Louise Grogan, president of the National African American RVer’s Association, said her organization had been trying for a decade to book a week-long rally near the end of July at Cam-plex, but the week always seemed to be booked.
Not this year, though. NAARVA’s national rally will finally land in Gillette this summer.
The next month is a busy time for Cam-plex. It will host three large RV rallies practically back-to-back, beginning with the Monaco International RV Rally that begins Wednesday. The Family Motor Coach Association’s 103rd International Convention and RV Expo starts July 7 and NAARVA’s rally gets underway July 18. By the time the month is over, an estimated 1,600 RVs will have parked for a stay at Cam-plex as a part of one of these three rallies, bringing more than 5,000 visitors to Gillette and Campbell County. Some will come for the proximity to natural wonders, national parks and monuments, and others with Gillette as their final destination.
Cam-plex Executive Director Jeff Esposito and his team are ready for events like the rallies after last summer saw events dry up because of COVID-19.
“Cam-plex is built for this,” Esposito said of the large and frequent rallies. “We train for this. Having been locked up for all that time during COVID, we are ready to have at it, I can tell you that! We’ve been cooped up for too long.”
Cam-plex is staring down a pretty full calendar of events for the summer, which is a nice return to normal after the large event space was uncustomarily, almost eerily, quiet throughout last summer.
“One of the things that’s really benefiting us is that when COVID hit most of the event facilities, they lost all of their staff,” Esposito said. “We haven’t done that.”
By not hiring normal summer staff, Cam-plex was able to use that money to keep its full-time staff employed throughout the year, Esposito said. That’s resulted in the staff having to wear a lot of different hats, but they also didn’t have to cut.
“Now that it’s a year later, we still have our talent,” he said. “We still have our team here.”
The visitors are what make the events special, Esposito said. They bestow wonderful benefits to the community, both economically and culturally.
“They can contribute positively to the local economy in a way that is very low-impact,” Esposito said. “They’re just a super fun, nice bunch of people. They just want to visit with one another, have a good time. They want to go shopping. They want to go to our restaurants. They want to go to Main Street. From a facility perspective, they’re just terrific.”
By “low-impact,” Esposito meant simply that putting on these rallies isn’t incredibly resource-intensive for Cam-plex and didn’t require a lot of volunteer staff to operate.
One of the strategies Cam-plex explored was to see if RV organizations would be interested in coming to use the facility more often, if dates were available, Esposito said. It turns out that some, like the FMCA, were, and it is now booked through the end of this decade.
FMCA is scheduled to come to Cam-plex every other year, said Heather Kuhrt, a senior sales manager for Cam-plex.
Each year the groups visit Gillette, they’ll contribute to the tourism economy of Campbell County and northeast Wyoming.
Esposito said a full study would be needed to know the true extent of the impact events like RV rallies have, but a “quick and dirty estimate” for a rally like FMCA’s would be “over half a million (dollars) for the week.”
Events like the rallies are not only welcome because they bring money with them, they’re also great opportunities for the state, county and city to get exposure and share what makes the region special, he said.
“As a rule of thumb, probably the biggest spenders is youth sports,” Esposito said.
Youth sports tournaments hosted in the area bring with them families that need hotel stays for multiple days, restaurant visits for their meals and shopping during idle times.
The impact of long-running events like the RV rallies are “right up there, too,” Esposito said.
Will Hastreiter is director of operations at Cam-plex and said that a lot of preparation for the RV rallies happens on the front end, so that once things are set for the first of the rallies, there isn’t a lot of breakdown and setup required between them.
For these events, the RV fields and individual parking sites are some of the most important work that Hastreiter and his crew will attend to. Overall, Cam-plex offers 1,730 RV campsites and of those, 1,146 are full-service, meaning water, electric and sewer hook-ups are available. Another 240 sites have just water and electric, and another 344 are electric-only.
Beyond having the sites in tip-top shape for visitors, Hastreiter and his team also are responsible to put in the work to make Cam-plex as beautiful first impression as possible, along with Gillette and Campbell County. They want them to come back, and part of that depends on the quality of their experience.
Roads get repaired, trees get trimmed, grass gets mowed, Hastreiter said.
A dedicated team works with Hastreiter to make sure Cam-plex is beautiful and functional for visitors not just upon arrival, but for as long as the groups may be in town.
A grounds crew of one full-time and three part-time employees complements a maintenance staff of three full-time and two part-time workers who provide “finishing details,” as Hastreiter described them, not to mention three full-time and one part-time event technicians to ensure things run smoothly.
It’s a collaborative effort from start to finish, and visitors notice the results. It’s part of what keeps them coming back.
The groups coming to Cam-plex feel much the same as the staff at Cam-plex. They’re ready to be out and about again. They’re ready for fellowship with old friends and kindred spirits. The groups canceled rallies in 2020, and they’ve just now started returning to their normal schedules.
Doug Uhlenbrock, the director of events for FMCA, said his organization is looking forward to this year’s rally after previous visits to Gillette in 2013 and 2018.
