Note: I get a lot of requests for information on vending at RV rallies. This is an updated article that first ran in the March-April, 2007 issue of the Gypsy Journal.
It sounds like a great idea. Find a couple of products, buy a folding table or two, and pay for your travels by selling at RV rallies. Why, you can even write off your RV payments as a tax deduction!
Yeah, and if pigs could fly….
While it’s true that some RVers have been able to generate an income by vending at RV rallies around the country, it is hard work, it presents significant challenges, and for every one who is successful, there are dozens of would-be traveling entrepreneurs who find themselves stuck with merchandise they can’t unload, their dream bubble burst by the sad realities of the RV rally circuit.
We have been vending at RV rallies since our first year on the road, passing out sample copies of the Gypsy Journal, selling subscriptions and the books and booklets we publish. In that time we have seen a lot of vendors come and go, and very few who have been successful long term. Our success has been the result of a lot of luck, even more hard work, perseverance, by having unique products to sell, and by carefully analyzing our sales results at the rallies where we have vended.
We learned early on that some rallies are just not worth our time or trouble. We sell very specialized products, aimed at a small target market. One might think that any RVer would be a potential customer for the things we publish, but that would be a wrong assumption.
Most of our booklets are guides to free or low cost camping locations. Many RVers, probably most, don’t necessarily seek out such locations. They prefer full service RV parks that offer such amenities as swimming pools, recreation rooms, and hot tubs. They are vacation travelers, and when they are on holiday, saving money is secondary to having a fun, comfortable trip.
We have found that Good Sam and Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA) rallies are not profitable for us. The majority of the RVers who attend these events do not need or want our products, and that is reflected in our sales. At a couple of Good Sam state rallies, our gross sales totaled less than $100. On the other hand, experience has taught us that Escapee rallies are usually very good for us. Escapees overall seem to travel more and take advantage of money saving overnight parking opportunities. Because they do travel so much, Escapees are also more interested in the Gypsy Journal, since our focus is on travel. We have found that a lot of the Good Sam and FMCA crowd we have encountered at rallies seem to travel much less, sometimes just to rallies, before they return home until the next event.
On the other hand, at a Good Sam rally where neither we, nor any of the other vendors of RV products were doing any sales, we watched a vendor selling costume jewelry make a killing! Knowing what to offer is a crapshoot, and your chosen products may or may not sell well at any particular venue.
The size of a rally is also no indication of how successful it may be for a given vendor. We determine how successful a rally was for us by dividing the number of RVs attending into our total sales amount, to come up with a dollar-per-unit figure. For example, at an FMCA International rally in Oklahoma City a few years ago there were over 3,500 RVs attending, our sales were only $614, a mere seventeen cents per unit! On the other hand, at an Escapees Escapade in Van Wert, Ohio, with just over 700 RVs present, our sales averaged $4.68 per unit! We also attended a Hensley Hitch rally in Michigan once with only 82 RVs attending, and our sales were $9.67 per unit!
We have found that some of the least profitable rallies have had the highest vendor admission fees. Our corner table at the Oklahoma FMCA rally where our sales averaged seventeen cents per unit cost over $700. These days you can expect to spend even more at many rallies.
Vendor admission fees are not the only costs you have to factor in when planning to attend a rally. Travel costs, RV parking fees if they are not included in your vendor fees, and insurance costs all add to your overhead and must be covered before you turn a penny of profit. Typical vendor insurance for a single rally can run from $160 up. Many locations will also demand that you acquire a temporary sales permit or license, and charge sales tax on anything you sell. Other hidden fees that can quickly add up are the cost of door prizes you may be asked, or required, to donate, the cost of having packages of products shipped in, any charges the event venue charges to receive your packages (some charge $1 or more per package), the cost of sales literature, the added cost of fuel required to haul a heavier payload of merchandise to a rally, and your display tables, chairs, etc. And don’t forget that if the rally does not offer vendors hookups (usually at an added price), it is going to cost you money to run your generator if you need power!
While it is true that you can write off some of the costs associated with your RV if you use it for a business, only the portions of the rig actually used in that business are deductible. And the good folks at the IRS will not let you claim a loss forever. Eventually you will need to earn a profit, and pay taxes on that profit to keep claiming RV costs on your taxes.
This opens an entirely new can of worms. If you use your RV as part of your business, your insurance company may well demand that you pay for commercial insurance, which will cost you much more than a simple RV policy will. Expanding even further on this thought, might your licensing state then require commercial license plates on the RV, and that you have a commercial drivers license? These are all things you need to discuss with a qualified accountant and a good attorney familiar with the RV lifestyle.
What products sell well at RV rallies? If I had the answer to that, I’d probably stop writing for a living and become a highly paid consultant. We see some products over and over at rallies. That does not necessarily mean that they sell successfully, just that the companies that market those products are good at convincing would be vendors that they will sell well. We have seen a lot of vendors selling waterless car wash products come and go over the years. We’ve only seen a few vendors succeed with them long term. It is not that the products are lacking in quality, but rather that so many rallies will have two, three, or more vendors selling the same products. The pie is the same size no matter how many vendors you have at a rally. The only difference is how thinly you slice it. The successful vendors selling the waterless products we have known have branched out from just RV rallies to also sell at car shows, swap meets, and other venues.
We have been to rallies where there were as many as six vendors selling satellite television systems. How many people at any given rally are going to be in the market for such an expensive purchase?
Some of the most successful vendors have established their own niche, just as we have, and have developed a following. Dwane and Janet Tranum have built a successful business called Almost Heaven selling RV cleaning supplies, microfiber towels and such.
Many vendors include teaching as part of their draw. Mac McCoy is a familiar sight at rallies nationwide selling fire extinguishers and alarms, and teaching classes on RV fire safety.
We have also seen vendors who succeeded by offering specialized services at RV rallies. At one rally an RV repair tech we knew ran his legs off making repairs to RVs, while his wife, a certified massage therapist, had a steady line of customers signing up for massages. Another vendor at our rally offered windshield chip repair and told us it was a very successful event for him.
Another thing to keep in mind is that vending at an RV rally is hard work. Not just lugging all of your inventory to your booth and setting up, and then breaking down after the rally; vending hours are long, you are on your feet a lot, exhibit halls can be hot or cold, and dealing with the public all day long, even RVers, can be trying at times.
So what is the secret to making it as an RV vendor? After all these years, I’m still not sure. But some things will certainly increase your chances of success – know your product and what its market is; carve out a niche that sets you and your product apart from the crowd; develop a customer following that you can draw from over the years; give good customer service; and study the rally circuit and learn from your experiences and the experiences of other vendors. From our first day on the road, people had told us that Good Sam rallies were a bust. But we had to find out for ourselves by attending a couple of their events. It was an expensive lesson.
Thought For The Day – My dentist told me I needed a crown. I said, “I know, right?”