Retail sales of towables RVs in May rose 5.9% over May 2009, Statistical Surveys Inc. (SSI) has reported.
By product segment travel trailer sales were up 10.2%, fifth-wheel sales were up 3%, folding camping trailer sales were off 14.3% and park model sales down 6.3%.
Thor Industries Inc. remained the towable leader with a 30.8% market share.
The combined Forest River Inc./Coachmen RV share was 24.9%. Forest River’s (without Coachmen) was 20.6%.
By segment, Thor was the travel trailer leader with a 30.7% market share, the fifth-wheel leader with a 40.5% market share and the park model leader with a 25.1% share.
Forest River/Coachmen was the folding camping trailer leader with combined 40.3% market share. Forest River’s market share without Coachmen was 31%.
Year-to-date, all towable RV sales are up 4.4% over 2009.
Travel trailer sales year-to-date were up 8.9%, fifth-wheel sales were up 1.4%, folding camping trailer sales were down 17.5% and park model sales were down 5%.
To subscribe to this and other SSI reports, contact Scott Stropkai, national sales manager at (616) 281-9898 ext 128 or ( 616) 446-8179 (cell).
Campers Inn, an RV dealership based in New Hampshire, has opened for business in Elkhart, Ind.
The opening marks the family-owned company’s sixth location in the U.S. and the first dealership off the East Coast, the South Bend Tribune reported.
Scott Hayden, director of operations, said the company is thrilled to open a location in the “RV capital of the world.”
“Keeping this area alive and moving is important to us,” Hayden said. “The truth is, we were extremely impressed with the growth potential this area has, especially amongst the recession.”
He expects a slower startup than usual and is only hiring a total of 10 people, but hopes to have 40 to 50 employees when the economy picks back up.
Campers Inn will focus on sales, service and parts for Forest River Inc. brands and is in the former facility of Michiana RV on Cassopolis Sreett.
Two million dollars was spent acquiring the building, and another $5 million purchasing inventory for the location, he said.
“We’re in it to win it,” Hayden said. “We hope to make this our flagship store.”
Other sales locations are in Kingston, N.H., Leesburg, Fla., Merrimack, N.H., Raynham, Mass., and Macon, Ga. The dealership is owned by Jeff Hirsch. The dealership has been honored by RVBusiness magazine as a Top 50 RV Dealer.
Campers Inn had been looking to expand in Elkhart for the last year, but didn’t start aggressively pursuing the area until about 90 days ago.
Hayden said Elkhart city officials bent over backward in helping the company with the application and zoning process.
“They were very welcoming and excited to have us,” Hayden said.
He’s confident that Campers Inn can establish itself as one of the premier RV dealerships in this area.
Northern Indiana is still a very viable RV market, he said.
“The RV industry didn’t close down here,” Hayden said. “It just took a vacation.”
The RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind., had some special visitors Saturday (July 17).
Approximately 100 RVers — 50 couples — descended on the museum and conference center as part of the “Centennial Caraventure,” a four-day RV caravan in honor of the RV industry’s 100th anniversary leading up to The Rally 2010 in Louisville, Ky. The rally is the largest RV rally in the country, and is expected to draw 12,000 RVers this year, the Goshen News reported.
“Centennial Caraventure” participants toured the Newmar factory in Nappanee Friday before attending a lunch and tour at the Hall of Fame Saturday. The luncheon was followed by a presentation on the industry’s history and a technology and lifestyle seminar with Bob Livingston, senior vice president of Affinity Group Inc., and leader of the Caraventure.
“What it is, is really an enthusiast’s rally where people become immersed in the history all the way up to present time RVs,” Livingston said. “We talk about the lifestyle, we talk about technical aspects of RVs, we’ll talk about any topic at all. Basically, we’re talking about RVs until we don’t want to talk about RVs anymore.”
Livingston said participants have been extremely receptive to the format and have been thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Among those participants were Stan and Cathy Nicholson of Santa Barbara, Calif. The couple actually purchased an Airstream RV from Livingston years ago when he was still working for a dealer.
