The RV Dealers International Convention/Expo, scheduled for Oct. 4-8 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nev., comes at a crucial time for the U.S. economy in general and the RV industry in particular as both work their way out of the tough recession of 2008/2009.
On one hand, the industry’s rebound has exceeded expectations in many ways, especially for manufacturers, suppliers and retailers aligned with the right towable recreational vehicle brands. On the other hand, however, the aftershocks of the Great Recession are obviously still with us in terms of unemployment, stock market fluctuations and a general discomfort among many Americans with regard to the general state of the economy.
And while most Americans assume that the worst is over, many of the nation’s durable good manufacturers – including RV builders — are still looking to bridge their way to the next year and the next level of recovery and to find a comfort zone in this new post-recessionary age.
“There is a consensus we have to recalibrate our definition of what is a good business environment,” said Mike Molino, president of the Fairfax, Va.-based Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA), lead sponsor of October’s annual Con/Expo. “We’re not going to get back to the 400,000-unit years any time soon. We’ll probably never return to that. The next couple of years will be tough, but doable. If dealers stay within the cash structure they have, they will survive. The consumer will come back — slowly. We won’t see a significant increase (in sales) until there is more certainty (about the state of the economy). I’m not so sure the election of 2010 will bring more certainty. That might just bring more confusion.”
But Molino, generally a realist, does tend to see the cup half full.
“The dealers who are still in business, for the most part, are the ones who will survive,” he maintained. “The dealers coming to the convention are in good shape. The shakeout is well on its way to being complete. But it’s not totally over. Dealers are telling me they have inventory but are paying more finance charges on the inventory they have than they used to, and retail financiers are very stringent on who they are lending money to, so the ability to buy a recreational vehicle, the threshold for buying, is higher and the ability to buy is a lot lower.
“Another dynamic is that there is uncertainty among businesses, both large and small, and that drives employment, and employment drives the mentality of the economy,” Molino continued. “When a consumer is hearing levels of unemployment we currently have (around 10%), it’s still not conducive to them going out and buying an RV, even if they can afford to get a loan for an RV. Until unemployment goes down and employment rises, we will have some issues.”
A New Era for the Industry As Well as RVDA’s Con/Expo
The RVDA is tackling this new era head-on with a refreshing revision of the annual convention, which is co-sponsored by RVDA of Canada and the RV Learning Center.
A crowd of between 475 and 550 U.S. and Canadian dealers, with total registrations of about 1,100 attendees, is anticipated for the five-day event.
“I think it’s going to be the best convention ever,” adds Molino. “We’ve got a very, very active committee under (Convention Chairman) Peter Albano. Between him and my staff and the volunteers on the committee, I think they have put together the most pertinent program for dealers and the management level of staff I’ve ever seen.”
As ever, of course, there will be an aggressive educational component including workshops on everything from wholesale and retail financing options to new inventory management strategies and how to reach new customers through innovative marketing communications. And the 2010 convention will again feature an exhibit hall filled with the RV industry’s leading OEM and supplier companies offering products and services to help dealers improve profitability.
But attendees will notice significant changes, starting with the brand committee meetings, closed door sessions in which dealers meet as a group with representatives of the recreational vehicle brands they carry. RVDA’s “Partners in Progress” brand committees, among other things, will work on important dealer-manufacturer issues and address results of RVDA’s Dealer Satisfaction Index (DSI).
“We’ve restructured the brand committees meetings, so they come early in the session,” Molino explained. “We tried to make it so there is no conflict between the committee meetings and anything else they want to do. I think it will enhance the experience for the dealers, especially the manufacturers.”
Before he took on the assignment of chairing this year’s convention committee, Albano confides, he talked with many dealers and asked them what they wanted with regard to the convention. “They said that we need to change and get some new blood into the system and see how we’re running the sessions, break it up and make it new,” Albano, owner of American RV in the Memphis suburb of Olive Branch, Miss., told RVBusiness. “We’ve worked very, very hard at doing that.”
Former Interior Secretary Kempthorne Will Keynote
Albano predicts that convention attendees will especially enjoy the remarks of former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who will serve as keynote speaker at the first general session on Tuesday, Oct. 5.
“Secretary Kempthorne has a track record of developing innovative approaches to meet the outdoor recreation needs of RV travelers and other outdoor enthusiasts,” Albano said. “As a long-time motorhome owner, he is enthusiastic about the future prospects for our industry. He will provide an inspiring message for everyone who makes their living in the RV business.”
Kempthorne continues to champion outdoor recreation and is an active RV traveler and motorcyclist. As Secretary of the Interior during the George W. Bush administration, he brought fundamental relational changes in the environmental, conservation and outdoor recreation arenas.
During his service in the U.S. Senate, Kempthorne led successful efforts to create a sustainable funding source for building and maintaining trails and to promote balance between resource protection and outdoor fun – which is among the reasons he received the 20th Sheldon Coleman Great Outdoors Award in 2008 from the American Recreation Coalition (ARC).
A second general session, on Thursday afternoon, Oct. 7, will feature an “RV Outlook Panel Discussion” for which panelists will include Ron Fenech, president of Thor Industries Inc.’s RV Group; Craig Kennison, analyst with Robert W. Baird, Inc.; and Pete Lannon, GE Capital Commercial Distribution Finance.
