Parents pushing kids in strollers. Families walking through and looking at RVs. And yes, plenty of Baby Boomers looking at purchasing their first RV or trading in their old one for something new.
That scene is being repeated over and over again in crowded exhibition hallways across the country as the RV selling season gets into full swing. And if the crowds at major winter RV shows are any indication, 2014 looks to be another strong year for RV sales.
“Attendance has been great,” said Scott Tuttle, president of Livin’ Lite RV in Wakarusa, Ind., which was acquired by Thor Industries Inc. in August of 2013. “If the retail shows at the beginning of the year really start out strong, it’s usually a great indicator for the rest of the summer. Many people that go to these shows are shopping and then they end up buying in the spring and the summer. Sales at shows are great, but you are really setting up your dealership for the whole year.”
Bob Martin, president and CEO of Elkhart-based Thor is also encouraged by the early show numbers. “Starting in January, we had great shows in Tampa and Cleveland,” said Martin. “We look at buying signs and trends for the industry. Those were some great early signs and the backlogs reflect that.”
Doug Gaeddert, general manager for Elkhart-based Forest River Inc. and Recreation Vehicle Industry (RVIA) chairman, said of two of the recent shows in Novi, Mich., and Minneapolis “were phenomenal.” Mike Terlep, president of Forest River’s Coachman RV division, agreed, reporting that crowds and purchases are up for his company at all major shows, making him optimistic for the entire year.
Sid Johnson, longtime marketing director for Jayco Inc. in Middlebury, Ind., said that strong attendance has translated into strong sales as research of the builder’s dealerships indicated that 30% can trace attendance at a retail show to an actual purchase.
“In the month of February and January, there are number of shows on any given weekend, and a number of retail shows in major cities,” said Johnson. “It’s what we call show season. It’s a huge part of the sale process for RV dealers.”
This year, he’s noticed not only large crowds, but a couple of other things he’s not used to seeing in his many years at shows.
“We’re seeing, for the most part, huge crowds of younger people with children, elementary school children, even kids in strollers,” Johnson said. “The other interesting thing is, and this is probably due to the Internet, customers are very knowledgeable about what they want to look at before they get there. Because they know a lot about the products before they arrive, the end result is many dealers are closing more sales at these shows than they normally would.”
Motorhomes, as they did last year, are again doing well nationally at the shows, Johnson said.
University of Michigan economist Richard Curtin, who has long studied the industry, has already predicted a 6% increase over last year’s 321,000-plus shipment total. But Johnson, Gaeddert and Tuttle believe their brands might do far better than that, based on the strong show attendance.
Curtin adjusted his prediction five times last year, Gaeddert noted, adding, “I have 14 different Forest River divisions, and the net increase over last January in those 14 divisions is 28% in spite of the weather. I think we are on target for growth that’s higher than 6%. I am certainly not shooting for 6%.”
Tuttle believes Livin’ Lite will continue its growth spurt in 2014, again outpacing the industry. “We’ve had more growth than the industry the last four years,” he said. “We are hoping for 25%.”
Johnson also believes Jayco and the industry will do well. “I don’t think it will go any higher than what it went this year (12.4% industry wide), but I think it will blow by 6%,” he said.
Martin said that even with the challenging weather some shows have faced, if it’s just cold, people will show up because they simply want to get out of the house. “They would rather go to an RV show and get them in that spring mode and get them excited to get out,” he said.
After all the numbers come in from the 15 shows on the first weekend of February, Martin believes the industry will have a good idea of 2014.
“As we get into the season, spring and summer look to be strong because of the very strong backlog and strong retail activity and very strong show attendance,” he said.