“Genuinely care about your people.” With Candice Georgiadis & Paul Bender

A piece of advice I would offer to others is to genuinely care about your people. Don’t manipulate them into thinking you care, but actually care about them. Ask how they’re doing and ask about their families. Learn and know what makes them tick, then guide and direct their efforts so they’re performing a task […]

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A piece of advice I would offer to others is to genuinely care about your people. Don’t manipulate them into thinking you care, but actually care about them. Ask how they’re doing and ask about their families. Learn and know what makes them tick, then guide and direct their efforts so they’re performing a task in your business which motivates them personally.

As part of my series about “exciting developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Bender.

Paul is the Founder and CEO of American Adventure Insurance, the nation’s leading provider of RV, boat and motorcycle insurance. For 28 years, AAI has led the industry with its speed of service, with “insurance in 12 minutes,” along with its capabilities to bundle services with low rates. With more than 25 employees in its Newbury Park, California office, and 10 regional salespeople, Bender anticipates that AAI will grow its national footprint from 2,500 dealer partnerships to 3,000 dealers by the end of 2020. Born and raised in Northern Minnesota, Bender takes a blue-collar approach to his desire for business growth, with employees and managers at the forefront of his focus, who Bender believes when treated correctly perform beyond expectation. His future strategic goals are reached when he can help others attain their full potential.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It’s strange the winding path we take though life, isn’t it? Ask those you view as successful and I expect you’ll rarely hear, “I laid out a plan for success 20 years ago and it went just as I expected. I’m exactly where I had planned to be.” As for me, I’m nowhere near where I expected to be.

Graduating from a small college in Wisconsin with a degree in Secondary Education, I taught high school speech, acting and dramatic production for ten years. The eventual intention was to pursue a Master’s Degree (and perhaps more) and teach on the college level. During that time as a teacher, my instincts to think big and harness creative freedom led me to dream up and produce huge dramatic productions (huge for a high school theater department, I suppose). Over the years budgets grew significantly, and cast sizes went from single digits to well over 60, and more than 100 if you include the full crew.

In 1992, while still teaching full time, my think-big entrepreneurial spirit led me to run a side insurance business out of my home. About a year in, as I was reviewing my book of policies — at the time sold through Foremost and Progressive, the primary providers of recreational products insurance for independent agents in those days — I realized that I ​wouldn’t​ grow the business fast enough through ads in the Yellow Pages and waiting for the phone to ring.

So, I started visiting local RV dealerships in an effort to introduce myself and my company, asking owners if they would refer their customers to my small agency. Eventually, my partnerships with one dealership turned into two, then four, and eventually that grassroots work fueled consistent, steady growth of what became a national footprint with RV America Insurance, founded in 19​​9​2​. Known for returning insurance quotes within 12 minutes of the request, my reputation for fast service and low rates gained me quick access into dealer circles.

In 2009, I changed the company name to American Adventure Insurance to reflect my expertise in all recreational products including boats, motorcycles, ATVs, RVs and travel trailers.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In 2004, I had just bought a brand new Malibu Wakesetter to use at a vacation home we had on a lake in Northern California. My family and I had a trip scheduled, but a buddy of mine was going camping in the area a couple of weeks prior, and asked if he could take the boat with him. I said yes, but asked him to please avoid the shallow end of the lake. Sure enough, that’s where he went looking for calm water — right over a barely-submerged massive tree stump — and the boat was totaled.

