — perhaps turning left rather than right to carry on to more adventures. But this isn’t necessarily the case for everyone.

Many RV owners are choosing to participate in organized group tours, mainly because they don’t have to plan itineraries or make their own campground reservations and can relax and have everything organized for them so they can enjoy the comaraderie of fellow guests. The thought is echoed by Matt Brannon, an RV owner from Florida, who was planning to join a group rally during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. “One of the advantages is that you just show up and all of the plans, from meals to tipping the bus driver are all arranged,” Matt told me. “Their tour guides are familiar with the locations and often have great connections.”

Does it make sense for campgrounds to invite group business? Jim and Sue Alkire, owners of America’s Best Campground (ABC) in Branson, Mo., think so, and attribute 15.5% of their camper nights over the past 10 years to group business. The Alkires have a full-time employee who just focuses on their groups, and who can make arrangements for transportation and tickets to Branson’s famous entertainment venues.

Because Branson theaters require a minimum of 20 people in order to offer group rates, ABC considers a group to be 10 rigs or more. “Our groups are anything from camper clubs to family reunions,” Sue told me. “And we design their activities around each group’s taste — tailoring to fit what they want. We can provide just camping by itself, or we can do parties, meals, arrange bus transportation, obtain tickets — actually acting as the group organizers. We have enough connections with the Branson entertainers that we can often arrange for them to meet our guests after a show, which is a lot of fun.”

Nel Filliger is founder and CEO of Fantasy RV Tours, a tour company based in Las Vegas, Nev. For more than 20 years, the company has been offering RV group tours, caravans and rallies all over the U.S., Canada and in some foreign countries. Nel estimates that she books more than 30,000 camper nights for her groups each year.

Fantasy offers two kinds of RV trips — rallies, where the group will stay in one park for several nights, and caravans, where the group travels from point A to point B, stopping along the way. “On our caravans, we look for parks which are convenient to our travel route. We sometimes have to deviate a little, but we don’t want to backtrack. If we are looking for more of a destination where we would want to stay two to five nights, we prefer an activity center or gathering place for our guests where 50 people can sit down for dinner or a barbecue together,” she said. “In the last five years, our guests’ demands have grown. We see more and more big rigs, lots of slide-outs. Our guests want to run all their amenities and they expect 50-amp service. We sell the comradery, the scenery, the adventure, the journey. When we explain to them we’re going to rather rugged destinations, they still want those hookups.”

Californians Steve and Linda Parker have been wagonmasters, leading RV group tours for the past seven years, and agreed with Nel, their boss. “People have much higher expectations,” Steve said. “They want more services, more power and bigger spaces. We’ve found that a lot of our guests have only stayed in resort-style campgrounds. We don’t find many of those in Alaska!”

From Nel’s experience, one of Fantasy’s biggest challenges is finding good campgrounds that will accept group reservations. “We are traveling during the parks’ peak seasons, and many campgrounds don’t want to clear out space for our 20-plus rigs for just one night. The larger campgrounds have areas set aside for groups, so they’re easier to work with, particularly if we only stay for one day.

“In some cases, we can organize multiple tours which follow each other. For example,” she continued, “we have two tours in autumn in New England, and the second group follows four days later. We do this specifically so the parks we use have longer guaranteed stays from us.

“We look for campgrounds which have something really special to offer,” Nel said. “And some parks really understand the hospitality business. They’ll put on a dinner, bring out a chuck wagon, put on a reenactment — offering our guests a unique experience right at the park. If the campground can bring something to us in the evenings, we prefer not to have to hire a bus and take our guests out to a restaurant. And they enjoy the ambiance at the park.”

Back in Branson, Jim and Sue are happy to accommodate these large groups. “Most groups book far enough ahead that they’re in queue long before individual campers’ reservations come in,” explained Jim. “We’ve got 160 sites, and if we have a big group of 100 units we may have to turn away individual bookings. But our group people book at least a year, some two or three years out. And we require a deposit before we take spaces out of inventory.”

Sue summed up, “It’s not that we make a lot of money from the groups, but it’s more the public relations and rapport we build with those customers. They come back to town on their own, and they come see us because they enjoyed the customer service we provided their group. It’s all about referrals and repeat business.”

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