Gaylord Maxwell has developed the RV Life on Wheels conferences to help new and experienced RVers alike glean the most from their traveling adventures.
By Pamela Selbert
Whether you’re a newcomer to RVing or have enjoyed the activity full- or part-time for decades, there’s always something more you can learn about it. And, of course, the more you know about the mechanics of your vehicle and the RVing lifestyle, the safer and more pleasurable your experiences on the road will be.
Such was Gaylord Maxwell’s reasoning when he began to develop the highly informative and popular RV Life on Wheels program a decade ago. As a long-time RVer and former RV dealer, he had noted that the lifestyle and the vehicles themselves presented an intimidating and almost overwhelming number of possibilities and choices to RVers, particularly those who are just thinking of acquiring one.
Gaylord, F61099, recognized that there was a significant need for an RV education program, one that would cover a range of topics about a life on wheels. The program, he believed, should include such basics as choosing the type of RV that’s right for you and buying insurance for it, but also more advanced topics of interest to longtime RVers, such as radial tire safety, electronic maintenance, and air conditioner repair, among many others.
The desire to turn out enlightened RVers spurred Gaylord to come up with his RV Life on Wheels conferences, which are now offered in five locations around the United States. During the three- to five-day conferences (depending on location), instruction is provided on approximately 80 RV-related subjects.
Conferences are offered once a year at the University of Idaho in Moscow, where the program was begun, and at satellite campuses in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Bowling Green, Kentucky; Ankeny, Iowa, and, beginning in 2006, Tucson, Arizona. Courses are taught by Gaylord and approximately 50 other instructors, who are selected for their expertise in particular areas and their ability to teach the subject. Most are longtime RVers, and many are FMCA members. Except for the Idaho conference, which in 2006 will last for six days, all the conferences last four days.
This past spring my husband, Guy, and I attended the RV Life on Wheels conference in Bowling Green, which was held the second weekend in May (Friday through Monday) at Western Kentucky University’s Knicely Institute for Economic Development, South Campus. The time was divided into 10 teaching periods, each lasting 90 minutes. Within each of these periods, we could choose from among several seminars “” usually eight of them. Thirty minutes were allotted between classes to allow plenty of time to move from room to room, so no one was required to race through hallways to make the next bell. There also was a 90-minute break for lunch, during which time participants could purchase sandwiches and drinks at a makeshift dining area.
The regular program began with an opening session Friday afternoon in the auditorium followed by a reception at nearby Camping World. Classes began Saturday morning at 8:00 a.m. and continued until Monday at 11:30 a.m., after which a closing session was held in the auditorium.
Gaylord recently added a preconference “Just for Newbies” opportunity, a two-day session with group and individual instruction to help familiarize new owners with their RVs. Because of time constraints, this program is limited to 16 RVs, so early registration is essential. Steve Savage, who has taught at the Camping World RV Institute and is a Master Certified RV Technician, heads the program, which Gaylord said is in high demand and probably will be expanded. Participants also must be registered for the main conference.
Reviewing the course list and impressive credentials of the instructors during the Kentucky conference, we found it difficult to decide which sessions to attend, as so many seemed useful and interesting. The only solution, we decided, would be to attend more conferences, as Frances Hawkins, F316409, of Maryland has done. The Bowling Green session was her 13th RV Life on Wheels conference.Gaylord noted that Ms. Hawkins came to the Pennsylvania event five years earlier as a “wanna-be,” and after two years and many conferences she purchased her first motorhome, a type C. She is now so familiar with the proceedings, he noted, that she takes care of the social end of the programs.
We sought her out after a session and learned that prior to attending her first conference she had never set foot in a motorhome. Ms. Hawkins said that without the encouragement and instruction offered at the conferences, she never would have made the financial commitment to RVing. She now travels extensively in her 34-foot Dolphin coach with her greyhound, Sadie. She added, “All I know about RVing I’ve learned from Life on Wheels.”
From the many seminar offerings we chose, among others, classes entitled “The Frugal RVer,” “RVing with a Goal,” “Work Your Way Across the U.S.A.,” and “Snowbird Roosts” (just for fun, as Mr. Maxwell was teaching this one). Others were “Full-time RVing: If I can do it, You can do it”; “Meandering Down the Highway”; Fire Safety”; “RV Weight Safety”; “Radial Tire Safety”; and “Personal Safety for RVers.”
Despite our 16 years of RVing, not as full-timers but nonetheless spending many months on the road every year, we found the courses informative as well as entertaining. Weight and tire safety issues are not to be taken lightly, and we were grateful for the sound advice. It’s not easy to save money when RVing, but there are ways to pare expenses. Why the full-timing class? We admire those who do it, especially when they happen to be single women traveling alone. Although we’re not ready just yet to take up the enterprise ourselves, we enjoyed this session, nonetheless.
After the classes had ended one afternoon we joined Gaylord and his wife, Margie, in their coach to learn how the program had started. The origins of the RV Life on Wheels Conferences, which to date have enrolled more than 8,000 students, can be traced back more than 50 years.
In 1954 the Maxwells rented a travel trailer and took a trip to Yosemite National Park. That excursion ignited an enthusiasm for RVing that never has been extinguished.
