Watch today’s Featured Video, courtesy of WSBT-TV, South Bend, Ind., about the following story on the new Campers Inn RV dealership in Elkhart, Ind.
There are more positive signs for Elkhart’s RV industry. A new dealership has recently opened its doors, and business is booming.
Before the economy took a turn for the worse, there were nearly a dozen RV dealerships in Elkhart. Now there are four, including the new dealership: Campers Inn.
Linda Herriott and her husband are in the market for a new RV.
“Well, we are looking for something we can live in full-time. Something that has got all the amenities,” Herriott said.
And they are not the only potential buyers out there. Just ask Tom Dewalt. “Business has been surprisingly strong. We have had a lot of traffic,” Dewalt said.
Dewalt is the location manager for Campers Inn, which just opened in July. Managers there have been keeping tabs on the number of customers, and last Saturday there were too many to count.
“It just says ‘Too many.’ We were just unable to keep up, so it just says ‘Too many.’ It was a crazy day,” said Dewalt as he displayed a customer log book.
Dewalt is certainly not complaining. In fact, on that Saturday, Campers Inn sold nine RVs. Dewalt said it could be a sign the industry is starting to rebound.
“I think the industry really bottomed out and is on its way back up,” he said. “I am not sure it is going to be a steep climb, but we will take it as we can get it, and we have been very happy with what we have been seeing so far.”
Dewalt said five more RVs were sold on Tuesday. And while he is cautiously optimistic a recovery is on the way, not every buyer who walks through the door is ready to spend money.
“We are just looking right now, probably won’t buy for a while,” said on browsing customer.
But at least they are looking.
Dewalt said Campers Inn has six locations around the nation and Elkhart’s sales numbers rank in the middle, which he says is pretty good for a brand new business.
It’s been just three weeks since the new Campers Inn RV dealership opened on Cassopolis Street in Elkhart, Ind., but already Tom Dewalt, location manager, likes what he sees.
“I am happy with the traffic we’ve been getting. (Even) In great years, this would have been good,” he told RVBUSINESS.com.
The store, owned by East Coast dealer Jeff Hirsch, exclusively carries Forest River Inc. products — both Forest River and Coachmen RV towables and motorized brands. New inventory is arriving daily.
Dewalt also is selling a decent number of FEMA trailers Hirsch picked up at auction, some of them, especially the early units sold directly through RV dealers in 2005, in pretty good condition, he said.
The property is located on Cassopolis Street on the north side of Elkhart, the main point of entry into Elkhart from the Indiana Toll Road (Interstate 80/90) and was formerly occupied by Michiana RV, a former Coachmen company store. It covers seven acres and features a 15,000-square-foot enclosed showroom and 16 service bays.
Dewalt concedes that he is starting slowly, having rehired some of the former Michiana RV employees, including certified service techs who were laid off when the dealership closed.
“We already have most of our lines settled,” said Dewalt. “It will be business as usual for the most part. Right now our focus is on getting our processes and systems in place, people trained and Internet up and running. I’m looking to actively buy some used.”
He expects to do a significant amount of business over the Internet.
Hirsch is leasing the site from Forest River, which obtained the former Michiana RV dealership property when it bought the RV segment of Coachmen Industries Inc. late in 2008.
The property sat idle for the past year and a half until Hirsch and Forest River hooked up. Hirsch also owns stores in Kingston and Merrimack, N.H., Leesburg, Fla., Raynham, Mass., and Macon, Ga.
“We’re not standing alone in this,” Dewalt stressed. “We’re part of the Campers Inn operation.”
Like Hirsch, Dewalt grew up in the RV business. His parents started Dewalt’s RV in Easton, Pa., in 1966, the same year Hirsch’s father started his first dealership in New Hampshire.
Dewalt and the younger Hirsch participated in the same Spader 20 Group and became good friends after Dewalt left the family business, which subsequently closed, and joined Coachmen. Dewalt was working on a special project for Coachmen when the RV segment was sold to Forest River.
That job went away, but Dewalt took on a Coachmen territory in the Southeast selling Catalina travel trailers. With retail selling in his blood, however, Dewalt welcomed the opportunity to join Hirsch when the Elkhart store post opened up. “Jeff and I share a lot of the same philosophies in business. It’s a nice fit for me,” he said. “For me, retail is what I know and wanted to get back into that.”
Hirsch is the third out-of-state dealer to try the Elkhart County market in the past five years. Two earlier attempts, by Florida-based Suncoast RV and Pleasanton, Calif.-based DeMartini RV, both failed during the recent recession.
Why will this be any different?
“The market here is difficult but there has been a terrific amount of attrition.,” said Dewalt. “There used to be 15 dealerships in Elkhart. Now, counting us, there are five. This is a tremendous opportunity. We have low overhead, despite this facility. We don’t need a lot of business to make this work.”
And in Dewalt’s view, there’s still magic to selling RVs in Elkhart, Ind. “A tremendous amount of people come through here from out of the area who want to see if they can make a deal in the ‘RV Capital of the World,’ so that’s driving some traffic,” he said.
Campers Inn, an RV dealership based in New Hampshire, has opened for business in Elkhart, Ind.
The opening marks the family-owned company’s sixth location in the U.S. and the first dealership off the East Coast, the South Bend Tribune reported.
Scott Hayden, director of operations, said the company is thrilled to open a location in the “RV capital of the world.”
“Keeping this area alive and moving is important to us,” Hayden said. “The truth is, we were extremely impressed with the growth potential this area has, especially amongst the recession.”
He expects a slower startup than usual and is only hiring a total of 10 people, but hopes to have 40 to 50 employees when the economy picks back up.
Campers Inn will focus on sales, service and parts for Forest River Inc. brands and is in the former facility of Michiana RV on Cassopolis Sreett.
Two million dollars was spent acquiring the building, and another $5 million purchasing inventory for the location, he said.
“We’re in it to win it,” Hayden said. “We hope to make this our flagship store.”
Other sales locations are in Kingston, N.H., Leesburg, Fla., Merrimack, N.H., Raynham, Mass., and Macon, Ga. The dealership is owned by Jeff Hirsch. The dealership has been honored by RVBusiness magazine as a Top 50 RV Dealer.
Campers Inn had been looking to expand in Elkhart for the last year, but didn’t start aggressively pursuing the area until about 90 days ago.
Hayden said Elkhart city officials bent over backward in helping the company with the application and zoning process.
“They were very welcoming and excited to have us,” Hayden said.
He’s confident that Campers Inn can establish itself as one of the premier RV dealerships in this area.
Northern Indiana is still a very viable RV market, he said.
“The RV industry didn’t close down here,” Hayden said. “It just took a vacation.”
Viking RV has signed more than 30 new dealers to represent its Viking or Coachmen Clipper brands of tent trailers during the first four months of this year.
”We have added a ‘Who’s Who’ of new dealers from across the nation, from Freedom RV in Washington to Holiday on Wheels in Florida, and from Campers Inn in New England to Happy Daze in California” said Jerry Sell, national sales manager for the Forest River Inc. subsidiary in Centerville, Mich., according to a news release.
“The current economic situation and the trend toward smaller, more economical tow vehicles is creating a new audience for our products,” Sell said. “Dealers are also recognizing that this customer is the first-time buyer, and could lead to more business as their customer follows the traditional trade-up pattern.
“Viking has been manufacturing tent trailers for almost 40 years, and dealers appreciate the attention to detail and innovative features that only a manufacturer focused on tent trailers can provide.”