There’s no formal organization that oversees the annual Elkhart RV Open House because that’s not the way things work with this wildcat industry trade show that’s taken the industry by storm ever since September of 2009 when Elkhart, Ind.-based Forest River Inc. President and CEO Pete Liegl called dealers together for new model year product debuts and some morale-boosting social time with the company’s management team and fellow retailers.
The Elkhart RV Open House since then has become an annual must-see trade event, drawing an estimated 4,000 dealer personnel to Elkhart’s RV-building zone from around the U.S. and Canada to see the unveiling of new model year product lines from a wide variety of OEM’s at displays located in various locations around Elkhart and LaGrange counties — particularly along County Road 6 on the northeast side of the Elkhart.
Of course, setting a date for the Open House is typically left to the senior management teams of Forest River and Thor Industries Inc., the world’s largest RV builder, also based in Elkhart. Both companies confirmed with RVBUSINESS.com that this year’s Elkhart RV Open House will be held a bit earlier this time around, slated for Tuesday through Thursday, Sept. 17-19.
As the clock ran down Thursday (Sept. 20) on Elkhart County’s 5th Annual RV Open House Week in and around Elkhart, Ind., exhibiting RV manufacturers were assessing the results of a crazy week that drew thousands of U.S. and Canadian dealer personnel to Elkhart County’s boulevards and side streets for a taste of Indiana hospitality and a good look at the industry’s new 2013 models.
And the initial Open House assessment over at Thor Industries Inc.’s sprawling divisional display at the RV/MH Hall of Fame was decidedly positive, especially since the rains let up on Tuesday afternoon. In fact, Thor President and COO Bob Martin was pleased to see an increase in pre-registered retailers as well as non-registered dealers who showed up unannounced at Thor’s Open House display.
Given the strong sales last week at the Pennsylvania RV & Camping Association’s Hershey Show, however, Martin pretty much saw it coming. “Everybody has really liked the changes in products in every division,” said Martin. “For me, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. We expect it (positive attitudes). But until you get here and hear from the dealers, you never know. So, to see a lot of dealers smiling and, you know, talking about ordering, it’s a good sign for the fall.”
Don Emahiser, president of CrossRoads RV, a Topeka, Ind.-based Thor division, says Open House week exceeded his expectations.
“I think Open House has been an even bigger success for us and the (other Thor) companies than in years past,” Emahiser reports. “It get’s bigger every year. Expectations get bigger, and we’ve really surprised ourselves with the performance, I guess, not only for the CrossRoads and Redwood team, but for everybody here at the Thor display. So, we’ve had a real fun week, at least the last couple of days, and we’re looking to end strong as well.”
“Dealers’ attitudes have been really good, especially for an election year,” he added. “You know, you get a little bit of hesitation thinking that it won’t be as good as you expect. But, again, we’ve been really surprised how strong orders have been as well as the attitudes of the dealers and lenders. Again, it’s been a really fun couple days.”
Issuing a similar report on Thursday was Matt Zimmerman, president since February of Thor’s Keystone RV Co., a leading towable RV builder in Goshen, Ind.
“Well, it’s certainly exceeded our expectations, not only in traffic, but just the amount of dealers who came in and placed orders and are excited about all the product changes that we introduced this week,” said Zimmerman. “There’s no question that people are very optimistic with everything that they’re seeing in this latter part of the season, and that’s obviously encouraging.
“You know, when you’re in a display and you’re showing product, whether it’s at Louisville or Open House,” he added, “we don’t always gauge how well we did on orders, even though that’s a big part of it — and we are extremely excited about how we came out of the Open House in terms of orders. But it’s that buzz and what dealers are saying about your product compared to a lot of other competitors that also counts. And we had all of it. So, for us at Keystone, we’re just tickled. We’re almost pinching ourselves.”
Same goes for Chris Hermon, president since May of Thor’s Heartland RV LLC division headquartered in Elkhart. “The dealers are here to do business, which we’re thrilled about here at Thor,” says Hermon. “The first day and a half, with the weather, was a little bit of a challenge. But the dealers have been here in a big way and they’re loving what they’re seeing in our display. It’s a huge push from where we’ve (Heartland) been, and I’m excited about that because product drives everything. So, things are looking good.”
That said, Thor still plans to maintain a major presence at RVIA’s National RV Trade Show, Nov. 27-29 at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville.
“Yeah,” said Martin, “our (exhibit) space at Louisville’s consistent with what we had last year, and all of the divisions will probably hold a few things back from the Open House for Louisville just to create some excitement there. So, for us, as long as the dealers see value in Louisville relative to the Open House, we’ll support it. The dealers are going to decide over the next few years which way things will go with regard to trade shows. And as long as Louisville’s a show, we’ll be there with a great presence from all the Thor divisions.”