“We just had a college graduate (in the family), so we took the opportunity to drive our RV out for that and for this, then we’re driving around the country,” Stan said.
He said the couple has been seriously RVing for about 10 years. They make the most of each year, with a long stretch still ahead of them this summer.
“We don’t plan on going home for another three months,” Stan said.
Ray Cupples Jr. and his wife, Bonnie, were also enjoying the experience. The pair, who live in Clarion, Pa., started with tent camping and folding camping trailers before moving on to the full-fledged RV lifestyle after their children moved out.
“We’re enjoying the area. We wish we had a little time to do more,” Ray said.
He said they particularly liked the factory tour, being interested in the technical end of things.
“We’re always looking to upgrade or add to our units,” Ray said.
According to Livingston, participation in the event was limited to 50 couples to ensure enough one-on-one time between event staff and the RVers. He said they will probably hire more staff and increase the size of the event next year.
Today, Caraventure participants head to Louisville. The Rally 2010 will take place Thursday through July 25.
Go RVing’s blog, You Are Here: Brad Herzog’s Family Travel Journal, has attracted over 2,000 new subscribers this year, who regularly follow the RV journeys of award-winning author Brad Herzog and his family, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
Now in its second year of publication, the blog’s popularity has steadily grown along with the success of RVIA’s media tours with the Herzogs, billed as the “National Explore America Family.” The family of four began their Summer 2010 media tour in early June in a 33-foot Vista motorhome provided by Winnebago Industries Inc. Since they hit the road, reader interaction with the blog has also been growing.
“I am a bit envious of the places you will be heading out to,” said one fan. Another, inspired to buy an RV, commented, “You don’t know how much this last entry means to us. Retirement at 63 is on April 1st. . . Our first trip in our new motorhome is planned for two weeks later. You gave us just the encouragement we needed. I think I will laminate your suggestions and lay them on the dash where we can refer to them often.”
Herzog helps his readers discover the joys of RVing: beautiful scenery, quirky small towns, interesting people and family-friendly, educational attractions along the way. In 2010, he is blogging about family RV trips to Buffalo, N.Y., Burlington, Vt., and Bangor, Maine, national parks and lakeshores in Maine, Ohio and Michigan, a balloon festival in Vermont, a baseball game in South Bend, Ind., an amusement park in Pennsylvania, and kid-friendly museums ranging from the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, to the RV Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind.
In engaging, graceful prose, Herzog captures the benefits of RVing, from practical cost savings to priceless family experiences:
“When we hit the road in a house on wheels, we visit with the rest of the world, various subcultures, diverse scenery, people with whom we would never have had contact had we not parked next to them in some random campground in northern Ohio or stood next to them on a boat tour of Niagara Falls or chatted amiably with them while strolling through a children’s museum in upstate New York or bantered with them at a diner in Indiana….We can appreciate the myriad American options. And then we can return with a better understanding of our own lives.”
Since the family’s summer travels began, Herzog has posted colorful, humorous and insightful accounts of his RV travels two to three times per week, drawing over 40 comments. Out of the 7,700 people who have subscribed since the blog’s launch in 2008, nearly one-third have signed up in 2010 – the result of easier access and increased promotion on www.GoRVing.com, Go RVing’s Facebook page and Twitter, as well as the Herzog media tour for RVIA.
To read the travel journal and subscribe, visit the Go RVing website at http://www.gorving.org/blog. The Go RVing blog can also be accessed from Brad Herzog’s own website, www.BradHerzog.com, along with information about his RV travel books including the new Turn Left at the Trojan Horse, available at major bookstores nationwide.
An industry built on wanderlust is surviving on the notion of “wander less.”
Texas RV campgrounds are part of a national trend of anchoring specialty vehicles, called park models , which look and feel like small cottages, for rent or purchase, according to the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman.
Forty percent of Texas recreational vehicle campgrounds have introduced the models, twice the rate of five years ago, to appeal to a broader market and to increase revenues, according to the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).
“There’s a good segment of the population that wants to experience the campground experience but don’t own an RV, and they don’t want to sleep in a tent,” said Brian Schaeffer, the association’s executive director.
