What does it take to host an RV rally? A lot. But according to leaders in the tourism industry, it’s definitely worth it.
Marlene Pierson-Jolliffe, vice president of operations at Meadow Event Park, and Kandi Pendleton, executive director for the Sweetwater Events Complex, agree that hosting RV rallies has been a positive not only for their respective facilities, but it doubles as a boon for their whole economic areas.
Location, Location, Location
The Meadow Event Park, located in Doswell, Virginia, 20 minutes north of Richmond, has played host to many different events, including the annual State Fair of Virginia, and a slew of RV rallies, including the 2019 International Rally put on by Airstream Club International that had 696 Airstreams on site.
“We had good infrastructure in place and it was really easy to turn sewer, power, water pods into camper hookups,” said Pierson-Jolliffe, who has 30-plus years of experience in the tourism industry. “For our facility, our forte is probably in the 300-350 range right now. That allows other events in other parts of the property to still go on, which I think is important.”
Lori Plummer, corporate manager of Airstream Club International, said the organization selected Doswell as a rally site because the facilities fit what they were looking for.
“Doswell was a great location because of locality and their space to be able to expand their sites,” said Plummer. “And the staff was great. Marlene and her team were great to work with.”
The Sweetwater Events Complex, located in Rock Springs, Wyoming, hosts the National High School Rodeo Finals and is playing host to this year’s Airstream International Rally, with the rally having sold out earlier this year — the rally’s highest attendance since 2003 when the event was hosted in Burlington, Vermont.
Pendleton has been working for the events complex for 20 years and has been a driving factor in its growth.
“When I first started here, we had 60 camp spots and we were really an equestrian center for our local community and we hosted a county fair and that’s about it,” she said.
The site now offers 1,230 full hookups that include water, sewer and 50 amp electric.
The implementation of the new hookups, as well as five new arenas, came about after an opportunity presented itself that was simply too good to pass up.
“Our facility was approached by the National High School Finals Rodeo because they had lost their facility for their upcoming event,” said Pendleton. “We put in those facilities in 10 months. We had almost $5 million and 10 months to get it built and we just did it. I would say if you wanted to do that now, you’d be looking at least a five-year plan. But that’s how we did it. It was an opportunity that we couldn’t say no to.”
Opportunities to Host
The opportunities to host RV rallies are plenty as there are many organizations constantly searching for venues to gather and camp.
For example, Airstream Club International is made up of 12 regions across the United States and Canada. There are 102 total local clubs across those regions, as well as nine other subgroups called intra-clubs.
Each club hosts individual rallies throughout the calendar year, totaling around 1,000 events each year that need venues.
“We could use facilities for groups of 20 to a couple hundred, up to a couple thousand,” said Plummer. “Our group alone can utilize venues of multiple sizes. We’re always looking. The more information we have about them, the easier it is for our folks to connect.”
Saying no isn’t an option most times for these facilities directors, often scrambling to get something done.
“If you want something to happen in your RV rally, it is in our nature to say, ‘We haven’t done that before, but we can make it happen.’ We often do that and then scramble on the back end to make it happen. We just don’t say no,” said Pendleton. “We think outside the box and we’re willing to do anything you want to try. We have weird ideas that we’ll throw at you that are maybe different than you’ve done at a rally before, but I think it’s just a great way to brainstorm and make things new and exciting all the time.”
Pendleton said her facility has built additional dog parks, green spaces and other accommodations based on requests and they figure out a way to best make it happen.
“You have to go into that knowing that it’s a very large investment. Electrical needs — you can do it with temporary or spider systems. But if you’re putting in a park itself, there’s some big investments and I think the balance between hosting events on a county or a public facility versus private facility and private campgrounds, that’s something we always try to balance,” she said. “We certainly don’t want to take business away from other campgrounds in our area. I think those are all things you have to take into account when you do that.”
What makes these facilities ideal to host RV rallies?
“Our campsites are what set us apart,” said Pendleton, adding that having a 400-acre property helps immensely. “It takes a lot of space to be able to bring in that number of RVs. Being able to find a spot for them to check in, to gather, and then to get unhooked and all the things that come with it.”
As for the Meadow Event Park, Pierson-Jolliffe said being a historic site — the birthplace of Triple Crown winner Secretariat — helps her facility stand out.
“We are the birthplace of Secretariat. We’re a mile from a major theme park [Kings Dominion] and we’re a mile and a half off the major north/south interstate [I-90] connecting New York to Florida,” she said.
The Meadow was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.
“We figured out how to take the infrastructure we have that provides sewer, power and water for food concessions during our state fair, and turn all those temporary pieces into hookups that have worked well with RV rallies,” said Pierson-Jolliffe. “Our proximity with Washington D.C., to the beach and then to the south, makes this site really accessible for people. It’s a place people spend trips off after the rally or before and it’s pretty crazy how much you can drive to within an hour and a half of this site. That’s not even including the city of Richmond. I think that makes us very, very unique.”
Pierson-Jolliffe said that the Meadow Event Park is owned by the Virginia Farm Bureau, having taken ownership over in March 2013.
