Mar 102014

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.

Vendor floor

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.

Mac McCoy

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.

Whatever you decide to sell at RV rallies, if you do, I wish you good luck and much success.

Thought For The Day – My dentist told me I needed a crown. I said, “I know, right?”

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Nick Russell

World-Famous, New York Times Best Selling Author, and All-Around Nice Guy!

  11 Responses to “So You Want To Be An RV Rally Vendor?”

  1. You paint a pretty bleak picture. I see a lot of vendors out there so somebody must be making money.

  2. Oh you are so right Nick! We went into rally vending all starry eyed and sure we were going to have a fun time traveling and making lots and lots of money. Didn’t happen! We were conned into selling a product that the manufacturer’s rep assured us was a proven winner. We spent over $7K on inventory and another $3K on sales brochures, DVDs, signs, mailing lists and on and on.

    Our first rally was a Good Sam in either Kansas or Nebraska and even though it was cheap to get into it cost us over $500 in fuel to get there. We sold nothing. Nada. Zilch! All those old folks cared about was playing Mexican Train and cards and only a handful even came into the vendor room. Our next rally was another Good Sam in the upper midwest because we figured the first one was a fluke. We improved our sales by 100% because we sold one of our product. Retail was $39.95, our cost was $20, and we discounted it to $25 just to get the sale. We decided to try FMCA and spent over $1300 in fees, sales tax license and camping costs. It was our biggest sales at nine units sold at $25 each because two other vendors were selling the same or similar thing at cut throat prices. And we found that FMCA should actually be spelled SNOB. The most stuck up people we have ever met! Meanwhile, the manufacturer was constantly barraging us with demands to buy more product, more sales materiel, and go to more events.

    Long story short, we added different products, worked 17 rallies in 12 months, ran the wheels off our rig, and lost money on every one of them. My husband and I had both worked successfully in sales before we decided to try the full-time Rv thing so its not like we had no people skills. I admire the vendors like yourself and Mac and Janet who can do it but for us it was an expensive nightmare and we lost a ton of money in the process.

  3. Once again you are on the mark. And I agree totally also with Carrie. I had owned a CG for 12 years and we had a booth to distribute our brochures. We were told and we were aware that we got a less than 10% feedback for our efforts. At the time we did not have an RV and the cost of lodging and food was a factor. Mainly the reason we did a lot of it was to touch base with our customer base. Would not even think of trying to make a living on it, unless we had a specified product to sell to a select market. Last but not least is I really agree with Carrie on the FMCA as it should be spelled SNOB, as I had to deal with some of the worst of them. But’s that’s another story.

  4. Nick, as vendors we can agree with your article 100% (well written too) May I add a couple things.first the RV industry isn’t coming back as others, Seems younger retirees would rather take a cruise, time share or just play computer games.People are still afraid to spend as they once did.Also we have noticed very few vendors sell products anymore, but RV lots, retirement communities, etc. where 1 sale will make the cost. Many vendors now rep for. companies that pay the fees.
    By the way Nick did you know your RV windshield chip repair guy also isn’t doing it anymore?

  5. Very well written and researched article. Any one considering becoming an RV vendor would do well to read carefully this article.

  6. We inflatable boats and Rv Sunhades for several years and never lost money at any show. We went through 3 rigs in our vendor career and each one was bigger and better than the one before. Hard work? You bet but we’ll worth it. The Quartzsite show was our biggest show and most challenging. One year the big tent blew down behind us. The biggest reward that came from our years as vendors was the fellowship of all the vendors. We were one great big family and the granddaddy of all the vendors was a guy named Nick traveling the back roads between shows in an old self-built bus.

    What a life!

  7. At your last rally we were in the vender area and I was preparing to spend quite a bit of money for some product when the vender began to talk about politics quite strongly. I did not agree with his views and did not want to hear them. I just turned and walked away and would never buy anything from such a vender.

    Buy the way, I don’t ever remember the vender or the product. Venders should stay with talking about their product and keep their political views to themselves. About half of the visitors will not agree with them.

  8. Excellent points, Nick. My experience too. I met a couple who crisscrossed the U.S. constantly throughout the year to attend rallies. While they made money in sales, I don’t think they figured the cost of wear and tear on their RV, another thing to take into consideration. They were constantly replacing their rig; hauling extra weight was tough on it.

    I realized that selling one book (Support Your RV Lifestyle!) when it first came out would not cover all the costs you named so gave talks – to get a booth and generate interest. However, conditions at most RV shows were not conducive to educational talks. The worst was competing with barking dogs and the “kitchen guy” who had cranked his volume up to cover the noise of the dogs!

    Since then I have only attended rallies where I got a booth and a separate area for speaking. Even then, those aren’t ideal. Plus, as you pointed out, many RVers have no intention of working or volunteering as they travel so my market for that book is limited. For a while my late writing partner, Alice Zyetz, and I sold RV-related books by several authors at select shows. We did have better success with that. Now I will attend an RV educational event only if I am paid to speak or have a financial arrangement where I know I will make money.

    While some people I know make money, it is a grueling lifestyle and I think burnout is also a factor.

    Definitely food for thought!

    Jaimie Hall Bruzenak

  9. We have worked craft fairs and festivals for 12 years and your comments match our experience exactly. You have to choose your venues carefully because one dud (and there are a lot of duds) can wipe out your profits from two or three good ones.

  10. I found your article very well written and on the mark. I have not done the rally market but have owned up to three retail stores at a time and found the article could apply to any retail sale location.
    Great JOB

  11. I know this is an older post, but felt compelled to contribute. We haven’t sold at rallies but we do sell at craft events, festivals, fairs and swap meets. We started out very small, and tested our product lines carefully, never investing more than $100 per line. When we found good selling products, we elaborated on them, and slowly sold off the dead stock, sometimes at wholesale prices just to unload them. NEVER invest a large amount of money, no matter how tempting or how convincing a salesman is. Stick to that maximum of $100 of buying until you find the best sellers.

    Once we found great selling items, we slowly invested more money as we continued to test. We eventually found a line that we could hardly keep in stock! It was simply amazing! When we do our events, one secret is that we NEVER tell another vendor what we’re making, and make it a point to downplay our sales. Since it’s a “free market”, anyone seeing your success will start selling the same thing you do, which can really decrease your sales, and send you seeking another line.

    Also, taking credit cards is an absolute must! We signed up for Square and it’s easy, fast and has increased our sales. You want to accommodate that impulsive buyer who is stocking up on things you sell to give as gifts, to family members, etc.

    We certainly do get those “sideways glances” from other vendors, they see our traffic, and are watching us like hawks to try to gauge our sales. To be honest, it only took us six months to find our great selling products, and we now make a full time living at it. Don’t be discouraged by slow sales while you test, it’s well worth the effort it takes to find the “magic” high profit products! Everything we sell is new, no junk, no used items.

    Keep your booth attractive, neat and tidy. You want your customers to focus on your products. Address every customer with a hello, good morning, or short greeting. Always have change. Always give them a business card, you’d be surprised at how many repeat customers will actually call you to see when you’ll be set up in their area again!

    Don’t overprice your items. People come to fairs, swap meets, craft shows to find DEALS. Set your selling model in the “low cost, high volume” model and you’ll do well. It takes just as long to order 100 more items to resell as it takes to order 20 of them. I don’t want to look at the same stock for months, I want it “gone baby, GONE!”

    I hope that I’ve helped someone who wants to be a travelling vendor. It’s totally possible. Yes, it’s lots of work, but we have our “system”, my DH sets up the tents, I merchandise the booths. We both tear down and pack up. Works well for us.

    Happy trails and happy vending!

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