Consider the state of the RV manufacturing industry, as compiled by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA): One in 12 vehicle-owning U.S. households owned a recreational vehicle in 2005. Shipments of new RVs of all kinds were down more than 57% in 2009 from the industry’s record year in 2006. And the continuation of an uptick in shipments this year depends on a healthy economic rebound — something that’s not at all guaranteed.
At RV parks, however, the story is brighter.
Despite the recession and fluctuating fuel prices, reservations at RV parks were up 8% in 2009, and rentals of park models were up 20%, according to the industry, as many people were looking for cheaper, shorter vacations.
“The idea of driving to the Grand Canyon isn’t happening as much as it used to,” Schaeffer said. “They are looking for something nearer to home.”
To campground owners and managers, the park models make sense as an alternative to hotels.
“People who had been in the business a lot longer than me said everyone in the business should have them,” said Bryan Kastleman, president of the management company for Hill Country RV Resort in New Braunfels.
He said the owners have invested $1 million in the park, including adding 33 park models, in the past two years.
Park models typically are 300 to 400 square feet, with the option of an additional 150 square feet of loft space for children. Some come with porches. Decks can be added once the model is anchored, its trailer hitch detached and the underside carriage hidden by skirting that matches the building’s exterior.
“They’re not cabins,” said Ken Butschek, the owner of La Hacienda RV Resort & Cottages, on Hudson Bend Road on the way to Lake Travis. “They’re little houses.”
The cottages are free-standing (no common walls) with full kitchens, wood laminate floors and high ceilings. They are typically equipped with the comforts of home: high-definition televisions, air conditioning, linens, microwaves, coffee pot and dishes.
“Bring your clothes and your ice chest, and you’re good,” Butschek said.
Butschek said he started with two models when he opened in 2004, has 15 today and expects to add more.
Austin Lone Star RV Resort, which has been in business for 40 years at Interstate 35 and William Cannon Drive, has just taken delivery of its first park model, manager Sharon Knopf said.
“We’re looking to sell them,” Knopf said.
The national chain, Carefree RV Resorts, bought the local site four years ago. The chain, Knopf said, has a track record of selling park models and leasing the plots where they are anchored.
“They are very popular in Florida,” Knopf said.
Rents for the models vary by size, season, locale and duration of your stay. Daily rents can range from $80 to $195, as opposed to $20 to $50 for a spot for an RV. Weekly or monthly rates are cheaper. The larger cottages can sleep eight.
Butschek doubles as a dealer for Athens Parks Homes. He said a basic model, including setup, could cost $28,000 to $42,000, plus customized finish-out.
Leasing a plot at La Hacienda, which is about a quarter of a mile from Lake Travis, would run $475 to $600 a month. “You can have a lake house for under $60,000,” Butschek said.
One perk: no property taxes, because a park model is legally a vehicle — albeit one that doesn’t move very often — instead of real estate.
La Hacienda’s amenities include a covered pavilion, two saline swimming pools, hot tub, spa, fitness center, laundry, cable TV and Wi-Fi Internet access.
Besides modern-day convenience, RV park owners are selling what they call the “campground experience,” which is a mixture of summer camp, Bohemian lifestyle and communal hearth.
“On a scale of one to 10, it’s an 11,” said Barbara Roach, a retiree who’s been based at La Hacienda for more than three years.
The widow drives her 30-foot motor home with Jeep in tow between Montana, Fla., and Austin to visit grandchildren. “It’s a cheap way of living,” she said.
Donna Holzhueter and Kevin Lassing, still in their 40s, left Madison, Wis., for the road two years ago.
“We were thinking of buying a house,” Lassing said, “but my wife thought it’d be fun to travel until we’re broke.”
To Holzhueter, who had worked 24 years in government, “what’s important are the experiences, not the stuff you’ve collected.”
Despite the vagabond lifestyle, she’s joined the segment of the economy that works from home — though from her RV. She does online technical support for a company.
Her husband is a “work camper,” who trades part-time work at the RV campgrounds for rent.
A few yards away, at a party building, a band is rehearsing in the middle of the afternoon.
