OEMs, Dealers: Packed Open House is ‘Best Ever’

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September 22, 2017 by   Leave a Comment

Dealers relax at Open House (Photos by Shawn Spence) 

Neither rainy weather nor sweltering heat could dampen the 10th Annual Elkhart RV Open House, the industry-only show in and around Elkhart, Ind., that featured dozens of manufacturers, thousands of dealers, millions of handshakes and billions of dollars in wholesale business.

There’s no way, of course, to quantify in hard numbers much of what goes on at Open House – although some estimates suggest 2,500 products were on display, 4,000 dealers were in attendance, and $2.5 billion of business took place. But few would argue the Open House’s significance within the industry.

OEMs and dealers told that they were exceedingly busy throughout the three-and-a-half days – not only conducting business, but also strengthening relationships and furthering friendships.

Forest River Inc. General Manager Doug Gaeddert said the week was “absolutely amazing. We thought last year was off the charts. This year blew last year’s charts totally away,” he said. “I was here every night until 11 o’clock when the last bus left and we never had so much fun with our dealer partners. It started Monday and here it is, Thursday morning, when we’re typically trying to break down and take care of just a few folks. But it took me until now to go from one entrance just to get to the halfway point. That’s as far as I’ve been able to get.”

Brian Wilkins, president of New York-based Wilkins Recreational Vehicles Inc., said the Open House was “another great event and, as always, a great opportunity to see a lot of product.”

“We got into Elkhart about 3:30 Tuesday afternoon and we didn’t stop looking at products until today (Thursday) at noon. It’s just a great venue to see a whole lot of product,” he said, adding that the talk of the week was how much of a delay there would be in taking delivery of the products that were ordered due to constrained production. “But that’s a good conversation to have, as opposed to the conversation we were having 10 years ago.”

Grand Design Solitude 373 FB

“There continues to be a lot of good-looking products,” he continued. “There were a lot of neat innovations, too. I wouldn’t say there were huge innovations — although we were impressed by a lot of what MORryde had out there. And, I would say, there were some new floorplans that were innovative; putting a front living room on a 34-foot unit where normally you’re looking at something 38 feet or longer with a front living room. Also — and it was Grand Design, really, that started this — it was good to see OEMs having sofas facing the television rather than off to one side where customers have to turn their heads at a bad angle to watch TV.”

• “We’re still waiting on the final (sales) numbers, but it appears that attendance was up at the Open House,” said Bob Martin, president and CEO of Thor Industries Inc. “Dealers were very optimistic looking at the year ahead and were excited to see all the new products that we introduced. So, it was definitely another great Open House.

“And as you walked our display this year – and hearing from our competitors – the trend toward smaller, lighter towables and easier-to-drive, affordable motorhomes continues to grow, which we all feel is part of that younger buyer coming in. Many of them are first-time RV buyers. So that’s really the exciting part for the industry as a whole – that if we’re attracting younger people to these new product types, it could be great for the long-term growth of the industry.”

• “Business wasn’t good; it was phenomenal. We’ve been slammed every day,” said Forest River General Manager Don Gunden. “But, again, I can’t emphasize enough that this isn’t about how many orders we write. This started out as a ‘pick your partner event’ and it’s still a ‘pick your partner event.’ We build relationships. We get more familiar with our dealers. It’s just more of a family atmosphere. It’s fun. It’s relaxed. It’s not about pounding people for orders; that’s not why we’re here.”

REV Group showed its new Fleetwood Axon at Open House

• Michael Peay, managing partner of Holiday World RV representing six stores in Texas and New Mexico, said this year’s edition affirmed the Open House’s reputation as the “ultimate buying event” for the recreational vehicle industry.

“The Open House affords us the opportunity to view more floorplans in each brand than any other show that we attend,” Peay said. “It also affords us the opportunity to look at competitive floorplans and brands with everybody at each stop being very open and eager to talk to us. It was a great experience.

“The Open House was very good – lots of great products with row after row, brand after brand, of great floorplans and innovations. With all the brands we carry and all of our competitive brands on top of their games, it’s looking very good approaching this next year.”

• Everything Coachmen RV President Mike Terlep saw at the Open House underscored the fact that the RV industry continues to experience an upbeat market. “Yes, it was phenomenal,” said Terlep, whose Forest River division is based in Middlebury, Ind. “Dealer attitudes are incredibly positive. All of the economic indicators bode extremely well for us. Dealer inventories are low and turns are strong. Dealer aging is low, which is good. Demand is still climbing. The demographic change that we all see and talk about is real, and the reception to our products at the Open House was phenomenal – I mean literally phenomenal.

