To celebrate Truck Camper Magazine’s 10th anniversary, we reveal the often unbelievable story of how this publication launched, survived multiple near disasters, and became the magazine it is today. Buckle up.
One of the first questions we get when we meet readers for the first time is, “How did you start Truck Camper Magazine?” For reasons that are about to become abundantly clear, we give them a short answer and walk away thinking, “If they knew the whole story, it would blow their minds.”
Most of this been off the record until now. Naturally, these events are almost entirely inside baseball; what was going on behind the scenes at Truck Camper Magazine over the past decade. It’s been one heck of a ride.
The Right Girl
I have been writing and publishing various newspapers and “zines” since my mid-teens. By the time I was in high school, I was publishing an independent student paper distributed to suburban Philadelphia schools. A more regional publication followed before attending Salisbury University in Maryland to major in Marketing and Communications. That’s where my wife, Angela, and I met.
Angela was the Editor of her high school yearbook and took on the same responsibilities in college. With a degree in Elementary Education and a Masters in Reading, she taught 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades for ten years.
Where I am creative (writing, photography, and graphic design) Angela is task oriented, detail focused, and impeccably organized. Where I am a determined, “What if…” entrepreneur, Angela is a down to Earth, “Get to work” manager. Together, we have exactly the skills and disciplines needed to run Truck Camper Magazine. Mind you, matching our professional abilities was not top of mind when we met in college. We just got lucky.
Above: Gordon with 10,000 copies his first music magazine in 1999.
Truck Camper Magazine was not our first publication working together. In 1999, I left a Top 20 advertising agency and founded MX Music Guide, a semi-annual guide and directory to the Washington DC music scene. At the time, Angela and I were dating and she became my trusty Editor and proofreader (thank goodness).
Above: Gordon hired DC-area artists for each cover of the music guide
For four and a half years and nine editions, MX Music Guide and ReadyGuide Music paid my bills. As a music enthusiast in his mid-20s, working with the vibrant Washington DC music industry was a dream come true. That dream ended when Napster and then iTunes wiped out record label co-op advertising, and devastated major clients like Tower Records. That, as they say, was that.
A lot of big changes followed in fairly quick succession. As the last edition of the music guide rolled off the presses in late 2003, I launched a new marketing business.
Angela and I married on the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska in mid-2004, sold Angela’s house in Germantown, Maryland in mid-2005, and moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After 9/11, The Sniper, and Washington DC’s relentless traffic, we were ready for a quieter pace of life.
Our timing was incredibly fortunate. A few months after we moved, the housing bubble began to burst. We had caught the near peak, doubling Angela’s two-year investment. That small windfall prompted us to think big for our immediate future. Angela had resigned her elementary school teaching job to move to Lancaster, and I had not yet found my next project. For a brief moment, we were flush and free.
After putting a sizable chunk down on home half the price of our DC-digs, I suggested we invest in a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I had been dreaming of a cross-country trip since high school, but never envisioned a time when I could actually afford to go.
“How about a cross-country trip in an RV?” I said, expecting to be immediately shot down.
“Sounds like fun!” she answered.
Obviously, I married the right girl.
Hooked On Truck Camping
With Angela’s blessing, we began researching RVs online, exploring dealerships RV, and attending RV shows. Along the way, I discovered truck campers.
Since we didn’t want a big RV or to tow a trailer, the truck camper concept made sense. I also liked the compact floor plans and go-anywhere versatility. Even more compelling, resale values for both trucks and campers was excellent. Used campers were especially hard to find, and often priced high. All good signs.
Finally, we found a one year old 2004 Lance 1030 for private sale. At $18,000, we didn’t even bargain. With the camper purchased, we took full advantage of GM’s “Employee Discount For Everyone” sales incentive that year, and bought a brand new 2005 Chevy Silverado 3500 dually gas work truck for $26,000. Loaded and wet, the 1030 was 700 pounds under payload.
A few months before we set out, a Florida real estate developer asked me to write a guide book for 55+ Florida lifestyle communities. A long-term writing assignment was perfect for the road, so I accepted the commission. Little did I know where this project would lead us.
Above: Gordon was commissioned to write a buyer’s guide to Florida lifestyle communities in 2004
That July, Angela and I toured Florida visiting over seventy lifestyle communities for the book. As we drove the state in the developer’s two-seater Lexus convertible, I started to see parallels between the research I had just completed to find the right RV, and the research needed to find the right 55+ lifestyle community. Even the demographics were similar; typically retired, empty nest, and ready to enjoy life to the fullest. Very interesting.
When we returned home a month later, we immediately set out on our maiden truck camping voyage; a six-month cross-country trip to visit friends, relatives, National Parks, and whatever else we could find.
We made it up to the Jasper Icefields in Alberta, Canada, down to Big Bend National Park in Texas, and explored dozens of state and national parks from California to Kentucky. To this day, that trip is the best thing we’ve ever done.
Above: We loved the ominous warning signs at Moki Dugway, Utah
Something else happened on that fateful adventure. As I wrote the 55+ Florida lifestyle community guide in the dinette each morning, it occurred to me that someone could do exactly the same thing for folks interested in truck campers. Where’s the guide book for truck campers and truck camping? Who’s promoting truck campers and the truck camping lifestyle?
And then it hit me…
“Angela, when we get home, I’m going to start Truck Camper Magazine.”
She didn’t laugh. I really did marry the right girl.
When we returned to Pennsylvania in February, we sold the truck and camper as planned, and attempted to re-enter normal life. Angela returned to teaching elementary school, and I worked on the Florida lifestyle community book for the better part of 2006.
