Editor’s Note: The following is a special message from Larry Troutt, chairman of the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) and owner of Topper’s Camping Center in Waller, Texas. Troutt urges RV dealers to act today if they wish to save up to $393 on the full registration price to attend next month’s RVDA convention in Las Vegas.
If historical events and trends are repeated over time, then I may have glimpsed into the future of our industry during a recent visit to the RV manufacturing capital of America and its museum, library, and Hall of Fame.
According to what I saw there, demand for RVs has soared to record-setting levels in the wake of past recessions. Product quality has steadily improved over the years even without dramatic design innovation. Americans have preferred the RV lifestyle for more than a century.
These things were on my mind while preparing to attend the upcoming RVDA convention in Las Vegas and while writing my chairman’s report, published recently for the September issue of RV Executive Today magazine.
I saw many restored relics of RV hardware from the 1800s to the latest 2010 models displayed near Elkhart, Indiana in the museum of the RV/MH Hall of Fame. Not surprisingly to an RV dealer like me, a large number of features from the past have been recycled into the latest models. While there are no slide-outs on the museum displays, nor platforms on pop-ups for carrying off-road toys, nor rear-mounted, diesel engines on older motorhomes, the floor plans and body contour lines and product types have remained similar for many decades.
Not even toy hauling RVs are a modern-era novelty. I thought they were until I dug deeper into the Hall of Fame library and found photos of a toy hauler travel trailer from 1940.
My experience as an RV dealer during the past 25 years parallels the documentation spanning 100 years of RV industry history which I saw during my visit inside the Hall of Fame museum and library:
Economic recessions have come along every decade or so. RV sales have been very strong and profitable in the aftermath of some. RV product design has not changed dramatically but rather evolved slowly over decades. Public interest in traveling with RVs has always increased.
Based on what I’ve seen of our industry’s past, I’m thinking positively about its future. I’m looking forward — right now — to being a viable part of our industry’s future. That’s why, like me, many other RV dealers are planning to take a break from survival mode and get together during the first full week of October at the RVDA Convention at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino.
All the RVDA volunteer leaders will be there to review what’s happened to our industry and discuss how we can begin the process of rebuilding our businesses for the future.
I’m personally inviting you to join us.
As you know, many of the traditional fall dealer incentive trips and manufacturer meetings have been canceled or significantly scaled back, so the RVDA convention will be the only opportunity for all of the industry to get together and talk about some of the issues facing the RV business.
Our workshops will focus on acquiring floor plan financing, getting more buyers qualified, improving sales, Red Flags compliance as well as new products and services we can sell to add to our dealership’s bottom lines. Brand committees will also be meeting during the convention, providing dealers opportunities to meet face to face with principal decision makers with the factories where their specific lines of campers are manufactured. With the adverse economic conditions of this year, such meetings will be more important than ever — won’t they?
My dealership, just like yours, is facing big challenges for the remainder of this year. I could tough it out alone. But I choose to draw on the strength and knowledge of many others to improve on my chances for success.
I’d like to see as many of you as possible at the convention and workshops — not just to reflect on the past, but more importantly to plan for the immediate future.
I’ll plan on seeing you there. To register click here: <http://www.mmsend9.com/ls.cfm?r=139898490&sid=7342510&m=811239&u=RVDA_VA&s=http://www.rvlearningcenter.com/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Convention6&CONTENTID=9130&TEMPLATE=/CM/HTMLDisplay.cfm>
Editor’s Note: This column by Larry Troutt, chairman of the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA), appears in the June issue of RVDA’s RV Executive Today.
Almost a dozen relatively quiet and prosperous years have passed since Texas laws were amended to bring towable RV dealers, like me, under the same, longer-standing automobile and motorhome statutes of my state.
Back then, opposition from outside the Lone Star stat warned that passage of the Texas House Bill 2382 would force manufacturers to stop selling RVs of all types to dealers in Texas. Yet, the records show that RV sales continued to increase. In 2008 Texas dealers led the nation in volume of RV shipments received from manufacturers.
