FMCA members celebrated the RV lifestyle in grand style at the association’s 97th International Convention and RV Expo.
By Robbin Gould, Editor
Photos By Rachel Jochem, Project Manager
Spring had not yet sprung when the occupants of 2,518 recreation vehicles created a wheeled city on the grounds of the Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter in Perry. They, along with hundreds more attending via an event “passport” or day pass, took part in FMCA’s “Southern Charm” convention — the association’s 97th International Convention and RV Expo. From March 15 through 18, these folks learned more about their vehicles, shopped for RVs and related items, laughed and danced at entertainment, and mingled.
By many accounts, the “Southern Charm” convention was a rousing success. Diverse weather conditions on setup days and beyond — including temperatures ranging from downright chilly to summerlike — didn’t seem to quell RVers’ enthusiasm for attending seminars and special events in large numbers, or filling the exhibit buildings and outdoor displays.
Location, location, location. The “Southern Charm” convention was the 10th FMCA international event held at the Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter. (The first convention took place there in 1996.) The facility sprawls across nearly 1,100 acres. Its location right off Interstate 75, in Georgia’s midsection, makes a convenient stop for snowbirds on their way north or others wintering nearby.
Overall convention attendance was tallied at 2,904 RVs. In addition to the 2,518 family vehicles, 386 commercial RVs were on-site.
First-timers. Family registrants included a sizable number of first-time attendees — the occupants of 989 RVs. Some of these newcomers were guided by veteran convention-goers who volunteered to participate in FMCA’s new convention mentoring program. Mentors were available to answer questions and offer suggestions on how to decide what to do during the four-day event. This informal effort placed both groups together at first-time-attendee events and elsewhere.
Doug Uhlenbrock, FMCA’s director of events, noted that first-time attendees can be at a disadvantage when it comes to navigating an event as large and involved as the “Southern Charm” convention. “Having someone who’s been in their shoes available to answer questions — well, that helps them feel more at ease. Plus, it allowed them to strike up conversations that may not have occurred otherwise,” he said.
FMCA members Rob and Donna Hill, who served as mentors, said they kept an eye out for attendees with red first-timer ribbons attached to their badges. They estimated that they spoke with at least 25 new attendees during the convention. “The most common question was related to changes to the schedule and seminar locations. We showed them how to get registered for the text message updates and the AttendeeHub event app, which helped greatly. We would often also chat about FMCA, entertainment, our rigs, where was home — much the same as when we meet somebody new who is not a first-timer,” Donna said.
Angelo and Barbara Murlo were among the first-timers. Barbara said they enjoyed the convention “tremendously.”
“Being we are total ‘newbies’ (we’ve only been RVing for three months), we were not sure what to expect. We were overwhelmed by the number of attendees, and were amazed at how organized the association was with activities, exhibits, events, and entertainment,” Barbara added. “We learned a lot at the seminars we attended, though we couldn’t get to all we had hoped to.”
First-time attendees Holly and Robert Konst, F5937D, joined FMCA in January 2018 as owners of a 2017 Sand Piper fifth-wheel — reflecting the recent member vote that opened FMCA membership to owners of all RV types. But Holly is no stranger to the association. Her parents owned a Travco motorhome for more than 20 years, and she fondly remembers family trips, especially chapter rallies. “When I learned that FMCA was taking trailers, I told my husband, ‘We’ve got to join.’”
“When we got [to the convention], everybody was like, ‘Hi, glad to have you.’ We put one [FMCA membership plate] on the back of our ladder and the other on a sign that sticks in the ground. People walked by and said, ‘Hey, how did you get that number? What does the D mean?’” (The letter signifies “daughter.”)
Busy days. Attendees filled their time with seminars, exhibits, games, and social gatherings. An ice cream social, a chapter “boat” race, card bingo, and a bean bag toss tournament were among the scheduled activities.
“I think the Perry convention was an example of a great rally,” FMCA national president Jon Walker said. “I had the experience of feeling tremendous energy everywhere I went! The vendors were selling like mad; the seminar rooms were overflowing; people were dancing in the aisles at entertainment; and people laughed until they cried at the last night of comedy.”
