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RVB’s Newsmaker of the Year: RV Centennial

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January 3, 2011 by   Leave a Comment

Centennial celebration at RV/MH Hall of Fame in June 2010

Centennial celebration at RV/MH Hall of Fame in June 2010

“In 1910, there was no TV, no air conditioning and no phone — but there were RVs. Through war and peace, booms and busts, fuel lines, fads and the cyber revolution, the RV lifestyle has endured and is still going strong, even in today’s challenging economic times.” — An RVIA press release announcing the then-upcoming “RV Centennial”

Things were still looking pretty bleak for the recreational vehicle industry in 2009 when the PR-focused staffs of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) and Barton Gilanelli Associates Inc., RVIA’s long-time agency, first came up with the idea for an “RV Centennial” for 2010.

The plan was to morph the image of the recreational vehicle industry in the national press from a poster child for the Great Recession to something more honorable, dignified and valuable to the American public.

And it worked to perfection, creating an impressive groundswell of positive national press — which is why the RVBusiness staff has named the “RV Centennial” its “2010 Newsmaker of the Year.”

“The primary benefit of the Centennial, and the principal reason that RVIA embraced it, was that it gave our industry a chance to celebrate after almost two years of recessionary misery,” Gary LaBella, RVIA’s outgoing vice president and chief marketing officer, told RVBusiness. “This industry needed something to rally around, to smile about, to unify over and to help make us feel good about ourselves.”

B.J. Thompson, president of B.J. Thompson Associates, Mishawaka, Ind., and chairman of RVIA’s Public Relations Committee, agrees with a number of other industry insiders that the “RV Centennial” was the right idea at the right time.

“I think it (the Centennial) was particularly significant at the time, considering the state of our economy and the fact that a lot of people were thinking that it was the end of the RV industry,” said Thompson.

“And the 100 years of the RV industry — and the celebration of it — was particularly pertinent at that time because it clearly showed with the historical facts that the RV industry has successfully gone through wars and economic depressions that were significantly worse than what we were experiencing at that time.

David Woodworth

David Woodworth

In establishing 2010 as the rightful year for the Centennial, RVIA turned to three respected RV history experts: David Woodworth (a collector of early RVs and camping memorabilia); Al Hesselbart, an archivist for the RV/MH Heritage Foundation Inc.’s Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind.) and Roger White (an associate curator for the Smithsonian Institution). All three agreed that the first commercial motorized campers were built in 1910.

“The first motorized campers were built in 1910,” Woodworth stated in the first of many RVIA Centennial press releases. “Before that, people camped in private rail cars that were pulled to sidings along train routes. The year 1910 brought a new freedom to people who didn’t want to be limited by the rail system. RVs allowed them to go where they wanted, when they wanted.”

With that, RVIA and Barton-Gilanelli went to work building a platform for a year-long “RV Centennial” observance that included a whole menu of media-savvy websites and events that ultimately won the favor of a wide array of mainstream media outlets as well as the country’s public relations trade media, including PR Week and PR News.

It also won a prestigious award in the Silver Inkwell competition sponsored by the International Association of Business Communicators in Washington D.C., where RVIA’s Centennial program was selected “Best of the Best” among 130 entries. And there may be more recognition to come, we’re told, because the RV Centennial program will be entered in additional 2011 award contests that judge 2010 campaigns.

Some of the Centennial’s key elements:

  • A website parading industry history.
  • A special media tour by Woodworth from Elkhart to New York.
  • A Congressional resolution plus legislative proclamations from more than a dozen states.
  • A 100-day tour by “Centennial Charlie,” a stuffed bear inspired by the Go RVing Coalition’s animated ad characters that served as the Centennial mascot at numerous retail shows, manufacturing plants, suppliers and dealerships.
  • A souvenir edition of The Elkhart Truth, the local newspaper.
  • A time capsule now on display at the Hall of Fame museum.
  • A “Salute to Workers,” now permanently displayed at the Hall.
  • Video testimonials from approximately 20 celebrities and political figures.
  • A social media outreach program through which Go RVing’s Facebook fan page and Twitter were utilized to focus attention on the Centennial.
  • Press release templates to be used by industry members to alert local media about the industry’s 100th anniversary and what was being done locally to celebrate.
  • “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to our Centennial” video montage of famous RV moments in film and TV.