Gaylord, who’s originally from Illinois, said he’d always wanted to be a teacher. So when the couple moved to Claremont, California, he taught English literature and American studies to high school and college students for 10 years before opening a side business selling tent trailers in 1959. A decade later, the enterprise, M and M Camping Plus, in Montclair, California, had become an RV dealership. By the early 1970s the business had grown to include four branch stores. “That was before the first energy crisis in 1974,” Gaylord recalled with a wry smile. “After that, we were down to two stores.”
Five years earlier, he said, the business had taken off to the point where he felt he should either make it his main focus or sell it off completely. He chose the former, and today considers giving up teaching his “first retirement.” At the same time, Margie also quit her profession as a registered nurse.
In 1971 the couple discovered northern Idaho after their daughter, Sherry, moved to Coeur d’Alene. (The couple also has two other children: son, Lee, who lives in Hawaii, and daughter, Mary Jane, of Pullman, Washington.) The Maxwells bought 47 acres outside Deary, Idaho, in 1975 and built an all-cedar house on a hill with a terrific view. Three years later he sold his California-based camping business and began still another career, this time as a writer for several TL Enterprises publications, a job he continues to this day.
In 1987, as industry relations director for TL Enterprises in California, Gaylord offered to present seminars at state conventions. Initially his seminars were geared toward campground owners, helping them perform better at their chosen pursuit. But within the year he was asked to hold seminars at consumer RV shows on subjects such as choosing the right RV and full-timing, and this became his occupation for the next eight years. During this time he presented his programs at approximately 14 shows each year, three seminars per show.
In 1995 Gaylord decided to “retire” again “” this time, to take on a new project with an interest in doing community service. He approached the University of Idaho in Moscow, not far from his home, and offered to teach a class in extended-time RVing as part of the school’s enrichment program. The university approved the plan, which consisted of three sessions over the course of a week.
He never imagined how popular the class would be. “I thought maybe we’d get a dozen people to sign up,” he said. “Instead, 80 came from 15 states.” The success of the program led Gaylord to propose the idea of holding a full-blown RV conference at the university, which the school approved. “So many people need help with RVing,” he said. “My idea was for a college-oriented conference with no vendors, no selling, just education.” In fact, he makes a point of holding all of the conferences at institutions of higher learning to emphasize what he calls the “college connection.”
The first RV Life on Wheels Conference was set for June 1996. By the first of January, 437 people had registered and there was no room for more. In addition to orchestrating the entire curriculum, which featured a balance between technical, lifestyle, and lifestyle enhancement topics, Gaylord selected 30 instructors and arranged for water lines, septic service, and 30-amp electrical hookups for class participants who arrived in their RVs.
The first conference lasted five days. The 50-minute classes ran from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, with five topics offered each period. The program was a success, but Gaylord learned a lot of dos and don’ts “” such as the need for 90-minute class sessions with a half-hour in between, and 90 minutes for lunch. He also realized that he needed a larger facility when 700 people signed up for the second conference (in 1997) by Thanksgiving of 1996. The following June the event was held in the school’s athletic arena, which could accommodate all of the participants. That same year Gaylord formed Life On Wheels Inc. and began to seek industry sponsors to help defray the costs. (More than 70 companies now help sponsor the conferences.)
After the second conference, with participants coming from 35 states, five Canadian provinces, England, and Japan, it became clear that the program needed to be expanded to other locations. The Pennsylvania conference is now in its eighth year, the Kentucky conference is in its fifth year, and the Iowa conference is in its third year. Gaylord schedules the events to include weekends, which enables working people to attend. He also now contracts with Peggy Waterman of the University of Idaho to plan the curriculum. The cost for the conference is $199 per person, but next year the fee for the six-day Idaho conference will be $249. The “Just for Newbies” preconferences cost $99 per RV.
Gaylord noted that every year new courses are added to the curriculum, staying within the prescribed parameters. Lifestyle courses include such subjects as choosing the right RV, packing the coach, and operating it; technical classes include topics relating to maintaining and operating the various systems of the motorhome; and lifestyle enhancement classes include topics such as photography, map reading, RVing with pets, and even sewing in the RV.
When asked why he proceeds at such an arduous pace, Gaylord, who takes part in all the conferences, said with a smile, “I need a reason to get up in the morning that’s bigger than breakfast, and it’s nice if it has to do with helping someone else.”
Margie, who travels with him and helps wherever she’s needed, added, “I feel strongly that we should all be useful, and that the happiest people have a purpose.”
Gaylord’s greatest satisfaction comes when people who have attended the conference tell him later that the experience changed their life. “My paycheck is hearing someone say, “˜Thank you for doing this,'” he said.
After attending the map reading class, Bonnie Kamenik, F293564, of Maryland, echoed the sentiment. This was the third RV Life on Wheels conference that she and her husband, Peter, had been to and they also planned to attend the Moscow conference in June. “All the instructors at these conferences are highly knowledgeable,” she said. “You never get done learning, and you learn a lot at Life on Wheels.”
For more information about the RV Life on Wheels conferences, call (866) LOW-GOGO (866-569-4646) or visit www.rvlifeonwheels.com. To register, call the toll-free number; preregistration is required.
2006 RV Life On Wheels Conference Schedule
Date Site Cost
March 14-17 Pima Community College, Tucson, Arizona $199
May 12-15 Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Kentucky $199
July 9-14 University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho $249
August 4-7 Northampton Community College, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania $199
August 24-27 Des Moines Area Community College, Ankeny, Iowa $199