Some claim RV magazine publishing veteran William W. “Bill” Estes, quiet and unassuming as he may have been during his 38-year career, should be considered one of the top 10 most influential individuals in the industry’s history.
Now, that’s saying a lot – more than Estes himself would ever say about himself, even if it is, perhaps, true. A rather low profile Arkansas native who got his start in journalism at the Los Angeles Times before joining Southern California-based Trailer Life Publishing Co. Inc. in 1968, Estes stepped away in May from his position as group publisher of RV publications for TL Enterprises Inc., a unit of Affinity Group Inc. (AGI). Although he gave the company rather short notice of his retirement plans, there was still time to organize a party in which Estes’ fellow employees and industry allies had a chance to salute him and view a video tracking his tenure from his earliest days as a technical director for the company’s RV publications to stints as publisher of Trailer Life and MotorHome magazines and, later, as group publisher – a slot in which he has been succeeded by AGI executive Bob Livingston.
In the years, Estes grew to become a popular and sometimes eloquent columnist. He tested rigs, evaluated products, pastored to shade tree mechanics and authored “The RV Handbook,” the quintessential hands-on technical guide for RV owners. At times, he was instrumental in affecting products and policies on a national scale, the most memorable of which was in the early 1980s when he brought to light problems associated with overloading of micro-mini motorhomes – a category of recreational vehicle that, for the most part, no longer exists.
Not surprisingly, there was recognition along the way, including the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association’s first-ever Distinguished Achievement in Journalism Award, a berth in the RV Hall of Fame and a special award from President Reagan for his work in Trailer Life on the national park and forest systems.
So, it was a natural segue for Bill, an energetic and youthful sort of guy with a penchant for back road camping, hiking, fly fishing and mountain biking, to head off immediately upon his retirement in a cloud of dust in a recreational vehicle. Before anybody could stop him long enough to discuss his plans, he headed off with his friend Marilyn in a borrowed 1998 35-foot Southwind Class A – with a Jeep Cherokee and two bikes in tow – on a 2 1/2-month junket to parts unknown and left a big void in the process at AGI, a company with which he is still considering some continuing relationship.
So fast was his exit, in fact, that the staff of RV Business never really got a chance to conduct our own “exit interview.” So we caught up with Bill on a recent Monday morning not too long after his return from his initial retirement foray for the following telephone interview.
RVB: We’d like to start out by asking you what the heck you are doing right now on a workday morning, whereas, on a typical day for the past 40 years, you would have already been immersed in work at your Ventura office?
I’m looking out my window at an RV that I am planning on using on a trip I am taking in a couple of days with my daughter and her husband and two kids. My daughter (Erin) got into a toy hauler travel trailer a couple months ago. We are going up to the mountains for a little R&R. From what, in my case, I don’t know. For them, it’s R&R.
For me now, it’s all R&R. This comes on the heels of a 2 1?2-month trip on the road, checking out what it’s really like out there after 38 years or so only having a week or two (of vacation) at a time. The trip was very enjoyable, as I expected it to be. I didn’t see the numbers of RVs out there that I’d seen in the past – due to high gas prices, or whatever reason. But it was a great trip and a chance to get my head into it and really feel like I’m being there without having the return date a week hence. That was quite a revelation.
RVB: On that first retirement trip, where did you go?
Went through the western states – Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana. Most of the time we were above 8,000 feet, so we missed all the heat that occurred in Southern California – 119 degrees in my part of L.A. during July. It was a great trip just to see what is out there and see what people were like. We stayed in a lot of Forest Service camps and talked to campground hosts, as well as lots of people having a great time.
You know, we’ve been talking (in the magazines) for decades about people having a great time in RVs, and they do. I kept calling my daughter and son with the same boring report about what a beautiful place we were staying. There were so many beautiful places that it got to be monotonous – for them, anyway. It was a great opportunity to sample what this country has to offer from the standpoint of scenic grandeur.
RVB: So, you mostly stayed in public parks?