I have to admit I was upset, but thankful there had been no injuries. With a specialized policy through Progressive and the accompanying coverage called Total Loss Replacement, there was a brand new boat delivered to the lake for me within the two weeks, just before we arrived. Actually, it was better than brand new; it was honestly a little nicer than what I’d had before, and I even felt a bit guilty as I pushed that throttle lever ​forward​ to pick up speed when I took it out on the water the first time. That experience of being the customer helped me realize the true value of my business. I was upside down on the loan at that time, so without Total Loss Replacement ​we​ would have been required to hand over about $6,000 to the lending bank, plus there was a hefty down payment should we have wanted to acquire another boat. Total cash out of pocket for me would have been about $20,000, but Total Loss Replacement made me whole.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ll go way back to when I was a young pup of just 16 years and got my first real job at an A&W restaurant flipping hamburgers. Not two weeks into my tenure, after making a Papa Burger for a coworker going on break, I placed it on a piece of wax paper on the break table instead of creating waste by putting it in the standard A&W foil bag. My shift supervisor — a role I would soon inhabit — scolded me for not following the established protocol and reported me to the owner. When the owner was informed of the situation, however, she commended me on my ability to think like a business owner, and then had a few unpleasant words with the supervisor. (Needless to say that supervisor didn’t really care much for me after that.) My “polite rebelliousness” was maybe a foreshadowing of that future entrepreneurial path, eventually leading to the founding of American Adventure Insurance, now the nation’s the leading provider of RV, boat and motorcycle insurance through dealerships.​ ​

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think I can truly say I disrupted the insurance agency model 25 years ago. Our company stands out because we changed the insurance game at point of sale. I set about to make sure that dealers nationwide could instantly obtain insurance for their customers and close a deal. This had never been done before on such a scale, nor was insurance ever instantly available by fax and email in a matter of minutes.

…And these were the dial-up internet days! I had a dial-up modem in the computer under my desk, a cell modem in my laptop, and WordPerfect 5.1. I was able to program WordPerfect to request keyboard input, and I reformatted major insurance company applications into my program. I was so fast that I was ready to click the send button and deliver the quote to a dealer in about 90 seconds.

It was about this time that I read a little paperback called “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.” The golden nugget I took from it was that an organization should choose one narrow marketing word or phrase and concept, then take that one word or phrase, own it, build your business around it, and burn your way into the mind of the prospect. Also, if you can be the first to own that word in your industry, you have then created your market leader status. One thing I did not do was ask for the opinions of others on how to market my new business. Looking to others or doing market research would have been more of a hindrance than a help to me because new ideas are simply not measurable, right?

I began the process of finding my word and phrase and thought to myself, “What is the biggest need for the national dealership community?” It’s speed. They endeavor to move units quickly and they don’t want to be slowed down during the close. I narrowed my focus to a single word — FAST. And then I chose a phrase that would best earn dealers’ attention and respect and landed on “Insurance in 12 Minutes!” This meant nothing to the buying public, but it wasn’t meant for them. I had to trust my gut and push forward, and I did so with national marketing campaigns, trade shows and national sales representatives. This nationwide model does not exist elsewhere today except for the brands I have built — RV America Insurance and American Adventure Insurance — and we’re still doing it many years later.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?

I suppose I manage my life and business by working incredibly hard for fixed periods of time, then taking a short break. One of the smartest things I ever read was, “Adjust your six year plan every six months.” So, I let the business consume me for a period of time and work like a dog to reorganize and implement adjusted strategies, then I sit back and observe the results through the buying season. Then, like a bear waking from hibernation, I evaluate the numbers and pivot in a new direction to make sure I’m staying on course. I’m never static.

I remember back in the late 90s, I had just come out of teaching, and I was experiencing some of the early years of financial success. I said to one of my hockey buddies, “In about five years I’m going to retire early.” Looking back, I was dreaming! Not a chance. In business, you can NEVER just sit back and think you’ve got it all figured out. The business world moves forward quickly; the competition pushes you and you’ve got to respond.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Tough question. Coming from a small town in northern Minnesota, I didn’t really have someone I looked up to as a titan of business, let’s say. There is a sage old man out there, however, and his name is Experience. Experience has been my biggest teacher, and he didn’t take it easy on me. I’ve made some mistakes along the way, but you learn valuable lessons through the hills and valleys. I’ve never been the least bit afraid of failure; taking calculated risks is part of what makes me thrive. I tend to be fairly — maybe overly — optimistic, meaning I don’t ever feel like there are hurdles I can’t overcome, but that can bring its share of troubles, or what I’ll call learning opportunities. I adjust based on these virtual beatings and the next decision is more calculated, more focused. I think I’m much better at understanding people and what motivates them than I was years ago. Watching other industry pros taught me what I want to emulate, as well as what I don’t, and all of this shapes how I make business decisions today.