Tom Walworth, president of Statistical Surveys Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich., will chair the discussion, which will focus on minimizing risk factors with RV floorplan loans, a manufacturing outlook on the future of RV product development and distribution, financial markets and the impact the issues will have on the dealers’ bottom lines.
“This session is sure to be extremely informative for everyone attending the upcoming convention,” said Albano. “It will provide some important steps that dealers can take to reduce their risk and successfully meet the financial challenges we are all facing today. The Convention/Expo Committee secured an outstanding group of RV industry experts to participate in this event.
RVBusiness HostsTop 50 Dealer Awards Festivities
RVBusiness magazine (and RVBUSINESS.com) will host its 3rd Annual RVBusiness Top 50 Dealer Awards during a Wednesday, Oct. 6, reception and dinner at the Rio hosted by Affinity Group Inc. President & CEO Mike Schneider and keynoted by conservative political commentator and author Ann Coulter.
While the award eligibility has been expanded this year to include recreational park model dealers – just as it was expanded last year to include Canadian retailers — the awards format will include five Blue Ribbon retailers and one individual receiving the Altman Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Go RVing Coalition Convenes at Con/Expo
Concurrent with RVDA’s convention agenda, the pan-industry Go RVing Coalition will convene 8-11 a.m., Wednesday, Oct. 6, in the Rio’s Tango Room to continue discussions of topics raised during the coalition’s last meeting June 8 during RVIA Committee Week in South Bend, Ind. This will likely include campaign planning, 2011 funding levels and development of the Go RVing consumer leads prioritization system approved by the coalition in June.
Along with recent shipment and retail data, the coalition will rely on a new University of Michigan RV market forecast and new ad tracking research. “Go RVing’s 2010 ad tracking research will be complete, giving us a better handle on the impact of our media mix and the Ambassadors of Affordability creative,” reports Gary LaBella, vice president and chief marketing officer for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) and the coalition’s staff liaison.
Additionally, LaBella says results of the new study of Go RVing leads over the past three years will be reported by The Richards Group, the coalition’s Dallas-based agency. “This study will enable us to better prioritize leads, to provide more information to users about the specific products and price ranges consumer are considering, the lifestyle attributes of our leads and which media are most effective in delivering them,” he said. “All of this information will be helpful to future Go RVing media and creative planning as well as industry marketing efforts.”
As the recession nears a bottom, many believe RVs may be ready to turn the corner.
“The RV industry serves as a bit of a microcosm of the housing market,” says Craig Kennison, an analyst at Robert W. Baird. “The recession affected the RV industry first, so we’d like to believe that we’ll see it turn before the rest of the economy.”
The $37 billion industry took off in the 1960s, as millions of Americans purchased RVs to realize their American Dream and travel around the nation. The fascination stuck, growing with each passing decade, according to CNBC.
There are now about 8.2 million RV owners across the nation, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA). Unlike the stereotype of older couples hitting the road after retirement, the average RV owner is middle-aged and married, traveling a total of 4,500 miles and 26 days annually.
Right now, the biggest roadblock to a recovery has been consumers’ inability to secure credit to buy an RV.
“The single biggest issue for the industry is financing,” said Winnebago Industries Inc. CEO Bob Olson. “People just can’t get financing from major lending institutions. This is affecting retail and wholesale customers.”
With credit tight, there has been less need for inventory at RV dealerships. At the end of last year, wholesale shipments had fallen by 75%, according to a research note from Baird.
Such drastic cuts have severely impacted many manufacturers. RV makers Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., Country Coach and Monaco Coach Corp. recently sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
As companies go under, they leave room for larger, more stable companies to take over the industry.
Thor Industries Inc. and Winnebago will be among the survivors. It’s a matter of having a sound balance sheet,” Kennison said. “They will gain a significant amount of market share as other companies exit the market. At the end of this, there will be a considerably significant advantage for Winnebago and Thor.”
This potential is not lost on the RV companies.
“We have a good foundation to weather this storm,” Olson said. “We have no debt and an excellent management team. The economy will turn and we are well poised to take advantage of it.”
Thor did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Investors have taken notice as well, believing that the crunch in the industry will benefit larger companies. They are taking interest in the likely survivors, said Kennison.
However, valuation of the stocks is difficult to discern, since RV companies aren’t making money in the current economic environment. Kennison’s firm has come to terms with this issue by estimating free cash flow for future years and discounting it by the cost of capital. He currently rates both Winnebago and Thor stocks as neutral.
Despite the difficulties facing the industry, things might soon be looking up as a bottom may be forming.
“Sure, sales are down, but we don’t look at it negatively,” said Dena Hurley, president of Crossroads Trailer in Newfield, N.J. “It’s down a little, but not much, people are still buying RVs.” There has been an increase in customers in the last few months, Hurley said, a trend which has been seen nationwide.
In addition, retailers have indicated their intentions to stop decreasing inventories, said Kathryn Thompson, an analyst at Avondale Partners, in a research note.
If the RV industry is bottoming, it may be indicative of the beginning of a new trade cycle. Motorhome sales follow an average four- to six-year trade cycle, with the last one peaking in 2004. After five years, industry watchers are expecting an upswing within the next two years.
Many also believe there to be pent up demand in the public, signaling an increase in sales as the market begins to prosper and consumer confidence returns. The numbers from the Florida RV Super Show in Tampa in January reveal an interest in the purchase of RVs within the general public. The show drew record numbers, with over 10,000 guests during the exhibit’s first two days.