Exhibits. Two of the fairgrounds’ largest buildings — with a combined total of more than 100,000 square feet — housed indoor exhibits, seminar rooms, and FMCA’s Information Center. On the afternoon of Thursday, March 15, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held to signal the opening of the indoor and outdoor exhibits. After Rett Porter, FMCA national senior vice president, did the cutting honors, attendees streamed into the vendor buildings and the outdoor RV displays for a first look at the offerings.
Many convention exhibitors reported that business was brisk. Approximately 250 companies filled 296 indoor booths and 123 RV display spaces. The aisles were frequently jammed with attendees perusing the displays. Among the product demonstrations taking place, several times each day, TV chef Kevin Roberts, “The Food Dude,” created tasty recipes using Dometic appliances in the company’s display.
Outdoors, nine demonstration spaces and 261 RVs received attention. Several companies brought travel trailers and fifth-wheels to augment their stable of motorhomes.
Learning opportunities also abounded in Perry. The education began 2½ days prior to the start of the event with the “RV Basics” workshop. In this sold-out course, 180 participants soaked up myriad aspects of RV operation, driving, maintenance, and fire safety presented by four instructors.
“Many attendees in the course commented on how encouraging this type of training was; how it built confidence and provided keen insight for enjoying RV travel,” said “RV Doctor” Gary Bunzer, one of the instructors. “I was excited to see that well over one hundred of our students were first-time attendees at a convention, and many attended in their very first RV.”
On official convention days, approximately 100 seminar sessions covered various RV topics (driving safety, chassis, engines); lifestyle subjects (travel, cooking, full-time RVing); technology (smartphone photography, satellite TV); crafts; and many more.
On stage. The daytime and evening entertainers struck a “chord” with many attendees. Thomas Michael Riley kicked off the evening programs on Thursday, March 15, with his original country music, which he punctuated with humorous stories. He was followed by Big Mike and the Booty Papas, who provided a mix of blues, country, and R&B.
On Friday, The Grapevine energized the crowd with a musical trip through the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. The energy and choreographed moves from the 10 performers prompted scores of attendees to grab their partner for a dance. When the group played “Mustang Sally,” a long queue of dancers formed in front of the stage, while additional lines danced in the back of the arena.
Saturday evening brought more dancing under the disco ball, courtesy of the 20-piece Macon Pops, accompanied by vocalists Christina Souza and drummer Steve Moretti. Their “Dancin’ Through The Decades” show stretched from the 1960s up to the present, and ended with tunes by Pharrell Williams and Bruno Mars.
Southern humorist Jeanne Robertson brought her knee-slapping stories to the stage on Sunday evening. She was introduced by 17-year-old Jacob Hall, an enthusiastic fan who is the grandson of FMCA members Dan and Barbara Lee. Explaining that she looks for the humor in everything, Jeanne related some hilarious events that happened to her after she broke a femur last fall. Currently on her “Rocking Chair Tour” while she recuperates, she delivered most of her performance from a rocker on stage.
Saturday, March 17, was St. Patrick’s Day, and to ring it in, Irish music filled the air at morning coffee hour courtesy of the band Ah, Surely! Quite a bit of green was seen on attendees that day. FMCA’s own Frustrated Maestros played during coffee hour on the other mornings, and at other times during the week.
The daytime schedule also included a sleight-of-hand show by Mike Fuller-The Magician; a K-9 demonstration presented by officers from the Byron, Georgia, Police Department; entertaining ice-breaker games (think “Let’s Make A Deal” — who has a . . .) from Wanda Hamm; daily trivia led by FMCA member Carrie Kroschel; a ladies’ social; and many other events.
Volunteers. More than 800 volunteers assisted with parking, communications, information, security, safety, trams, utilities, seminars, coffee hour, and other areas. An FMCA convention cannot go on without the assistance of so many individuals. Volunteers, we salute you!
What a show! “Perry was one of our better conventions in a while,” commented Doug Uhlenbrock. “I saw lots of people with smiles on their faces. That’s what these gatherings are about: RVers getting together to have a good time, learn a little, shop a little, dance, clap their hands, and make new friends.”
Jon Walker said, “The success of this rally is a preview of what future rallies will be!”