But again in recent weeks, there’s been much vocal and written concern emanating from up near our nation’s capital (almost exclusively from RV manufacturers and their national trade association) about buy-back provisions of existing state laws – such as those in Texas and Louisiana. The concerns, they say, are in response to buy-back provisions contained in state law proposals, which are being forwarded mostly by auto dealers all over the country. I’m guessing the car dealers are worried about the economy and sluggish retail sales.
RVIA asked in March that RVDA and RVIA sign a joint letter requesting that auto trade association executives, bill sponsors, and other appropriate individuals amend the proposed provisions in a way that reflects the differences between the auto and the RV industries.
RVDA’s board members, including me, took a stand behind RVDA’s long-existing policy that the national dealer association has no business interfering with our dealer member’s legislative initiatives within their own states. If we did as requested and took a position that there is a difference between the needs of RV and auto dealers, then such a national perspective could be used by others to oppose state legislative efforts by our own dealer members.
As a sign of how seriously we considered RVIA’s request, I sought the opinions of RVDA’s elected delegates who represent members from each state, as well as the RVDA Industry Relations Committee. We all agreed. RVDA provided a clear, written explanation of our policy to those interested at RVIA.
As chairman of the board of RVDA, I’ve tried to quietly listen during meetings to what non-RVDA members have said about my state’s laws. But in this magazine format, I think I’m entitled to share my personal perspective – a Texas RV dealer’s point of view.
I was among about 30 RV dealers from cities and towns all across Texas who formed an informal coalition and pushed for legislative change regarding towable RVs. We were trying to bring towable RVs under existing Texas statues, which included buy-back provisions for automobiles and motorhomes. There were many other provisions of the bill. Logically, advice was sought from the powerful Texas Auto Dealers Association, because RV dealers thought they shared common concerns with auto dealers. The auto dealers agreed.
Once introduced, the bill was quickly and strongly opposed by well-financed forces from outside Texas.
RVDA sent information to Texas dealer members about the bill, but did not take a position supporting the legislation as requested by some Texas RVDA members. This is the same policy the national association has on state legislation today.
Our bill was passed through the Texas House of Representatives and the Senate, and signed into law by then-governor George W. Bush who wrote, “After considering various facts and opinions, I signed the bill…I believe that Texas will benefit from this law.”
Recently in the spring 2008, I participated in the unanimous RVDA board of director’s vote to add to the association’s strategic plan a fifth guiding principle of “ADVOCACY” on public policy and industry issues that impact RV dealer members. Then a few weeks ago, I was among the current board members expressing unanimous belief that national association support of dealer member initiatives within their respective states might be appropriate, but the national association should initiate within the states.
As a Texas RV dealer, licensed and franchised by my state’s laws to sell several different RV brands and provide factory warranty service for their owners, I personally do not wish to suggest to dealers from other states what laws would be best for them. I believe dealers should decide what is best for their businesses within their own states.
I also know from experience that political power to affect legislative change resides at the state level, not the national.
When I’m asked questions about what it’s like to be a Texas dealer operating under some of the most comprehensive license and franchise laws for RV sales and service in the United States, I don’t mind providing answers. In fact, I almost feel I should.
I have been happily and quietly going about my business because things have been pretty good and peaceful — especially in my dealership’s relations with RV manufacturers — since Sept. 1, 1997.
That’s when the last Texas dealer’s legislative initiative became law.
Being in the right place at the right time never has been his forte, small business owner Larry Troutt points out.
The Houston native bought into his father’s travel trailer business in the ’80s, just before the country plunged headfirst into a recession, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Having survived that, Troutt moved Topper’s Camping Center to Jersey Village in 1987, built up sales to almost $8 million annually, and employed up to 24 people. The business stayed there until last year, when Troutt elected to move it to the outskirts of Houston, just as the country slid into another recession.
“There’s one thing I learned from the first recession, and that’s you can’t really increase your revenue, so you have to control your expenses,” Troutt, 59, said. “Everything from inventory to staffing, you cut where you can.”