Capping it all off was a climactic June 7 industry party at the Hall of Fame that drew scores of people, many of them in the area to attend RVIA’s Committee Week and Annual Meeting. Also adding to the crowd, which drew a large contingent of personnel from Elkhart-area companies, was a meeting of the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds’ (ARVC) Business Forum, whose members had agreed to meet in Goshen so that they could also attend the party.

“The June 7 event on the grounds of the beautiful RV/MH Hall of Fame & Museum, under sparkling blue skies and with 1,100 happy faces, was a party for the ages, perfectly punctuated by a moving, memorable salute to our workers who are the heart and soul of our business,” said LaBella.

“Centennial was the right celebration for the right time,” reiterated Frank Gilanelli, president of Philadelphia-based Barton-Gilanelli. “Every facet of the RV industry at this party — from campground owners to distributors to suppliers to manufacturers to dealers — took great pride in the RV’s 100-year anniversary.

“And it was the catalyst that Barton-Gilanelli used to get all of these media outlets to do stories and focus their attention on the good things that the RV industry offers,” said Gilanelli, whose support team of Fran Conner and Jon Tancredi played a key role.

“You know, we had The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, CNBC, ‘The Today Show.’ We kicked off the whole thing in front of 30 Rock (30 Rockefeller Center in New York City) with an antique RV and a modern one — just tremendous.

“And the feather in the cap was having one of the most popular shows in the history of TV — “Jeopardy” — doing a whole category about RV’s. Who would have ever thought of that, were it not for the publicity surrounding the Centennial?”

Other major news stories in 2010:

RV Industry’s Continued Rebound: Last year’s Newsmaker of the Year, “The RV Industry’s Resurgence,” could have easily served as this year’s top news story as well, considering the hundreds of stories that RVBUSINESS.com posted on rebounding stock prices, production levels and shipments that were up 52.6% through October. “Although the wounds of the recession haven’t all healed yet and there were still too many business failures to report last year, it’s hard to ignore all the ‘cup-half-full’ news that proliferated in 2010.”

Market Share Consolidation: Fewer companies are controlling more market share, particularly in the towable arena, Statistical Surveys Inc. confirms. Thor Industries Inc. (37.2% towable market share) and Forest River Inc. (29.4%) together occupy 66.6% of the nation’s towable RV retail sales. Add Jayco Inc’s 11.6% to that, and you’ve got three companies accounting for 78.2% — nearly four of every five — of U.S. trailer sales. While the motorized category is not quite so consolidated at this point, it’s clear that the “Big Two,” Thor and Forest River, are becoming even more critical factors through acquisition (Thor recently purchased Heartland RV LLC) and expansion (Thor in 2010 launched Redwood RV in Syracuse, Ind., while Forest River started Shasta Recreational Vehicles in Middlebury, Ind.)

Campgrounds Outperform Economy: The big news in the RV park and campground sector is that — with the exception of one fairly soft year in 2008 — the accommodations sector has trudged right through the bulk of this global recession. And that fortunate trend continued in 2010. Kampgrounds of America Inc.’s 460-plus parks experienced year-over-year gains in each of the year’s first 10 months, while occupancies and revenues were also up at Cincinnati-based Leisure Systems Inc.’s 75 franchised Jellystone Camp-Resorts. That, in turn, is consistent with what North America’s independent parks are reporting.

Forest River Inc. open house in September

Forest River Inc. open house in September

The Emergence of Open House Week: One of the more interesting industry developments in the wake of the global recession is a mushrooming fall event called Open House Week in and around Elkhart County, Ind. This whole spontaneous turn of events was triggered by RV-building powerhouse Forest River Inc., which in late September 2008 invited hundreds of dealers to the grounds around its Elkhart headquarters for social hour and a good look a new model year products. By this past fall, nearly 20 other companies — to varying degrees — had joined the fray by inviting dealers to their respective facilities on the exact same September week. Forest River’s management doesn’t seem to mind and, in fact, has said that the more dealers that come to town, the better it is for everyone. Now, a lot of people are waiting to see what’s up for Open House Week — 2011.