Forest River Arctic Wolf 265DBH8

“We don’t go there to necessarily write orders,” he added. “We go there to listen to our customers, and I think for the most part our customers gave us high scores. There are a couple areas that we need to improve on as a company. But we’re good listeners, having received some good feedback from our dealers. And we’ll focus on those areas. In the meantime, certainly our backlogs grew substantially and it’s back to business building a good quality product and servicing the hell out of customers.”

• “I think it was fantastic, the best Open House ever, and I think all the manufacturers are going to say that, and I think the dealers are getting smarter – making strategic plans to make sure they’ve got product with the increase in manufacturing and the current demand in the marketplace,” said Phil Savari, executive vice president of Gulf Stream Coach Inc., Nappanee, Ind. “And I think there are going to be more orders placed this week in Elkhart County – and in Nappanee, Ind., especially – than at Louisville.

“Everyone is extremely upbeat and wanting the product,” said Savari, noting that Gulf Stream this year has increased its manufacturing capacity by 30% and added a PDI line at dealers’ requests. “I think they’re ordering now because a lot of dealers are worried that they may have missed an opportunity at those early January-February shows last year. Now they’re making sure they have the product already built and available to their customers.”

 • “The show was awesome – a terrific show for us,” said Coley Brady, vice president of sales and marketing for Heartland Recreational Vehicles LLC, a Thor division located in Elkhart, Ind. “Every day we saw a steady flow of traffic. Order counts exceeded last year significantly and we’re getting ready for a great 2018 as the dealers seem to be planning ahead. They understand that lead times are going to get a little longer considering the current (strong) state of the market. And a lot of our dealers are planning ahead and really trying to make sure they have their production slots secured and making sure the orders were placed. So, it was definitely a strong show for Heartland.”

• “It was a great week. We got a lot of business done and everything went according to plan,” said Andy Heck, president of Alpin Haus RV in New York. “Just based on the product we saw, we were very pleased with the price points, and from the looks and appearance to the innovations, the industry is only getting better. They just keep raising the bar, and it makes it tough for us to make a decision because there are plenty of good options out there.

“I think consumers will continue to be excited with what they’ll see at the spring shows,” he continued. “Even what’s considered entry level nowadays has the amenities you used to find only on higher-end product. We were particularly impressed with Prime Time and how they revamped their whole lineup, and Grand Design continues to come out with solid floorplans; the Solitude just knocked it out of the park.”

• Forest City, Iowa-based Winnebago Industries Inc. and its Middlebury, Ind.-based Winnebago Towables division set up shop at a newly constructed exhibition center off County Road 6, about halfway between the Open House displays at the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Forest River’s Dynamax complex.

Scott Degnan, vice president and general manager of the towables division, said they experienced “great results from the show” in terms of both business and relationship building. “It was a great show. We obviously came to a new venue and we didn’t know specifically how well it was going to do, but it did beat our projections of what we thought for attendance, which is wonderful,” Degnan said.

“We introduced a new branding strategy recently,” he continued, “and it really came to light here in front of the dealers. Everything is really branded under the ‘Minnie’ — our brochure says it’s ‘Minnie Time.’ We had great response from the dealers, took a ton of orders which is not only a testament to how strong the industry is, but we feel like we’re partnering with the right dealers now. We’re trying to partner with the stronger dealers and with the protected territories we’re giving them that seems to be a win-win for both us.”

Starcraft GPS at Open House

• Rex Creech, president of Rex Creech & Sons, Wilmington, N.C., and president of the North Carolina RV Dealers Association, said he generally appreciates the Open House for what it offers dealers nationwide. “You get to go in and see what they (OEMs) haven’t done and what they have done,” he said. “You know, some of them did good and some of them didn’t do so good. That’s just the way it is. Some of them are having growing pains just like everybody else is having. Our industry has grown a lot – a whole heck of a lot.”

Having said that, Creech basically likes the Open House the way it is and the fact that dealers can stroll from one manufacturer’s display to the next – from Thor to Forest River – in quick succession. “That’s an advantage for us because we can go to each one,” he said. “And they have the smaller ones on the side of the road, places like that, too. All in all, I think it’s a good showing.”

Creech, in turn, will also attend RVIA’s National RV Trade Show in late November for the first time in about five years because he wants to follow up on some products he’s been looking at and isn’t quite satisfied with yet. “As far as having both of them (both shows),” he said, “I think it’s a waste of time and money with the two of them that close together. I realize that manufacturers tend to come out with other stuff at Louisville to draw a crowd. But if I’d have been satisfied with everything I saw productwise at the Open House, I wouldn’t have gone again this year.”

• For his part, Darrel Friesen, president of All Seasons RV in Yuba City, Calif., and chairman of the Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA), said it was a good show and the products on display showed many subtle changes. Noting he had already completed his orders prior to Open House, Friesen added he thought other dealers must have done the same since he felt attendance was a bit down.


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