As time passed, it became clear that we were not about to shake our addiction to truck camping. We were hopelessly hooked. But how could we get back into truck camping? We really couldn’t afford to buy another rig. So how could we…
Truck Camper Magazine Goes to the Mooney
After kicking the idea for many months, I went to GoDaddy.com to see if truckcampermagazine.com was available. I was absolutely sure it wouldn’t be – but it was! And for $9.99. What? Thirty seconds later, truckcampermagazine.com was secured, and my entrepreneurial spirits spun into overdrive.
Heading into the end of 2006, I designed a very rudimentary website and wrote three articles, “How to Choose a Truck”, “How to Choose A Camper” and, “Do More and Spend Less with a Truck Camper”. While I had worked with teams of web developers at Arnold Communications, I had never actually designed a website myself. Fortunately, web design had become more accessible and I had plenty of professional writing and design experience from producing MX Music Guide, the Florida book, and dozens of other publications.
Finally, everything was ready. Shortly after 1:00pm on Friday, January 26th, 2007, I posted Truck Camper Magazine live to the internet and started calling truck camper manufacturers to announce the project. That afternoon I had some extraordinary conversations, and left a lot of voicemail messages.
Then something remarkable happened. At exactly 7:01pm that evening, someone under the handle, “Mooney” on RV.net posted, “Anyone seen or know anything about this magazine?” with a direct link to truckcampermagazine.com. Within hours, 200 people had clicked over. Evidently he happened to be visiting Lance Campers that day and was tipped off.
Later that evening, the phone rang.
“This is Rex Willett of Northstar Campers. Is Gordon White there please?”
I honestly didn’t know who Rex Willett from Northstar Campers was. I remember waving frantically to Angela to turn the television down, and doing my best to sound professional despite being mid-way though preparing one of my infamous one pot meals.
“Yes, this is Gordon.”
Rex and I then had one of those conversations I will never forget. After telling him about myself and my vision for Truck Camper Magazine, something in him clicked.
“I’m writing an email to other industry leaders telling them to get onboard with your magazine,” he said. I literally listened to him tap away on a keyboard writing the email as he spoke.
How did Rex know to trust me from a half-hour conversation on the phone? I may never know, but there can be no doubt that Rex’s instinct and subsequent leap of faith is a big reason why Truck Camper Magazine is here today. For that I am eternally grateful.
At the end of our conversation, Rex paused and said something I couldn’t fully appreciate at the time. “You don’t know how lucky you are. You’re about to meet some of the most amazing people for the very first time.”
An Important Refrigerator Magnet
The following week I pounded the phone calling every truck camper manufacturer to introduce myself and ask for their feedback and support. While many of the calls that week were memorable, one was a particular standout.
Above: Visiting Lance with our first truck camper, a Lance 1030
In 2005, Angela and I had toured Lance Campers in Lancaster, California while getting some repairs done to our 2004 Lance 1030. After the factory tour, we were introduced to Larry Marsh, then the Director of Marketing for Lance Campers.
When Angela mentioned that we were from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Larry responded that he had family ties to the area. In her infinite wisdom, Angela gave him a Lancaster, Pennsylvania magnet that she happened to bring along in the camper.
Having been Lance owners, Lance Campers was high on my list of companies to work with for Truck Camper Magazine. I finally got through on Wednesday, February 1st and was connected to Larry. Mind you nearly two years had passed and his tone was less than excited when he got on the phone.
After a quick introduction, I said, “Larry, we actually met at the Lance factory about two years ago. My wife gave you a Lancaster, Pennsylvania magnet.”
“Yes, I remember you!” he exclaimed. “I’m looking at your magnet right now. Now tell me about your magazine.”
That magnet warmed Larry up like a hot breeze on an August afternoon. Next thing I knew he was asking how Lance Campers could sponsor Truck Camper Magazine. We agreed to terms, and Truck Camper Magazine officially had its first sponsor. Holy cow!
An hour later I called Rex and Northstar became a sponsor. Truck Camper Magazine was just five days old and we already had two major truck camper manufacturers sponsoring the project. I could hardly believe it. Once the euphoria of winning two sponsors cooled off, the reality of what happened began to sink in.
What Is Truck Camper Magazine?
Getting Lance Campers and Northstar Campers as sponsors within a few days of launching the magazine was very exciting, but also terrifying. At the same time, Mooney’s post on RV.net was generating more and more interest and the news of TCM’s launch had spread to NATCOA and irv2.com. The pressure to publish a professional magazine had begun.
Above: The first version of the Truck Camper Magazine website
The problem was, I had yet to answer some important questions. Exactly what was Truck Camper Magazine? What does it publish? When does it publish? What does it stand for? And how would the magazine remain objective, unbiased, and critical despite industry sponsorship? All this needed to be carefully thought through before moving forward.
Fortunately, the answers were very intuitive. Truck Camper Magazine should be the magazine I needed when we first got into truck camping, but didn’t exist.
For starters, we would present straight truck camper facts and information in a truck camper buyers guide and debut new models with unprecedented detail.
We would help newbies learn the basics, interview truck camper industry leaders about their companies, and feature amazing truck camper owners and their adventure stories.
We would tour truck camper factories coast-to-coast and help truck camper enthusiasts from around the world learn about their people, culture, materials, and processes. It was all fairly clear from the beginning, but one question remained.
How in the world were we going to do all this? After all, Truck Camper Magazine was still just yours truly at that point. And I needed to publish a story at least twice a week.
Content From Space
That weekend Angela and I did what any rational folks do when you need a question answered – we Googled it. Through hours and hours of internet searching we came across our first interviewees; basically anyone we could find with a truck camper, an interesting lifestyle, and contact information.