“After our last event there, I talked to quite a few people who were thrilled with being there,” Uhlenbrock said. “A lot of people were excited to go into town. … They are participating in the community. The community gets the benefit of that. Those restaurants are packed.”
FMCA was started in 1964, and it hasn’t canceled conventions except for the two last years. In 2021, it has already celebrated one convention in Perry, Georgia, in March.
“We had to really work on that one,” Uhlenbrock said of the precautions required because of the pandemic. “We had to COVID up on that one.”
Gillette’s rally will be a little bit larger in terms of attendees than the one in Perry, Uhlenbrock said.
“Perry this year was about half of what we normally have,” he said. “Usually there are 2,500 in Perry.”
But Uhlenbrock also expects the Gillette rally to be smaller than the last time it was here.
“Last time in Gillette, we had 1,700-1,800 (RVs),” Uhlenbrock said.
This year’s rally will still be affected by the pandemic, most notably because virus travel restrictions will deprive the rally of what has usually been a benefit for Gillette: proximity to the Canadian border.
Uhlenbrock said that normally, an FMCA rally in Gillette would attract a lot of international members from Canada, but because they’re not allowed to drive across the border into the United States and back, the numbers are slightly down.
COVID-19 is not a completely distant concern for the group, but Uhlenbrock said the FMCA is thinking of COVID-19 precautions much the same way as Wyomingites think about them: They are personal decisions, and each attendee should act in accordance with what they feel is safe and prudent, but the organization itself won’t mandate any particular restrictions or precautions.
It’s no secret that RV living is a pastime that’s popular with older people, which Uhlenbrock said was initially concerning when it came to planning events and the lingering reality of COVID-19.
“Demographics used to be a trouble point,” Uhlenbrock said. “But now it’s a strength. Now we’re finding that the older population are the most vaccinated. They understand when they travel all over the country it’s probably best for them to be vaccinated.”
Louise Grogan and NAARVA are excited to add Gillette and Cam-plex to their list of national rally spots.
The 27-year-old organization has roughly 800 rigs on its national roster and more than 225 RVs are expected to attend, she said, which means just shy of 30% of the NAARVA membership will be in Gillette.
The group is not only excited about the facilities at Cam-plex, but Gillette’s proximity to the many tourist destinations around the region.
“We frequently refer to our rallies as not just the destination, it’s the journey,” Grogan said.
Those who come also will take in the wonders of the American bison at Durham Bison Ranch. They’ll explore the majesty of Devils Tower National Monument. They’ll make the drive to Mount Rushmore.
On top of their explorations, they endeavor to give back to their host cities, and this year is no exception.
“We’re able to leave our footprint in a community,” Grogan said.
The organization selects a local charitable organization and blesses it with a donation, she said. It also partners with the hosts for an ecology project, where the group sponsors and plants a tree everywhere they visit. Cam-plex will be the recipient of that arboreal donation this year.
Grogan and NAARVA hope to convey their appreciation to the area by giving back. Esposito and the rest of the Cam-plex staff want to give groups like NAARVA and FMCA reasons to come back.
He knows that showing off all of those benefits wouldn’t be possible without stellar cooperation and teamwork.
“We’ve got a great team out here (at Cam-plex), but it’s really the team between the city, county, Convention and Visitors Bureau, hospital being ready just in case. There is really a tremendous network through Gillette and Campbell County,” Esposito said. “Believe me when I say it’s not like that everywhere. This is really special.”
Gillette could easily be considered out of the way or off the beaten path, especially when it comes to national organizations choosing to spend their time and resources here, but 2021 is showing that Gillette has a lot to offer to the rest of the country.
Some of that is purely practical, something sorely needed after a year like 2020. Because of the practical advantages of Cam-plex, because of the geographical advantages of location, because of demographic advantages of sparse populations and lower cases of COVID-19, Wyoming, Campbell County, Gillette and Cam-plex offer a return to normalcy for these national groups. It offers a safe and welcoming home base for them to gather, enjoy each others’ company, explore a beautiful part of the country and do it all with peace of mind.
What would perfect conditions look like for a group of people who haven’t seen each other in 20 years?
Probably the same as those experienced by the Campbell County High School Classes of 2000 and 2001 on Friday evening at Big Lost Meadery. After a surprising, but welcomed, day of rain, the evening was blessed with a blue sky dotted with dark clouds and temperatures just under 70 degrees.
A 20th high school reunion is fraught with nervous energy for attendees, but for the Class of 2000, there was an added level of anxiety because Friday night was the culmination of roughly 18 months of planning, re-planning, adjusting, making do when COVID-19 canceled their reunion last year. Finally, the classmates were together, in person and without face masks, because a lot can change in a year. COVID-19 rewired what’s normal, and in 2021, there was no better example than high school graduating classes opening their arms and welcoming another into their celebrations.
Chris Sanders was back in Gillette for the first time in about 12 years. When he went for a 6-mile run Friday morning, he said he didn’t recognize a lot of what he saw. But he was excited to be back, especially after putting so much planning into a reunion that ended up being nothing more than a Zoom call last year with roughly 50 of his former classmates.
“We teamed up with the Class of 2001, double the classes, double the fun,” Sanders said about piggybacking this year for a dual in-person reunion.
