Reports of the demise of the RV industry in Oregon’s Lane County are greatly exaggerated, industry veteran Bradley Waring says, borrowing a line from Mark Twain.
There’s no denying that the industry has taken a beating in the economic downturn. Two of the area’s major coach companies, Country Coach Inc. and Monaco Coach Corp., were purchased out of bankruptcy and now operate on a much smaller scale, The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore., reported.
Monaco is a tiny division of multinational Navistar International, and Ron Lee, younger brother of Country Coach cofounder Bob Lee, recently resurrected Country Coach as a sales and service center, with hopes of eventually resuming production. Marathon Coach in Coburg still converts buses into million dollar coaches, but far fewer than in its heyday.
Lane County’s transportation equipment manufacturing sector, which has been dominated by the three RV manufacturers, employed 800 people in November, according to the state Employment Department. As recently as 2005, it had employed 4,500 people.
Even without a major manufacturing presence, Lane County still has a deep well of experience and expertise in RV sales, service and support, people in the industry say. They wanted to get the word out to RV owners across the country, so they formed the Oregon RV Alliance, a nonprofit marketing group. On Tuesday, the alliance’s founder, Bradley Waring, and several other members boarded a coach headed to the RV resorts near Palm Desert, Calif., where the snowbirds flock.
More than 2,000 snowbirds were expected at the Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA) rally in Indio, Jan. 13 through Jan. 15.
The Lane County delegation in Indio included Waring, former Lane County Commissioner Jerry Rust; Susan Graham, sales manager at Premier RV in Junction City; Meg Trendler, Travel Lane County’s tourism sales manager; and Tom Schneider, a retired Guaranty salesman.
Travel Lane County provided 1,200 Lane County Visitor Guides to hand out at the rally, and the Southern Willamette Valley Wineries Association supplied local wines for the delegation to serve as samples.
“We’re telling coach owners we’re still here,” Waring said. “The same people who sold you your coach, the people who serviced your coaches, the manufacturers who have built your coaches are still here.”
And while coach owners are having their vehicles serviced, they also can check out all the sights and attractions of Lane County, he said.
“We’re going to give them our message of renewal, and we’re going to … encourage them to bring their (coaches) back into this community over the spring and summer,” Waring said.
This is just the first of many of the alliance’s outreach efforts, he said.
Alliance has 30 members
Kurt and Betty Simon already visit Lane County often. The Eugene area is a convenient rest stop between their home in Auburn, Calif., and their children and grandchildren in Seattle and Portland, Kurt Simon said.
The retirees routinely have their 45-foot Monaco Executive serviced at Guaranty RV in Junction City where they bought it several years ago.
Simon said he’s not sure whether more RV owners will put Lane County on their itinerary after talking with Oregon RV Alliance members.
“I suspect that people are still staying closer to home,” he said.
But the Oregon draw is there, he said. “Motorhomes tend to be mobile anyway, and Oregon is a good place to go. It’s a beautiful state.”
The alliance already has 30 members, including RV manufacturers, dealerships, service centers, suppliers, local chambers of commerce, community festival organizers and others. Waring predicts it will have at least 200 members by the end of the year.
“I started this movement over Thanksgiving, and, frankly, it’s such a sensible idea that I’m having trouble getting around to meet with all the people who want to participate,” he said.
Through the ’90s and up until 2007, when the local manufacturers were going strong, there was a steady stream of out-of-town coach owners, who dropped by the factories to have their coaches serviced or remodeled, or to take part in motor home rallies.
Many stopped to shop at Guaranty RV in Junction City, formerly the largest RV dealership in the nation — and now the largest one that has managed to stay out of bankruptcy, general manager Shannon Nill said.
He said RV manufacturing has been Junction City’s strong suit for years.
“Even though it’s down a notch; it’s not gone,” Nill said.
So he said he was all ears when Waring contacted him about the alliance.
“I thought it was really tremendous that he would take it upon himself to gather up all the quality elements and put a shine on it and find ways to further network and make sure people know we are open for business in Junction City for motor home sales, service and accessories,” Nill said.
Some out-of-area coach owners still stop in Lane County, “but with the motor home manufacturing on the downside, there’s less and less of a need for them to come to this area,” said Rob Dickman, owner of the Les Schwab tire store in Junction City, a longtime supplier to the RV industry.
“By promoting the area, the recreation, the other people who work on motor homes here, and just the beauty of our area, we hope to give them a good excuse to keep coming back here,” he said. “They bring a lot of money when they come.”
Just filling up a coach’s 100-gallon tank, for example, is a nearly $400 expenditure, Waring said.
“If we band together and pitch to those people to come back to our area, it’s going to help everybody,” Dickman said.
“Attracting RV travelers to the region for service as well as sightseeing is mutually beneficial for the tourism and RV industries,” said Lisa Lawton, community relations manager for Travel Lane County. “We’re looking forward to connecting with industry leaders and RV travelers one-on-one to tap into this market and ultimately bring more visitors to this region,” she said.
More disposable income
Many coach owners have maintained ties with the people who sold and serviced their RVs. But alliance members said they want to cast an even wider net.
Most of the coaches serviced at Oregon Motorcoach Center are from out of the area, operations manager Ed Read said.
The 2-year-old business is owned by Bob Lee, founder of Country Coach, his wife, Terry Lee, and their son-in-law, Patrick Mason.
Oregon Motorcoach was eager to participate in the Oregon RV Alliance’s marketing efforts to RV travelers. “We want them to know that there’s a reason to be here again,” Read said.
Waring founded the alliance after losing his RV-related businesses, his mobile office — a Country Coach — and even his home in the downturn. He said he took “an involuntary sabbatical” from his 15-year career as a nomadic salesman, selling heated flooring and other supplies to major coach makers, and moved to Eugene in March 2009.
“I had all my eggs in the RV basket and I’m starting again,” he said. “My wife has been feeding me and giving me gas money.”
Recently, Waring has renewed relationships with old friends and associates in the RV industry.
“I’m so passionate about this,” he said. “(I want) to bring my friends back to work.”
He said he thought for years that the Lane County RV industry should partner more closely with the local tourism agencies to market the area to RV owners.
“This is a group of people who are mobile, they’re more affluent than most, they have disposable income that most of us don’t have,” Waring said.
The idea came into clearer focus over the summer when he volunteered at the front desk of Travel Lane County’s new adventure center in Springfield’s Gateway area.
Waring said he reached out to former Lane County Commissioner Jerry Rust after reading his campaign paper outlining his economic development ideas.
Rust signed on as the alliance’s co-director.
“I think it’s an interesting assignment,” he said. “I’m happy to go do it — be a cheerleader for Lane County.”
Before Rust and his wife, Zhang Yu Cai, boarded the coach Tuesday, he said he had ridden in Georgia-Pacific’s helicopter and even in the Goodyear blimp, but he had never ridden in a large RV.
“I’ve been in little camper outfits, but I don’t think I’ve really ever set foot in one of these monsters,” Rust said. “I’m looking forward to it, and I understand how excited the people in Junction City and Coburg must be to see some new life breathing into this industry that a lot of people thought was dead, dead and never would return.”
An all-volunteer project
The nonprofit alliance is an all-volunteer project, Waring said. Its sole source of funding is annual membership dues: $500 for charter members and $200 for associate members.
He said he’s heartened to see a core group of RV entrepreneurs have survived the downturn and are working to renew the industry.
“It’s pretty hard to put an entrepreneur down,” he said.
“I just want to inspire people to dust themselves off and pick themselves up and put this behind us,” Waring said. “We have everything in the world to offer here.”