On Monday, February 12th, I conducted my first interview for Truck Camper Magazine. Rik Palieri was a traveling musician who happened to tour in a pop-up truck camper he named Apache. Rik was gracious enough to be interviewed on the phone and email pictures right away, which was good because I needed to publish his story the very next day.
And that’s how things went. Immediately after Rik’s interview ran, I interviewed Laura and Sasha who were full-timing in a Snowriver, and published it the next day. Then truck camping author and speaker Joei Carlton, also published the following day.
In between content responsibilities, I was calling on industry leaders for support, and working on the website. At night Angela and I were searching for more story leads. There was no getting ahead at that point, and things didn’t always go smoothly. It was not entirely unusual to wake up in the morning with no idea what I was going to publish that day.
The first time this happened I started the annual Truck Camper Magazine Calendar Contest. The second time this happened, I conducted a reader survey to find out what our readers wanted from Truck Camper Magazine. Both of these features have become annual events for TCM, one helping to keep us in tune with our readers, the other bringing in incredible truck camping photographs from around the world.
By far my favorite pull a last second story out of your derrière story has to be “Truck Campers From Space”. On August 8th, 2008 I woke up without a clue what to publish. I had no stories, no leads – nothing. I thought to myself, maybe an idea will just crash through the ceiling from space. That’s when it hit me; readers could submit satellite photos from Google Earth of their truck campers from space. Why not? In fact, Truck Campers From Space was such a hit that we did “Truck Campers From Space 2” in April of 2013. Maybe it’s time for TCFS 3!
Thankfully, the days of waking up with nothing to publish have long past. Angela now keeps our content at least a month out, often more.
Truck Camper Magazine has published a feature length story two or three times a week for ten years. All totaled, TCM has published over 1,200 magazine-length articles, and 3,600 blogs.
How Old Are You?
In that first conversation with Rex, he invited us to the National Truck Camper Show and NATCOA Rally that July at Lake Ogallala State Park, Nebraska. He was running the event and offered us a booth space to present the magazine. He also asked me to give a speech to the industry leaders working the show. I later discovered that nearly every truck camper manufacturer would be attending
There were two insane situations surrounding the Ogallala event that needed immediate attention. First, we didn’t have a truck camper rig. As I mentioned previously, we had sold our truck and camper after returning from our six-month trip. We couldn’t afford to keep it.
Second, no one outside of Garth and Larry at Lance Campers had met us. Somehow we needed to put a truck and camper rig together and prepare to meet the entire industry all at once. Oh, and I had to give a speech. What could possibly go wrong?
Then there was the question of what camper to get. If we picked a brand, we would be showing brand preference and bias as a magazine. We could have purchased a used camper from a closed manufacturer, but we decided to try a different route.
We would borrow new truck campers from the industry for one year terms. These demo campers would be featured in the magazine during our travels, and get exposure at the rallies and events we attended – a win-win.
When I called the manufacturers with this idea, I fully expected it to be rejected. What manufacturer would loan a camper to someone they hadn’t met before? To my absolute shock, they all said, “Absolutely. When do you need a unit?”
As I picked my jaw off the floor, I realized we now had yet another problem. Whose camper do we take first? To be politically neutral, I had to find a reason to take one brand over another that no one – industry or reader – would question. That’s when we decided to start with the company that sponsored the magazine first. Then we would take a camper from the next company that sponsored the magazine, and so on. It was fair, and logical, and it worked.
What followed was another unforgettable phone call. I called Larry Marsh at Lance Campers, our first sponsor, and said, “Larry, we have decided to accept a Lance Camper.” It sounded so completely absurd as I said it that I was waiting for the rip-roaring laugh on the other end of the line. “Which model would you like?” he calmly answered. “What options do you want? And when and where do you need your camper shipped?”
When Angela got home from school that day, I handed her a 2008 Lance Camper brochure and said, “Pick the model and options you want. Lance is building us a camper, and shipping it out to us in time for Ogallala.” To this day, we still can’t believe Lance trusted and invested in us like that just weeks into launching the magazine.
Above: Our 1998 Ram 3500 12-valve Cummins diesel
Angela picked a 2008 Lance 1055. We had it shipped to Outdoor Express in West Virginia, our closest Lance dealer at the time. Before the Lance arrived, we bought a 1998 Ram 3500 12-valve Cummins diesel, had it painted, and installed Rickson 19.5 wheels and tires. When we were done, that truck looked awesome.
The Lance 1055 arrived at Outdoor Express just in time. They installed the tie-down systems and we loaded the camper. Man was that rig a beautiful sight. William Hill of Lance Campers worked at Outdoor Express back then, and he gave us the keys to our new camper.
Angela, Harley, and I left Outdoor Express and made a B-line for Ogallala. We arrived on the first day of the event, just hours from me giving my big speech.
After parking the rig in our space, we set out a sign inviting industry leaders and show attendees to meet us, watch a short video about our truck camping lifestyle, and ask questions about the magazine. As it turned out, everyone had one question.
“How old are you?”
“I’m 34.” I replied, and quickly followed, “But I have extensive experience with writing, design, and publishing.” All they heard was “34”. It didn’t help that I looked like I was 24, and I was otherwise completely unknown to the truck camper marketplace. Naturally, we were determined to earn their confidence.
Above: The 2007 Truck Camper Show in Ogallala, Nebraska
That evening my speech was received by a less than enthused industry. Fortunately, I had 3×5 cards to help me through it, and I had a big announcement to get their attention.
“After this show, we are going on a cross-country trip to visit every truck camper manufacturer and gear company. You are not to let us leave until we understand your people, processes, materials, products, and culture. We can’t write this magazine without understanding your business. Our first stop is Hallmark RV, but we will be visiting all of your factories in the coming weeks and months. Thank you for your support.”
