Campers Inn migrated south around eight years ago, extending beyond its stronghold in New England with the opening of its first out-of-market store in Leesburg, Fla. The move represented the initial peg in a concerted expansion effort that has created a network of outlets currently stretching through the Mid-Atlantic and along the Eastern seaboard.
Jeff Hirsch, president of New Hampshire-based Campers Inn, related that expansion had always been part of the plan since his parents founded the company in 1966.
“The vision was to be a multilocation dealership,” said Hirsch, an ardent industry supporter whose resume includes a recently completed term as chairman of the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA). “It turned into a necessity when I, and my two brothers, became involved in the business with my parents. It was clear that one location was not going support the entire family, so we grew to eventually include four regional stores. Family members oversaw operations at each location for a substantial amount of time.”
Hirsch said the upside was that a hands-on, customer-oriented culture was entrenched in the Campers Inn business model. But it also served as a seed for the company’s expansive growth in the past decade, as the dealer’s path has strategically followed the I-95 corridor which spans from upper Maine down to southern Florida.
“The primary reason we opened in Florida is that many customers were coming back from their winter journey and would complain about service availability,” Hirsch said. “It wasn’t that dealers weren’t able to perform the service. But the dealers were in their prime season, which made it hard to take care of new service customers.
“We wanted to make Campers Inn a trusted resource for RV travelers. We felt there was an advantage for customers to get the same type of service and welcome that we offer in New England at Campers Inn stores along the Eastern seaboard.”
According to Hirsch, “the dots are starting to fill in,” as the network is now comprised of 10 stores serving prime, high-traffic markets. In addition to the four New England operations, the dealership has established two sites each in North Carolina, Florida and Georgia, the latest being the acquisition of Peco Campers in the Atlanta area last December.
“When my nephew, Ben, came on board, we started looking at studies that were related to growth markets,” Hirsch said. “One of the determining factors when we are seeking specific geographic locations is finding potential sites that offer those metrics for long-term growth. The cost may be higher on the front end, but we are interested in getting the biggest bang for the buck – choosing a market where we will be the most successful.”
Hirsch noted that the company’s formula for expansion requires flexibility, as Campers Inn has added locations through both organic growth and acquisition.
“We have built the company through a mix of new sites and existing dealerships,” said Hirsch, noting the company’s workforce had grown to approximately 280 employees. “There are advantages to both. With a new site you can pick location, but it takes time to develop. Acquisition gives you an operation that is immediately accretive.”
Hirsch reported to RVBusiness.com that Campers Inn is poised to add two more stores to the chain. “We bought a piece of land in Pennsylvania, and we are currently awaiting licenses to proceed,” Hirsch said. “In addition, we are under agreement for another location along I-95.”
While building its presence in the southeast, Campers Inn also made a move into the Elkhart, Ind., market in 2010, an area saturated by the industry’s manufacturing and supplier base. Hirsch made the decision to pull out of the marketplace in August of 2013, determining that Elkhart “did not fit into the company’s model.”
“If we wanted to be a low cost, low priced provider, Campers Inn could have done very well in Elkhart,” he said. “From the beginning, we have sought to provide a high-value, full-service dealership focused on taking care of our customers during their entire RVing experience – from the research process to purchasing an RV to after the sale. Elkhart did not meet our criteria and the market was essentially a contradiction to how we want to do business.”
Hirsch acknowledged that the company’s expansion along I-95 has placed Campers Inn in direct competition with Camping World Inc., which has altered the landscape of the RV retail sector through an aggressive roll-up strategy.
“There’s no question that Camping World represents the goliath in our industry,” Hirsch said. “But I don’t think that they have been necessarily detrimental to the industry. The fact is that Camping World and Campers Inn are similar in many areas in that we are both high-cost, high-value dealerships with tremendous investment in brick and mortar, people and training.
“The trend that concerns me the most is the low cost, low value dealerships that sell the customers beyond their ability to service them in the long-term. Fixed operations are difficult to handle at a profit for RV dealers because generally there is little or no margin. But customer service is the one area that will allow the industry to grow and continue to attract new customers.”
He added, “We have positioned Campers Inn as a multilocation business, but the mom-and-pop dealership is still the backbone of the industry. My intent is to have Campers Inn survive through generations of RVers. If I can do that, then it would be a wonderful legacy.”