Freddy Powers, a singer-songwriter who toured for years with Merle Haggard, is preparing his band, Stop the Truck, for an appearance at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnic.
Powers and his wife, Catherine, sold their house and donated his memorabilia to Texas State University in San Marcos after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
They are now living the RV lifestyle.
“He’s lived most of his life touring on a bus,” Catherine said of her 78-year-old husband. “I wanted to keep him on the road.”
La Hacienda serves as their base, but when there’s gig, “we just secure and go,” she said.
“We love living here,” she added.
If the road ever stops calling, there’s always a cottage that’s just across the park. It’s not going anywhere.
Working so hard on the assembly line that his T-shirt was soaked, Clint Lehman hustled to build a camper trailer meant for someone else’s vacation. He could not have been happier.
“It’s great to be back,” Lehman, a stocky 29-year-old who had been laid off for eight months last year, told The New York Times. Called back to work by a surge in demand in the recreation vehicle industry, he is earning $30 an hour for Jayco Inc., one of the largest manufacturers in Elkhart County.
People are returning to work at some of the best manufacturing wages in the region, but maybe more important, the humming production lines indicate an increased demand for parts suppliers and affiliated businesses in the Chicago area. Unemployment in the county has dropped to 13.7% from a high of about 20% in March 2009.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Elkhart, the nation’s center of recreation vehicle production, became a symbol — “the poster child of the recession,” as a local catchphrase has it. In February 2009 President Obama used the city as a rallying stage to promote his economic stimulus plan.
Residents of Elkhart County, about 90 miles east of Chicago, now hope that improvement here augers a broader recovery.
“The recreation vehicle industry is a leading economic indicator for the nation,” said Sid Johnson, the director of marketing for Jayco. “We lead the country into recessions, and we lead the country out of recessions.”
Across the street from the Jayco plant in nearby Middlebury, a new hotel is being built, a sign that good times are coming back.
While the upturn might signal growing consumer confidence, leaders in the recreation vehicle industry acknowledge that much of the increase in production has been driven by the need to replace inventory that dealers were hesitant to restock during the financial crisis.
Officials in the region are unsure whether the new vehicles being produced and shipped to dealer lots will move quickly enough to encourage factories to hire even more workers.
“We’re at a critical juncture,” said Mike Yoder, a county commissioner in Elkhart County, which has a population of about 200,000. “Everything depends on whether these actually sell.”
Dealers say there is cause for optimism. At Camping World in Lincolnshire, just north of Chicago, the headquarters of the nation’s largest chain of recreation vehicles, sales have improved significantly for some models.
Marcus Lemonis, the chairman of Camping World, which owns 80 stores, said sales had increased 40% this year for the camping trailers that are towed behind a truck or car, models that cost an average of $28,000. Lemonis said sales were flat for luxury motorhomes, the gleaming highway palaces that can cost $500,000 or more.
“The consumer has come back,” he said, “but in a more conservative way.”
The ripples of the rebound are reaching Chicago.
Kevin McNamara, an economist at Purdue University, said that while production of recreation vehicles is centered in Indiana, “some of the suppliers of the raw materials for those RVs are going to be coming out of the Chicago market.”
Zip Dee, an Elk Grove Village manufacturer of expensive powered awnings for recreation vehicles, has increased production as demand has risen from plants in Elkhart County and elsewhere, said Jim Webb, the company president.
“It’s getting stronger every month,” said Webb. “I’m optimistic, but I’m not jumping on any bandwagon. It’s going to be a slow recovery.”
In Elkhart, people say they are grateful for an increase in any kind of buyer.
About one-quarter of the jobs in the county are tied to the recreation vehicle industry, said Dorinda Heiden-Goss, the county’s president of economic development. “We’re seeing positive signs,” she said. “We’re just praying that it’s sustained.”
Nationwide, production in the industry is about 93% higher than a year ago, said Kevin Broom, a spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
Conditions in the industry had become disastrous. Nearly half of the 400,000 workers in the recreational vehicle industry in the United States lost jobs during the recession, Broom said.
