In its August issue, Trailer Life magazine ran an article entitled “RVing au Naturel ,” a story about 200 clothing-optional recreational vehicle parks across the country.
The article outraged some of the magazine’s readers, whose median age is nearly 59. Wrote William E. Pipp of Cogan Station, Pa., in a letter to the editor: “I suppose we can expect forthcoming articles on RV parks for AIDS victims, homosexuals, adult booksellers and others!”
Pipp’s concerns, however, were unfounded. Trailer Life is the flagship magazine of Agoura Hills-based TL Enterprises, a staid publishing company much more prone to print stories about a motor home’s Quadrajet carburetor than about human sexuality.
With a paid monthly circulation of 304,914, Trailer Life is the nation’s largest and most influential publication on RVs. The next largest is RV Lifestyle, a nearly year-old magazine based in Goshen, Ind., with a circulation of about 20,000.
“They really have the whole field to themselves,” said James B. Kobak, a magazine consultant in Darien, Conn.
TL Enterprises also publishes three other RV-related magazines--Hi-Way Herald, MotorHome and RV Business--that deal with many similar topics of interest to RV owners. In addition, the company has diversified into motorcycle touring and bicycling magazines. Earlier this year, it also bought for nearly $1 million a publication on photographic darkrooms.
Executives of TL Enterprises, which is privately held, said the firm had about $2 million in net income on revenue of $35.2 million for its fiscal year ended June 30.
The company is owned by Richard Rouse, 40, and his brother, Denis, 43. In 1983, they spent more than $6 million to buy out their father, Arthur, and the company’s small number of public shareholders.
TL Enterprises’ headquarters, where 140 of its 170 employees work, is a silver-colored building next to the Ventura Freeway in Agoura Hills--a city that has a law prohibiting parking large vehicles such as RVs on the streets from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. without a permit.
Trailer Life recently has explored such topics as Christmas gifts and European tours for RV owners. MotorHome, in its latest issue, discusses videocassette recorders for motor homes and also profiles country and western star Ricky Skaggs, detailing the solid-brass sinks and Italian black marble that adorn the kitchen and two bathrooms of his motor home.
The most influential sections in TL Enterprises’ publications are the product reviews, in which recreational vehicles or related products are evaluated. Indeed, many of the editors don’t own RVs because, they said, they can use the models that are being evaluated.
Editors acknowledge that reviewing products in Trailer Life and its sister publications can create conflicts with advertisers who might not be pleased with a negative review. But they insist that their publications are objective. For example, they said, MotorHome has criticized some trailer models as being too heavy.
Trailer Life also tackles more serious issues. The magazine recently investigated the financial stability of companies owning chains of campgrounds. In 1984, it campaigned to keep Fishing Bridge Campground in Yellowstone National Park open after the National Park Service threatened to close it.
Not Widely Read
Although Trailer Life is the dominant publication in its field, competitors wonder why it isn’t more widely read.
“I have always been disappointed that there are 7 million RVers out there and something over 300,000 subscribers,” said Donald Wright, who left Trailer Life as its Midwest editor last year to start RV Lifestyle magazine.
But magazine consultant Kobak said that sort of ratio of actual subscribers to potential readers isn’t unusual in the trade magazine business.
Trailer Life has become the voice of the RV world in part because it was one of the few survivors of the shakeout among recreational vehicle magazines a few years ago. The thinning of the ranks stemmed from a slump among manufacturers, the main advertisers in the trade magazines, after gasoline prices soared and interest rates climbed in 1979.
TL Enterprises and Trailer Life survived, its executives said, by cutting overhead and maintaining its circulation. Nevertheless, the magazine lost about 25% of its advertising during the 1979-80 slump. Although that doesn’t compare to the disaster of 1973, when half of its advertisers canceled their ads the morning after the Arab oil embargo was announced, it was enough to persuade TL Enterprises executives to move into new businesses.
“We want to diversify into markets that aren’t energy-dependent,” said Richard Rouse, publisher of Trailer Life and president of TL Enterprises.
So far, diversification efforts have met with mixed results. The company says its year-old bicycle magazine, Bicycle Rider, has a circulation of 55,000, on target with projections. But company executives say they don’t expect it to turn a profit for another three to four years.
Charles McCullagh, publisher of Emmaus, Pa.-based Bicycling, the field’s largest publication, said it will be difficult for Bicycle Rider to penetrate a crowded market. “We take any magazine seriously. They seem to be trying hard and have a committed staff, but they haven’t taken the publishing world by storm,” he said.
Change of Focus
McCullagh said Bicycle Rider’s initial focus on bicycle touring didn’t work, and now, like Bicycling, the new publication apparently is placing more emphasis on product reviews. He does, however, give the magazine credit for a recent article on bicycle helmets, a controversial topic other fledgling magazines might have avoided.
TL Enterprises’ biggest flop in diversification came when it launched a line of magazines for passengers on cruise ships. After suffering $2.5 million in losses over three years, the venture was scrapped in 1982.
Peter Savill, a Miami-based publisher of magazines for cruise lines, said TL never signed up the extensive network of cruise ships needed to attract large advertisers. Richard Rouse said the problem was that cigarette and liquor companies were reluctant to advertise in the magazines because most cruise passengers buy those products at duty free ports or on their ships.
The companies told TL Enterprises they don’t distribute their products directly to those outlets, and as a result do not make as much money selling to them, Rouse said.
Regardless of its track record in new businesses, TL Enterprises is likely to remain the premier publisher in the RV field, Kobak said. It is secure, the consultant said, partly because of its “Good Sam” club, which is the RV owners’ equivalent of the American Automobile Assn.
Members pay $15 a year to join and can buy emergency roadside service, insurance and products for their vehicles. Club members are offered half-price subscriptions to Trailer Life, which normally costs $16 a year.
“The club wouldn’t stand on its own without the magazines,” Richard Rouse said. “The magazines wouldn’t be profitable today without the club.”
TL Enterprises will have some new competition soon from General Motors’ Chevrolet division, which is planning early in 1986 to launch Chevy Camper, a magazine aimed at RV users. Chevrolet initially plans to publish 1 million issues quarterly, selling advertising and distributing the magazine for free. Chevrolet said it eventually will publish the magazine monthly.