Above: Under arrest for being knuckleheads – Bob Mehrer (Snowriver), Larry Christianson (NATCOA Security), and Doug Sieler (S&S Campers)
The rest of our experience at Ogallala actually went very well. We reported on the show everyday in Truck Camper Magazine, printed our reports (we brought a printer with us) and handed them out at the show. One by one, the industry leaders and show attendees stopped by to meet us, watch our video, and talk about the magazine. It was an amazing experience that set the groundwork for the even more incredible tour that followed.
First Tour and a Yearbook
How can you write about an industry that you don’t know? How can you know an industry if you haven’t been to the factories, met their people, and learned their manufacturing processes? In my opinion, you can’t, at least not honestly.
Above: Our rig at Hallmark RV, the first stop on our factory tour
With that belief, we set out to visit every truck camper and gear company, and as many dealerships as possible. Angela took a year off from teaching to join me on the trip. When we arrived at each company, we asked for a factory tour, and then permission to stay and independently observe as long as necessary. We also asked about the realities of the business, and what we needed to know that we might not ask about.
By day we were in factories taking pictures and notes. By night we were writing articles and preparing stories that ran three times a week during that first year. It was an exhausting and exhilarating experience. Perhaps what’s most amazing about that accomplishment is that we did it without mobile internet. Like pirates, we were getting wireless internet anywhere and everywhere we could find it. Thankfully, most WIFI was still open in 2007.
Above: Taking notes on the Lance Camper production line in 2007
During our visits to the factories, we became aware that some important members of the industry were not paying attention to the magazine. They were surprised when we told them we were publishing two to three times a week, and certainly didn’t grasp the volume of content we were creating. By the time we reached Oregon, it was clear that we needed to make a statement to bring their attention to the magazine, or risk losing the project.
With my extensive background in print, Angela and I decided to create a 2007 yearbook that would include all of the articles from that first year. I designed the layouts in InDesign and taught Angela how to build pages and insert photographs. She spent the better part of three months working on the yearbook, all while we were driving hundreds of miles, touring factories, and running the magazine.
Above: The 2007 Truck Camper Magazine Yearbook. Can you tell what the photo mosaic says on the cover?
Angela completed the Truck Camper Magazine Yearbook shortly before we arrived back in Pennsylvania. All totaled, it was 448 pages with over 100 articles, 150 blogs, hundreds of photographs, and more. We shipped the 2.76 pound book to every industry leader with a card that read, “If anyone out there still thinks truck campers are the red headed step child of the RV industry, let them read this!” That got their attention.
Above: Angela welding her own tie-downs at Torklift International in 2007
During that first factory tour trip, we learned the industry from the inside out and gained a perspective that no one else had. We are still the only people to have visited every truck camper and gear factory, something we have now accomplished multiple times. That deep background is essential in everything we do. Like I said, you can’t do this if you don’t know the industry. It doesn’t hurt that we’re also real truck campers. We love this stuff.
Above: Angela interviewing Jack Cole in a Lance 1050S
When we returned home in January of 2008, a little over six months later, we could scarcely imagine what was about to happen.
The Great Recession
Looking back, the thing I’m most proud of is how we helped our domestic truck camper industry and truck camping community weather the Great Recession. Years later, it’s easy to forget how close the RV industry (and the world economy in general) came to total collapse.
By the end of 2008, failed subprime mortgages had devastated the larger credit market triggering Bear Stearns to collapse, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to be seized by the government, Leman Brothers to file for bankruptcy, AIG to require a $85 billion government bailout, Wall Street financial institutions to require another $700 billion bail out (TARP), and Citigroup, GM, and Chrysler to get yet more multi-billion dollar federal bailouts.
By the Spring of 2009, the United States had lost an unprecedented 8.7 million jobs. Adding insult to injury, the stock market had lost nearly half its value.
As these economic shock waves unfolded, truck camper industry lost Bigfoot RV, Western Recreational Vehicles (Alpenlite), Interior RV (Snowriver/Snowbird), Okanagan RV, Citation/Corsair, Sun-Lite, and dozens of truck camper dealerships. Critical RV parts suppliers, distributors, and delivery companies also failed bringing truck camper production and sales to a near standstill.
The companies that survived slowed down dramatically, while others essentially shut down, sent their teams home, and waited for the storm to pass.
For Truck Camper Magazine, it meant going from 42 sponsors at the end of 2007 (our first year), to 25 at the end of 2008. Most of the lost sponsors had gone out of business, while others had simply cut their marketing and show budgets to nothing.
Life at TCM HQ was surreal during this period. After returning from our coast-to-coast industry tour, Angela returned to teaching 4th grade and I was home publishing the magazine alone. We had unwittingly documented the truck camper industry at their pre-recession peak only to have much of what we saw dissolve months later.
One of the most gut wrenching experiences of my life was receiving phone calls from industry leaders, grown men often many years my senior, in tears as they relayed the news about their companies closing. If there was one commonality between these heart breaking conversations it was how they were most upset about hurting their employees and their families. They felt as if they had let their employees down and worried for their futures.
By August of 2008, I’d had enough. Rather than continue to publish Truck Camper Magazine as if nothing was happening (as other RV magazines were doing at the time), I decided to do whatever I could to help the truck camper industry and community stay on its feet. In short, I went to war with the Great Recession.
The first action I took was calling each and every truck camper industry leader with a simple message; “I want you to know that I will publish two articles a week in Truck Camper Magazine until the very last truck camper company fails. You do not need to worry about Truck Camper Magazine going out of business. We’re not going anywhere. Pay me what you can when you can. We will get through this.”