Paul Thomas, an 87-year-old businessman and the town historian in Elkhart, noted that two years ago many people in the county had already given up and moved away. United States Census Bureau figures show that Elkhart County saw a net out-migration of 2,366 people from 2008 to 2009, although a rising birth rate made up for the exodus and population figures remained relatively stable.
Plenty of houses stand empty, and many others are being foreclosed or sold at fire-sale prices.
But on Main Street in Elkhart, the talk over coffee in the Old Style Deli is more upbeat these days.“It feels like things are turning around,” said Allen Knight, 59. “There for awhile, it seemed like another company was closing its doors every day. People wondered, ‘How long can this go on?’ It doesn’t feel so depressing now.”
But no one believes Elkhart will see a return to the high-flying days of the 1970s, when it seemed like any entrepreneur with a dream and some gumption, and a few good workers, could go into the recreation-vehicle business and become a millionaire.
The industry collapsed in 2008 when credit markets tightened significantly. Even when credit eased, banks looked skeptically at discretionary purchases of big-ticket items.
The problems with the economy, along with a period when gasoline prices topped $4 a gallon at the peak, left many dealers in ruins. Some 180 recreation vehicle stores around the country closed last year, said Phil Ingrassia, a spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA).
For now, comparatively low gas prices of less than $3 a gallon are helping the industry. Winnebago Industries Inc., a maker of motorhomes based in Iowa, earlier this month posted its first quarterly profit in more than a year.
Jayco, which is privately held, expects shipments to dealers to increase by about 70% in 2010 compared with a year ago, Johnson said.
Despite signs of an improving market, manufacturers said they were being conservative, protecting themselves against getting stuck with a glut of inventory.
Yoder, the county commissioner, said many in the industry had been so badly hurt that they were reluctant to make brave predictions about success.
“When times are good, nobody ever thinks they’ll go bad again,” he said. “And when times are bad, nobody ever thinks they will ever get good again. We’re going through some of that psychology right now.”
The same kind of caution is evident among workers on the assembly line. Lehman does not pretend to be an economic expert, but he knows that $30-an-hour jobs are coveted. He knows about layoffs and financial pressure. He has a young family to support.
His shift starts at 5 a.m. He shows up early to pull on his tool belt, ready to sweat and grateful for the chance.
A majority of dealers responding to a Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) survey in June said their sales during the spring of 2010 were better, in some cases significantly better, than they were during the spring of 2009.
Unfortunately, retail sales cooled off a bit in May when compared to April, according to dealers responding to the unscientific survey, which is intended to provide a snapshot of retail market conditions and possible trends, the RVDA reported in the online version of RV Executive Today.
In April, 84% of the dealers responding to the survey said their new unit sales volume was better than it was during April 2009. April new unit sales were up more than 20% for 29% of the dealers responding, and they were up between 15% and 20% for another 16%
May also was a good month for retail sales, although not quite as good as April, with 61% of the dealers responding saying their May new unit sales were up when compared with May 2009. May new unit sales were up more than 20% for 24% of those responding and were up 15% to 20$ for another 11%. However, 16% of those responding said their May 2010 new unit sales about equaled their May 2009 volume, and 11% said their May new unit sales were down more than 20% when compared with the same month a year earlier.
New unit sales during the first five months of 2010 followed basically the same pattern as April and May, when compared with the first five months of 2009. Almost 74% of those responding said their new units sales were up during the first five months of 2010, including 21% who said their new unit sales were up more than 20%. Another 8% said their new unit sales were flat and 8% said their new unit sales were down more than 20% when the first five months of this year are compared with the same portion of 2009.
A high percentage, 82%, said their lot traffic was up during the first five months of this year, with 24% saying it was up 5% to 10% and 18% saying it was up 10% to 15%.
As one dealer responding to the survey wrote, “Sales in May would have been up even more but credit still remains an issue. We are still seeing lots of customers below 650 (credit score).”
Another dealer wrote, “Used product is very strong in 2010 – selling lots of late-model auction units – probably taking business away from new.”
