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A Sterling Report on Elkhart’s ’14 Open House
The routine that Mike Larson and Jim Glenn follow each September to get to Elkhart County RV Open House Week has evidently become familiar to many U.S RV retailers. In an effort to stock up on new units for the winter show season, Larson and Glenn, co-owners of Outlet Recreation, a towable and motorized RV outfit based in Fargo, N.D., start their 900-mile trek to northern Indiana on Sunday night and stop about halfway before completing their trip the next day.
The dealers said the Open House is well worth the trip, where they were working with existing manufacturers this year while looking to pick up a couple of new lines. “It’s a great time of year for us because our shows start really early, so we have to order at this time of year to get our stuff for show season, so this works out perfect for us,” said Larson, whose company also operates stores in Clearwater and Detroit Lakes, Minn.
The Open House, from the sounds of things, also worked out great this year for an array of U.S. RV manufacturers, as indicated by a spot report based on conversations this week (Sept. 15-19) with the RVBUSINESS.com team.
“Many of the dealers we talked with were very optimistic – pretty confident about retail and wholesale credit, and inventories, which seem to be in good shape as we head into the fall,” Thor Industries Inc. President and CEO Bob Martin told RVBUSINESS.com. “And as they came into the Open House, many dealers were in good spirits coming off a great Hershey Show, and they seemed to like many of the changes we made in product – you know, the real keys, product quality and relationships. And the Open House just helps build that relationship and dealers really seem to enjoy the environment we had, the laid-back feel and the timing – and, probably this year more than ever.
“You know, once again we were blessed with incredible weather and everybody was very positive on product, on the display and as they look at business in general. So, for me, it was a very good Open House.”
Elkhart-based Forest River Inc., which essentially invented the whole Open House concept in 2009, also reportedly posted impressive sales while again entertaining thousands of dealer personnel at its Dynamax facility on the city’s northeast side.
Other comments, reflecting the positive sentiment shared by OEMs, included:
Lance Camper Manufacturing Corp.: National sales manager Gary Conley says the Lancaster, Calif., builder of lightweight towables, has been experiencing a good run in business lately, and the Open House amounts to a cost-effective means of reaching new dealers.
“We have basically been sold out until December of this year in terms of product delivery, which has been fantastic,” said Conley, whose 50-year-old firm was making its first foray to the Elkhart Open House. “And the reason why this show has been so beneficial for us is that we’ve been able to meet dealers that we’ve been prospecting and show them product in a quantity type of situation to basically be able to close those deals and sign up those new dealers.”
“This is the world’s capital of RV manufacturing and all the dealers basically all come here,” added Conley, whose firm has already committed to the same location just east of the Chubby Trout restaurant on County Road 6 for next year. “So, it’s been a very, very cost-effective way to get things done.”
Grand Design RV Co. : “The show was wonderful,” reported Bill Fenech, a co-owner and co-founder of the Middlebury, Ind., manufacturer. “It’s a very interesting dynamic. Business was excellent. Orders exceeded our expectations. But what I’m saying is that it’s a real steady flow. It’s not that overwhelming, cram-packed environment that we get, you know, at some other shows. It was just a very steady excellent crowd. A majority of our dealers came in and ordered product. So, it was excellent in most any way you could measure it. God blessed us with some great weather, so that helped out a lot, too.”
Fenech says it was good omen not only for his year-and-a-half-old firm, but for the industry in general. “I think pretty much everybody’s feeling pretty bullish right now regarding the next two years about the future of our industry,” said Fenech, whose company specializes in towable RV’s.
Heartland RV: Coley Brady, vice president of sales for Heartland RV, told RVBUSINESS.com that the builder posted a record number of orders during the Open House.
“It was a record order count for any show in Heartland’s history,” said Brady, whose Elkhart-based Thor division showed an impressive array of new models. “The Open House is becoming more and more important for setting up our entire year, not only in terms of the number of orders, but also the partnerships that we build with our dealers.”
