Thousands of recreational vehicle retail personnel will be converging in late September on the RV-building center of Elkhart County, Ind., as more manufacturers turn to local 2011 product displays in the wake of the Great Recession and a prevailing cost-cutting atmosphere throughout the business world.
What’s even more interesting is that they’re doing it in unison – at the end of September in synch with Forest River Inc.’s big Sept. 29-30 dealer gathering, now in its third year. In fact, it appears that Forest River has reinvented the wheel to an extent by bringing in hundreds of RV, cargo and commercial trailer retailers to its home plant in late September for a closed gathering at which dealers are wined and dined and treated to expansive new model product displays.
The Berkshire Hathaway Inc. subsidiary’s second annual 2009 “Pick Your Partner” open house last year drew 600 to 700 dealers — a total of 2,000 people – to the grounds outside the Elkhart-based company’s headquarters where retailers were treated to a display of about 350 units plus live music and staff-delivered beer.
Although Forest River’s management hasn’t said much publicly about its plans yet this year, it’s a safe bet that they’re expecting more of the same at this year’s dealer meeting. “I assume it’s going to be as good as last year,” Forest River President and CEO Pete Liegl told RVBusiness. “We’re getting a good response so far. We just started sending out the invites last week.”
The trend toward Elkhart County dealer open houses took a big step forward earlier this month when four Thor Industries Inc. subsidiaries, Keystone RV Co., Damon Motor Coach, Four Winds International Corp. and Breckenridge, announced plans for a combined dealer open house Sept. 28-30 at the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum in Elkhart, Ind., for which they’re expecting 500 dealers. As many as 100 2011 models will be on display on the grounds surrounding the Hall of Fame.
Now, the latest to join the fray is Thor’s Goshen-based Dutchmen Manufacturing Inc., which has notified its dealers of its first-ever Sept. 27-30 open house at the former Azure boat manufacturing facility at the corner of C.R. 6 and Marina Drive not far from the Indiana Toll Road and the RV/MH Hall of Fame.
Dutchmen President Don Clark says his company’s open house will take place both inside and outside the facility, and will be highlighted by a Sept. 27 dealer party featuring live entertainment and some eye-catching 2011 product displays.
“We’re going to have some surprises that have yet to be viewed by any dealer,” Clark told RVBusiness. “We’re going to have not just one new brand, but several new brands that we will be selling at our open house. And it will be a good precursor for what the dealers will be seeing at Louisville (RVIA’s annual National RV Trade Show, Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 in Louisville, Ky.). We’re going to have our new sales management staff on hand, and it gives dealers an unharied time to get to know them better.”
Other companies are expected to announce their own “open houses” and “showcases” in the near future. Although details were still being worked out, Carriage Inc. Vice President of Sales Ed Kinney says his Millersburg, Ind., firm will hold a Sept. 28-30 open house in Millersburg. “We’ll have a nice display, show some new things we will show at Louisville, give some plant tours and have a good casual time,” he said.
Gulf Stream Coach Inc. also is joining in the September rush with an event scheduled for Sept. 27-30 at which the Nappanee firm will show 45 towable and motorized units.
Meanwhile, Jayco Inc.’s own annual Master Sales Training Sessions for dealers’ sales staffs is partly slotted in the same time frame.
Jayco, headquartered in nearby Middlebury, plans to bring in approximately 500 people for intensive sales training at its complex in Middlebury, Ind. The sessions run Sept. 20-23 and Sept. 27-30 and will involve sales training and extensive factory tours, reports Marketing Director Sid Johnson.
Jayco did not sponsor these sessions last year due to the economy, but traditionally holds the event at the end of September every year, Johnson reports. “Dealers pay for transportation. We pay for everything once they get here,” said Johnson, noting that the cost to Jayco is in the neighborhood of $200,000.
The whole emerging sequence of events, in turn, is beginning to prompt questions about just how many hotel rooms there are in the region to house an influx of business people of this magnitude. Elkhart County, in itself, has 2,591. And while it’s got to translate into a positive in terms of facilities use at the Hall of Fame, located along the Indiana Toll Road east of Elkhart, it’s also posing questions among some industry observers about how this emerging trend might ultimately affect the viability of the Louisville Show.
That said, some of the players in this emerging scenario like Clark and Keystone President Bob Martin seem to be keeping their focus on Louisville as well. Martin called Keystone’s September product display “a little preview of Louisville” that would include some – but not all – of the products his company would unveil at the national show in late November.
‘It’s a good opportunity to get in front of your dealers in the fall,” said Martin, whose agenda will include seminars and training, vendor booths and meetings with customer service representatives and retail and wholesale financing sources. ”It a good draw for Keystone with a couple of motorhome lines and Breckenridge (which builds park trailers). All the divisions are working on plans together. There will be a lot to see.”