High unemployment is holding down RV sales in another dealer’s market, but still another dealer said, “New business seems very strong; all product types are up except for fifth-wheels, which are even. Motorized is better (with) used motorized better yet (while) diesel traffic is still off. Margins are also up, which is probably the result of having cleaner, less aged inventory.”
Among the most popular recreational vehicles Wisconsin consumers purchase are motor boats, ATVs and motorhomes. But sales were in the doldrums until recently, according to Mike Prosser of Prosser RV on Milwaukee’s far south side. He even plowed his own salary into the business in order to retain his employees and keep the company operating, according to a report from WUWM Public Radio, Milwaukee.
“When people aren’t working they don’t buy our stuff, and when people are afraid of losing their jobs, they’re not going to buy stuff. But as people begin to see there’s light at the end of the tunnel, their pent up demand for products like we sell comes to market and our sales increase,” Prosser says.
And Prosser says he has noticed a dramatic jump in sales of his mothomes and campers over the past five months. In fact, he’s had customers purchase $50,000 to $80,000 RVs. The secret, according to Prosser, is to be consumer-friendly. He’s increased his credit line with a few banks in order to purchase and keep more vehicles on the lot, so buyers can drive away in them and he’s reduced the traditional 30% markup on motorhomes.
“Those of us that are more aggressive in the market have aligned our margin expectations to the reality of the current situation and we’re actually selling stuff. (We’re) not making as much money on that perhaps, but we’re moving products and keeping the doors open and keeping customers happy,” Prosser says.
Prosser says at the present time, it’s often possible to purchase a new motorhome as cheaply as a used one. But he expects that trend to be short term. There are good deals out there, at least for now, according to Daniel Burdett. He’s general manager of Action Sports in Waukesha. It sells ATVs and dirt bikes. Burdett says there’s now a surplus of some bikes, so prices are dropping.
“You might be able to buy a new ATV, a really nice ATV for $4,500 to $5,500, and in a lot of cases, that’s what a used one is costing. It might not be first choice as far as features or equipment, that type of thing, but definitely in the area of what the customer is looking for,” Burdett says.
Burdett has noticed fewer customers entering his shop these days, but those who do, are serious about buying.
“And many times, the customers will just tell you what it takes to do business with them,” Burdett says.
Burdett describes his business as brisk, not stellar, but brisk. However, sales are still about 40% lower than before the recession hit. John Kukuk is in the same boat. He owns Nestage Marine in Marinette, Wisconsin. Kukuk says business is improving in 2010 but still down considerably from five years ago. In order to survive the downturn, his company has cut back on inventory. It used to have several large boats on hand, but now has only one or two. Kukuk says he’s also begun pursuing potential customers, because there are still people out there, able to buy.
“We’re using new methodologies associated with the internet, more direct contact. We’re still using the old boat show methodology, but waiting for the walk-in customer, that’s a thing of the past and it’s not going to work,” Kukuk says.
Kukuk says he’s trying to be optimistic, knowing the marina industry is slower to rebound than others. His latest worry is that the oil spill in the Gulf could slow boating use and sales there and eventually have a ripple effect on companies like his.
Airstream Adventures Northwest quietly opened on Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard in Milwaikie, Ore., a Portland suburb, about a month and a half ago and the shiny Airstream travel trailers on the lot are already attracting attention from passersby, reports KATU-TV, Portland, Ore.
“I just can’t get over the response of people coming in,” said co-owner Ted Davis. “Young, old — it doesn’t matter. And this is just from being on (highway) 99 — we haven’t even gotten the word out yet.”
Airstream trailers have a way of bringing back the nostalgia of a bygone era and it’s no surprise that people driving by would want to stop and see one for themselves.
“Sometimes people come in because they are seeing a piece of history and they feel like they just want to touch an Airstream,” said Davis. “And it’s so iconic. And then for others, it’s the benchmark for adventure.”
For Airstream, opening up a dealership in our market was a no-brainer.
“If you look at the values of this community — outdoors, adventure, active, an appreciation for design as well — you just checked off all the factors for Airstream,” said Airstream President and CEO Bob Wheeler, who was in town this week to showcase the new dealership.
