ARVC struggles with park ‘standards’

You know an initiative is in trouble when a) the people presenting it tell you not to get hung up on what it’s called; and b) the actual text of what’s being proposed is only talked about but never shared.

So it was at the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) convention this past week and its curiously emasculated discussion of an unprecedented set of industry “standards.” A first for RV parks and nearly a year in the works, the Voluntary Standards for Outdoor Hospitality Operations had been crafted by a nine-member task force chaired by past ARVC chair Kathy Palmeri, who acknowledged that something of the sort had been suggested 20 years ago but quickly got deep-sixed when it ran into a buzz-saw of member opposition.

Some things don’t change. Initially scheduled to be released over the summer, so ARVC members would be able to review them before the convention and thereby provide informed feedback, the standards instead were held back in an apparent effort to forestall concerted opposition. The pushback had already started, according to several insiders, and resistance was intense. An industry still dominated by intensely independent owners who don’t like being told how to run their businesses was not keen on having their association tell them how they should do things.

Addressing hundreds of campground owners at the convention, a noticeably defensive Palmeri explained that the task force had decided convention goers should have “context” before getting an actual document. There should be no rush to judgment. Campground owners shouldn’t get hung up on the word “standards,” she said, adding that “there should be no angst about it,” that the standards were completely voluntary and that they were, in any case, responsive to public demand for something of the sort.

Pushing on, Palmeri contended that industry changes were forcing ARVC’s hand. “There used to be a real solid campground culture,” she explained, “but that day is done, so we have to react to that.” More millennials, more institutional investors, more first-time campers—all called for more standardization, and if ARVC didn’t meet that challenge, then who would? Campground owners, she finished in an awkward flourish, could no longer “live under a rock.”

For all that “context,” however, still no standards. Instead, a last-minute and thinly advertised break-out session was scheduled with Palmeri and most of the task force, drawing 50 to 60 attendees before the meeting room doors were inexplicably closed. Without an actual document to discuss, those in the room had an hour of abstract discussion in which it became clear that a primary impetus for standard-setting was coming not from the camping public, but from the new money flowing into the industry. As Palmeri amplified, a seat-of-the-pants mom-and-pop industry “had flown under the radar for a lot of years, and we were happy to do that. But it’s a new day,” and the new players “are hungry for this kind of information.”

That information clearly is still being sorted out, as the new standards are still nowhere to be found. Instead, ARVC has emailed an extensive survey to its members, asking them to agree or disagree whether scores of benchmarks should be included in the standards, and whether each acceptable benchmark should be “essential” for all parks or simply “aspirational.” There are 10 “domains” of benchmarks, covering such broad categories as guest services, security, staffing and maintenance, some with dozens of individual items. Although Palmeri said the survey can be completed in 15 to 20 minutes, those few people in the room who had already filled it out advised budgeting an hour or so.

Campground owners who are not ARVC members–and there are many—can only peer through the window.

One further complicating factor to all this is a task force recommendation that ARVC create some kind of “good housekeeping seal of approval” for campgrounds that meet the standards. What, after all, is the point of having standards if no one knows which RV parks meet them and which don’t? Yet as one park owner complained, doing so moves ARVC one step closer to being a governing body, “which it’s not supposed to be.” And as another park owner observed, creating industry standards is little more than an invitation for lawsuits against RV parks that don’t adopt them, “voluntary” be damned.

Such objections notwithstanding, big money will have its way—and big money needs standardization in the service of predictability. Throw in ARVC’s ongoing drive to be more “professional” and less clubby, and you have a perfect storm of rule-making zeal. Camping indeed ain’t what it used to be.

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