“This is an absolutely exciting event,” said Tim Howard, president of Breckenridge,“ whose Nappanee-based firm participated several years ago in a Thor-only dealer show in Elkhart County, “because the way we did it before, it was far-flung. The companies who did it in unison did so at their own locations. This will be at one location.”
Howard said the Thor event was not specifically designed to coincide with Forest River’s “Pick Your Partner” event, but it makes sense. “I don’t think it was discussed as that,” he said, “but it is logical, It makes perfect sense for a dealer to have the efficiency of killing two birds with one stone.”
Dan Shea, Gulf Stream towables president, said the September event makes a lot of sense, giving dealers, especially Canadians, a chance to place their orders early.
“It’s a good opportunity for dealers who need product quicker,” said Shea. “There is a lot of reason for dealers to step up and buy product this October, November and December.”
Although late September dealer shows take some of the luster off Louisville for Gulf Stream and others, Shea added, “Louisville will still be a big show for us.”
Recreational Vehicle manufacturers generally reported good sales, encouraging new dealer signups and overall optimism with regard to the market outlook for 2010, based on their experiences at RVIA’s 47th Annual National RV Trade Show, Dec. 1-3 at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Ky. And that’s a pretty big switch from the outlook with which many of them returned from the 2008 Louisville Show.
Having said that, there still seems to be an element of restraint within the industry due to continued soft spots in the U.S. economy. And there’s still a sense among many who attended the most recent Louisville show that the motorized segment will require extra time to recover.
“We thought the show was very positive, much better than last year,” reported Richard Coon, president of the sponsoring Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), a manufacturer-dominated trade association. “Most manufacturers have felt the increase in business since the first part of the summer, and business has continued to move upward.”
“The wholesale side started selling more in September than last year,” he added. “That continued into October and November. So people came to the show thinking and hoping for a better year, and continued on with a lot of buying.”
Final 2009 show attendance numbers of 8,323 were nearly the same as last year’s 8,427), which was “very good, considering how many dealers have gone out of business since last year,” said Coon. When all was said and done, there were 72 manufacturers and 210 supplier exhibitors at the show occupying 604,247 square feet of exhibit space, according to Mary “Mike” Hutya, vice president of meetings and shows for RVIA.
That compares to just over 800,000 square feet of space in 2008 and RVIA’s decision this year to cut back the show’s square footage at the Kentucky Exposition Center due to industry cutbacks amid the recent recessionary downturn.
RVIA’s updated forecast from Richard Curtin of the University of Michigan calls for 203,500 unit shipments in 2010, up 27% from 2009. That’s a step up from Curtin’s previous 2010 prognostication of 185,800 units and, before that, 169,500 units – the last of which was issued back at RVIA Committee Week in June.
“Dr. Curtin’s last three forecasts were way conservative – much lower than what actually turned out, and that could turn out to be the case again,” said Coon. “A lot depends on the jobs situation. That’s what it takes to get the bankers cranking. We need people to get back to work, stop defaulting on loans. And, if job losses continue to lessen, hopefully it will turn positive shortly, and Dr. Curtin may be too low on his forecasts again.”
Elkhart, Ind.-based Forest River Inc. had a record turn-out on all three nights it hosted dealers and others at its hospitality suite, including more than 1,300 people on Monday evening alone. “For the show being half the size of years past, the traffic on the showroom floor was also very good,” said Jeff Babcock, head of sales and marketing.
With dealers low on inventory, said Babcock, “the appetite for product was strong.” And so were new-dealer applications. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we had 100-150 (dealer) applications” from the show, Babcock noted, adding that “the first sales in January and February will probably dictate how the rest of 2010 goes.”
“It was a great show,” reported Keystone RV Co. Executive Vice President Bob Martin. “The dealers seemed very happy and have a very positive outlook.”
Keystone also signed new dealers for its all-new, higher end product lines, the Alpine and Avalanche, which, along with a new lightweight Premier by Bullet line, were “unbelievably well received.”
“We’re glad the dealers are still excited about the innovation and new products at Keystone,” said Martin, who said Keystone has been optimistic about the market’s upturn since late last spring when it first began bumping up production, resulting in the start-up of four additional production lines. “We had a very good summer season and look for 2010 to be definitely potentially stronger,” said Martin, anticipating further production increases.
“Dealers this year seem to have their floorplanning in line,” he added. “The major lending institutions show no signs of pulling in, as long as dealers are operating within the new parameters. It helps the business overall.”
Heartland Recreational Vehicles LLC, Elkhart, also regarded this year’s Louisville event as “an exceptionally good show,” according to President Brian Brady. “The response to all our products displayed was just terrific,” he said. “We wrote three times as many orders this year as last, and last year was a surprisingly good show for Heartland. But the opportunity to spend quality time with our customers at this show was equally important.
