Thousands of recreational vehicle retail personnel will be converging in late September on the RV-building center of Elkhart County, Ind., as more manufacturers turn to local 2011 product displays in the wake of the Great Recession and a prevailing cost-cutting atmosphere throughout the business world.
What’s even more interesting is that they’re doing it in unison – at the end of September in synch with Forest River Inc.’s big Sept. 29-30 dealer gathering, now in its third year. In fact, it appears that Forest River has reinvented the wheel to an extent by bringing in hundreds of RV, cargo and commercial trailer retailers to its home plant in late September for a closed gathering at which dealers are wined and dined and treated to expansive new model product displays.
The Berkshire Hathaway Inc. subsidiary’s second annual 2009 “Pick Your Partner” open house last year drew 600 to 700 dealers — a total of 2,000 people – to the grounds outside the Elkhart-based company’s headquarters where retailers were treated to a display of about 350 units plus live music and staff-delivered beer.
Although Forest River’s management hasn’t said much publicly about its plans yet this year, it’s a safe bet that they’re expecting more of the same at this year’s dealer meeting. “I assume it’s going to be as good as last year,” Forest River President and CEO Pete Liegl told RVBusiness. “We’re getting a good response so far. We just started sending out the invites last week.”
The trend toward Elkhart County dealer open houses took a big step forward earlier this month when four Thor Industries Inc. subsidiaries, Keystone RV Co., Damon Motor Coach, Four Winds International Corp. and Breckenridge, announced plans for a combined dealer open house Sept. 28-30 at the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum in Elkhart, Ind., for which they’re expecting 500 dealers. As many as 100 2011 models will be on display on the grounds surrounding the Hall of Fame.
Now, the latest to join the fray is Thor’s Goshen-based Dutchmen Manufacturing Inc., which has notified its dealers of its first-ever Sept. 27-30 open house at the former Azure boat manufacturing facility at the corner of C.R. 6 and Marina Drive not far from the Indiana Toll Road and the RV/MH Hall of Fame.
Dutchmen President Don Clark says his company’s open house will take place both inside and outside the facility, and will be highlighted by a Sept. 27 dealer party featuring live entertainment and some eye-catching 2011 product displays.
“We’re going to have some surprises that have yet to be viewed by any dealer,” Clark told RVBusiness. “We’re going to have not just one new brand, but several new brands that we will be selling at our open house. And it will be a good precursor for what the dealers will be seeing at Louisville (RVIA’s annual National RV Trade Show, Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 in Louisville, Ky.). We’re going to have our new sales management staff on hand, and it gives dealers an unharied time to get to know them better.”
Other companies are expected to announce their own “open houses” and “showcases” in the near future. Although details were still being worked out, Carriage Inc. Vice President of Sales Ed Kinney says his Millersburg, Ind., firm will hold a Sept. 28-30 open house in Millersburg. “We’ll have a nice display, show some new things we will show at Louisville, give some plant tours and have a good casual time,” he said.
Gulf Stream Coach Inc. also is joining in the September rush with an event scheduled for Sept. 27-30 at which the Nappanee firm will show 45 towable and motorized units.
Meanwhile, Jayco Inc.’s own annual Master Sales Training Sessions for dealers’ sales staffs is partly slotted in the same time frame.
Jayco, headquartered in nearby Middlebury, plans to bring in approximately 500 people for intensive sales training at its complex in Middlebury, Ind. The sessions run Sept. 20-23 and Sept. 27-30 and will involve sales training and extensive factory tours, reports Marketing Director Sid Johnson.
Jayco did not sponsor these sessions last year due to the economy, but traditionally holds the event at the end of September every year, Johnson reports. “Dealers pay for transportation. We pay for everything once they get here,” said Johnson, noting that the cost to Jayco is in the neighborhood of $200,000.
The whole emerging sequence of events, in turn, is beginning to prompt questions about just how many hotel rooms there are in the region to house an influx of business people of this magnitude. Elkhart County, in itself, has 2,591. And while it’s got to translate into a positive in terms of facilities use at the Hall of Fame, located along the Indiana Toll Road east of Elkhart, it’s also posing questions among some industry observers about how this emerging trend might ultimately affect the viability of the Louisville Show.
That said, some of the players in this emerging scenario like Clark and Keystone President Bob Martin seem to be keeping their focus on Louisville as well. Martin called Keystone’s September product display “a little preview of Louisville” that would include some – but not all – of the products his company would unveil at the national show in late November.
‘It’s a good opportunity to get in front of your dealers in the fall,” said Martin, whose agenda will include seminars and training, vendor booths and meetings with customer service representatives and retail and wholesale financing sources. ”It a good draw for Keystone with a couple of motorhome lines and Breckenridge (which builds park trailers). All the divisions are working on plans together. There will be a lot to see.”
“This is an absolutely exciting event,” said Tim Howard, president of Breckenridge,“ whose Nappanee-based firm participated several years ago in a Thor-only dealer show in Elkhart County, “because the way we did it before, it was far-flung. The companies who did it in unison did so at their own locations. This will be at one location.”
Howard said the Thor event was not specifically designed to coincide with Forest River’s “Pick Your Partner” event, but it makes sense. “I don’t think it was discussed as that,” he said, “but it is logical, It makes perfect sense for a dealer to have the efficiency of killing two birds with one stone.”
Dan Shea, Gulf Stream towables president, said the September event makes a lot of sense, giving dealers, especially Canadians, a chance to place their orders early.
“It’s a good opportunity for dealers who need product quicker,” said Shea. “There is a lot of reason for dealers to step up and buy product this October, November and December.”
Although late September dealer shows take some of the luster off Louisville for Gulf Stream and others, Shea added, “Louisville will still be a big show for us.”