A piece of advice I would offer to others is to genuinely care about your people. Don’t manipulate them into thinking you care, but actually care about them. Ask how they’re doing and ask about their families. Learn and know what makes them tick, then guide and direct their efforts so they’re performing a task in your business which motivates them personally.

I place a great deal of trust in the “Strengths Finder” model. This is a valuable tool I use to be sure my people are doing a job that naturally fits the foundations from which they operate. When your people know you care about them, they will care about your business, and isn’t that what you really want, someone who cares about your business as much as you do? During the COVID-19 crisis, even though our new business had dropped off significantly, I kept every single employee’s full hours and pay because I was thankful for the efforts and care they had put into my business.

Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?

In addition to speed of service and the human touch that goes into customer relations, American Adventure Insurance also differentiates from the typical auto insurance agency because of the number of specialized insurance carriers we represent. This allows us to offer low rates, and a breadth of coverage including unlimited towing and roadside assistance, total loss replacement, personal belongings replacement, campsite liability, disappearing deductibles and more.

As a critical point of understanding, AAI limits financial risks for policyholders in two ways. First, we make sure they don’t insure a recreational purchase with an auto policy, which is designed for autos not travel trailers, motorcycles or boats. Auto policies leave significant gaps in coverage. We also limit financial risk by providing a policy that covers nearly every potential hazard that can be encountered by those who travel far from home on vacation.

Can you imagine the total eventual cost of a vacation where your motorhome was damaged a thousand miles from home and the repairs will take two weeks to complete? It doesn’t take long to calculate two weeks of hotel stay and rental car, and what about the potential plane flight home you didn’t plan for? Towing or trailering a broken down motorhome can cost thousands, and most auto policies cover a mere $75 of the total expense. This happened to me on my very first motorhome trip and the nature of the disablement required that the motorhome be loaded onto a flatbed. The cost was over $2,000, but we had towing coverage through Foremost.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?

A pain point for dealers (and buyers) when closing the sale is obtaining that verification of insurance document. All too often, the local Farmers or State Farm agent is out playing golf, and they can hold up the deal. American Adventure Insurance plays a key role in the loan process; the loan can’t be funded until the insurance provider is in place, so it’s incumbent on us to provide service in an expeditious manner. Focusing on our speed of service is how we grew our national footprint, and we will continue to develop new partnerships with dealers across the U.S. to reach our goal of 3,000 using our service by the end of 2021.

How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

Oh, we already disrupted the status quo of auto insurance carriers and auto insurance agents a long time ago! It’s fair to say that most insurance agents nationwide truly don’t know how to provide quotes and issue a policy in mere minutes.

When the majority of U.S. states went into lockdown after the outbreak of COVID-19, it also forced a paradigm shift which I believe will not go away anytime soon. This forced shift has led to the opportunity for families to spend more quality time together. Why not social distance while spending time in nature in your new travel trailer or boat? Even with the inevitable challenges of schools and offices being closed, many parents have appreciated the extra time spent with their children and are already looking for ways to create new family adventures when restrictions are lifted. For families who are considering becoming first-time RV owners, partnering with an agency that specializes in recreational vehicles can help them rest easy knowing that they will be protected from financial disaster as they embark on new adventures.

If RV owners choose a basic auto insurance policy, they’ll be missing out on important coverage options and spending more money when a claim is filed. These extra coverage options usually result in a few extra dollars a month, but most times the overall premium is lower than what would be charged by a typical auto carrier.​

Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to travel?

The wholesale RV shipping numbers provided by the RVIA website show that sales were up early in 2020 compared with the 2019 numbers, even before COVID-19 cases began increasing exponentially in the U.S. By March and April 2020, the dramatic effect of the pandemic on RV sales was clear from the rising number of units being shipped to dealers. Markets in states that have deemed RV sales essential have stayed busy through April and May.​ Currently, many dealerships are experiencing low inventory levels and are unable to meet the demand

​​The buzz within the RV industry is extremely positive. The dealers that American Adventure Insurance works with are almost universally echoing that sentiment in markets across the country. Even in the most stringent locked-down states, dealers are seeing a major increase in sales as they slowly start to ease restrictions.

