Part II: ARVC’s name is misleading, because it’s hardly an ‘association’

There are lots of nouns a group of people can adopt when creating an entity of common interests. “Grange” has a certain folksy appeal, despite its admittedly short-lived history as a farmers’ group to advance agricultural methods and to promote its members’ social and economic needs. “Society” is another possibility, as is “alliance,” as are “union,” “brotherhood” and “confederation.” But when a group of campground owners got together in 1967 to form a national group that would meet their needs, the noun they chose was “association.”

That’s “association” as in the National Campground Owners Association, decades later changed to the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC). “Association” as in “a group of people or organizations who work together for a particular purpose.” “Association” as a collective noun whose commonly understood synonyms include partnership, companionship, fellowship—words, alas, that hardly describe ARVC as it is today.

This is an organization, after all, whose current stated “vision” is a mystifying five words—“an empowered outdoor hospitality industry”—and whose “mission” is couched in soulless corporate-speak: “We empower outdoor hospitality businesses by providing industry-tailored resources, organic connections, consumer exposure, professional development, and proactive legislative action.”  That’s a long way from the association’s founding principle, which was “for the purpose of promoting camping through the private sector and protecting the camping industry from unfair legislation and unfair competition.”

Just as ARVC has replaced the earthiness of “camping” with corporate jargon about “outdoor hospitality,” so too has it jettisoned the fraternal trappings of an association in favor of a service organization’s efficiencies. Members are asked for little more than their annual dues, in exchange for which they get a strongly hyped menu of vendor discounts, various educational opportunities and a steadily more expensive annual convention. True, ARVC has a notably energetic legislative watchdog and lobbyist in the person of Jeff Sims, whose efforts readily fulfill at least that part of the original mandate. But efforts to promote “association”? To harness the energies of people to “work together for a particular purpose”? Not so much.

Instead, under the 12-year leadership of chief executive Paul Bambei, ARVC has become increasingly transactional and more distant from its individual members. Nominees for the board of directors, for example, must have received a certificate from—or be actively enrolled in—the organization’s Outdoor Hospitality Education Program, regardless of how much campground operating experience they already have. While the full program leads to certification as an Outdoor Hospitality Professional, it’s questionable how “professional” one can become after just eight days of face-to-face instruction. What’s unquestionable is that the $3,790 tuition cost, plus the expense of hotel, travel and time lost from work, can be a steep deterrent to potential ARVC leaders and a surprising hurdle for an association to place before any civic-minded members.

Once elected to the board, however, ARVC directors conduct their duties in a bubble. Although their names and pictures can be found on the ARVC website, no contact information is provided for any of their constituents who might want to reach them. The membership is not notified of upcoming board meetings before which it might to tempted to bring up matters of interest, and the minutes of board meetings are not published for membership review. Meanwhile, the flow of membership publications has been steadily choked off, its last magazine being quietly dispatched last year without so much as a farewell notice. As a result, ARVC members have little to no idea of their organization’s internal workings, and ARVC’s leaders hear extraordinarily little of their members’ concerns. Small wonder, then, that membership ranks have been eroding.

Thus insulated from their supposed following, ARVC’s “professional” leaders are free to develop solutions for non-existent problems while remaining oblivious to actual industry threats. Among the current distractions, for example, is a renewed push—more than a decade after it was first rebuffed—to create an industry-wide set of “standards.” Regardless of whether this is a good idea or not, the lack of prior membership involvement and education—and how could that have happened, given the leadership’s near-total isolation?—has resulted in a massive backlash and still more alienation between the leaders and the led.

Just how poorly those leaders appreciate the chasm that lies before them was suggested by a letter one of the board’s past presidents wrote a few weeks ago to the various state affiliates, seeking to explain why the standards had been proposed. None of his reasons indicated that the proposal was a response to membership demands. Instead, his chief rationale seemed to be that because the “hospitality industry has emerged as a leading travel and vacation style in recent years,” “regulators” are paying more attention. And since the regulators “don’t know our industry, wouldn’t it be better if the industry itself provided the definition rather than ceding that inevitable chore to others?”

Although no evidence is presented that this is in fact a problem (what “regulators”? making what “attempts to define us”?) the argument has a certain logic—until, that is, one realizes it turns the whole association dynamic on its head. Instead of an association of campground owners “protecting the camping industry from unfair legislation,” as was originally conceived, an increasingly “professional” ARVC has reached the point at which it will attempt to institute its own regulations, its own legislation. That’s a whole lot easier than pushing back against ignorant meddling by outsiders.

And, not incidentally, it also cements the transformation of a society of equals into a corporate-style command structure. There’s the top of the pyramid, which controls all internal communication and sets the agenda for everyone else; and there’s everyone else—until they aren’t. Until they bail, out of resentment or disgust or simply because their real needs aren’t being met.

Next post: Part III of why the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds should reconsider its name. Perhaps it should rebrand as the National Association of the Outdoor Hospitality Industry?

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Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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