Nobody ever knows exactly how many people are attending Elkhart’s Annual RV Open House Week because the Open House, now in its fourth year, has never had any sort of central registration. And that’s still the case for this year’s event, slated for Sept. 17-21 in and around the side streets, home offices, showrooms and varied open field exhibits around the RV-building hub of Elkhart County, Ind.
Judging from responses to the latest round of the RVB/Blue Ox All-Industry Survey, however, participation in this year’s Open House, which is really focused on Tuesday through Thursday of that week (Sept. 18-20), should be pretty robust.
In fact, these survey results – along with what manufacturers are telling RVBusiness behind the scenes – point to a year in which Open House attendance is expected to at least reach, if not exceed, last year’s numbers, estimated at close to 4,000 dealer personnel:
• Asked in the online survey if their company plans to participate either as an exhibitor or attendee during this year’s RV Open House Week, 51.9% of the respondents said they planned to go as attendees, 22% as exhibitors while 26.1% aren’t going.
• Of those attending, a total of 44.4% planned to bring “four or more” people while 43.1% will send “two or three” and 12.5% only “one.”
• Asked whether a more active supplier or distributor role — a facet that some feel is still lacking in the popular Open House – would be important to them in the future, survey participants pretty much split down the middle: 46.3% said “yes” and 53.7% responded “no.”
Equally clear in the comments regarding the latest survey, administered by RVBusiness and sponsored by Pender, Neb.-based Blue Ox, is the fact that fall trade events are still a rather hot topic in the North American recreational vehicle arena – only a couple of days after an ad hoc show committee overseen by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) recommended that there be no changes for the timing of the industry’s Louisville Show until at least 2015.
Some of those Open House comments:
Good chance to see what changes are coming and catch some winter specials.
GOOD IDEA UNTIL IT GETS WASHED OUT ONCE OR TWICE
Great event – will never replace Louisville
Great time of year to bond w/our loyal customers
I like the ability of the manufacturer to show a great many of their floorplans.
It could be a little more industry-oriented, and not quite as OEM sales focused.
I wish the industry could settle on one event.
It’s a great location and ideal time of year. It is also easy to get to via air travel.
Keep it going!
Love it – easier and quicker than the Louisville Show
MUCH BETTER THAN LOUISVILLE.
WE LOVE IT. IT’S CLOSER THAN LOUISVILLE AND WE CAN PICK UP UNITS WHEN WE ARE THERE
WE MUST PARTICIPATE DUE TO COMPETITION.
Too many fall events. Something has to change.
We are a supplier and I believe we are not allowed to attend.
I think this is an excellent opportunity to view our product lines in greater depth of model selection.
It’s a duplication of effort with the RVIA event in Louisville. The Elkhart “open house,” RVDA in Las Vegas and RVIA event in Louisville need to be combined in a single industry event. Get Forest River, Thor, RVIA and RVDA on the same page. It’s what’s best for the industry, the associations and its dealers.
This will be our first Open House to attend. However, I do not know how to get signed up nor what the details are. It would be nice to have more specifics.
I like the Open House in Elkhart because it is where I can view all of the models of the units I sell and view complete lines of other manufacturers that I might want to include in my next year’s inventory. For that reason, I find the Open House in Elkhart more productive for me than Louisville. The only thing missing is the supplier showcase. It would be nice to have a place there where dealers can go to view various supplier displays. On the other hand, the Louisville Show is advantageous in finding smaller, less known or new manufacturers that carry a product I might want to take on.
Elkhart, Ind.-based real estate firm Northland Corp. announced it will be looking to lease numerous prime location sites during Elkhart County’s 5th Annual RV Open House Week, set to run Sept. 18-20 throughout the RV-building hub.
Rob Letherman, vice president of Northland, told RVBUSINESS.com that the lots – all ranging from one to two acres – will occupy pockets along CR 6, a major east-west artery on the north side of Elkhart. Importantly, the sites will run between the focal points for the event – Thor Industries Inc.’s display at the RV Hall of Fame and Forest River Inc.’s exhibit area on the grounds of its Dynamax subsidiary.
“We made a deal with Thor that we wouldn’t use property south and west of the Hall of Fame,” Letherman said, noting the area is all part of Northland’s Elkhart East development. “The sites on CR 6 are primarily on corners and will have ample land to set up a lot of RVs. We will be permitting signs, generators and tents so they can have nice display areas.”
Letherman reported that he began receiving calls in February and then “got a lot more inquiries” this month. “We’re new to this, so we had to look closely at the pockets of land and then research pricing,” Letherman said. “We’re hoping that by April 1 we can come back to the interested parties with each site mapped out in detail.”
He added, “Everything will be on a first come, first served basis. Eight manufacturers have already expressed interest, so right now they’re at the top of the list.”
RVNN-TV offers video footage of Monday’s setup by Elkhart County’s manufacturers as they prepare for the influx of dealers during this week’s 4th Annual RV Open House.