A “Who’s Who” from the RV industry as well as a strong blue collar contingent from northern Indiana RV factories helped celebrate the industry’s first 100 years Monday night (June 7) at the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind.
Sponsored by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), the RV Centennial Celebration attracted some 1,000 people for an evening of food, fellowship, videos, music and awards, capped off by a rollicking fireworks display.
“It was a great success tonight. It came off just as we planned it,” RVIA President Richard Coon said as the first fireworks by Night Magic blazed across the clear night sky at the program’s conclusion.
Earlier, celebrants dined on barbecue pork, chicken and brats; took their aim at a dunk tank featuring industry leaders such as Coon, former RVIA Chairman Carl Pfalzgraf and RVDA President Mike Molino as targets to raise money for a local charity; roasted marshmallows; inspected vintage RVs on display; and heard talks by industry figures Joe Cahn (“The Commissioner of Tailgating”) and RV historian Al Hesselbart.
“This is what the success of the RV industry is all about,” said RVIA Chairman Jim Sheldon, an executive with Monaco RV LLC. “We are competitors but we can come together to celebrate as friends.” The highlight, in his mind, was the recognition of the “production workers who are the heart and soul of our industry.”
Indeed, dozens of blue collars workers from numerous RV firms attended, posing early for a group photo that will become part of the permanent display at the Hall of Fame and then receiving a hearty round of applause during the program some time later.
“This couldn’t have been timed any better,” said Gregg Fore, RVIA first vice chairman and president of Dicor Corp., Elkart. “You see here tonight a cross-section of the industry. We’re lucky to be a part of it.”
Following the outdoor events, a fast-paced, 90-minute program inside the Hall celebrated the industry in a number of ways.
• Fore introduced a video commemorating the travels of “Centennial Charlie,” a stuffed bear that visited 19 states in 100 days to promote the centennial. Charlie was escorted into the hall by Winnebago Industries Inc. President and CEO Bob Olson and Forest River Inc. General Manager Doug Gaeddert.
• PR Committee Chairman B.J. Thompson and RVIA Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Gary LaBella introduced Part 1 of a video “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Our Centennial,” depicting RV highlights of the past half century. Scenes from “The Long, Long Trailer” (1953) to more recent clips from “The David Letterman Show,” “Conan O’Brien” and even “The Simpsons” cast the RV in a favorable, though oftentimes humorous, light.
“Let’s keep laughing and smiling,” Thompson and LaBella said in closing. “It’s the best way to get through the next 100 years.” Part 2 will be shown during a Wednesday luncheon at the Century Center as part of RVIA Committee Week, which is taking place in nearby South Bend.
• Sheldon presented a wooden time capsule crafted by a Nappanee, Ind., firm, containing RV memorabilia to Hall of Fame Executive Director Carl Ehry with instructions to have it opened in 25 years.
• Congratulatory video clips from a variety of government officials and private industry were interspersed during the video program.
• A congratulatory letter from President Obama to U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), was read commemorating the industry’s centennial.
• At the conclusion, the audience joined in singing the song “Drive! Drive!” written especially for the RV celebration. Sung by the Nashville group “Fifth Gear” to the tune of “American Pie,” the song captured the spirit and essence of the RV lifestyle.
Among the guests of honor at the program were Donnelly and his November Republican opponent, Jackie Walorski.
Though planned many months in advance, Monday’s celebration was well-timed, coming as the industry is pulling out of its worst downturn in more than 30 years and beginning to record a real upturn. Industry leaders shared these comments with RVBUSINESS.com:
- “We’re really having a good summer and expect to have a good fall,” said Derald Bontrager, president and COO of Jayco Inc., Middlebury, Ind., where sales are up 20% over last year.
- “There are still some challenges,” said Mike Terlep, president of Forest River’s Coachmen Division, “like the volatility of the market, but overall, the market is much better than it was a year ago.”
- Don Clark, president of Dutchmen Manufacturing Inc., Goshen, Ind., said the RV industry has become “robust” again and is “strong in all segments.”
- Bill Fenech, president of Elkhart-based Thor Motorized, which includes Damon Motor Coach and Four Winds International Corp., said “business is great” but quickly added, “We’re cautiously optimistic.”
- Mark Lucas, president of CrossRoads RV, Topeka, Ind., said business has been surprisingly strong in the Midwest and Northeast.