“By any objective measure, the climate has improved,” he added. “On the other hand, we were very explicit with our dealers, encouraging them to remain disciplined in the sense of responsible increases in their inventory levels. We want to see them continue to run a disciplined operation and focus on primary product points. In our view, 2010 is not the time for dealers to be looking at niche-type products” or getting into new areas of the market, Brady added.
Heartland has steadily increased production at all its plants in the second half of 2009, and had further hikes slated throughout January and February. He said Heartland only builds sold orders and that the towable-only firm has “the orders to support the production increases.” By the same token, he noted, Heartland will stay focused on the travel trailer segment, having rolled out a number of new travel trailers at Louisville. “Our travel trailer lineup is very robust, and we’re going to be relentless in growing that segment of the business,” Brady concluded.
In much the same vein, Jayco Inc., Middlebury, Ind., thinks the industry is on its way back, but that the recovery will be slower than it was in previous downturns, said President Derald Bontrager. “We had great (dealer) attendance” at the Louisville show, he said, “and dealer attitudes were very positive. They’re very optimistic about the future and placing orders.”
Jayco was not looking to add a lot of dealers for its Jayco brand, but signed a number of new dealers for its Starcraft and Integra Coach (Class A diesel) divisions. “We set targets for both brands and exceeded our targets,” said Bontrager.
Like others, Jayco has been gradually ramping up its production since summer and, “based on the show, it appears we’ll continue to increase output as we move toward spring.”
Roger Martin, vice president of sales and marketing for Winnebago Industries Inc., noted that, from a “dealer mood, interest and ordering standpoint,” this year’s show was “better than last year’s.” But considering how bad the 2008 show was for motorized manufacturers, he thinks it may be several years before that segment gets back to previous levels.
“Things are moving up,” said Martin, noting that dealer orders for his company’s products at Louisville increased 150% over a year ago. “But we’re (motorized segment) not anywhere near what we used to be. There’s still a lot of room before the (motorized) market gets back.” Meanwhile, he expected growth to be “slow and steady.”
For Monaco RV LLC, the successor to Monaco Coach Corp., Coburg, Ore., the 2009 show was “Our first chance to show off our new (Navistar) owners,” reported Mike Snell, vice president of sales and marketing. But even though Monaco displayed some Navistar commercial products and debuted its new Holiday Rambler Neptune and Monaco Cayman coaches, part of its central focus to a great extent right now is on growing its towable business.
“As everyone has been saying for the last several months, it’s a towable-dominated market,” said Snell. “Class A’s are not as strong. And it’s not to our advantage to put the majority of company resources behind them. We did sign some motorized dealers, but the majority of those we added were in towables. We’re now doing better in towables and growing towables and putting more resources behind them.”
By the same token, motorized RV builder Four Winds International, a Thor division in Elkhart, is still “optimistic” about the outlook for 2010. “We had a good show and good interest across the board on gas and diesel,” said Dana Simon, vice president of sales and marketing. “It wasn’t just specific brands or price points. We had good dealer reception, and fresh, new product out there. A benefit of being a division of Thor is that even these times it can still be aggressive putting a lot of R&D and design effort into new product lines.”
Thor Motorized Services launched a new customer service portal that will transform the way dealers can interact with Damon Motor Coach and Four Winds International Corp. After months of preparation and testing, dealers can start logging into the new “Thor Advantage” portal for a brand new customer service experience, according to a news release.
“The goal was to streamline the parts and warranty process and incorporate a feedback system to communicate with our dealers. We want to offer our dealers the easiest, fastest, most convenient way to interact with Damon and Four Winds, and we believe we have accomplished just that,” said Janae Kurtz.
The new “Thor Advantage” is a web-based customer service system, allowing dealers to conduct all aspects of customer service, warranty and parts transactions with both Damon and Four Winds.
Just a few of the functions that can be performed include:
- On-Line warranty registration and authorizations.
- “Real-time” status on warranty claims and parts orders.
- Immediate feedback on claim and parts inquiries.
- VIN specific parts locator with photos and descriptions for easy ordering and fulfillment.
- Single contact point aimed at reducing phone calls and e-mails.
“We are thrilled to have the new system in place. We will continue to lead the market with new technologies like this. Our people and our processes set the Thor motorized divisions apart from the rest of the industry. Four Winds and Damon will utilize the same processes to help ease the complexity of multiple warranty and parts systems that dealers now have to use. We want to be easy to do business with,” said Bill Fenech, president of Damon and Four Winds.
The “Thor Advantage” became fully operational on Monday (Aug. 3). Any Damon or Four Winds dealer needing more information to get started can contact firstname.lastname@example.org or Janaé Kurtz at email@example.com.