Another lesson learned, he said, was the need for strong nerves and a stubborn nature.
“You have to be willing to tough it out,” Troutt said. “So many people bail out when things go bad. But I’ve learned I can survive if I just stay with it long enough.”
Evidently, Troutt has done more than survive the current economic downturn.
According to Statistical Surveys Inc., a provider of market data to the marine, manufactured housing and recreational vehicle industries, Topper’s posted the highest volume in lightweight camper trailer sales in Texas last year.
Camper trailer sales are synonymous with popup campers, which expand to anywhere from 24 feet to 26 feet, Troutt said.
“Last year there were 995 camper trailer sales in Texas, and 96 of those were through Topper’s,” said Scott Stropkai, Statistical Survey’s national sales manager for RVs. “You’re talking about 75 dealerships throughout the state and Topper’s ranked No. 1.”
As a category, sales of towable RVs – which include travel trailers, truck campers and folding camping trailers – are down 45.6% as of February, the survey company found.
For Troutt, the challenge has been to attract buyers to a rural setting without much advertising. His biggest draw, comes from Internet shoppers and travelers on U.S. 290 going to Texas A & M University or the University of Texas.
“Families driving down the highway see our inventory and they’ll pull over,” Troutt said. “But what’s really helped us is the Internet. Nowadays, people shop on-line for the features they want, then come here to see it for themselves before they buy.”
Even though the company is now based in Waller, 41 miles northwest of downtown Houston, it managed to post better sales than its big-city rivals. According to Troutt, the key was to specialize in lightweight vehicles, which are less costly and more fuel-efficient than the grand RVs normally seen in the media.
“When fuel got to $4 a gallon last summer, people stopped buying big RVs,” he said. “They’re (lightweight campers) also better for a dealership because you can fit eight lightweights on a transport truck, but one RV needs its own. Which means I can get my vehicles sooner, and I can carry less inventory.”
Normally, Troutt carries between 200 and 250 vehicles on his property, which spans 4.5 acres, and two-thirds of them fall into the lightweight category.
In addition to owning his own camper dealership, Troutt serves as chairman of the national Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA), based in Fairfax, Va. He tends to a take a long view of his industry’s future.
“Americans will always have a love affair with RVs,” Troutt said. “It’s a lot cheaper than other vacations. You get to spend time with your family in a different setting. What could be better than that?”
Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) Chairman Larry Troutt, owner of Topper’s Camping Center, a towable RV dealership in Houston, Texas, has raised a question that has vexed the RV industry for years: Should there be a uniform model-year release date, preferably sometime in the fall?
In his “Chairman’s Report” column in RVDA’s RV Executive Today magazine, Troutt comes down squarely in favor of a more orchestrated, industry-wide release date. And he suggests that the date be tied to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) seal, which he said shouldn’t be issued for the following model year until the preceding August.
It’s not an original suggestion, Troutt acknowledged. But swinging his weight as chairman of the nation’s largest RV dealers association, behind it, he feels, could make a difference.
“I decided I liked (the idea) so much I would endorse it myself,” he wrote.
Primarily, Troutt said that a model-release date would reduce consumer confusion while assisting dealers who are finding it more and more difficult to find floorplan financing for units made at about the same time ye with different model-year designations.
“Some manufacturers are predictable. Others are not,” he wrote. “Some introduced 2010 model-year product in late February or early March. Others have not yet introduced new model product.”
And still others won’t announce a model-year change at all; they upgrade their coaches on the run, he noted.
“This year, in part because of the national economic recession,” he said, “… at the beginning of 2009, our new, unsold 2007 product was deemed by some lenders not worthy of new-trailer retail financing terms. By mid-March, the same restrictions were on new 2008 product. With the early introduction of 2010 product, many dealers are concerned that new 2009 model product might come under the same time retail lending guidelines during the year.”
In the past, RVIA has declined to support a uniform model-release date, citing restraint-of-trade regulations. For part, individual manufacturers have insisted that the timing of when they release their new models is a competitive issue.