With the industry clear on my intentions, I turned to the readership. On September 2nd, 2008, I published, “It’s Time To Fight” stating, “If anyone doubts the resolve and determination of the truck camping community to get through this economy, let them read this.” The letter was an all-out assault on the defeatism that was spreading through the media and starting to infect the truck camper forums.
Following the letter, I invited readers and industry to respond, and respond they did. In fact, we received so many responses that I had to publish another round of responses a week later. It was unbelievable, and a very needed shot of positive energy.
In the months that followed, I concentrated my efforts to make Truck Camper Magazine about the spirit of travel, adventure, and living life to the fullest with friends, family, and the pursuit of meaningful experiences through truck camping. Have you ever wondered why our articles are often so passionate and grounded in real life rather than the typical product points and brochure speak? This is why, and it’s not going to change.
Totaled At Louisville
The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association holds an industry-wide, industry-only trade show every December in Louisville, Kentucky. The show starts almost immediately after Thanksgiving, which means much of the industry has missed the holiday with their families for many years to set up for the event.
Anyway, I was very excited to go to Louisville at the end of 2008 as I had never been and many of the industry leaders we had just met would be in attendance. Plus, it was my opportunity to cover the event for our readers including new campers, new features, and new interiors. Never before had this been properly done for the truck camper market. There was just one problem.
I do not have the best sense of direction. Lucky for me, Angela does and helps me to navigate even during our local travels. The prospect of driving to Louisville, Kentucky in December without Angela scared both of us. Not only am I miserable with directions, but I also hate getting lost. Angela was in the middle of teaching and couldn’t get the time off. So how was this going to work?
Walking out of Best Buy with our first GPS, I was confident that my new rectangular directional assistant and I could do this. As it turned out, I was right. That GPS and I had a great conversation all the way to Louisville. By the time we arrived, he had heard my entire life story and we were good friends. Not one wrong turn, and he even liked the same music.
Nothing could have prepared me for the size and scope of the Louisville show. Making matters worse, the show spanned multiple halls in a haphazard multi-building complex. Truck camper manufacturer booths were spread out all over the place. Without my new GPS buddy to help, I walked a path that would make a Family Circus cartoon look sensible.
For two days I took photographs and notes, and then returned to the Press Room to eat, connect to the internet, and publish my reports. Next to me were reporters writing their pieces for the following month as I published what I had seen just that morning. My body and mind were exhausted, but I was having an absolute blast.
For lunch on day one I met Bob Livingston, the Publisher of Trailer Life. As a life-long truck camper enthusiast, he had taken an interest in Truck Camper Magazine. In fact, you would have thought I was the big shot in our conversations as he relayed his passion for what I was doing. I was truly taken aback by his sincerity, and pleased to have a new friend in the greater RV industry.
Above: Gordon and Bob Livingston, Publisher of Trailer Life Magazine, in 2009
Anyway, there was a funny moment at lunch that day that has to be shared. Bob was sitting at the other end of the table from me with two other Trailer Life writers joining us. Mid-bite, Bob asks me, “So, who writes your stories?”
“I do.” I answered.
“Who does your photography?”
“Who sells the advertising and handles the clients?”
“And your internet site? Who does that?”
Without missing a beat, Bob looked at his writers and said, “What do I need you guys for? I should hire him.”
We all laughed. After lunch Bob invited me to the annual Affinity Group Party the following evening. Evidently it wasn’t an invitation I could refuse.
After two days of walking miles in circles, taking hundreds of photographs, writing a dozen or so reports, and publishing Truck Camper Magazine from the show, I did what any same person would do; I decided to produce a video, by myself, after the show had closed.
Northern Lite gave me the keys to a 10-2 CD Special Edition on the show floor and left for the night. With literally no one in the hall, I set up a tripod and camcorder, hit record, raced into position in front of the camera to say my lines. In the back of my mind I was trying to hurry up to make the party, but it was great fun being on the show floor by myself making a video. Bob never asked who made our videos!
When the last shot was in the can, I called Angela.
“I just shot a video and now I’m going to the Affinity Group Party,” I told her.
“You sound tired. And you’ve been running around for two days. Are you sure you should be driving?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’ll call you when I get there.”
By the time I emerged from the building, it was dark, cold, and raining. Camera and tripod in hand, it was easy to find my car as it was one of the few that were left in the lot.
Sitting in the driver’s seat, I punched the party address into the GPS and headed down the highway into downtown Louisville. I couldn’t wait to meet more RV media and industry colleagues.
I ended up driving right past the party since there was no parking. I made a U-turn and started heading back when one of the most terrifying moments of my life occurred.
Driving through an intersection, my car was T-boned on the passenger’s side by a pickup truck. The impact was so strong that it sent my glasses flying straight off my face. I didn’t see the truck, so I had no idea what had just happened. Next thing I knew my car had turned towards the curb and I stomped on the brake to prevent another collision.
Above: Our 2005 Ford Focus ST didn’t survive the accident
Disoriented, I managed to find my glasses in the dark and get out of the car. Seeing the damage, I knew I’d been in an accident and noticed the truck had hit a phone poll. Thankfully, no one was really hurt, but both of our vehicles were in bad shape.
As the police arrived, I called Angela. “I’ve been in an accident, and I’m okay.” Of course I wasn’t okay. The adrenaline from the accident was starting to wear off and my ribs were starting to hurt intensely from impacting the steering wheel.
From home, Angela called Jeff Johnston, one of the Trailer Life writers who was sitting at the table with Bob and I, and asked him to help me. Jeff had reached out to us shortly after the magazine had launched and was a big help in orienting us to the ways of the RV industry and RV media.
