In 2014, Joel Holland was living with his wife in Washington D.C., running a company in the technology space there — and suffering from a serious case of burnout. “[I was] burned out on traffic, going to a cubicle, too many people,” Holland recalls. “I was just longing to get away, whatever that meant.”
When the couple went to a wedding in Leesburg, Virginia, inspiration struck: Holland wasn’t ready to go back to the city, and with an RV dealership nearby, it was a chance to explore the possibility of a different kind of lifestyle. Impressed by the “little houses that you could drive” — complete with everything from fireplaces to king-sized beds — Holland and his wife were ready for their next adventure.
They purchased an RV, bought a truck to tow it and embarked on their first trip to Westville, Virginia, kicking off a travel-filled couple of years that took them through 48 states while they enjoyed “total freedom and flexibility.”
But there was one problem they kept coming up against. “A lot of the places we were staying were these boring campgrounds or parking lots,” Holland says. The duo frequently passed beautiful farms and wineries — so why not stay somewhere more scenic for a night?
“My thesis was there are millions of RVers in the U.S. — 11 million, to be exact — and all of them probably have the same need that I had, [wanting] to stay at really unique places,” Holland says. “So I was like, ‘If I need it, others probably do too.'”
That realization would ultimately lead Holland to become the CEO of Harvest Hosts, an RV membership program that helps small businesses generate an average of $12,000-$14,000 in additional revenue annually at no cost. Harvest Hosts earns its own revenue via its membership model, which offers RVers three plans ranging from $99 to $179 per year.
Today, Harvest Hosts’ members have access to thousands of unique locations spanning wineries, breweries, farms and other attractions, including more than 400 golf courses for those who opt for the golf upgrade.
Entrepreneur sat down with Holland to learn how he turned his idea into something much bigger — and about his ongoing commitment to helping small businesses.
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“Mark Zuckerberg probably doesn’t love to hear this, but Facebook is now the platform for our parents — and it’s perfect for RVers.”
When Holland started doing some research on his idea, he discovered that the exchange model had already been implemented in France. A program called France Passion, established in 1994, boasts a network of more than 2,000 winegrowers and other producers that provide parking for motorhomes. The program encourages but doesn’t require the purchase of a host’s goods as a token of appreciation.
Soon, Holland found that a husband-and-wife team had launched a similar program in the U.S. called Harvest Hosts. But the program hadn’t reached the scale that Holland envisioned. He considered building out his idea from scratch but eventually decided to acquire the existing program — using its initial network to get a head start.
Holland purchased Harvest Hosts in 2018 and got to work spreading the word. He advertised on online channels including Google and Facebook, spending nearly $1 million on the latter per month at one point. “That was just incredible because our product’s very visual and very social,” Holland explains. “Also, our product tends to skew older. Mark Zuckerberg probably doesn’t love to hear this, but Facebook is now the platform for our parents — and it’s perfect for RVers.”
Harvest Hosts also partnered with influencers on YouTube and Instagram to generate awareness for the program, but the company never allowed affiliates who weren’t actual members to promote the product.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Harvest Hosts
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“That was surprising to me — how hard it was to sell a free product, basically.”
Building out the host network was one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle. Conscious that Harvest Hosts could easily fail if it oversold memberships without supporting hosts, Holland doubled down on host recruitment. Today, the company has more than 10 full-time employees whose sole focus is just that; they educate hosts about RV life and clarify important points like the common misconception that hosts have to provide RVers with water and electricity.
Still, getting hosts on board proved unexpectedly difficult. “That was surprising to me — how hard it was to sell a free product, basically,” Holland says. “To contact the host and be like, ‘You’re just gonna make at minimum $13,000 per year, probably up to $50,000 per year, and we don’t ask for any of that [revenue].’ You’d think that’d be easy, but it’s hard. So that has taken a lot of resources.”
Holland acknowledges that small businesses are always getting pitched programs, so it’s essential to “cut through the noise.” Of course, small businesses have also faced significant challenges amid the pandemic and inflation, and Harvest Hosts is committed to helping them navigate them.
“Our goal is to try to keep a flow of these people coming to small businesses to support them,” Holland says. “And I think what’s neat these days, especially for our members, but in general, [is that] people appreciate small-town America, small businesses and Main Street, [and] they don’t want to see that die.”
Image Credit: Courtesy of Harvest Hosts
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“Fifty million dollars, which is a lot of dollars, is going to flow directly into the pockets of small businesses [this year].”
Since 2018, Harvest Hosts has seen 100x growth — soaring from 600 locations and 6,000 members to more than 8,700 locations and 250,000 members.
Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from both members and hosts; members love it because they get to stay at “magical places,” and hosts appreciate the opportunity to share their lifestyles and passions, Holland says.
Naturally, the additional revenue is another major bonus for hosts. Last year’s members spent more than $40 million directly with the small businesses in the Harvest Hosts network, Holland says, and this year they’re on track to spend more than $50 million, which comes out to an average of $13,000 per business.
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Because Harvest Hosts never takes a cut, all of that profit goes right back to the small businesses.
“Fifty million dollars, which is a lot of dollars, is going to flow directly into the pockets of small businesses [this year],” Holland says. “And that’s going to manifest in interesting ways. It’s going to help keep some open. It’s going to help some pay higher wages to their employees to keep them happy. It’s going to help some pay for those more expensive inputs.
“Our goal is to keep growing both the host network and the membership so that that number just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” he continues. “It would be really cool — and I guess this is not too far off — [if] in a number of years we could say, ‘$1 billion has been spent with small businesses because of this program.'”