While forecasting seems like a fool’s errand with so many lingering unknowns, sales trends suggest that the remainder of the year will be good for the industry, should manufacturers be able to ramp up production to meet demand.​

In the long-term, the RV industry will see major growth within the millennial generation. This will likely have a significant impact, as these younger generations shop differently and demand innovative amenities. This has also had a positive effect on the products themselves, with dealers looking into technology-driven forms of marketing and sales. Additionally, in 2025 there will be 15% more people between the ages of 55 and 74 in this country than there were in 2015. This is a major demographic within the RV industry and will likely result in an increase in sales.

For these types of products — travel trailers and motorhomes — people don’t shop locally, they shop the entire nation. If there’s something someone​ want​s​ to buy and it’s based in Florida, ​they will​ find a way to get it home. Some dealerships even have programs​s​ where they’ll pay for an overnight hotel stay or an airline ticket​ for the customer. Dealers have adapted their websites to be more user-friendly​with inventory being updated accurately and consistently. If it’s not online, dealers are probably missing out on hundreds, maybe thousands, of qualified buyers.

You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?

Promise not to tell my secret? I’m not much into the RV lifestyle at the moment. I did it, I loved it, but I’m over it for now. Hailing from Northern Minnesota, I’ve spent considerable time camping and out on the lake, and when the kids were young, we had a motorhome and spent a lot of time “roughing it.”

What has become our perfect travel experience is to fly our airplane to explore a whole new area. We like to stay in a perfectly manicured little Airbnb and immerse ourselves in the local culture. Among other things, we’ve recently spent time wine tasting in Napa, skiing in Lake Tahoe, relaxing on beautiful St. Pete Beach in Tampa, and have flown to play in multiple hockey tournaments across the nation. A recent trip took us to southern Oregon for a daughter’s wedding, as well as local wine tasting, after which we jumped 800 nautical miles to the east and took in Cheyenne, W​Y. Greece, Italy, Germany, France, and Switzerland are in the not too distant past as well.

All that being said about camping though, we do have a cute little Airstream, and I’m thinking we’ll head over to Sequoia National Park this fall.

Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As human beings, I think it’s important to understand that we can’t personally solve every problem in the world today, but we can contribute by having influence in our small circle. We raised our kids to contribute to society, and they have gone on to pursue college degrees as well as Master’s Degrees. I take my familial relationships very seriously, as well as the relationships I have with my employees. I hope it can be said about me that I care about the people around me. I have a good friend who is a missionary to missionaries’ kids. I support him monthly with a contribution ​to his living expenses. He’s in Europe now and works with American missionary kids whose only friends are sometimes other missionary kids. They struggle with life decisions, and their parents often ignore their needs in their efforts to fulfill their own personal life endeavors. ​Todd​ works with these struggling kids and helps them find their paths in life.​ We have also contributed to local miscellaneous charities and youth programs.​

Specific to the current times, amid a global pandemic, ​I believe ​my business can allow families to have a special travel experience without having to risk being in an airport and on the airplane and the associated health implications.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Well, I’m not sure I would consider myself a person of great influence…just a guy with an idea and a good work ethic. But with these wisps of gray hair making their presence known on my temples, I’d start a virtual ‘College of Wisdom’ for young aspiring business professionals, with classes such as:

— Decision Making — Let’s not Rush into Things

— The Care, Feeding and Watering of Your Most Important Asset — Your People

— There’s More to Life than Your Business — Don’t Forget About Your Family (And Call your Mom)

— Future Business Planning — Never Stop Evaluating and Adjusting. NEVER.

— Wear a Smile — Be the Positive Leader Your People Need.

— Negotiation — Be Quiet, Wait, and Be Real.

— Finances & Happiness — Don’t Work to Obtain Possessions. Love What You Do or Change It.

And let’s bring in some high-level executives to teach these courses… I think I’ll sit in the back and take notes.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram: Aviation_Adventure_Couple


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