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Coach rally has big wheels, crowd, impact

Some 7,000 wanderers riding classy wheels began arriving this weekend at the Hernando County Airport for the annual Southeast Area Rally of the Family Motor Coach Association.

The rally _ a combination get-together with like-minded friends, high-market sales convention and five-day educational experience _ officially opens Wednesday and runs through Sunday.

Preregistrations have reached the 1,900 mark. That's the number of coaches, averaging three to four occupants each. Advance sign-up is requested, but not necessary.

"So, there will be more," said George Schipper, Southeast Area president at the association's office in Brooksville. "If they can get out of the snow up North, they'll be here. We have registrants even from Alaska."

Planning for the seventh rally at the Hernando airport began the day after last year's rally folded its tents. Over the past two weeks, up to 200 volunteers have been staking out 2,000-plus coach spaces, along with parking for many who tow automobiles in tandem with their 18- to 45-foot motor homes.

These are not RVs, Schipper points out, but self-contained residences riding rubber _ people serious about roaming in comfort and style.

Workers also have been raising tents for 220 vendors, a 5,000-seat venue for nightly entertainment and sites for educational seminars.

And there will be an area where 22 coach dealers will try to coax people attending the rally into buying bigger or upgraded models.

The rally is "fun, fellowship and more," Schipper declared.

The "more" is intriguing.

"There's a full schedule of seminars, mostly RV-related," Schipper said.

Topics include fire and life safety training, proper weight distribution for vehicles, cooking with a microwave on the road, how to protect oneself from crime on the road, care of the vehicle's electrical system, tire maintenance and insurance.

Also offered are crafts classes. And the Red Hat Society will play host to a tea, with 400 attendees expected.

Vendors will push motor home accessories such as fancy chromes, global positioning systems, tires _ "anything to fancy up your coach, from lawn chairs to rugs," Schipper said. Coach redecorators will also be on hand.

There will be a parade of motor homes and their owners at 4 p.m. Thursday. The theme is Seafari 2004.

"They decorate. It's surprising what different chapters (of the association) come up with. Some of them get very creative," Schipper said.

He said he is looking forward to a unit from Vermont that has announced it will march with lawn chairs in the parade.

The rally is open to the public 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Feb. 8 for a $4-per-person admission fee. Evening entertainment is reserved for rally registrants.

When the rally participants are not on the airport grounds, they are expected to be out and about in Hernando County.

The rally "brings a tremendous impact here," said Jacqueline Morris, executive director of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce. "The restaurants can identify that impact, gas stations, support businesses, retail, motels."

Morris said the coaches often bring more people than their units can sleep, so some of the passengers book rooms at local motels.

The chamber and its members entice the visitors, touting their businesses with 2,500 goody bags of coupons, discounts, fliers and advertising trinkets distributed to rally participants.

Also, the county tourism development office has a booth at the rally site to tell visitors what's going on in Hernando and to hand out guidebooks listing restaurants and other needs of the visitors, such as beauty shops; churches; and carwashes that accommodate large vehicles, said county tourism director Susan Rupe.

The booth's staff, she said, will press the message: "We'd be glad to have you stay around for a week or two."

As for the rally's economic impact, there are no definitive numbers. But Rupe referred to taxable sales for groceries, service stations, motor vehicle dealers and restaurants in February 2000 to 2003, compared with January sales for the same years.

February sales are substantially higher _ $2.2-million higher each of the past two years.

"I can't say it's all (because of the rally visitors), but we're showing an increase in those areas that visitors use," she said.

One area where the rally could use some help is the weather. Last year and in 2002, rally week visitors huddled much of the time under umbrellas.

For this week, both Schipper and Morris have a more upbeat forecast.

"The weather's going to be wonderful this year," they said. "Hopefully."