Airstream is no stranger to the Pacific Northwest (the West Coast is the company’s strongest region) but Wheeler said they realized early on that the Portland area was a place where they could thrive.
“We have a great dealer in Eugene and one in Seattle but Portland in particular is under-served for us,” said Wheeler. “The Airstream thing just resonates here in a way that it doesn’t necessarily do everywhere else.”
And for Davis, who splits his time between the Airstream dealership and a nearby car dealership, it was a chance to connect with customers on a deeper level.
“It’s just wonderful,” he said. “The people come in here and this is about a lifestyle and about memories they want to create and adventures they want to go on. When you get to engage with people on that level, it’s so much fun.”
Is This Really a Good Time to Open a Dealership?
The RV industry has definitely seen its share of heartache in the past few years and Airstream did not escape the sour economy.
“We spent two years kind of backpedaling, along with everybody else,” Wheeler said. “It’s a big, discretionary purchase. You don’t need one and it’s kind of the first thing people elect not to buy.”
At its worst point, Airstream lost half its employees in four rounds of layoffs but Wheeler said things have turned around and the company is on the upswing again. They’ve even been able to rehire a big part of their workforce that had been laid off.
“It’s interesting because nobody’s leaving the lifestyle,” Wheeler said. “The decision is just you’re deferring that purchase, you’re putting it off. You’re not getting out of the lifestyle altogether. Now we’re starting to see those people who have been sitting on their wallets for two years coming back to the market.”
“We know we’ve taken a pretty big risk opening up an RV franchise during what is still a recessionary period,” said Davis. “We feel that we are certainly at the bottom but are starting to move up. There has been a repositioning in the RV business and a repositioning of values.”
Airstream Then and Now
Airstream, which is the oldest manufacturer of recreational vehicles in the world, was founded in 1931 by Willy Byam, whose successful article ‘How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars’ led him to start his own company. He is said to have created the unique trailer in response to his wife’s refusal to go camping without a kitchen.
Airstream was a hit from the get go and within five years after it was founded, nearly 400 companies tried to cash in the craze. Out of all of those, only Airstream remains today.
Despite its popularity over the decades, the company has had some dark times.
“It’s not always been successful,” said Wheeler. “There was a period in the ’80s or ’90s when the product had gotten stale. The decors were not moving forward and weren’t cutting edge. A lot of people still loved the exterior but they would walk inside and say ‘oh, that looks like my grandma’s kitchen.’ ”
Today, the Airstream’s popularity is soaring once again and Wheeler said its thanks to the company’s focus on design aesthetic and the launch of the Airstream International in 2001. The new trailer was designed with the help of an architect and furniture designer out of San Francisco. Wheeler said suddenly new life had been breathed into the Airstream’s decor and customers responded.
“As soon as it hit the market, for all those people who loved the outside but hated the inside, that was it,” said Wheeler. “And it just took off. And that became 40 percent of our sales very quickly.”
It also changed how Airstream did business.
“The success of that model changed Airstream in a very fundamental way,” said Wheeler. “Our understanding of what an Airstream was or could be was completely changed. And our dealers who would say ‘Classic Airstream is all I want and all I know’ were like ‘bring it on.’ They could see the possibilities.”
Airstream was founded on three tenets — design, quality and innovation — and Wheeler said they still hold true to those core values today.
“Cutting edge design – we try to push the envelope within our industry and out,” he said. “Product quality is paramount and that ties in with the durability of the product and the fact they they last so long. And innovation – new features, new functions. How do we make this thing that is the ultimate expression of ‘form follows function’ and make it that much better. How do we make it relevant for today’s consumers.”
The one thing they are focusing on right now is lightweight design.
“There’s been a big push in the last year or 18 months to produce lighter weight products,” said Wheeler. “That is really no surprise because the vehicles coming out of Detroit are smaller and more fuel efficient and they can tow less. So that’s a phenomenon, obviously, that we have to be keenly aware of and be able to respond to.”
Coming up with a lightweight design is a challenge, though, especially when consumers these days want things like flat screen TVs and other extras in their trailers – all of which add extra weight.