Brady reported that sales were “across the board” for the towable manufacturer. “All product segments were well received by dealers,” he said, “but we especially saw strong activity in our selection of lightweight laminated and stick-and-tin travel trailers.”
EverGreen Recreational Vehicles LLC: “The show was outstanding,” noted EverGreen President Mark Boessler, whose Middlebury company unveiled its first motorized product, an Imperial Class B, at the Open House. “I think we saw a lot more dealers this year. We stayed later and wrote a lot more business, and I’m sure that’s probably true with every manufacturer. We far exceeded the numbers we budgeted for, so our group is tickled.
“Travel trailer and fifth-wheel divisions booked up really quick,” added Boessler, “so it was a really good show. And what was especially nice about it was we were able to spend a lot of time with each dealership to explain our story and why we think we’re relevant, to strengthen relationships and show the products and their uniqueness. Plus, the weather was outstanding, which helped to make it a great experience for the dealers.”
Newmar Corp.: “The Open House is a good deal for us,” explained Newmar Chairman Dick Parks. “We’ve had some success here, made some contacts with new dealers and saw a lot of our old dealers, and wrote some business. It’s a time when people come with the idea of just visiting the RV manufacturers, and there’s nothing else getting in their way. So, it’s a good deal for us – no doubt about it.”
Parks said that Newmar wasn’t in town to recruit a boatload of new dealers, but was more interested in mixing with those with whom it already does business.
“With what little investment we need to make to be here – so close to home without the travel expenses for our personnel and overnights and what have you – we’ve written about three weeks worth of production so that we’re already into February and shortly into March deliveries to dealers and retail customers,” added John Sammut, vice president of sales, who noted the company will also roll out a full effort at RVIA’s National RV Trade Show in early December. “So, for the return on that minimal investment, I think it’s a terrific event for us.”
KZRV: KZRV came into Elkhart RV Open House Week with strong expectations based on last year’s outcome and ultimately exceeded them.
“It was awesome. It was very good for KZ,” said Marlene Snyder, vice president of sales and marketing for the newly acquired Thor subsidiary, a Shipshewana, Ind., manufacturer that showcased a new high-end Durango Gold fifth-wheel at the Open House. “We had our goals and met them and went over them. We went well over and beyond our expectations, it was just awesome.”
Cruiser RV: Cruiser RV also had an “overwhelmingly positive” Open House, said Jay Mohamed, vice president of sales, noting that his Howe, Ind., firm was able to sign dealers in several major markets in which Cruiser previously did not have a presence, including Houston, Salt Lake City and British Columbia.
“We took a lot of the suggestions from our current dealer partners and were able to implement them. Our products showed well,” Mohamed said, adding the new Stryker toy hauler was a huge success with not only current dealers, but with others who “weren’t on our radar.”
Winnebago Towables: In 2013, Winnebago Towables was located on Executive Parkway not far from the sprawling Thor display at the RV/MH Hall of Fame. This year, however, the fledgling Winnebago Industries Inc. unit, which purchased SunnyBrook RV in 2010 to reenter the towable market, decided to set up its display 14 miles to the east of all the Open House traffic at its manufacturing complex in Middlebury.
And things worked out well, according to Johnny Hernandez, president of Winnebago Towables.
“We had triple the traffic we had last year and we had triple the business,” Hernandez said. “We attribute that to the great weather — we couldn’t have asked for better weather – and to the fact that the dealers who did make the trek spent more time with us and touring our plants. And we did it for a third of the cost we did last year. So, we passed the savings along to our dealers.”
Cricket Trailers: This was the first year Cricket Trailers, a newcomer to the RV industry, established a presence at the Open House. And CEO Garrett Finney said he was able to double the number of dealers selling his highly unique travel trailer.
“We might even triple it after we’re done with follow-up calls,” Finney said, adding that the additional dealers meant Cricket Trailers went from being sold in four states to 11. “We’ve had good growth into new regions and good growth with dealers, and I’m meeting with someone to look to go into Australia.”