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.