If you are an RVer, you may be aware of this online service that lists participating wineries and small farms willing to act as hosts for one night, off the grid camping. Here at the Rancho, we served as a host for about a month. It was not a good experience for any number of reasons. Some could be laid at the feet of the company that runs Harvest Hosts, some could be chalked up to misaligned expectations between me as a host and campers. Some of the issues just boiled down to “mean people suck.” In summary, I wouldn’t say there couldn’t be good and enjoyable things about the program for both hosts and campers. But much of creating the success of the program is going to have to come down to those two groups. From what I can see, there will be little support or effort from the Harvest Host company.
First of all, it’s important to understand that Harvest Hosts makes all its money from the campers who are charged a yearly fee. The hosts provide their facilities for free. I’m sure we hosts and potential hosts have a variety of reasons for approaching the program. Although Harvest Hosts suggests that the campers purchase at least $20 worth of product from their host, in my short experience, this seldom happened. But I suspect, like me, most hosts do NOT go into this thinking we will get rich. At the least, we might get some favorable mentions on YouTube or Instagram, campers might suggest our wines to their friends (we only sell online), or perhaps we’d build up lots of likes on our winery Facebook and Instagram pages. Again, in my experience, none of this happened. It might have been a fluke, but my campers were largely an older set who I doubt had any social media presence.
If you know small farmers and winery owners, we tend to be an evangelical bunch. We can talk your ear off about best biodynamic and organic practices, we can wax eloquent about preferred clones and heritage vegetables, and we will pummel you with reasons that you should patronize small family farms. For most of us, our friends have heard our spiels before and are tuning us out. We need new audiences. Harvest Host seemed like a great way to preach the word. My misperception was that I thought my campers, if they came to stay at a winery, would be interested in hearing about the operation and would love wine. The reality is that most just saw the program as a cheap place to stay. I guess you can’t really fault anyone for that. I did have a number of prospective campers call me and say, “I hate wine. Do I have to buy your wine to stay at your place?” I always answered that no one HAS to buy anything, but that I was reserving my places for people who were interested in a wine experience and wanted to be involved in a tasting.
The misaligned perception on the part of campers seemed often to be that we small farmers could offer the kind of amenities of an RV park or campground. I had to turn away people who wanted to stay for two weeks (the website does state this is supposed to be a one night stay.) Perhaps most uncomfortable for me was that, as a small concern with limited staff, I had to schedule arrivals. Not only did someone have to open the gates, but we needed to put people in specific areas where they would be out of the way of any equipment we needed to move through and any work that the crews were performing. A shocking number of potential campers, when they heard they had to be scheduled, yelled at me that I “had poor customer service” or that they “didn’t get into RVing to have to be on some sort of schedule.” Needless to say, those people were NOT invited to stay. Let’s file that under “mean people suck”.
What became an issue was that there was key information that needed to be on my listing — things like that the visit would have to be tightly scheduled and that we had relatively narrow gates that could not accommodate big rigs. I spent several frustrating weeks emailing Harvest Hosts and begging them to change my listing. But, because we hosts are the “product” and not the paying customer, Harvest Hosts has no dedicated number, email or representative to resolve issues with the hosts. Finally my email was answered laconically with “sorry we didn’t get any of the emails you say you sent. We got your last one. We’ve changed your listing.” By this time, I’d been spending more time that I had available fielding dozens of calls a day, outlining all the issues with access and rig size, dealing with many rude people who wanted to argue with me that I should accept their rig when they damn well wanted to drive it up, and I was just sick of it.
I should pause here for an Old Fogey moment and say that this is one of the thing that really bugs me about Internet-based companies that puff up with pride and say they are “disrupting” or “changing the paradigm”. Sometimes the paradigm was very good and had no need of disruption. Old style companies with a lot of stakeholders routinely had different channels for customer service, for their distributors and for their vendors. Each was considered important and each had access to support staff charged with keeping their participation positive. The new paradigm seems to think these things can be jettisoned.
I belong to a number of RVing Facebook groups where campers are constantly talking about how great Harvest Host is. No one was talking about the host experience. I weighed in with my belief that the future of the program is in the hands of the campers, because Harvest Host is doing precious little to support their hosts. I outlined some of my experiences and suggested that campers be especially sensitive to the needs/requests of hosts or there will be more who, like me, find the program untenable.
As you can imagine with an Internet company, Harvest Host representatives cruise the same Facebook groups. Now an old style company that saw my post would probably have seen that as an opportunity to contact me and see what they could do to bring me back in the fold. It was a chance to learn where the program wasn’t meeting host needs and could be improved. At the very least, they could have impressed me with their concerns so that, while I might not rejoin, at least I would tell my fellow farmers and small wineries in Sonoma that the program could work for them if they understood what the experience would be and how best to manage it. Instead, the company representative (I believe she was a Marketing person) “shifted the paradigm” by basically calling me a liar on the forum. Guess who — when she meets up with fellow winemakers and farmers who were looking to see my experience before committing — is not going to be recommending it.
That said, I do think the program has potential and value for all sides. I hosted a rally for 25 or so Class B campers this past year. I have to say, it was a blast. But then I happen to think Class B campers are a different breed (and full disclosure: I am one.) They have small rigs, they are happy to fit in and out of the way, they tend to be more adventurous and flexible.
But I think the future of the program is going to be very much in the hands of the campers with little support from Harvest Hosts. So, if you are a member, here are my suggestions:
- Realize that small farms and wineries have limited staff. Be flexible and accommodating about when you are asked to arrive and where you are asked to park.
- Whatever you do, DO NOT LIE about the size of your rig. I was put in the uncomfortable position — after I’d explained on the phone the size of rig I could accommodate — of having to refuse people at my gate because they’d fibbed about their size. I guess some believe forgiveness is easier than permission.
- Try to purchase something. If you just can’t, ask the host if you can take a handful of business cards and be good about talking up the concern and convincing others to buy or visit. At the very least, get on social media. Give the host a like on Facebook. Post some lovely pictures to Instagram with links to the host’s website. Pay back your host by actively promoting their business.
- Evaluate where you want to stay and be honest about how enthusiastic you will be about the products. If you hate wine, don’t stay at a winery. If you can’t stand vegetables, don’t camp at a broccoli farm. Harvest Host is expanding to include golf courses. That might be a better fit for you — especially if you have a bigger rig that needs level ground and you don’t want to be moved around if farm equipment needs to get by.
- Treat your experience as an exciting opportunity to learn about a farming concern. If the host wants to give you a tour or explain their products and process, be interested and enthusiastic.
Again, it’s sad that the experience did not work out for us. We love to share what we are doing, as do most farmers and small winemakers. It’s a shame that some of the tried and true business practices weren’t in place to facilitate our participation. It’s sad that some RVers felt they could just use this as nothing more than a free camping spot. It may shake out that smaller concerns like ours are just not a good fit for the program. Harvest Host may be more appropriate for golf courses and larger concerns where there are more staff and dealing with the not so nice campers doesn’t take up more time than a small farmer can spare.
And let’s stop jettisoning paradigms that have worked for decades. Let’s think before we “disrupt”.