Yes, mostly public campgrounds. Being from the ‘ant hill’ that I call it here (in Los Angeles) where there are just so many people, I’m prone to want to head to the back roads. I camped for almost a week at the headwaters of the Rio Grande River back in a canyon where I didn’t even have cell phone service, much less Internet.
RVB: Holy cow, how could you survive without cell phones?
I’m learning.
RVB: And, at night, you stayed in the RV, not at the Marriott?Estes: Yes, we are out there because I’d rather be in an RV in a beautiful place than any luxury hotel that I’ve ever been in, and that includes some pretty nice places.
RVB: Obviously, Bill, you’re an RV enthusiast at heart, even though you’ve worked on the business side of publishing all these years.
Well, I am. In fact, I didn’t get into it (magazine publishing) primarily for business reasons. I got into it because I was an enthusiast. I was looking for a chance to work on RV magazines. It was a dream, and I got to do it.
RVB: Given all this, do you plan to purchase an RV of your own?
I’ve had RVs over the years, even built one years ago and I’ve used hundreds that were provided by manufacturers for tests. I have an RV that is not going to be good for extended travel, and am in the process of re-figuring which way I want to go with my next one – a fifth-wheel or a motorhome.
RVB: During your initial travels, did you have a chance to reflect much on your years in the wild and crazy publishing business?
I knew it (retirement) would be a huge change, and it was, in addition to the fact that I had a pretty long commute from the outskirts of L.A. to Ventura, which was 40 miles each way.
Anyway, there are certain pressures in the magazine business as you well know, and you are dealing with the demands and challenges of these magazines and the different aspects of it – advertising and circulation issues and dealing with increasing costs – and then jumping off into basically what felt like an extended vacation.
Now that I’m back in Southern California, temporarily, I have to figure out just what this retirement thing is going to be. And, of course, I don’t plan to be disengaged from the magazines or the industry. I still want to be involved. I’ve always said I was in the fun business. We have a relationship with a lot of readers who are. And that’s a wonderful thing, as opposed to simply publishing a magazine for people who are simply interested in getting information. We have enthusiasts as our partners here as well as the industry people who build really interesting products. It’s an enjoyable and intriguing scenario on both sides.
RVB: When you were managing Trailer Life, you were really overseeing what for this industry has become an icon of sorts, were you not?
Yes, it is. And MotorHome has become that to a lesser degree. We have done some important work with these magazines by helping people realize their dreams. Magazines are living things and it’s been great to work with the people who still are wonderful friends in these magazines for all these years, and be in close touch with the readers and great companies in this business.
RVB: Having said that, we should point out that your consumer magazines have sometimes taken a critical approach to manufacturers and their products, saying things at times that needed to be said.
That’s right. The magazines have been constructively critical. We’ve tried over the years never to be caustic about it. There have been cases where we’ve really had to jump on situations. We pushed the weight situation for years. I don’t want to take all the credit for the magazines because a lot of people were involved in that. But we had significant influence on RVIA’s new weight rules which finally brought the problem under control.
There was one specific example of where we pushed the issue with a specific chronically overloaded type of motorhome and it literally resulted in the demise of that RV type. I think the RVIA standards really put that situation in its place – where people now know what they are buying. For decades, people were buying RVs with inadequate cargo-carrying capacities that were bound to be overloaded.
RVB: Viewing things first-hand as an enthusiast, what struck you most about the RV universe out there – plus and minus?
The lifestyle itself, to me, means freedom – to be out having new experiences in the kinds of places you want to be. Some people go to dog shows or horse shows or whatever, and others enjoy the social aspects of private parks. I like to be out in the most spectacular places in the country, which, on this particular trip, were the high mountains in the Rocky Mountain states. I’ve been there continually over the years, but I’ve always wanted to spend more time.
I’m a scenic beauty-or-nature junky. There must have been two dozen places where we spent two or three days and wished we’d spent two or three weeks because there is so much to see and do – museums to go to and learn about the history of the West back in the 1800s, the mountain-man era, and such. We would bump into very interesting people, including these campground hosts. And they all are interesting people, having a lot of fun doing their volunteer work, giving something back to the nation while enjoying their lifestyles.
