Camping World

October 17, 2002
At the Camping World store in Nashville, cashier Carolyn Kincaid feels justas footloose and fancy-free as the wandering recreational-vehicle owners whostop by to pick up a new set of splash guards, get help with an air-conditioningproblem, or price a mobile satellite TV dish. She and her husband are “RVers,”too. Over the past few years, the couple--she’s 59, he’s 61--has roamedfrom Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to Portland, Oregon. “We just love tofollow the sun, and see different parts of the country,” she says.

Surprisingly, Kincaid has logged those myriad miles on the odometer and stillmanaged to work full-time for Camping World, the nation’s largest provider ofproducts and services to RV enthusiasts. Even more surprisingly, Kincaid’semployer not only tolerates her rolling-stone lifestyle, but also encourages it.Kincaid is a participant in Camping World’s Multi-Location Crewmember program,a four-year-old HR initiative that enables employees to work part of the year atone of the organization’s 30 stores, take some time off to travel, and thenresume work at another location. The program’s 50 or so participants enjoy thefreedom to roam while still retaining the security of a full-time position withhealth-care and other benefits.

Camping World’s management loves the program as much as Kincaid does, andwith good reason. Across the nation, the company’s supply and service businessis highly seasonal, with customer volume and demand for services rising inFlorida and Arizona as RV enthusiasts head south or west to avoid the wintersnows. Having a mobile contingent of full-time workers has helped the36-year-old company cope with what was once a chronic shortage of competentemployees in stores during the seasons when the firm did the bulk of itsbusiness.

Being able to deploy already-trained workers has enabled Camping World tovastly improve productivity and revenues. “It’s safe to assume that each ofthese MLC people represents $25,000 to $30,000 in additional sales for eachmonth they’re in this location,” says Nashville store manager Bruce Wright.“You don’t have to waste a month breaking in a new person or recruiting atemporary employee that you won’t be keeping around after the season is over.The MLCs can step right in and do the job for you, and then move on to theirnext place.”

The MLC program is a big favorite with store managers because the mobileemployees tend to be older and have more diverse work experience than typicalhires. Even more important, they possess something that no amount of trainingalone can provide--an intimate, exhaustive knowledge of the company’sproducts and services from the perspective of the customer. That’s becausethey are RV enthusiasts themselves, often recruited by the company from itscustomer base.

Thanks to the allure of the work-travel opportunity, the company not only isable to attract experienced, talented employees, but also is able to retainthem.

Thanks to the allure of the work-travel opportunity, the company not only isable to attract experienced, talented employees, but also is able to retainthem. While Camping World won’t disclose the specific numbers, MLCparticipants have a retention rate that’s twice as high as that ofconventional employees. “We’ve found a way to give everyone what they want,”says Kelly Taylor, the HR coordinator in charge of the program. “For theemployees, it’s the best of both worlds--they’ve got the advantages ofpart-time work, with the full-time income and benefits. And the stores getexperienced, quality workers when they need them, plus reduced costs and moreproductivity.”

In recognition of Camping World’s astute approach to helping both its employees and its own bottom line, thecompany is this year’s recipient of Workforce’s Optimas Award for Quality ofLife.

Capitalizing on an organic trend
    Camping World’s HR team doesn’t claim to have invented the concept ofmobile employees. Taylor says the company got the inspiration for the program inthe mid-1990s, when HR noticed an intriguing phenomenon. Customers were takingbreaks from their RV expeditions and signing on to work at the nearest CampingWorld store in the summer or winter. When the seasons changed, they wouldcontact a store somewhere else along their intended route and try to findanother job.

“We thought, Hey, this is an interesting concept. What if we formalized it?”Taylor says. “Really, what we did was just add some structure.”

She may not admit it, but she did quite a bit more than that. In order forthe phenomenon to evolve into a strategic asset for the company, HR support wasessential. For one thing, the employees who initially tried to create mobilejobs on their own had been faced with a number of inconveniences. They had tosomehow find out about openings at distant stores on their own, and thenconvince the managers to hire them. If they took a hiatus from work to travelbetween seasons, that usually meant quitting temporarily, which in turnnecessitated either going without health and other benefits during that periodor subsidizing the cost themselves. And if they wanted to continue to be mobileover a longer period, they had to repeat the whole process from scratch eachtime. All in all, it was enough of a hassle that probably only those withincurable road fever wanted to give it a try.

From a corporate standpoint, the informal system was an inefficient use ofworkers. Without guidance, the employees didn’t necessarily best fit companyor personal needs. Store managers who needed seasonal workers didn’t have aprocess to hook them up with potential candidates. And advance planning wasn’tusually a possibility, so opportunities that might have benefited both employeesand store managers inevitably were wasted.

Creating a workable HR structure to allow employee mobility
    One of HR’s first steps was to analyze both the employees’ and thecompany’s needs. It soon became apparent that the mobile positions should bestructured as full-time rather than part-time jobs. HR discovered that employeeswho’d experimented with mobility often gave it up because they foundthemselves becoming part-time workers without benefits. “They’d move once ortwice, and that was it,” Taylor says.

From the company’s standpoint, the unpredictability of a part-time laborpool was a minus. HR figured out that it was actually more cost-efficient toemploy a single mobile full-time worker at different locations than it was torecruit, train, and deploy multiple part-time workers. And what managers reallywanted was experienced full-time workers, even if they only needed them duringthe busiest time of year.