She said following the sale, she looked at the property and wondered what else they could do.
RV rallies were at the forefront of ideas and Pierson-Jolliffe began putting together a plan that would realistically sell the property to event organizers.
“You have to have a package together that doesn’t oversell your property, but realistically sells it,” she said.
Learning the industry’s wants and needs is important before diving in, because, as Pierson-Jolliffe and Pendleton have both found, the RV industry is pretty tight-knit.
“As an executive or CEO, it’s a big business and it’s a big relationship. If you mess it up, an entire industry is going to hear about it,” said Pierson-Jolliffe.
The same is true on the other side of the coin.
“If you get it right, the entire industry’s going to hear about it,” she added.
As for advice, Pendleton stressed that building understanding and support, especially from a community standpoint, doesn’t happen overnight.
“Since we have been here, we spend a lot of time with our community partners, city council and commissioners — and the state to some level — just making sure they’re aware of what we have going on and what the opportunities are here. It’s about building relationships,” she said. “It can’t happen the summer before an event. It has to be something that happens continually.”
“It’s important. It’s a team thing. Building that relationship for a successful event I think is critical on both sides,” said Plummer.
Pendleton added that getting out and exploring other venues is extremely helpful in determining needs for RV rallies.
“If people are looking to get into this business, start visiting other locations. Go to some RV rallies and see what it takes. There are RV rallies of any size that you’d want to have. We’ve had rallies as small as 100, up to filling our camp spots at 1,400 if you count the overflow. I think if you can find something that fits your facility, get out and visit those places and see what everybody else is doing and see what it takes to put those rallies on,” said Pendleton.
“When I went to Maine last year to visit Airstream, that was paid for by Sweetwater County Travel and Tourism because they get it. Even if Airstreamers are only here for five or six days for their rally, they understand that those people are going to come and plan weeks in advance and weeks after to spend in our state and the surrounding area. Our local tourism board pays for our recruiting efforts, which is big, because that doesn’t have to come out of our general fund.”
For many events, including RV rallies, Pierson-Jolliffe equated it to building a small city on the grounds.
“You really have to think about your infrastructure first, and understand what you need, but you have a city on your grounds and you’re a mayor of a city that you just built and you have to be present and you can’t just delegate the core relationship pieces,” she said.
Pendleton said that within the RV rally industry, the amount of time those guests spend in their areas is important for the local economy.
“They may only be on our site for five days, but we consider them here a week before and a week after. We’re able to offer stay and play packages because our campground is so big,” she said.
Last year, Pendleton said one of their RV rallies was right before their county fair started and they were able to offer that RV rally a stay and play package to try to keep those people on site for longer, which led to a bigger impact in their community.
“Wyoming is huge and the outdoor activities are so great here that it’s been really good to bring people in to see what we have to offer. It’s really great to be able to expose people to the high desert area where we live,” she said.
“From an RV attendee perspective, it’s a lot about the intrigue to immerse into the culture,” said Kristy Yonyon, marketing communications manager for Airstream Club International. “The ventures are kind of numberless, whether people want to do rock climbing or swimming and getting out and adventuring. A lot of RV owners own RVs so they can be outside and be in touch with nature.”
Growth and Future
While Pendleton believes the RV rally industry will continue to grow, and the trends point in that direction, she does believe that it’s going to look different.
“I think the days of sitting in a group of 2,000 people and listening to an opening ceremony or speaker is maybe not how things will go in the future. I really think the RV industry is becoming more and more active and wants to get out and explore and do different things,” she said. “Facilities are going to have to be flexible enough to make those changes. If you look at our area, everybody owns an RV. The sales are through the roof and you’re waiting months to get something. I don’t think those are going anywhere. I do think demands will be different moving forward.”
After studying various RV trends, Pierson-Jolliffe agrees that RV rally growth will continue, but sees organizations choosing favorite sites and possibly using them more.
“I think maybe what I see is that rally planners, if they’ve got five favorite sites they go to, I would think that long term they might go back to those sites more instead of trying to change annually because it’s all about efficiency and knowing what you know,” she said. “Whoever’s in the business at a certain level has to be really good at it. Moving to a new city every year is a whole new set of challenges from a planning standpoint. I think we might see less rotation.”
“That’s one of the things we’re seeing now,” she said, saying that events that return for multiple years are huge for her facility. “Return events is huge for us and being able to make changes on our facility to make that happen, is probably one of our top priorities. You build those relationships with people and you know what they need, and they know what you have, and things just work well. Why make them do the work to find a new location and why have us working to bring someone else in when we could join forces?”
Expanding technology and related infrastructure will be a real need as well as facilities work to expand offerings to attract new patrons.
“I think the demand as far as the future goes, is the infrastructure, but the amenity piece is going to continue the pressure to provide better technology. When we fill up our grounds with a rally when we had Airstream folks here, there were places that we were able to get power and water far away from any shot of having Wi-Fi,” Pierson-Jolliffe explained. “It’s thinking a little more about where you expand some of those pieces. It’s figuring out what would work best for everyone.”
Note: This article was first published in the May/June issue of Fair & Expos Magazine.