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Louisville’s Holding Its Own in Changing Times

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December 7, 2013 by   Leave a Comment

Winnebago exhibit in Louisville

Editor’s Note: The following is a column authored by RVBusiness Publisher Sherman Goldenberg offering observations and insights gathered from the recently completed Recreation Vehicle Industry Association’s (RVIA) 51st Annual National RV Trade Show.

As the dust settles from the latest Louisville Show — a convention at which a bunch of us again enjoyed ourselves in the company of good friends – it was evident that the granddaddy of all industry shows, so to speak, still has a place in the hearts of many industry people on the brink of the new calendar year. Given all the conversations that exist about the state of trade shows, I thought I’d reflect for a moment on the RVIA’s 51st Annual National RV Trade Show and its impact on the North American RV industry at large.

So, here are my 10 initial takeaways:

• No. 1: The attendance numbers posted Friday (Dec. 6) on RVBUSINESS.com indicate the industry’s most respected long-term trade show drew 7,751 attendees, a 1% gain over last year for a total that is respectable, but, of course, less than that of the “good old” prerecessionary days. I mean, what isn’t less than before the global downturn, right? And, again, it was a damn good outing for an array of companies amid an upbeat atmosphere that generally reflects the resurgence of this outdoor recreation-based industry.

“I think that, overall, in our conversations among our staff people, we felt the mood was upbeat,” agreed James Ashurst, vice president of public relations and advertising for RVIA, with whom we caught up yesterday. “I mean, people really feel good again, and that’s something that was lacking everywhere for awhile. So, it’s great to see people feeling good and really excited about 2014 and beyond that.

“And I think another takeaway among both manufacturers and dealers that we spoke with was that people were shopping for new products and that dealers were buying new lines and that manufacturers were not only signing on new dealers but were expanding into new inventory with dealers they already had.”

• No. 2: Indeed, there was, without a doubt, great traffic at a number of displays like Jayco Inc. and EverGreen Recreational Vehicles LLC as well as the Forest River Inc. and Thor Industries Inc. divisions and, we’re told, an impressive number of sales were finalized at the show. At the end of the day, of course, that’s what that 250-mile drive was all about, right?

• No. 3: The impact of foreign show attendees, especially companies from the Pacific Rim, and now Europe, was huge at Louisville. And a number of these companies are setting up shops in the U.S.

• No. 4: Although we don’t pause often enough to acknowledge it, the Louisville Show, in my opinion, brings a touch of class to an industry that, with all due respect to Elkhart’s RV Open House, is sometimes lacking in industry affairs.

• No. 5: Also setting Louisville apart from the crowd in a good way is RVIA’s Outlook Breakfast, a somewhat briefer version that on the opening day of the show featured an outline of the association’s – and industry’s — 2014 agenda from RVIA President Richard Coon and updates on the latest Go RVing developments from coalition co-chairs Bob Wheeler and Tom Stinnett.

No. 6: The show didn’t garner universal approval from all attendees, of course. But, hey, what does, especially given the ongoing debate with respect to industry shows? You can’t expect to please all the people all the time, especially during these times when every U.S. convention-sponsoring business category has taken its hits.

“Like any show, you’re going to get different responses,” Ashurst deftly concedes. “A lot of people said they weren’t sure what to expect because of the fall show (Open House). Some folks said that Louisville exceeded their expectations; some others felt that it was just about right and others were saying that they weren’t sure yet what to think. But, you know, when you look at what’s taking place in the industry over the course of the past five years – when you look at what the size of the industry is now versus what it was before (the recession), and the fact that the players are bigger and the industry’s smaller — I think the most important takeaway is that Louisville is still a viable option for all parties involved.”

Supplier displays in the Expo Center

No. 7: Among the most ardent critics, from all we can tell, are suppliers, some of whom have been asking themselves for awhile now about where they fit into this whole show picture. I mean, they get to see dealers at distributor shows this winter, but many of them feel that their face time with manufacturers has been pared down to an unacceptable level by the combined fact that they have no place at the Open House table and because OEMs apparently aren’t sending personnel around Louisville like they used to.

The upshot? Something’s probably going to have to give here.

“What we’ll do – and I think what the other bigger suppliers may do – is we’ll host our own open houses of sorts in a different time frame to get the OEM decision makers in front of us, and we’ll walk them through out product lineup,” said one significant supplier. “And I’m hearing more and more about suppliers looking to do that. We currently do it on kind of an ongoing basis during the year, but if there’s not going to be a formal opportunity at Louisville, then I think we’ve got to start to think about when’s the right time of year. You know, we don’t have anything planned at the moment, but that’s kind of the lines in which we start to think.”

No. 8: Dealers, like David Dalton of Main Trailer Sales, Roswell, N.M., on the other hand, seemed somewhat oblivious to all this scuttlebutt and were instead generally focused on their product-perusing mission at hand. “I thoroughly have enjoyed the Louisville show – some of the best product I’ve ever seen,” said Dalton. “Our main purpose for coming is that we always see what’s up and coming, but it seems that the luxury side of the fifth-wheel market is what we came to truly check out, and we got to see everything we needed to see to make the right decisions.”

So, despite the ongoing show debate, Dalton sees the value in both Louisville and the Open House at this point. “I think this is still a very important venue,” he told RVB. “I don’t know if I would come every single year, but I’ll still need to be here. Besides, there’s no Jack Fry’s (Restaurant) in Indiana.”

No. 9: Speaking of which, don’t underestimate the “Shrimp & Grits” appetizer (with red eye gravy, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes and country ham) at Jack Fry’s Restaurant in Louisville’s Historic Highlands District.

No. 10: Best new after-hours venue at the Louisville Show: EverGreen’s Tuesday night party at the Hard Rock on 4th Street Live! – a slam dunk.

 

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