The challenge was to develop a system that made it comfortable and convenientfor full-time workers to move around the country and enabled them to retaintheir benefits while working only part of the year. HR looked at stores’ peakseasons, when personnel demands were highest. In Minnesota, for example, a storedid the bulk of its business from May to September, whereas in Texas, the primeperiod was November to March. That made it possible to design a structure withsome variability. Mobile workers could take a monthlong break for travel in thefall, arrive at a store in the Sunbelt, and work a schedule that started at 32hours a week and gradually grew to 40 as the season intensified. After atwo-week break for travel in the spring, they could begin the cycle anew at aNortheast or Midwest location.

That schedule still allowed an employee to work full-time for 10 months ayear, and to average the 30 hours a week required to qualify for the company’shealth-insurance program. The company offers a preferred-provider health plan,so it’s possible for an MLC participant to arrive in a new town andimmediately see a physician from the same network.

“We’ve been able to offer the MLC people the same benefits that weprovide to all of our employees,” Taylor says. “We haven’t had to changeany of the benefits structure that already was in place.”

HR did, however, add some other incentives for employees who want to travel.The company compensates them for the mileage between their destinations at thestandard Internal Revenue Service rate of 36 cents per mile, and pays $7 a daytoward their campground fees. Camping World has found that even with thoseexpenses, the overall cost of filling seasonal positions has been reduced. Sincestores no longer are forced to duplicate one another’s efforts, recruitmentand training expenses have been reduced by half. Even when the $150,000 annualcost of the MLC program is subtracted, the net savings amounts to $350,000 ayear.

At the company’s headquarters in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Taylor, an HRprofessional, was assigned to act as a traffic manager for the program. Workerswho want to be in the MLC program send her an application, indicating severalranked preferences for a seasonal assignment. Taylor then tries to match thoserequests with store managers’ needs.

Recruiting high-quality talent from the customer base
    Camping World’s HR team also used the MLC program to help solve along-standing challenge: attracting quality employees who could interactcomfortably and knowledgeably with Camping World customers. The latter,typically, are in their mid-50s and want a slower-paced, less pressuredexistence with more work/leisure balance. When the HR team noticed that morethan a few customers actually were inquiring about the possibility of workingpart-time for Camping World, it again saw a way to capitalize on a nascentorganic trend. The MLC program offered those potential job candidates anattractive option--a way to actually work full-time without giving up theirlifestyle.

To advertise the program to customers who might be potential job candidates,the HR team opted for an unorthodox approach. They did nothing. “We didn’teven put up posters,” Taylor says. Instead, they relied largely on employeeswho told customers about the program in the course of everyday conversations,and a passing mention of the program at the Camping World RV Institute inBowling Green, where the company offers classes in RV repair and maintenance.That low-key recruiting approach has worked, which says something about thesheer appeal of the MLC program. “I get 10 to 15 calls a week about it,”Taylor says.

Turning a perennial problem into a potential advantage
    Last year, 23 of Camping World’s 30 stores made extensive use of MLCworkers. The store in Mission, Texas, brought in eight MLCs during its peakseason, swelling its workforce by 30 percent. In Nashville, store manager Wrightsays the four or five MLCs that he welcomes into his store each summer eliminatewhat for him and other managers was a continual problem--the paradoxical drainon productivity caused by adding part-time or temporary employees.

“When we used to have to hire technicians, for example, we would need totrain them for 90 days before we could let them loose to work on a coach,” hesays. “That’s another distraction when you’re already busy. This year, Ihave two technicians from another location, and they showed up the first day allready to work. With sales, it’s an even bigger benefit. A lot of our businessis big-ticket items--an RV refrigerator, that’s a $1,000 sale. People are alot more willing to buy a product like that from a salesperson who owns andlives in an RV themselves, and knows what he or she is talking about. If an MLCperson makes one additional sale a day, you can see how quickly that adds up.”

And while new employees sometimes can disrupt the delicate equilibrium of aworkplace, Wright says that those who come to him through the MLC programactually tend to enhance stability. “They’re more mature and reliable thanthe norm, in my experience,” he says. “There’s no element of competitionwith the other employees, because they’re not looking to move up in thecompany or whatever--they just want to keep enjoying the lifestyle they alreadyhave. The other employees are actually eager to see the MLCs come every year,because they’re so willing to help out.” MLC participants even can beutilized to mentor younger employees. “I would have no problem, for example,teaming an MLC with a new employee who was trying to learn the cash register,”Wright says.

Camping World is so happy with the success of its mobile full-time experimentthat HR is trying to expand it. “Right now, about 50 people is a comfortablenumber for us,” Taylor says. “We’re hoping to increase participation, butgradually, so that we can make sure everyone has a place to go.”

In the meantime, Wright says, the mobile employees report that they’reexperiencing something that might best be described as déjà vu, RV-style. “They’llwork in a store for a season, transfer to another store in a different part ofthe country, and they’ll find themselves waiting on the same customers as inthe last place. The customers will say, ‘Hey, you look familiar--didn’t Isee you in Tacoma? Or was it Tucson?’ It’s part of what makes the programfun.”

Workforce, October 2002, pp. 58-61 -- Subscribe Now!