Diesel Engine Debate Simmers: When the Environmental Protection Agency approved its 2010 diesel emissions standards, it didn’t tell diesel engine manufacturers such as Cummins and Navistar how to meet those more stringent objectives. So, the two companies and their customers have developed their own engine blueprints — Navistar with a variation of its “Exhaust Gas Recirculation” (EGR) approach and Cummins with a new aftermarket system known as Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR). Without belaboring the details, the rhetoric between SCR partisans, led by Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp., and Navistar’s pro-EGR Monaco people has gotten pretty heated this year and generated more than its share of web postings and news stories.

Winnebago’s Towable Acquisition: Motorhome builder Winnebago Industries Inc. in late December finalized the surprising $5.7 million purchase of SunnyBrook Manufacturing Inc., a relatively small towable RV manufacturer in Middlebury, Ind. The transaction, completed through a newly formed, wholly-owned Winnebago subsidiary called Winnebago of Indiana LLC, marks recovering Winnebago’s first buyout of another company in 20 years and its first entry into the faster growing towable arena in 40 years. The SunnyBrook deal also puts the Iowa coach builder on the front line of northern Indiana’s supplier-rich RV-building center for the first time.

Major Association Transitions: Linda Profaizer’s announcement earlier this year that she was retiring as president and CEO of ARVC at the end of the year didn’t come as total shock. A respected exec, she’d joined the RV park & campground trade group in 2000 after having spent 29 years with Woodall’s Publications Corp. On the other hand, news that Gary LaBella was resigning his post as vice president of communications at RVIA was a bit more revelatory because nobody really expected that LaBella, who’s played a pivotal role in shaping the industry’s message through public relations for 32 years and as staff liason for the Go RVing Coalition the past 16 years, was ready to hang up his spurs and retire. In fact, some people still don’t think he will.

The Ongoing “Green” Movement: The need to be politically correct, technically savvy and earnestly fuel efficient has taken hold of the RV industry in a big way — from the inclusion of light-weight materials like Azdell composites to whole finished units manufactured by a host of companies from Forest River Inc. to Jayco Inc., Earthbound LLC and Evergreen Recreational Vehicles LLC. Playing a key role in much of this are third-party certification companies T.R. Arnold & Associates Inc., of Elkhart, Ind., and NTA Inc. of Nappanee.

Among the other front-page stories:

  • “Virtual conventions” like that introduced this past fall by Art Lieberman in the campground sector and a new one announced by the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) for March of 2011.
  • The trend toward “cabins” and “lodges,” more sedentary dwellings, in many North American parks is real, having prompted a number of RV builders to alter their strategies somewhat in product development.
  • The shift to towable RVs has reached a point where even the venerable Family Motor Coach Association is hosting trailer owners at is 2011 convention.
  • RVDA celebrated its 40th birthday during its annual Con/Expo in Las Vegas in October and was pleased to inform attendees that the association’s financial situation, “after adjusting to the new normal,” was showing signs of recovery.
  • Affinity Group Inc.’s Rally July 22-25 in Louisville reflected a new order in the consumer rally business, with some 2,867 coach owners and 10,000 attendees escaping the sweltering heat in the air conditioned Kentucky Exposition Center — almost as if the recession had faded.
  • The Escapees RV Club’s 50th birthday party took place Sept. 12-17 at the Elkhart County Fairgrounds in Goshen, Ind., drawing more than a thousand of the club’s loyal members.
  • Dometic Corp.’s move from Elkhart, Ind., to Louisville, announced in June, left Elkhart business leaders scratching their heads. The reason, said President Doug Whyte, was a need to find a place “from which we could further grow these business units.”

Meanwhile, industry watchers will remember warmly those left behind in the obituary pages of 2010, including ElDorado’s Bob Stewart, association activist and supplier Al Ruhl, Chinese market entrepreneur Bill Horvath, Teton’s Robert “Boots” Ingram, Art Decio’s wife and longtime companion Patricia Decio, Escapees RV Club co-founder Joe Peterson, former RVDA head James Summers and two of Coachmen Industries Inc.’s founding fathers: brothers Keith and Claude Corson.

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