No one really knows how many North American RV retailers to expect at Elkhart County’s 4th Annual RV Open House Week, set to take place Sept. 19-23 in and around the northern Indiana city of Elkhart, because that’s the way things work with the open house — a rather relaxed event with no real boss or steering committee or formal sponsor.
Launched in the depths of the recession at Elkhart-based Forest River Inc., it was initially conceived as — and still is very much today — a means for dealers and manufacturers to sit down and enjoy a beer – or root beer – and visit in a casual, low-pressure atmosphere.
And while estimates for this year run as high as 4,000 dealer personnel, Forest River President and CEO Pete Liegl isn’t really predicting how many dealers will be in town for the 2011 open house. But he is expecting this year’s attendance to exceed the 3,000-plus retail attendees who converged on Elkhart last September.
“I think we probably will have more people attending this year than last year because word gets around,” Liegl told RVBUSINESS.com. “And, by the same token, there are other manufacturers besides Forest River having their open houses also, which brings more people in. And if a dealer is here for somebody else, they are going to swing by some of the other manufacturers.”
Here’s a few more remarks from Liegl from a recent interview slated for publication in the September/October issue of RVBusiness — an issue that’s scheduled to include rather detailed locations for open house participants and for which last-minute entries may be accepted as late as tomorrow (Aug. 16) morning by contacting RVB Editor Bruce Hampson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RVB: So, Pete, you see the open house concept continuing to gain traction?
Liegl: I believe it will, at least in the short term. The timing is far better than the timing at Louisville. Louisville is too late for a dealer to take on a new product, in my estimation.
RVB: While some industry people think Louisville’s too late, others claim the open house is too early.
Liegl: Could be, I guess. The open house might be a little early, but I don’t think so. It lets the dealer see and plan if he is thinking of adding a new line. It gives him adequate time to figure out what he wants, what he needs, how it fits in with his other products, how the programs work for various companies that he might be taking a line on from. And the show season’s right around the corner.
RVB: All in all, then, where do you see this event going in the future?
Liegl: I do not know. I guess I plan on really paying attention to it this year. There has been a lot of talk about if we have these open houses, how does that affect the Louisville Show? I’m buying just as much space, if not more space, at Louisville than I did last year. I’m totally open to anything there. Whatever best fits the dealers’ needs, that’s what we ought to do. And if it’s Louisville that fits the dealers’ needs or these product shows, that’s where we ought to go. The dealer is who we ought to be servicing here.
RVB: Inasmuch as the open house remains a very loose slung event with no real steering committee or formal organization behind it, do you see a time when the manufacturers locally — or nationally — start working more together to plan and coordinate it?
Liegl: There has been some mutual agreement between Forest River and a competitor saying, ‘Hey, why not work together?’ Quite specifically, we were very open regarding the dates when we were having it and not BSing anybody. If a dealer wants to see other peoples’ product when he is in here seeing ours, that’s his business. If he thinks he ought to, then he should. A dealer ought to stock and sell the product he can make the most money on — period. If we are not competitive with our product and our pricing, we ought to pay the price.
RVB: So, you’re open to wherever it might go in the future?
Liegl: Certainly. And if it fizzles in the future, then it fizzles. If Louisville fizzles, then it fizzles. It’s all about what’s best for the dealer.
RVB: In a rather interesting twist, we hear that Forest River and Thor are going to operate a shuttle between each others’ exhibits on County Road (C.R.) 6.
Liegl: That’s my understanding. That’s fine because dealers are here to see product and enjoy the company of other dealers and the staffs of various manufacturers. And if we’re drinking, we shouldn’t be driving. That’s why the more shuttle buses we have, the better. And if we have an agreement between Thor and ourselves, that’s what we ought to do. We want everyone to be safe.
RVB: How come Forest River moved its open house from the grounds around your headquarters on the west side of Elkhart to your recently purchased Dynamax Corp. facilities on C.R. 6?
Liegl: The main reason is that we’ve always put up a tent, and we’ve been very fortunate to have had good weather for the number of years we’ve had it down here. But I know, statistically speaking, one year we are going to have miserable weather, and that tent, sitting where it is, is going to flood.
Now, we’ve been fortunate enough to squeak by without that happening. But I know darn well it’s going to happen if we keep doing it there. We have some decent facilities at Dynamax, and it’s a new addition to Forest River, so its a logical place to have it. We’ve got room out back that we can use and already have talked to Dick Strefling, who we bought Dynamax from, so we have adequate room. We have up to 50 acres there if we need it.
RVB: In summary, the open house is about dealer rapport. That’s the real magic of the open house, isn’t it? I mean, dealers can come in and spend a whole day looking at equipment, eat some ribs, socialize and get out of town.
Liegl: Certainly. We pay for the meals and hotel rooms here. It’s the dealers’ show. We’re there for the dealer. If the banker wants to come, we are not there for the banker. We’ve got the rest of the time in our whole life to talk to the banker or any supplier. We can’t do several things at once and do them correctly. And our No. 1 priority is the dealer, period. If the dealer just wants to sit and not do anything but socialize and drink beer, that’s what we are going to do.
I want our people talking to dealers and resolving any problems or situations we might have with them, whether it be a service, parts or communication problem. We ought to be talking to the dealer about what he likes or dislikes about our product and then take notes and scrutinize things and make the proper decisions based on their input. That’s what we’re there for. We only have a precious couple of days — same with Louisville.