RV Industry Preps for the Anticipated Revival

February 11, 2010 by · Comments Off on RV Industry Preps for the Anticipated Revival 

Editor’s Note: This first-person story about the RV industry was written by Melissa Preddy for The Detroit News.

Doing laundry, answering e-mail, baking a chicken and catching up on TV — all while hurtling southward on I-75 in Michigan at 70 mph.

Now that’s what I call efficient.

And not terribly far-fetched, given the plethora of amenities available in the modern motorhome or travel trailer. The ever-growing ability to take our comforts on the road is one reason not every motor vehicle maven limits herself to four-wheeled machines.

I’ve never ridden an inch or slept a wink in an RV, but it’s always amazed me how this huge consumer market — and employer of thousands of Michigan workers — seems to fly under the radar. It’s a fascinating culture with its own lexicon — like “boondocking” and “diesel-pusher” and “pull-through,” as well as lots of interesting technology and a tradition that parallels the birth of our automobile industry.

Production roots in Mich., Ind.

Michigan and Indiana are the epicenter of RV development. One of the first major producers, the Covered Wagon Company, was born in Detroit in the 1920s. Founder Arthur Sherman was hailed in 1937 by Fortune as “the Henry Ford of the trailer industry,” said Al Hesselbart, RV expert and author of “The Dumb Things Sold, Just Like That!” — a chronology of the early travel-trailer years.

Hesselbart showed me through the RV Hall of Fame museum in Elkhart, Ind., pointing out space-age mid-century models, mod ’70s campers and their ancestors: the tiny wood-crafted “teardrop” trailers with barely room inside for a pallet and a couple of clothes hooks.

Intrigued by the lore, I’ve since clambered through hundreds of RV units in all shapes and sizes, from the smallest pop-ups to luxury coaches that carry more bathrooms and a bigger mortgage than my house. Some even feature flat-panel TVs on the outside of the rig, along with built-in outdoor barbecues, sinks and refrigerators that slide from secret compartments.

250K registered in state

rbshowlogoHere in Michigan, we rank fourth out of 50 states — behind California, Texas and Florida — in RV shipments. That’s according to the Michigan Association of Recreational Vehicles and Campgrounds (MARVAC), which sponsors the 44th annual Detroit Camper and RV Show under way through Sunday at the Rock Financial Showplace in Novi.

As many as a quarter of a million RVs are registered in Michigan, from pop-ups to 40-foot coaches, and they’re served by some 80,000 campsites in 1,600 campgrounds.

Following a recessionary slump, analysts and RV dealers are planning for an upswing in demand ahead of summer 2010. While assemblers and suppliers ramp up production, dealers are combing the classifieds and Craigslist looking for used stock to snap up and re-sell.

“We’re looking for perhaps a 30-35% gain,” said Larry Andree, president of A & S RV Center in Auburn Hills. And while some consumers are downsizing away from giant coaches and towables to compact Class B models that ride on truck and van platforms, they’re not exactly getting back to nature.

Popular options include microwave-convection ovens, multiple LCD TVs, Corian countertops, luxury fabrics, stand-alone dining furniture to replace dinette booths, adjustable-firmness mattresses and glass shower doors. In-motion satellite systems that don’t lose signal are hot sellers at about $2,000, as are GPS devices.

“When you think back to the RV models of 30 or 40 years ago, you wonder how you sold any of them,” laughs Andree, a lifelong industry veteran.

Sue Carlsen of Hubbard Lake, Mich., state director of the Family Campers and RVers Association, said the downsizing trend is a hot topic among enthusiasts, but even those willing to make do with less space aren’t giving up much else. Free Wi-Fi access is a must at campgrounds, she said, along with cable TV hook-ups and other electronic support.

“There’s a whole feeling of redefining camping,” she said. “People are bringing their homes right along with them.”

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