As is often the case with new concepts, a lot of people probably thought it was a crazy idea in 1999 for Affinity Group Inc. (AGI) to start a national consumer rally from scratch – let alone one calling it something as pretentious as the Great North American RV Rally (GNAR). But Seattle-based Terry Thompson, national sales director for AGI’s TL Enterprises Inc. (TL) magazine division, wasn’t one of them.
Looking back, in fact, Thompson was a key proponent of the idea within the management ranks of AGI, a marketing minded company headquartered in Ventura, Calif. – and parent of RV Business – that at the time was conducting separate national rallies for two of its membership units, Coast to Coast Resorts and the Good Sam Club. The problem was, according to Thompson, that neither of those national events had reached critical mass.
So, Thompson lobbied AGI’s senior management for “one big kick-ass rally” that could be marketed through the company’s magazines and clubs. “With the database we’ve got, we can have a rally right out of the box,” maintained Thompson, who spearheads TL’s magazine space sales.
Now looking back over the past six years, it appears that he was right.
The first rally in Gillette, Wyo., was deemed a resounding success, even though as a fledgling event it lacked the commercial impact that some thought it ought to have. Then came rain-soaked Perry, Ga., Pomona, Calif., Louisville, Ky., Hutchinson, Kans., and, most recently, Redmond, Ore. And by now, that concept of a national retail rally – beyond the motorized conventions at which the Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA) has excelled for years – indeed seems to have evolved into the “kick-ass” event that Thompson had originally forseen.
That evolution was underscored at this year’s rally, held July 11-14 in arid central Oregon at Redmond’s Deschutes County Fair and Exposition Center, at which RVing consumers converged to build a 1,600-pound s’more. They participated in dog shows and vied for free giveaways of everything from RV trips to thousands of dollars of merchandise. They attended seminars, social events and evening entertainment. And they shopped at the commercial displays of suppliers and manufacturers alike.
In fact, almost any way you look at it, AGI’s Great North American RV Rally – now simply renamed “The Rally” – appears to be coming of age.
Consider this spot report from the Redmond confab, cosponsored and aggressively promoted by several AGI business units, including the Good Sam Club, Coast to Coast, TL Publications and Camping World’s President’s Club:
• The Oregon rally officially drew 5,612 rigs, making it the largest AGI rally to date. And that didn’t include the approximately 100 rigs that showed up on site without reservations.
• Taking into account rally goers , including 350 volunteer staff members, plus 1,000 daily day-pass people and commercial exhibitors, a total of about 18,000 people were on site daily.
• There were about 200 different companies exhibiting indoors and 50 showing their wares outside, as both indoor and outdoor display space was completely sold out and additional companies were on standby. “On the indoor side,” said Thompson, “we had 25 companies on the waiting list. People really want to be there, whether they are selling tow brakes or tow bars or clothes or turbochargers or jewelry. Everyone is selling product.”
• Estimated recreational vehicle sales by dealers and manufacturers manning outdoor displays – by even conservative estimates – totaled more than 350 rigs.
In their post-rally reviews, AGI’s management was giving the Redmond rally rave reviews. “If you want me to rate it,” said Thompson, who’s in charge of exhibitor sales, “it certainly is our best rally since Gillette as far as sales for vendors and as far as people having a great time because there was no rain. You know, it rained like crazy in Perry, Louisville and Hutchinson. This rally just worked all the way around.”
And Thompson says that while a handful of outdoor exhibitors experienced some difficulties with the location of their displays – a fact he took some pains to correct with bonus giveaways and added signage – a wide array of vendors had expressed their satisfaction with the event in general.
“It was a great rally,” agreed AGI Vice President Sue Bray, executive director of the Good Sam Club who now oversees AGI’s annual rally. “It was really good to finally be able to implement all of the plans that we worked so hard on and not have to deal with weather issues and be in crisis mode.”
In addition to the destination area itself, Bray specifically was pleased with the coordination level of the exhibits and of the various events, including evening concerts by Debbie Reynolds, Pam Tillis, Ronnie Milsap and a group of former ’60s lead singers called Triple Gold. Equally important to Bray were the strides her staff and volunteers made in streamlining the arrival process and eliminating congestion and traffic hassles in general for attendees, who were positioned at multiple locations.
“We tried last year to change our parking process, and we were thwarted by the rain storms in Kansas,” she told RV Business. “What we do now is people are pre-assigned to parking lots. And they are given directions to go to that specific lot. There is no central staging as had been done in the past. And we also assign arrival times. People can sign up for early bird. But we assign whether they should come in the morning or in the afternoon.
“That helps us control the traffic,” she continued. “And we never had any backups. It finally worked. We had people coming in from multiple approaches to multiple parking lots, and we were able to park them. From what I understand, the most rigs that were ever backed up was around six rigs. When you think about parking 5,600 rigs in three days, that’s a lot.
“There were 10 lots. Six of the lots were on the fairgrounds property itself, and four were on property that we contracted for.”
School bus shuttles were utilized to ferry people back and forth from the remote lots, and keeping them running on time, says Bray, was one of her staff’s biggest challenges this time around.
On a one-to-ten scale – ten being the best – Bray conservatively rates the rally as an 8.5. “You can always do better,” she confides. “There were some problems with the buses. You’d like to have a venue where you could seat everybody and have one show. And the auditorium, which seated 6,000, was only half the size we required. So, we had to do the shows twice. But we were able to overcome these issues. I’m pretty happy – very happy.”
Indeed, Bray tends to agree, AGI’s rally has likely become the nation’s premier recreational vehicle retail event.
Meanwhile, AGI President and CEO Mike Schneider, a self-professed “hard grader,” gives the latest rally an 8. All in all, though, he’s clearly pleased with the results. “There are things that we could do better,” says Schneider. “But, clearly, we are where we want to be with the rally program. The key is that, strategically, AGI views itself as the pivot point between the industry and the consumer. These rallies are perfect showcases of that positioning.
“We bring the customers together in a very visible, personal, hands-on way with the key manufacturers and a lot of the important dealers in the area who interact and, more importantly, sell to them. The sales numbers were very strong. In some cases, in fact, we made the year – if not the quarter – for some of these guys (RV builders). And that’s where we want to be. And on the other side, everybody’s real boss in the equation – the customer – is thrilled. They’re thrilled with the opportunity of seeing all these units at the same time they are socializing with old friends and new friends, being entertained and educated with seminars. It’s just all coming together.”
Looking ahead, Thompson said AGI had logged 700 signups for the 2006 Rally, slated for April 7-10 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., before the 2005 Rally in Redmond ended.