Jeff was already at the Affinity party and arrived at my location within minutes. Fellow Trailer Life writer, Fred Pausch joined him. After I briefly spoke with the police and gathered my belongings from the car, Jeff and Fred took me to the hospital. Once there I passed out from the pain while checking in. Eventually, I got looked at by the medical staff, given some pain medication for bruised ribs, and Jeff and Fred took me back to my hotel. It was 3:30am.
The next morning news spread rapidly at the show about what happened. Rex Willett called from the show floor and offered to bring me some food. He arrived with Bill Penney and dinner. Bill, seeing my condition and learning that my car was likely totaled, offered to drive me all the way back to Pennsylvania after the show. It was then that I started to truly understand the heart of the industry I was working with.
After the final day of the show, Bill picked me up at my hotel in the prototype 2009 Northstar Escape Pod flatbed camper and a 2009 Chevy Colorado, Northstar’s main attraction that year. When we pulled up to my house, Angela came bounding out, literally leaping towards me. I remember putting my arms out and bracing for impact. I was home.
Angela Joins TCM Full-Time
The accident was a very fortunate warning. I was alive, unharmed, and beginning to realize that there was no way I would be able to continue running the magazine alone. Readership had grown by almost 50-percent in 2007, and 50-percent again in 2008. The demands of the readership and industry were increasing exponentially.
“I’m either going to hire somebody, or you could join me,” I suggested to Angela.
As any school teacher will attest, teaching is a very rewarding, and extremely hard job. Angela was teaching in inner city Lancaster with a wonderful class of ESL students (English as a Second Language). She loved her students, enjoyed teaching, hated the politics, and was sometimes in tears from the day-to-day stress when she got home.
On the flip side, I was telling her stories each night of the people I had interviewed, the exciting industry news I was working on, and my plans to push the magazine forward. The contrast between our two professional lives was overwhelming. In addition, there was the opportunity to travel more if she joined the magazine.
But if you thought this was an easy choice, remember the context of the situation. In 2009, we were in the middle of the Great Recession. We had already lost nearly half of our clients to the downturn, and were anything but confident that things were improving. Angela had a steady job, was beloved by the school leadership, faculty, and students, and had heath care benefits that covered both of us. Who in their right mind would give that up?
Well, we did. Angela resigned her teaching position and joined the magazine in August of 2009. We were equally excited and terrified, a combination of feelings that was increasingly familiar. And then something happened that neither of us had anticipated.
“What’s my job for the magazine?” Angela asked.
Up to that point, I had pretty much done everything for the magazine. We shared work at night, during the weekends, and during the tour, but essentially the bulk of the project had been on my plate. As an only child who has been told he doesn’t play well with others a few times, it was a real challenge to separate myself from all aspects of running the magazine.
Eventually, after a few tense moments in the White house, we came up with roles and responsibilities. I would stay focused on the creative tasks; writing, graphic design, and handle the bulk of client relations and sales.
Angela would run the publishing schedule, find and interview truck camper owners for lifestyle stories, and handle accounts payable, accounts receivable, and taxes. Everyday Angela would tell me what she needed for the magazine and I would do it; edit this article, write this introduction, create this graphic, call this client.
Above: The first version of the brown website on March 16, 2009
When I finally realized that I was now free to focus on the creative aspects of the magazine, I was in heaven. Angela had her hands full and so did I, but we both had manageable jobs. Even better, I could push forward on sales and chart the course to further realizing our ultimate vision for the magazine.
What’s most incredible is how our skills are almost entirely opposite and complimentary to each other. We both have elements of each other’s skills and abilities, and help each other all the time, but there’s no doubt where each of our roles and responsibilities are. How that synergy happened is anyone’s guess, but it’s how this magazine works.
Back On the Road
By the end of 2009, the general consensus within the mainstream media was that we were starting to come out the recession. It had been almost two years since we returned from our first industry tour, and I was eager to see how the manufacturers were doing.
In the spirit of “Time To Fight”, I also wanted to show our readers that the manufacturers had survived, were building campers, and were no longer at risk. Again, we needed to do what we could to help our domestic manufacturers.
About two weeks before launching our second cross-country industry tour, we received an email from Northwood Manufacturing that they had sold our demo Arctic Fox 865 and it needed to be brought to Truck Camper Warehouse immediately. Naturally, I was happy that Northwood and Truck Camper Warehouse had sold the camper, but I had already told the industry that we were going on tour. No camper, no tour. Now what?
It was then that I remembered a phone call from Burk Morgan, the Director of Sales and Marketing for Adventurer Manufacturing. We had yet to borrow a camper from Adventurer and he said, “If you ever need a camper, you let me know.” Well, I needed a camper.
“Burk, remember when you said to call you when I needed a camper? Well, I need a camper on the East Coast in about ten days. Can you do it?”
After Burk picked the phone off the floor and hit it against his desk a few times (just kidding), he said, “I think I can make that work. What model would you like?”
Burk shipped us an Adventurer 90WS cross-country in ten days. To put that in perspective, he had to arrange shipping, get at least two other deliveries scheduled for the load, and then have the driver make the three day journey from Washington State to the East Coast. Usually this process took months to arrange. Burk stayed true to his word, and pulled it off in record time.
The day before the Adventurer arrived, we drove up to Truck Camper Warehouse in New Hampshire. When the Adventurer arrived, Bill Penney unloaded the unit next to our Arctic Fox, and we moved campers. That afternoon we set out on our second factory tour.
That was a very hard trip. The Great Recession had taken the wind out of everyone’s sails and nerves were still frayed. After about the second or third factory, our enthusiasm of the tour was gone. Worse, the national media had changed its mind about the economy improving and the country plunged back into recession limbo.