Troutt thinks RVIA ought to rethink the position.
“I personally doubt the issuance of a plastic seal with a model year clearly printed on it would cause any disruption of free-market trade,” he wrote, noting that non-RVIA manufacturers aren’t required to apply any seals to the units they build.
“I see it as a modest proposal intended to solve many of the problems associated with all the different model-year introduction days of so many manufacturers,” he wrote.
The Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) contends that its hands are tied with regard to the issue of RV manufacturers being forced — under various circumstances — to buy back product from dealers.
So the national trade association, based in Fairfax, Va., isn’t taking a concrete stand one way or the other in what is becoming a major issues within the RV industry.
”We are a national dealers association made up of dealers from many states,” said RVDA Chairman Larry Troutt, owner of Toppers Camping Center in Waller, Texas, in a Q&A session with RVBusiness due for publication next month. ”It’s not our position to take a position on what the states do.”
In a March 9 letter to RVDA President Mike Molino, Richard Coon, president of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), asked RVDA to support amending or defeating ”buy back” legislation pending in 17 states, warning that RV manufacturers and dealers alike could be put out of business by the slew of legislation.
However, Molino immediately dismissed the request and has continued to do so as recently as a meeting held this week.
At issue are what RVIA characterizes as onerous provisions requiring inventory, in some cases regardless of age, to be repurchased by manufacturers ”with or without cause,” along with ”blue sky” requirements that would mandate manufacturers to compensate dealers for the value of their businesses and ”facilities assistance” for up to three years.
”The dealers in the different states will take initiatives (that) we will support, possibly reinforce, at their request,” Troutt told RVBusiness. ”But we do not think it is appropriate to take initiatives as a national dealer organization that would cause dealers in different states to have to abide by some ‘law’ that they didn’t initiate or address themselves within their states. It’s a state’s rights thing.
”I’m not aware of any (dealer) who disagrees with that.”
RVDA Treasurer Andy Heck, president of Alpin Haus, Amsterdam, N.Y., said coordinating state laws would be too large a task for RVDA to muster.
”Each state has different laws,” Heck said. ”(Buy back laws) just happen to be one of them. For RVDA to get involved at the state level would be a gigantic task.”
Debbie Brunoforte, RVDA 1st vice chairman and owner of Little Dealer, Little Prices in Mesa, Ariz., said dealers are ”reasonable (and) fair-minded” and that manufacturers should communicate directly with dealers about state laws that concern them.
”The difference between RVIA and RVDA is that most of the manufacturers are in Indiana and a couple of other places,” Brunoforte said. ”Yet, (RVs) are retailed throughout the entire country. So RVIA has to have a more political view and I understand that. At RVDA, we have dealers in every single state, and we’ve always felt that dealers in a particular state should choose how they want to do business.”
The Recreation Vehicle Dealers of Association (RVDA) of Canada has pledged an additional $50,000 (Canadian) to the RVDA Education Foundation’s RV Learning Center. RVDA of Canada Past President Kevin Betzold, at right in photo, presented the first installment for $25,000 to RVDA Education Chairman Rick Horsey, center, and RVDA Chairman Larry Troutt, left, during the recent RVDA board of directors meeting. This new pledge will bring RVDA of Canada’s total contribution to the RV Learning Center to $100,000. “We are happy to be able to pledge additional funds to the RV Learning Center,” said Betzold. “Having educated and professional dealers is a common goal, and the RV Learning Center is there for dealers on both sides of the border to provide education and certification programs.” Horsey, of Parkview RV Center, Smyrna, Del., added, “RVDA of Canada has been an essential partner for the RV Learning Center since it was formed. We greatly appreciate the Canadian dealers’ continued support during the critical time for our industry.”
The RV Learning Center is dedicated to providing dealers and their employees with innovative ways to operate RV dealerships through an array of education resources including publications, distance learning, live workshops, online products, training, and certification programs for RV dealership personnel.