The days of someone plunking down $200,000 for a motorhome, driving it off the dealership lot with a little help from easy credit, are largely over. But, according to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the recreational vehicle business has weathered one of the tougher periods in its history and, to some extent, has made a comeback.
While sales are still off from the peak years before the recession, they’ve returned to more sustainable levels in an industry with fewer manufacturers and dealerships.
“It’s not like the good old days, for sure, back in 2005. But I think the tough times made us better business people,” said Kim DeHaan, owner of DeHaan RV Center in Elkhorn.
Today (Feb. 23), dealerships get a glimpse into the 2012 selling season when the Milwaukee RV Show opens at Wisconsin Exposition Center at State Fair Park. The show, which runs through Sunday, includes more than 100 vendors inside the exhibit hall.
“I think everybody is still being cautious,” DeHaan said, but the mood in the industry has definitely improved as the result of better attendance and sales at shows in Green Bay, Madison and Chicago.
“People still want their toys, and they still want to use them,” DeHaan said. “They’re going to travel, but maybe not as far if gas prices go up.”
In the worst of the recession, RV manufacturers went out of business, dealerships closed and banks repossessed units costing several hundred thousand dollars each. Surviving companies have since restocked inventories, albeit at lower levels, and they’ve come back with travel trailers that are more economical to tow.
“Look around and you will see the word ‘light’ everywhere at RV shows. Towable units are getting smaller, lighter and more aerodynamic,” said Kevin Broom, spokesman for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the lighter-weight trailers have opened a new market for units that can be towed by midsize cars and minivans. Some units are small enough to be towed by compact cars and motorcycles.
Another trend: Electronics, including bigger flat-screen televisions and electric fireplaces, are more widely available in trailers as the technology has improved and the cost has come down.
“You can put flat-screens in a small trailer and still have lots of livable space,” Broom said.
Brand new this year is the Forest River Aviator, a $60,000 trailer that allows the owner to sit on the couch and control the electric fireplace, three 32-inch televisions, music and home theater systems using a Sony tablet. The tablet includes videos on how to operate the trailer, including setting it up.
The price isn’t too high for many people, especially retirees seeking the RV lifestyle, said Tim Wegge, president and CEO of Burlington RV Superstore in Sturtevant. But it’s still largely unknown whether the high-tech trailer will attract many buyers.
“Certainly, lower-priced trailers are going to sell much better,” Wegge said. “You can get a very nice travel trailer for $20,000 to $25,000.”
Expandable trailers with hard sides have become more popular, said Gary Roskopf, owner of Roskopf’s RV Center in Menomonee Falls.
“You get amenities like a roof-mounted air conditioner, a bathroom, shower and kitchen,” Roskopf said.
Even in the recession, people attended RV shows to see what was new. They also spent a lot of time online, planning for the day when they could buy something, said Broom. Now, credit availability has loosened some – although it’s nothing like it was before the recession.
A mild winter may also trigger some sales this year as people think about spring and summer earlier than usual, according to RV dealers.
“We have been seeing some signs of pent-up demand,” Broom said.