“There’s a middle ground we are trying to shoot for and we know that is a real movement that has to be addressed,” said Wheeler.
How Much Do Airstreams Cost?
Airstreams run between $35,000 and $110,000 and while that might sound expensive, Wheeler said you have to remember that Airstreams are designed to last.
“We make a product that doesn’t last a lifetime – it lasts several lifetimes,” said Wheeler. “We take a lot of pride in that.”
“These products are not disposable,” said Davis. “They’re not meant to last five or ten years, they’re meant to last you a lifetime or more than that. They’re actually designed to last generations.”
“If your interests are outdoor and adventure and you appreciate iconic design, quality and durability, come look inside one,” said Wheeler. “Don’t just look at the outside.”
Used ones can cost you less, of course, but they are hard to come by.
“Typically if one of our dealers takes a used Airstream trailer in trade, they might have it four or five days,” said Wheeler. “They go that quick. Usually, we’ll have a waiting list of people who have said ‘I can’t buy a new one right now but if you get a used one in…’ They come in and we start going down that list.”
And the older an Airstream gets, the more valuable it can become.
“They’re kind of like classic cars,” said Wheeler. “After 25 years, they start to appreciate. And our residual values are higher than anyone in the industry – bar none. Just go on eBay and you’ll see.”
Celebrities Love Their Airstreams
A number of celebrities have taken quite a liking to Airstream trailers. The company’s A-list clients include the likes of Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock and many others.
Wheeler said he enjoys working with celebrities and Airstream has good relationships with them but he wanted to stress that the company isn’t all about catering to the rich and famous.
“Airstreams are for everybody,” he said. “They’re not just for the celebrity set.”
And Wheeler said when it comes down to it, celebrities are just Airstream owners like everyone else.
“It’s funny — they’re not movie stars, they’re just Airstream owners when they come around,” he explained. “They’re like ‘oh, I want to show you this thing on my trailer — I changed this one thing. Hey — you really ought to think about redesigning this part. Here are my ideas for it.’ They’re as passionate as anybody who walks off the street and buys one.”
Editor’s Note: Robert W. Baird & Co. issued this client newsletter following a release on Thursday (June 10) by Thor Industries Inc. detailing its 3rd-quarter results.
Beats expectations but delayed 10-Q sparks investor concern. Thor beat expectations, but shares fell as the company announced its auditors are reviewing several accounting issues. While the RV retail recovery has not been as robust as anticipated following strong early spring checks, we continue to believe Thor is well positioned given share gains and margin improvement. Pending the accounting review, we see limited downside and note the strong balance sheet ($3/share cash, no debt).
- Delayed 10-Q; information vacuum. Shares fell more than 25% intra-day after Thor released Q3 results and announced delayed filing of its 10-Q. Thor’s auditors are working through several matters including treatment of its relationship to FreedomRoads (potential FIN 46 issue), repurchase reserves and revenue recognition. Some investors seemed frustrated as much with the process by which the information was disseminated as they were concerned with the information itself. FreedomRoads represents roughly 20% of Thor’s RV revenue. As previously disclosed, Thor has made three separate $10 million loans to FreedomRoads since January 2009. Notably, Thor’s auditors signed off the accounting treatment of the FreedomRoads relationship in the company’s last 10-K.
- EPS exceeds estimates on strong RV margins. Thor beat expectations, reporting EPS of $0.66 versus our $0.64 estimate (and $0.60 consensus). Recall that Thor had previously reported preliminary sales results.
- Retail. After a strong start to the season, we are concerned retail activity softened recently. However, Thor appears to be gaining share and noted sales growth through May.
- Outlook. Our EPS estimates are unchanged. While the market seems less interested in earnings power today, we see the potential for Thor to earn over $3.00 per share within 2-3 years. With recent cost savings initiatives, we believe Thor can achieve prior peak margins (8.0% EBIT) on 80% of prior peak revenue. Thor has $3/share in cash, no debt and limited exposure to Europe. We note that Thor has been a buyer of its stock recently near $28.
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