ELKHART — Elkhart County is outpacing the gross domestic product nationally. A recent study shows that the outdoor recreation industry ranks 15th in the nation for GDP and a lot of that — the majority, actually — comes from the recreation vehicle industry.

Frank Hugelmeyer, president of RV Industry Association, said, “We’re obviously in a record period of growth and we’re driving not only the local Elkhart community but we’re driving … we’re outpacing the GDP across the country. We’re so important when it comes to outdoor recreation as a whole, we’re the major driver of that as an economics sector. And isn’t that wonderful that we’re in the hub of Elkhart and that we have such a big impact not only in this community but across the entire nation?”

That impact is what brought national officials to the sixth annual RV Industry Power Breakfast Thursday morning at the Northern Indiana Event Center.

Ryan Zink, U.S. Secretary of Interior, was scheduled to speak but had to stay in Washington. Instead, he sent Rick May, his senior national adviser. Much like his boss, May is former military, a U.S. Navy SEAL captain. His job with the Interior: to be in charge of all outdoor activities from “archery to zipline,” he said.

Access and opportunities are vital keys, according to May, Hugelmeyer and KOA President Toby O’Rourke, who also spoke Thursday. This requires a public-private partnership, the speakers stressed.

That’s why the Made in America Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee was formed. Sitting on that committee is Matt Miller, president of Newmar Corp. in Nappanee.

That partnership also helped with housing at Rocky Mountain National Park. May introduced the superintendent of that national park, Darla Sidles, who sent a thank-you to the RV industry and especially Forest River. Forest River donated four Class A motorhomes to the park for staff housing.

There are more than 400 parks in the national parks system, and the response to the needs of that park are helping the Interior to create a template to apply to other parks for speedy upgrades. “We are not looking to philanthropy to solve all of our problems,” May said. “If the solution works for Rocky, we will have a way ahead and problems at other parks will be solved in a similar fashion.”

Other issues facing the parks are: improving the reservation system, innovative means of exiting and entering the parks, broadband in the parks where it makes sense, and modernization of campgrounds and infrastructures.

KEEPING WITH THE TIMES

Campground modernization is what the RV industry needs. The last park built was in 1966 and it was to those standards, May said, adding “RVs have changed since then.”

Where to start? Well, May said he is not just looking at the park service but at other land agencies including the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Land Management. “Why can’t we put campgrounds out there?” he suggested.

“I am going to be looking to the RV industry to advise us, to partner with us on how we are going to develop that modern campground of the future,” May said.

The secretary’s top priorities this year are: recreation, infrastructure and reorganization.

The Department of the Interior has had the same organizational structure for more than a century, May said, adding, “That’s not a great business model.”

Zinke’s plan, which is about to be launched, is to divide the country into 13 unified, regional areas that are loosely based on watershed areas and in some cases state lines. These areas will also have recreation advisers, who will work with state recreation offices to accomplish both state and mutual recreational goals. Currently, only eight states have dedicated offices just to oversee recreation because they are such an economic driver, he pointed out, adding consumers spend $887 billion annual in recreation.

Zinke hopes to see every state create an office and sent a letter to each governor urging them to do so.

“The impact on the economy can no longer be ignored,” May said.

That impact was driven home by KOA President Toby O’Rourke.

Some of the highlights of her presentation to RV industry leaders included that:

• Millennials and Generation X continue to be the biggest market for camping — 75 percent.

• 24 percent of millennials are camping with children.

• 77 million households identify as active campers.

• 39 million camp every year, which is a 20 percent increase.

• KOA campgrounds have seen a 70 percent growth since 2012.

• KOA developed 2,500 sites last year.

• Campers are more diverse, with 49 percent of campers being multicultural. The largest demographic increase has been in African-Americans and Hispanics. “These are fresh, new targets for our business,” O’Rourke said.

The KOA president said that campers don’t want to be completely “unplugged” — they still want their phone access. So upgrading technology at campgrounds is a must. KOA is also personalizing campers’ visits to their website. And adding voice command functionality is also in the plans.

“Technology is expensive, but it is necessary,” she said.

In a KOA study it was found that 4 in 10 RV campers do not own their RV. Plus, campers are staying close to home. She said 59 percent of people camp within 100 miles of home.

“This changes how we market it,” O’Rourke said.

WORKING TOGETHER

O'Rourke would like to see KOA and the RV industry working together to build a better experience for campers.

Also speaking on the need to work together was Hugelmeyer, who pointed out that for the first time in the outdoor recreation industry history its players have a voice in government.

“We need a singular voice to be able talk to Washington, to really move the meter. If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” Hugelmeyer said. “And I can tell you all of the other groups are all at the table. And it’s time for us to have a seat at the table.”

He added the largest sector in motorized outdoor recreation were the people sitting in the room. “We’re the dominant driver of the largest sector of the 15th largest industry in the country,” Hugelmeyer said. “Let that sink in for a second.”

That’s why the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable was established last year, he said, so RV leaders can set the agenda for outdoor recreation. “This is how we are going to keep the momentum,” Hugelmeyer said.

The goal now is to focus on economic recognition – “We’ve got that,” he said, adding though that it was a one-time piece that was funded by the Department of Interior.

“We also drive 4.3 million jobs. Over the average five years that they measured it, we grew at 4.4 percent,” he said. “That is a full percentage point over the entire GDP of the United States. … We are driving that growth that is outpacing the entire U.S. economy.”

Those numbers from the Interior study are a powerful lobbying tool, he explained.

As an example, Hugelmeyer pointed out the need to prioritize recreational access. Over the years there has been talk about how underfunded campgrounds are and how they are declining. “That’s because we were not organized,” Hugelmeyer said. “We were not saying we need more campgrounds.” He wants that to change.

He told the group barriers for private investment need to be removed. There’s never been a better time to make public investments. “It’s a time-proven path to be able to grow national park infrastructure and campground infrastructure around the country,” he said.

If the RV industry and the outdoor recreation industry can meet their customers where they are — microtarget them, that’s where the industry will see continued growth, he said. For 10 of the past 12 months, the local RV industry saw shipments of more than 40,000 RVs. RV Industry Association wants to help keep that trend going and growing.

Part of that is a new project for the RV group. They are taking ownership of kicking off the RV season with “RVX.” The first kickoff will take place in March 2019 with RVers heading to Salt Lake City, Utah. And March 12-14, 2019, RVIA will host an RV technician service challenge.

“Let’s take it out of Indiana and share it with the world,” Hugelmeyer told the crowd.

Other guest speakers at the breakfast included Sen. Joe Donnelly; Sen. Todd Young; U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, 2nd District; U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, 3rd District; Phil Ingrassia, president of RVDA; Pete McCown, president of the Community Foundation of Elkhart County; and Gregg Fore, partner in RVBusiness magazine.

Sheila Selman can be reached at sheila.selman@goshennews.com, or follow her on Twitter at @sselman_TGN or on Facebook at Sheila Selman Journalist.

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