Indiana’s Elkhart County has been the RV manufacturing capital of the world 52 weeks a year, according to a report by WNDU TV, South Bend.
And now, for one week a year, it’s the home of an open house for RV dealers that has become so big, some feel the event rivals what has traditionally been the industry’s premier trade show in Louisville.
“It’s getting more and more comparable to Louisville,” said Joe Murray of Canada-based Roadtrek Motorhomes Inc. “I think we’re going to, we may see some transition where dealers are going to stop going to Louisville and come here in place.”
Today, for the first time ever, Roadtrek was taking part in Elkhart’s Open House for dealers despite the fact that all of the units are made in Kitchener, Ontario.
“I think if you’re a major entity in the RV business it’s to the point now where you need to be here,” said Murray. “It’s like our Louisville show, you know, if you’re not there, it’s like you’re not in business.”
That’s high praise for an Elkhart event that had humble beginnings. “Well, the first show, we were the only ones,” said Doug Gaeddert, of Forest River Inc.
WNDU reported that four years ago, Forest River held its first open house for dealers. It came at a time when many RV companies were going out of business or bankrupt, and Forest River wanted to show dealers that it was still solid and here to stay.
“You know, expectations at that time is that we would certainly do business, because we’re in business to do business, but we far surprised I think anybody’s expectations as the amount of volume that was written,” said Gaeddert.
During this year’s dealer open house week, Forest River is one of 25 companies taking part. “And today, you know this industry, there’s not a lot of pioneering that goes on after something has been pioneered, a good idea gets jumped on and built upon,” said Gaeddert.
Gaeddert said that he welcomed the out-of-towners, and welcomed the competition.
One Elkhart open house ‘first timer’ with a big name leased the former Fastec plant, hoping the trip would be a win-win for Winnebago Industries Inc.
“The event has continued to grow, but we were outside of the footprint of Elkhart, based in Iowa as we are,” said Chad Reece of Forest City, Iowa-based Winnebago.
The problem was solved when Winnebago bought Middlebury based manufacturer SunnyBrook RV. To make up for lost time, the two companies brought a larger number of units to display.
“This is a great venue because the manufacturers have the ability to showcase as much product as they can possibly bring,” said SunnyBrook’s Fred Hershberger. RV makers apparently don’t have the same luxury at the Louisville show. “At Louisville, some of these product lines where I’ve brought 13 different models in a single product line (to Elkhart), at Louisville, I might be able to show three or four.”
At Forest River, where it all began, there was enough room for an elephant ear booth while buses shuttled dealers to and from their hotels.
Forest River expects about 3,000 dealer representatives to visit the plant during open house week.
“Louisville may see some decline, it may not, at this point there hasn’t been an attrition,” said Gaeddert. “The dealer is going to decide, dealers want to come here, we’ll be here. Dealers want to do Louisville in addition to the open house week, we’ll be in Louisville. The dealers will determine the fate of both.”
Gaeddert says that a survey was taken after last year’s show in Louisville and that it showed dealers overwhelmingly wanted to keep the Louisville show going at its regularly scheduled time.