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Niche Players Appreciate Dealer Open Houses

Posted By Sherman Goldenberg On September 29, 2010 @ 10:12 am In Breaking News | No Comments

RV dealers listen to a band performing during an open house sponsored by Dutchmen Manufacturing Inc.

RV dealers listen to a band performing during an open house sponsored by Dutchmen Manufacturing Inc.

Warm, sunny weather this week is greeting thousands of RV dealer personnel from the U.S. and Canada, all of whom are here to visit with manufacturers, party some and bargain hunt for 2010 and 2011 product as part of a new wave of dealer “open houses.”

The open houses reach a crescendo today and tonight as industry leaders Thor Industries Inc. and Forest River Inc. entertain retailers at their respective open houses. Three of Thor’s four divisions, Thor Motor Coach, Keystone RV Co. Inc. and Breckenridge, are situated in a joint display at the RV/MH Hall of Fame in northeast of Elkhart, while all of Forest River’s divisions, including the company’s resurgent Coachmen RV unit, are showing product at the company’s headquarters on Elkhart’s west side.

Most of the area’s manufacturers seem pleased with the whole open house concept thus far – especially the smaller companies and various niche players — although it will be hard to tell how this year’s combined explosion of open houses plays out next year.

“Yesterday, we had a great turnout,” Ed Kinney, vice president of sales for Carriage Inc., told RVBUSINESS.com. “We were pleasantly surprised, being over here in Millersburg. We had several of our current dealers and dealer prospects here, and our new Cabo (trailer) and all of our existing products went over real well. So, it was a great day for Carriage.”

Speaking for Carriage, Kinney likes this evolving “open house” concept. “It’s a great concept, and we thank (Forest River Inc. President & CEO) Pete Liegl for starting it because I think it’s good for the industry,” said Kinney, whose company’s open house doors remain open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today (Sept. 29) and Thursday.

In general agreement with Kinney is Gulf Stream Coach Inc. Co-President Dan Shea, whose company had always hosted its own private open house each June at the towable and motorized RV manufacturer’s Nappanee facilities.

“Obviously, a number of manufacturers were looking at this time frame to start bringing in dealers,” said Shea, whose family-held company is considered more of a mainstream manufacturer vs. a niche player. “And in talking to our dealers, “it made sense, particularly last year with the transportation issues (the difficulty in delivering RVs) and the pickup in business so quickly last spring that dealers are planning ahead for next year and are very interested in coming in and looking at new product and making their buying decisions earlier this year.”

”So, we’ve been very happy with the turnout of dealers coming in, and I think it makes sense when a lot of dealers are doing something at the same time. The dealers can come in and see several manufacturers and see the new ideas at one time and a little earlier than the typical December time frame.”

Reflecting a market in which wholesale motorhome shipments have plunged from about 71,000 to 13,000 units in the aftermath of the recession, Gulf Stream’s open house displays are predominantly towable product.

“There’s less players and less dealers and, you know, the banks are sort of frowning on big item purchases,” noted Phil Sarvari, Gulf Stream’s executive vice president. “So, our focus is going to be to ‘major in the majors,’ and there’s certainly more buyers and more shipments of towable products than there are motorhomes. But motorhomes are still a part of our company, and we’re still going to take care of the dealers that we have out there.”

Does this whole open house format threaten the viability of the industry’s National RV Trade Show in any way? Shea doesn’t think so, and Gulf Stream remains a strong supporter of a viable national show in which manufacturers, suppliers and distributors all congregate.

“No,” says Shea, “I still think that there is that camaraderie of all the dealers getting together, the new products of the suppliers, the events of the week in Louisville, you know,” he observed. “I think it will continue to be important to dealers as well. I think it’s important to have the entire industry in one place. I think we get a lot of play out of the press coming to it, and the coverage from the suppliers and all these stakeholders in the industry having one place to go.”

Livin' Lite's Jeep trailer

Livin' Lite's Jeep trailer

Northward in Wakarusa, Livin’ Lite Recreational Vehicles’ President Scott Tuttle is working to expand his company’s dealer body through open house contacts.

Tuttle, who specializes in light-weight, all-aluminum trailers, points out that this whole open house concept isn’t altogether new in that it’s been going on for years on more of an ad hoc basis. As has always been the case, he added, even companies who aren’t hosting big events with buffets and bands are expecting dealers to come by.

That said, Tuttle told RVBUSINESS.com that the first two dealers showed up at Livin’ Lite’s driveway at 8 a.m. Monday, one having driven in from Quebec, the other from Kansas. Both were including Livin’ Lite in their tour of area manufacturers.

While his sales staff has been making an effort to contact retailers who were planning to be in town this week – many of whom are in town to do business with manufacturers who “are blowing out yards full of inventory” – Livin’ Lite had several units set up in a display outside his plant.

“You know, this is a shoppers’ bonanza for a lot of RV dealers,” said Tuttle, “where guys (manufacturers) have built up open stock and they’ve filled their yards with it. We don’t do that. We just build what’s sold. So, there’s a lot of dealers in town, seeing what kind of deals they can get.

“But when they go to Louisville, they’re definitely looking at what they’re going to carry next year,” he added. “So, Louisville’s still the benchmark for us. While there will be some dealers picking up product this week, I think Louisville’s still the show for dealers to pick up new product lines.”

Also set up in a low key fashion with a small cluster of display units outside the company’s headquarters north and east of Elkhart in LaGrange County near the Michigan State Line, EverGreen Recreational Vehicles LLC President Doug Lantz says his firm is a “small player in this whole open house scenario.

“I just appreciate the fact that we’re able to bring dealers into the Elkhart County area,” he said. “I think it’s good for the economy here and for relationships. It’s nice to be able to have dealers stop by and see the facility, meet personnel. So, I welcome it. I think that it’s something that we should continue to focus on. I know that we’ll continue to do it. And we tie it into sales training as well and getting together and strategic planning, so it’s something that we’re going to embrace and continue to work for.”

Lantz, for his part, thinks there could be some impact on Louisville.

“I think it may make some difference in some of the dealers’ purchases. It might, especially from a floorplanning standpoint. I mean most of the dealers placing orders this time of year are going to be receiving product around Louisville… So, there’s probably some floorplan lines that will be impacted at the credit level at Louisville. So, yeah, I think it will have some impact.”

The timing of these new open houses is perfect for other niche players like Open Range RV, located farther to the east in Shipshewana, an Amish-populated tourist village. “I think so,” notes Open Range President Randy Graber. “I think it makes sense to have this (open house) at this time of year, rather than waiting until the middle of the selling season to make all the (new model product) changes.”

As for Louisville, he says it will be interesting to see how it plays out over the next couple of years, especially considering how much early buying does or doesn’t occur during this expanding open house format.

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