PRVCA Director Welcomes Diversity
Heather Leach says women may still be a minority in the industry, but representation is improving.
Heather Leach didn’t intend to head up one of the largest state RV and camping associations in the country and be one of the main drivers of what is now billed as “America’s Largest RV Show.” She was simply applying for a job that sounded interesting and fit her skill set and background back in 2006, which was marketing and communications.
She ended up getting the job as marketing and education director with the Pennsylvania RV and Camping Association (PRVCA).
“When this job came up, I thought it sounded interesting; I mean it’s RVing and camping – who doesn’t love RVing and camping?,” Leach says, calling from her car, returning home from one of the many conferences she attends.
“(I thought) ‘we’ll try this for a couple years;’ but no one tells you that when you get into this industry, you’re in it forever. And here I am, I’m still here. But it’s been a really great experience and an interesting ride, that’s for sure.”
She said she realized right off the bat that working for a state RV association was going to keep her on her toes and stretch her far beyond the traditional duties and responsibilities of a typical marketing/communications job. And it didn’t take her long to discover she liked it.
“I really didn’t know much about association work, nonprofit work, and it’s definitely something that intrigued me,” Leach says. “It’s definitely a different environment than working for a for-profit company. But I kind of like that – and really, when you’re doing association work – ours would be considered a smaller association, based on staff size – it really gives you a lot of other responsibilities that you wouldn’t get otherwise … It really gives you a lot of skill sets that I would not have gotten if I would have been working for a for-profit company.”
Seventeen years ago, the RV and camping industries, particularly the former, were different than they were now. The consolidation wave had not yet taken over the RV manufacturing landscape, and the serious economic peril of the Great Recession was still a couple of years in the future.
Her job and this still-new-to-her industry made her realize she had found a career with staying power, even if the industry had few females in a position of leadership.
Even through the very rough patch of 2008-2010 that hit all aspects of the industry, Leach stuck with it, and in 2015 she was named executive director of the PRVCA, which is the organization’s highest paid position. As ED she serves at the pleasure of the nonprofit’s board of directors, and she must also answer to her hundreds of association members. Having that many voices to tune into simply comes with the territory, Leach said.
“You know, I will say I have always enjoyed working with our board of directors and members,” she says. “They have been very supportive and really encouraging me to really grow. They wanted me to get my CAE – which would be Certified Association Executive – and they were the ones that said, ‘We think that would be really good for you,’ and I’m like, ‘OK, great.’ So they have been very supportive of my professional development over the years, so that’s always great.”
The rewarding part of her job, she added, is when she and her staff can help members of the organization grow their businesses and achieve their dreams. Of course, that’s not always possible, but at least they can always be there to provide assistance and to have their constituents’ backs when they’re going through difficult times, as was made clear by the industry’s most recent historic upheaval.
“When we went through that whole thing with COVID, it really made me realize the importance of association work, because I had members calling and the information was changing on an hourly basis sometimes, and the fact that they had someplace to call – I might not have always been able to give them the answer that they wanted to hear, but the fact that they had someplace to call and I could hear what their concerns were and what their struggles were and I could talk to our lobbyists and our attorneys to try to get them answers and a plan to move forward – it’s stuff like that,” Leach says. “And while that was not a great time in general, those couple weeks when everything was shut down, it really was like a ‘wow’ moment. You could tell that there was a lot of benefit that we were able to provide, even if it was just as a sounding board. So, it’s things like that that come up … you really understand the importance of having an association.”
At this point Leach is well-known nationally in the RV world because of her work in the PRVCA and its role in putting on America’s Largest RV Show in Hershey, Pennsylvania, which draws tens of thousands of attendees each year and attracts enough RVs to cover literally dozens of football fields.
As a woman who has climbed the ranks in what not long ago was a field largely dominated by men, it’s surprising to learn that she’s never been asked to speak about her experiences in the industry as a woman. But she’s noticed the efforts of groups like the RV Women’s Association (RVWA) – and in fact the Hershey Show has hosted an RVWA event – and the RV Technical Institute (RVTI), which is specifically reaching out to women to train them to be RV technicians.
Maybe it’s not quite where it should be in terms of equality, Leach says, but the industry is heading that direction at least.
“When I would go to committee week in D.C., I wasn’t on a committee, so I would sit in the back row and look around the room. And you can definitely see a much bigger difference now,” Leach says. “Now as you look around the room, you can literally say that women have a seat at the table. They’re not just sitting around the back like I did 20 years ago. They’re at the table participating in the meeting, taking on leadership roles. You can see it at RVIA – you’ve seen an increase of the number of women that are participating on their board. So, I think we’re getting there for sure.
“But, I still go into a room, you know, you can definitely count the number of women – on maybe your two hands sometimes, compared to the number of men in the room. But I do feel like there has definitely been improvement. Even from our board’s standpoint, we’re not an incredibly diverse board, but I have gotten nothing but support and encouragement from my board of directors to go out and improve myself professionally. So, I think it’s there and I think it’s a work in progress, but I can definitely see some changes over the last 20 years, for sure.”
And she has some advice to those who think the industry will simply become more diverse – whether it’s women, people of color or whomever – because of some sort of natural evolution. Those people may want to re-think that position, she says.
“Listen, I don’t think diversity is going to fall at someone’s doorstep,” Leach says. “I think if you really want to be inclusive and have a diverse staff, you’re going to have to put a little bit of effort forth. And I’m not saying that you hire someone that doesn’t have the skills just so you hire someone. But you might have to do a little more work in how to reach people than what you’re used to. And if you put a job description out and you don’t get any kind of diversity (applying), maybe look at how your application’s worded. Maybe there’s things in there that you wouldn’t normally look at. You might have a woman look at the description and go, ‘I would never apply for this, because X, Y, Z.’ You might not know that because why would you ever think about that?
“I think from an employer’s standpoint, you have to actively look for those types of things: What can you do to attract a more diverse staff?”