RVB: Is serving as a workamper or park host something you’d like to eventually do?
Maybe. These people obviously don’t do it for money. They are provided a place to camp, but they do a lot of work, and it’s fun and meaningful. These people usually have very substantial investments in RVs, and they just find it worthwhile from the standpoint of helping make the campgrounds nice for people to use, and they enjoy the social contact and the beautiful locations.
RVB: By and large, then, you found what you expected to find in the so-called real world?
Yes. There’s still a great landscape of places to go and things to do in RVs. Is it increasing? I doubt that it’s been increasing. Maybe it’s been shrinking from the commercial standpoint. In other words, the numbers of private campgrounds have been coming down. But you could spend years, as people do, wandering around and enjoying these really special places.
I said to one of these campground hosts, ‘What do you figure is your purpose?’ The response was very simple: ‘Enjoy where we are and what we are doing at the moment.’ They really enjoyed the contact with other people, and it became a social circle. In some cases when hosts would repeat year after year in the same campground, they would make friends who would return every season. It’s a great social network, as we’ve always known — if you want it to be.
If you want to be a loner, you can be that, too.
I’ve been an addicted RV’er for a long time, and am enjoying the chance to spend much more time out there, and it’s only the beginning of figuring out the lifestyle I would like to lead.
RVB: What thoughts do you have regarding the industry’s future directions, its products and lifestyle? And, specifically, what limiting factors do you see?
Everybody has been concerned about the gas situation – how much effect it’s had, if any, on RV sales. I’m concerned, and it’s easy to conclude at this point that perhaps the industry is not responding with what people want to buy right now, which is RVs that do a little bit better on fuel economy. On the other hand, the industry’s had a lot of experience (with business cycles). We’ve seen this happen a couple of times before where the gas prices spiked and the industry came up with some European or downsized RVs that didn’t sell well and they went away.
If you look at what is available today in more economical RVs, they can be darn near as expensive as larger ones. So, it’s hard for manufacturers to develop a new line of economical vehicles for a fuel run-up. Who knows what will happen with this one, but it’s a concern that manufacturers don’t appear to be taking fuel economy seriously. The car and truck manufacturers certainly have been for some time.
But from a standpoint of accommodations and comfort, obviously slideouts. Because of them, you don’t have to have such long RVs and can have better maneuverability. It’s a win-win. So, development is phenomenal from the standpoint of comfort and convenience in RVs. And chassis and tow vehicles have become so much better. It’s quite a stellar record of progress.
RVB: Is product quality still a front-burner issue for you?
Quality is, of course, still a big issue. In this unit that I used, I see some very obvious quality problems, which are not exclusive to the low-end units. And obviously, the (Go RVing Coalition’s) Committee on Excellence has been addressing this. What impact has it had is a big question. But quality is a continuing issue.
We recognize that people know that RVs are going to have problems. I was camped next to a guy in a luxury motorhome – a well known brand as a matter of fact – and the water pump on his diesel engine failed. He said, ‘Oh well, it’s an RV. I should know that I’m going to have some problems.’
Now, he probably spent $400,000 on this motorhome, and he was down (out of service) because his water pump malfunctioned. That’s very unusual in a motorhome. The engines are much more reliable than some RV systems. But the point is that quality is an ongoing issue. What we see is that people are not as distressed by the problems they may encounter as they are if they must deal with service people who are not really taking up their cause – not showing a real interest in helping them. They get really steamed when that happens.
RVB: So, people skills – in addition to mechanical skills – are critical, right?
Right. When you’ve got somebody who is working with you and is trying his best – even if he can’t immediately come up with the answer – then that’s a positive, as opposed to somebody who is just kind of bored with it. Then you not only have mechanical problems, but problems with the repair process. It’s an ongoing struggle, as everyone in the business knows.
RVB: Is there something else you’d like to add before we close out this interview?
Yes, I’d like to add that it’s been a great privilege to be in this business all these years – to help people feed their dreams, not just readers, but advertisers as well. We’ve helped a lot of companies be successful, and we enticed and attracted a lot of people to this lifestyle, and in many cases it has changed their lives.