Editor’s Note: This is another in a series of stories by MSNBC.com about Elkhart County, Ind.
The Elkhart County 4-H Fairgrounds turned into a caravansary for more than a thousand wandering RVers this week. Roughly 440 RVs showed up to the fairgrounds for the 24th Newmar International Kountry Klub Rally.
The most RVs, 42, came from Florida. Another 35 were from Michigan. Thirty were from Missouri, while 16 were from Indiana. Two rigs came all the way from Alaska.
But the gathering of RV enthusiasts falls under the shadow of a devastated industry. Since a peak of 390,000 RVs sold in 2006, sales have dived 65 percent. Experts aren’t expecting much of a sales rebound any time soon.
The RVers at the fairgrounds aren’t ignorant to the industry’s woes. Many are well grounded to the troubles plaguing RV manufacturers. Still, that hasn’t stopped them from rallying behind the tattered flags of the RV industry.
Sitting in a lawn chair outside their 2002 Newmar model on Thursday (Aug. 6), Ed and Yvonne McGann discussed RVs with other owners. The couple are usually at an advantage in such conversations. For the past nine years, the Texas natives have been wandering the country, visiting all of the lower 48 states.
“We do not have a principal residence,” said Ed McGann. “We wanted to get away from that traditional lifestyle.”
Ed McGann says he and his wife are able to continue the gypsy lifestyle because of their retirement savings. For most of his working life he’s set aside 10 percent of his gross income. Rather than investing it, he’s saved.
“It’s a very expensive lifestyle,” noted Yvonne McGann. “It’s a privilege to be able to do this.”
It’s a privilege the couple has cherished. Ed McGann says he’s seen many fellow RV-ers settle down because their retirement savings was cut in half in the waning months of the recession. Yvonne says, Aside from their savings, Medicare and Social Security has allowed them to continue RVing.
“There are those of us who are too crazy to figure out we’re broke,” joked Ed McGann.
Several lots down from the McGanns was Tom Canerty. Like the Texas couple, he’s been RVing for years and has been to a number of RV rallies. Canerty is a traveling salesman for Lee’s RVs in Oklahoma. He says he’s noticed several trends at the rallies he visited.
“If there’s any demand, it’s for the higher end models,” he said.
The RVs on display at the Newmar rally range in price from $100,000 to $750,000. Canerty says that those who can afford the more expensive RV have been less affected by the economic downturn and thus will continue to upgrade for the upper tier models.
“We’re also seeing people that would normally buy a new coach every three years are instead upgrading their coaches,” Canerty said. Painting, carpet and upholstery vendors, Canerty says, do very well at such rallies.
But many note that the numbers at such rallies have been down. In 2007 the Family Motor Coach Association International Convention registered 3,822 non-commercial coaches at the event. In 2008 only 2,774 registered for the March convention. This year’s FMCA International Convention, held in Bowling Green, Ohio, two weeks ago, registered only 4,226.
Barney Barnett, International Kountry Klub director, says despite a slide in registration at this year’s Newmar rally, he maintains a positive outlook on the industry.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. It will come back. But don’t get me wrong it won’t get back to the level it was before,” Barnett said. “Looking at it from the sidelines, there’s a long way to go.”
According to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), a substantial number of Americans maintain an interest in the market. The RVIA estimates nationwide there are as many as 30 million RV enthusiasts, including RV renters.
At Friday night’s closing ceremonies for the Newmar rally, over a thousand such enthusiast packed the largest building on the fairgrounds.
“The industry itself is getting stronger by the day,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Donelly, D-Granger, before the cheering crowd of Newmar RV owners. “We’re working real hard to have a stable fuel price and a low fuel price. I know how important that is.”
Ed McGannon said he prays that fuel prices don’t jump back up. In 2008, when the spike in fuel prices took many RV-ers off the road, Ed and Yvonne McGann were able to continue wondering the country in their RV. He hopes to continue to go to RV rallies and has even toyed with the idea of caravaning through Central America.
One thing is certain, he says. “We would absolutely never consider moving back into a house.”
Focus on Community
Newmar had originally scheduled its annual International Kountry Klub Rally for Perry, Ga. However, with the harsh economic atmosphere in Elkhart County, Kountry Klub officials decided they would hold the rally close to home.
“Newmar is located in Elkhart County and we wanted to do something to help support local business and drive traffic to the county,” said Barney Barnett, Newmar’s International Kountry Klub director.
The change in venue wasn’t the only thing the Klub did to support the local community. It held a food drive throughout the six-day rally to raise money and food for the Nappanee Christain Development Center. A total of $1,068.25 was raised and a truckload of food was sent to the center.