But Zoom has become a part of regular life since 2020, and since the Class of 2000 had already ironed out the kinks with the digital reunion, they decided to incorporate it into the festivities again.
“We didn’t even mention the Zoom because we wanted to push people to the event,” Sanders said.
Then two weeks before the reunion, they announced that Zoom would be an option for those who really wanted to participate but simply couldn’t make the journey to Gillette.
Friday night, at the corner of the covered portion of Big Lost’s outdoor seating, sat a laptop with a small host of CCHS graduates enjoying each others’ company. They weren’t as seamlessly integrated into the in-person facilities as Sanders and the other planners had hoped because, well, technology happens.
Elly Henning helped coordinate the planning efforts from the Class of 2001. She also said that, to be perfectly honest, the Class of 2000 had really been the catalyst that spurred her into action. She said that as of last fall, she wasn’t thinking about her 20th class reunion. There was just a lot going on in the world at the time.
“Without them getting in touch, we might not have even had a reunion,” Henning said. Perhaps that’s a bit too modest on her and her classmates’ part, but it’s easy to see how seamless the Class of 2000’s aborted in-person plans made planning for the Class of 2001’s reunion.
“Early on it seems like they really carried us,” Henning said. They had laid so much of the groundwork for their own reunion that it made getting up to speed very easy compared to starting from scratch.
But then the Class of 2001 brought a benefit to the partnership.
“Then toward the end, it seems like our committee is really carrying things,” Henning said.
Those planning for the Class of 2001 had the benefit of being in Gillette, so they had a better sense of the on-the-ground details, like the venues and things like that, she said.
The partnership worked perfectly, as the two classes mingled not as disparate parts, but a cohesive whole. They weren’t the class of this or the class of that; they were CCHS Camels.
A lot can happen to a person in 20 years. Multiply that by the more than 100 alumni from the two classes, and there are simply too many stories to recount.
For instance, Steven Ness graduated in 2000 and now lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he works in banking and finance. If taken at face-value, that could seem like a run-of-the-mill development in one’s life, but the intervening years were not remotely close to run of the mill.
Despite graduating high school with both academic and athletic scholarship offers, Ness said he “walked away from all of that to be a hippie,” where he lived in Eugene, Oregon, for four or five years before moving to Las Vegas as part of the “Moneymaker boom.”
The boom, he explained, referred to the rapid ascension of a CPA named Chris Moneymaker in the world of poker. Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker in 2003, right about the same time ESPN was showing the tournament in full, allowing viewers to see what cards the players were holding.
“People like me, who’ve been playing poker for a long time, saw someone like him win and said, ‘Wow, I can do that; I can do better than that,’” he said.
Soon, trips to Las Vegas every other weekend gave way to him just moving to the city to play poker full time. He would play as much as 60 hours a week, he said. He was making lots of money, losing lots of money, and sometimes both in the same day.
After three or four years of full-time poker, Ness met a woman, fell in love and settled into a career in finance.
The details of those intervening years, when examined with more specificity, are entertaining and interesting, from his days as a hippie selling stuffed animals door-to-door to getting his first official financial job Sept. 11, 2001, to the first time he won $10,000 in a single day at a poker table. He summed up a lot of with the same phrase: “I was just young and stupid.”
He seemed happy to be back, although projecting confidence that he didn’t want to be back to stay.
“I don’t know that I miss this place,” Ness said. “But I’m a parent now. I have a 6- and a 7-year-old, so I miss the culture and life that this kind of city can bring for a child and a family. But for me personally, I’m a city boy at heart, so I was planted out of place. When I finally got to the city, I really found where I belong and what I enjoy.”
In addition to Ness’s whirlwind journey to middle-aged fatherhood was a physical journey that would have logged 2,847 miles on Kristina (Reza) Hunter’s family vehicle if she’d chosen to drive from Eagle River, Alaska, which is just north of Anchorage, all the way back to Gillette for her 20th reunion.
She and her husband fell in love with Alaska after visiting, and after an exhaustive search for teaching jobs in Wyoming proved fruitless, she took a teaching job in Tallkeetna, Alaska, a village of about 800 people near the base of Denali and even farther from Gillette than Eagle River. She taught there three years, and she’s now in her third year of teaching second grade at Aurora Elementary School at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, which is near Anchorage.
She traveled farther than any other attendee, and knowing what the result of that contest would be, the organizers had a gift ready and waiting for her: A Camels winter hat.
‘Are they going to recognize me?’
Nikki Shaw was an instrumental force in planning the Class of 2000’s virtual reunion last year. Two friends recognized her from a distance, and they sought her out. They greeted her warmly, as old friends do, and hugged her. After assurances that she would catch up with them soon, Shaw confessed a secret relief: She was so glad they recognized her. It was her largest anxiety about the event.
“Are they going to recognize me?” she said. “And they did!”
She fist-pumped the tiny victory that she’d likely share with nobody else. But that’s the power of reunions. They present a chance to reconnect with old friends, and through them old versions of ourselves. And based on the joy those simple interactions gave most, it’s a shame a person only gets one 20-year reunion.