Up until recently, I'd never been to a Camper Trailer of the Year event. I'd witnessed the months of preparation that go on beforehand and scoured the pages of content that detailed each year's entrants in minute detail, but had yet to actually be — for lack of a more diplomatic term — invited along.
This year, however, things were a little different. With the shadow of COVID-19 casting its pall over any efforts to plan such an event in advance, I was called in last-minute to lend an extra set of hands behind the scenes. Grunt work, basically — everything from towing trailers loaded with porta-loos to operating as a mobile camera-flash stand. But the prospect of a week in Port Macquarie trumped the idea of another week in the home office, so I grabbed my bag and boarded a flight from Melbourne to Sydney. We picked up a couple of Isuzu D-Maxes fresh off the lot and were off to the NSW Central Coast.
First stop, Mansfield Estate, a newly established eco-retreat about half an hour south of Port Macquarie. This was to be one of our central locations for the week and, most importantly, the site of some thoroughly delicious dinners catered by local businesses Char Bar and Crackle n Spit. The stunning property rose to a hill with views toward the ocean, surrounded by lush, dense bush, making it the perfect place for a secluded soiree. The aura of a new build still hung about the place, which has been perfectly set up for events such as ours. It’s also excellent for the weddings that have been their biggest business since opening. With plans to expand the facilities — potentially adding a vineyard, cafe and a forest wedding location — I get the impression that it won't be long before the venue has a significant waiting list.
The format of our event was such that each entrant participated in judging and photo shoots on different days, overlapping in the middle for a day of beach driving and a day at the CTOTY showcase event. From day one, camper trailers and their brand representatives rolled in at a slow and steady pace. Half of the crew were staying in the newly furnished accomodation of Mansfield Estate, the other half resting their heads in beachside cabins at the BIG4 Ingenia Caravan Park in nearby Bonny Hills.
THE JUDGING GROUNDS
I spent the first couple of days shadowing the judges as they studied stationary campers whilst firing questions about nuances of design and usability. I'd have said I knew a bit about campers until this point, but standing alongside the four judges proved otherwise. The depth of understanding and the years of experience each of them possessed was a staggering thing to behold. They chatted with brand representatives, they scribbled down pages of notes to reflect on later and snapped pictures of details to look back on — there was even a measuring tape getting about.
Even with their combined knowledge, however, it was clear that their job was not easy. There were more than 20 different campers of all types for them to assess: forward-fold, side-fold, pop-up, slide-out, slide-on, expedition-style, hybrid, high-tech — you name it.
There was a wide variety of campers out there on the judging grounds, and it turned out the brand reps themselves were just as eclectic a bunch. Some were returning to CTOTY after having been to more events than they could accurately recall, while others were there for the first time. There were brand owners, designers and builders, and there were friends and family who'd come along to lend a hand.
The judging sessions were convivial and for the most part quite fun, but there were still some nervous smiles if you looked closely. “This can pretty much make or break our sales of this model for the next year,” one of this year's first timers explained when I asked how he was feeling before the judges wandered over to his trailer.
Over the course of the event, I heard similar things from several of the entrants. Accolades from these judges could generate serious demand, and with such a captive market as we've seen lately, this year's winner stood to gain major dividends. I noticed 'Camper Trailer of the Year Winner' decals on tow-vehicles and embroidered patches on shirts. There was a genuine sense of pride in having taken out the top spot in the past, and clearly a desire to stage a repeat performance.
We've got to talk about the weather. I heard a few locals mention La Niña as the reason for the massive amounts of rain the region has been getting lately — if there's any truth to this, we got to see the girl in all her wildest moods. There were mornings thick with fog, days of drizzle, torrential rain, humidity, heat, and plenty of sunburn. We were lucky to have a perfect sunny day for the beach driving photoshoot, while the judges enjoyed clear skies as they had a go at towing/driving each of the campers down a few bumpy bush tracks.
Saturday's camper showcase, however, was another matter entirely. Rain bucketed down on the event, starting five minutes after everyone had finished setting up and holding steady until the end. I have to hand it to the people of Port Macquarie though, who still turned up in strong numbers, literally wading through the flooded entry to see some of Australia's finest campers. “That's Port Macquarie,” was the local adage for the day.
The other side of this less than ideal weather was that it gave everyone a chance to test out their awnings and prospective customers were able to get a good look at how each build handled the elements. It wasn't a complete disaster.
IN THE FIELD
The day after the showcase, I slipped on my still-soaking shoes and headed out with the content team to lend a hand, capturing photos and video of eight campers. We pressed inland through the fog for around an hour until we arrived at the stunningly scenic Redbank Way, an old cattle property and farm stay that made a perfect backdrop against which our four shutterbugs could work their magic.
The team captured each camper on the move as we made way to our location for set-up shots, all the while the fog thinned and the sun began to beam through. Nevertheless, the previous day's rain had left everything soggy, which meant the more challenging tracks were slick with clay.
Chances are you've never witnessed how it all goes down, but there's an awful lot of work that goes into making the pictures you'll see in the magazine. The four photographers working at CTOTY — two on video and two shooting stills — are some of the best in the business and have extensive backgrounds shooting camper and automotive subjects. They know exactly what shots they're looking for, how to get them, and they don't sit still from the 5am wake-up until it's done for the day. They're the last to arrive at dinner, and often the first to leave so they can dash back to the accommodation, offload the day's captures onto hard drives, and ready their gear for the next day. “We want to win,” one entrant told me, “but we also come to get all these marketing assets out of it. You know how much it costs to hire even one of these guys for a day? On its own, it's not something we can do that often.”
BEST OF THE BEST
On the last day of the event, once the campers had all departed and peace had descended over Mansfield Estate, I eavesdropped on judges discussing key points of each entry. It struck me as they summed them all up just how diverse the product offering was, and how hard each manufacturer works to innovate for a specific niche or end user.
I saw a lot of creativity in the brands on show, a lot of innovators who were genuinely proud of what they'd done and enthusiastic about what they might do next.
Earlier I'd wondered if some brands might be standoffish towards one another given that they're all competing in the same marketplace, but I didn't notice anything of the sort. In fact, the atmosphere when we were all together was almost collaborative between manufacturers. People shared ideas and experiences, acknowledging the standout features of one another's products. These weren't the brands looking to rip off ideas. Those that came to CTOTY were the brands that seek to push the industry forward through their own unique insights and innovations. They're the ones who learn from their own experiences and overwhelmingly from the experiences of their customers.
On that last day, I was again reminded of how tricky a job the judges have declaring an overall winner — but I trust their experience and can see that the scoring criteria is designed to create an even playing field.
While there will be an overall victor, what I took away from this year's CTOTY was that basically every camper that attended would be worth buying and that it’s highly dependent on the needs of the customer. If you've got your eye on any one of them, don't be disheartened if it doesn't take the top spot. If it has what you want, then chances are it's the perfect choice for you. The winner of CTOTY has the honour of being the best of the best, which is no mean feat considering how good the rest of the best happen to be.