Looking back, we don’t regret having gone on that tour. It was incredibly important to show the industry was still on its feet, but the tour itself was a personal challenge for us. What this experience taught us is that it’s critical to not overextend or over commit ourselves. With just two of us, we have to guard our mental and physical resolve and stay focused on the big picture. Lesson learned.
Nearly Hacked To Death
In compete contrast to the previous year, 2011 was a total blast. Angela and I sold our townhouse and bought another with more places for us to work and be comfortable.
We went to the Mid-Atlantic Truck Camper Rally, enjoyed a VH1 music cruise to Mexico with friends, traveled to Rome with my family, flew to Oregon for a Wolf Creek adventure, attended the hot air balloon North-East Truck Camping Jamboree, toured the GM truck plant in Flint, Michigan, went to the Carlisle North East Truck Camping Jamboree, and borrowed a Hallmark for a Rocky Mountain National Park story.
After 2010, it was a very, very good year.
2012 started out much the same. Again we returned to the Mid-Atlantic Truck Camper Rally, visited Gettysburg with our demo Travel Lite 1100SLRX, and attended the Lobster Bash North-East Truck Camping Jamboree. We also bought a brand new 2013 Chevy Silverado 3500 and borrowed a 2013 Lance 855-S.
After loading the Lance Camper at Parkview RV in Smyrna, Delaware, we took our rig to General Motors on September 24th, 2012 to thank them for helping us with our custom build.
Above: GM marketing team with Truck Camper Magazine
In turn they surprised us with a film crew and recorded a segment of Faces Of GM featuring our rig. That’s another insane story (we were almost thrown out) that shouldn’t be missed.
Above: Angela checks out the 2013 GMC 1500 at the GM debut in Detroit
Towards the end of November of 2012, I started to notice something strange was happening to our readership data in Google Analytics. After some research, it appeared that our Google Search traffic was literally falling off a cliff. To make matters more alarming, our search rank was also declining.
As we delved into the situation further, we discovered that our website had been hacked with bogus links and redirects to websites selling expensive women’s watches. Hackers do this to websites with strong traffic in an effort to boost their own web traffic and search rank, and to sell more products through their own websites.
When our team of developers looked into the problem, the news got worse. There was no way to completely rid the hack from our website without rebuilding it. The individual articles, graphics, and pictures were safe in a separate database, but the website itself was compromised. The only way to save Truck Camper Magazine was to build a new website from the ground up, reimport the database, and rebuild every section, page, article, blog, and gallery.
Five years into the magazine, we had over 500 published articles, 1,500 blogs, and no less than 10,000 photographs and graphics. To build a new website and assemble all of those articles would be a total nightmare, not to mention the time involved.
By the beginning of December, our Google Search had been cut in half as Google penalized our website for being hacked. Ironically, the website itself was still up and running, but with Google search cratering, there was no future for the magazine. Either we were going to build a new website, or Truck Camper Magazine was in serious trouble.
Doing our best to turn this crisis into an opportunity, we streamlined the navigation and enhanced other elements of the content. If we had to do all this work, it may as well be moving the magazine forward. Our development team made the requested aesthetic adjustments, and coordinated the technical aspects.
When they were done, Angela and I got to work rebuilding the sections, pages, articles, blogs, and galleries. Angela actually did the bulk of the work as I needed to stay focused on upcoming content for the magazine. Starting at the end of December, we worked Monday through Sunday, straight through Christmas and New Years, to rid Truck Camper Magazine of the hack.
We finally launched the new website to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the magazine. There was little fanfare or excitement around the launch as we were completely burnt and just happy to have a hack-free site.
Above: The brown site right after the rebuild, February 13, 2013
Believe it or not, it took Google five months to begin lifting our hack penalty. In fact, our Google search rank still hasn’t fully recovered to pre-hack levels despite having a clean and Google compliant site now for four years.
Anyone know someone at Google?
Life Takes A Breather, Sort Of…
As the hack drama of the 2012 subsided, we took a deep breath, and slowed down – a little.
Above: Attending the first Texas Truck Camper Rally
In 2013 we attended the first Texas Truck Camper Rally, returned to the Mid-Atlantic Truck Camper Rally, followed truck camping friends to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and drove out to Arizona to cover the Overland Expo West.
That fall, we covered the RV industry open house in Elkhart, Indiana, explored the Watkins Glen area of New York, and caught up with friends at the Gettysburg North-East Truck Camping Jamboree.
Above: The blue site ran from November 2013 until January 2016
Returning home, we immediately got to work redesigning the Truck Camper Magazine website to further optimize the layout, add some new features, and give the magazine a much-needed refresh.
We launched what we call the “blue site” on November 15th, just in time for the annual RVIA show in Louisville, Kentucky.
Above: Our 4 seconds of fame on ABC World News
Other than an extremely disappointing experience with ABC World News (another must read), 2013 was a lot of fun and yielded some fantastic content for the magazine.
2014 was much the same, but with a lot more running around. Outside of the usual rallies and truck camping adventures, two major events happened.
First, we got the terrible call on February 26th that the Northern Lite factory had burned to the ground. Six weeks later, Keith Donkin, General Manager for Northern Lite, announced they would rebuild. We vowed to do everything we could to help Northern Lite recover, and promised to visit the new plant when it was completed.
The other event of 2014 was our purchase of a brand new 2014 Ram 3500 SLT and a project camper; a 2004 Alpenlite 1100. After borrowing fourteen truck campers from the industry over seven years, we were ecstatic to purchase our own camper. As magazine, we would work with the best in the truck camper industry and community to fix up our project camper, hone our hands-on maintenance and repair skills, and report on our experiences.
Above: Gathering with truck camping friends at Kennedy Space Center
2015 started off with more relatively low drama events. We held our first gathering at Jetty Park near Cape Canaveral, Florida and worked on the project camper. Staying true to our word, we visited Northern Lite’s beautiful new factory in British Columbia. Along the way we visited several other factories that had moved or otherwise significantly changed.
As the two years previous had been, 2015 was another positive year. At least until October.
The Blue Site of Near Death
Ever since the hack of 2012, we keep a sharp eye on our Google Analytics looking for signs of trouble. We also moved the site to a dedicated server, got religion about keeping our site version and extensions current, and implemented the best web security available. Still, even with all of these measures in place, something was wrong towards the end of 2015.
The “blue site” from 2013 was starting to slow down. It was sometimes taking up to five seconds to serve a single webpage. Worse, the website was going down completely for hours at a time resulting in zero web traffic to the magazine.
Our web development team and hosting provider were doing everything they could think of, but the problems were persistent. After eliminating the possibility of another hack, our team presented a stark conclusion.
The technology I selected back in 2007 for the website was, at that time, state-of-the-art. Now almost nine years later, that technology had not kept pace and was no longer supported by the best software developers, hosting services, and security providers.
Complicating matters was the fact that Truck Camper Magazine now had thousands of articles and blogs, over 100,000 images and graphics, and we were fast approaching 30,000 readers. Put simply, our website’s older technology was starting to crack under the load.
The decision to migrate the entire website to the new technology standard and platform wasn’t much of a choice. The blue site was continuing to slow, and the site was going down more often and for longer periods of time. If we didn’t take the leap, we would eventually lose the website and magazine. Here we go again.
It took us two straight weeks to perfect the content design, function design, and overall aesthetic of the new website. Adding to the design complexity was the fact that the new website needed to automatically resize for desktop computers, tablets, and smartphones. Without this “mobile-responsive” feature, the website wouldn’t comply with Google search algorithms and risk being penalized.
Once my design was complete, our brilliant web team created the new template and ported the bulk of the content database to the new platform. Unfortunately, not everything came over intact. As we did following the 2012 hack, we had to go through every section, article, blog, and gallery and manually fix the presentation, only this time the increased content volume and the multi-device requirements made the task all the more daunting.
Making matters more challenging, just about every aspect of the different technologies needed for the new website didn’t work well together. If a technology could have an issue, it did. At one point in early January, the blue site was down for hours on end and the new “red site” was completely malfunctioning. In moments like this, I curse the day the internet was born, and long for the days of print and paper.
I also remember the words of my boss and President at Arnold Communications, Peter Hanley. When we were going crazy with some impossible client deadline, he would say, “Worry it through”. In other words, stress out if you need to, but get it done.
Between our web development team, hosting team, and ourselves, we worried it through. As two feet of snow fell outside our home on January 22nd, we put the finishing touches on the red site, and started testing. After sending the beta site to friends and family to check, we found less and less issues to fix. It was ready.
The all-new website launched live on January 25th, 2016, the day before our ninth anniversary. The next morning we sent out the email alerts announcing the new site to both industry and readers. Having been forced to rebuild every element of the website, the change to the magazine was dramatic.
Truck Camper Magazine was now fully mobile responsive and hosted on enterprise-level servers with hardware-based firewall security. Once again, Truck Camper Magazine was state-of-the-art. And we needed a break.
The American Dream Continues
Thankfully, the rest of 2016 has was much calmer. As soon as we dug out from the snow storm, we packed the camper and headed to Florida to recuperate. Building the red site had burned though our prepared content backlog, so we quickly refocused on interviews, writing, and other routine magazine tasks. Surrounded by fellow truck camping friends, Florida was a very welcome change of pace.
Above: The infamous Operation Whisker Sneak with Harley, our cat
This past summer we stayed home for two family weddings, and then caravanned with truck camping friends to the North-East Truck Camping Jamboree at Lake George, New York. We returned to Elkhart to cover the industry open house, and attended the North-East Truck Camping Jamboree at Gettysburg. To continue pushing the magazine forward, we debuted a line of fun Truck Camper Magazine T-shirts in May and launched the Camper Chooser system in with our new technology in July.
At the time of this writing, Truck Camper Magazine has over 1 million unique visitors, 2 million visits, and 4 million pageviews per year. On the business end, we represent 16 truck camper brands, 6 gear companies, and 27 dealerships and are the number one source of leads and internet traffic for the entire truck camper industry.
As I like to say, we are a very big fish in an equally small pond. Not bad for two people, a cat, and a dedicated team of professional web developers, IT engineers, and enterprise-level servers with some serious hardware-based security.
Who says the American Dream is dead?
First and foremost, we want to dedicate this article and everything it represents to our incredibly loyal readership. Without you, none of this would have been possible.
Above: The best part of what we do; hanging with fellow truck camping friends
Thank you for telling your fellow truck camping friends about the TCM, and telling our sponsors that you read Truck Camper Magazine. Thank you, readers!
We also want to thank our equally loyal industry sponsors, 14 of whom have been with us for all ten years; Lance Campers, Northstar Campers, Northern Lite, Travel Lite, Hallmark RV, Four Wheel Campers, Alaskan Campers, Adventurer Manufacturing, Northwood Manufacturing / Arctic Fox, Torklift International, Happijac, SuperSprings, Rieco-Titan, Truck Camper Warehouse, and Ketelsen Campers.
Thank you for taking a big risk on our idea, and for staying with us for a decade. Thank you, sponsors!
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