Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start of the summer tourist season, and businesses that serve vacationers have high hopes for this year. That includes boat and RV dealers who have been among the hardest hit by the poor economy. North Florida’s Bay County dealers say business is picking up and they’re optimistic that inventory will continue to leave their showrooms and sales lots, according to WMBB-TV, Panama City, Fla.
March shipments of RVs to America’s dealers were the highest in nearly two years, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA). It’s good news for an industry that saw a 30% decrease in 2009 and Bay County dealers hope it means they’ve turned a corner.
RV Connections on US Highway 231 reports a recent increase in sales, especially among older buyers. But the high demand of just four years ago seems a distant memory.
“The days of working maybe 4-5 days and making a good living (are over),” said salesman Butch Stewart. “Now you have to get ‘em all in to make the sales that you need.”
Meanwhile, nationwide boat sales rose a modest 3% in the first quarter according to boatingindustry.com, which tracks dealer activity. At Gulf Marine in Panama City, average prices are down $8,000-$10,000 and the dealership no longer stocks boats in the $40,000-$70,000 price range.
During tough economic times, buyers often look for used units because they’re more affordable. “If we can get the used boats, they sell very quickly,” says Rick Johnson of Gulf Marine. “If it stays 48 hours on the lot, that’s really rare.”
The Quick family — Dale, Lashonda and Destiny — is in the market for a used boat. They’ve spent the past couple of weeks shopping and comparing prices … and the past couple of years waiting for the right time to buy. “It’s more or less just saving,” says Mr. Quick. “It (the economy) is getting a little better it seems.”
So, as the economy goes … so goes the fate of those who sell big-ticket toys. These are their make-or-break days and they hope sales heat up along with the temperatures.
RV sales are up locally and nationwide for the first time in more than a year, showing the economy is recovering from a deep recession, industry leaders say.
“We’re seeing a lot more sales than we did,” David Meadows, owner of Holiday on Wheels of Panama City, Fla., told the city’s News Herald.
RV sales fell when the recession hit in 2007. Seeing those sales stabilize — at least on the towable side — means people are willing to spend again, said Dave Kelly, Florida RV Trade Association (FRVTA) marketing director. Higher sale volumes show the economy is recovering, and people are more confident, he said.
“All indications are that traffic has been good and that people are finally starting to open their wallets,” Kelly said.
Two years ago, RV dealership owners weren’t sure their businesses were going to survive 2008. Several went out of business locally, said Ray O’Keefe, general manager at another Panama City dealership, RV Connections. Business fell about 40% nationwide, O’Keefe said.
Even in Florida — a place where tourists and snowbirds love to buy RVs — sales plummeted. O’Keefe said what was once a robust business fell dramatically when the recession hit. Nationwide, banks seized dealers’ inventory or dealerships closed up shop permanently. A glut of inventory flooded the market, which is just now being worked through.
“If they made it through the last year, they are starting to celebrate because they made it through the worst year ever,” O’Keefe said.
About eight months ago sales began picking up across the board, Meadows and O’Keefe said. Kelly said the number of sales is up, but dealers still are making less on sales.
Sales aren’t anywhere close to the peak of 2006 but are about what was selling in 2007, dealers said. The difference is dealerships are starting to order inventory. RV Connections is ordering new inventory for the first time in a year and a half.
The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) released numbers showing sales rose 16% from July to August nationwide this year. Sales are projected to jump 26.5% next year, according to the association’s website. Florida numbers are not available currently, Kelly said.
Enough orders for new motorhomes are rolling in that it is creating a backlog for 2010 orders, Kelly said. The real test for whether RV sales in Florida are rising will be when the association holds its RV convention in January, he said. Currently, dealers say they see increased traffic and sales, he said.
People might be buying RVs more because gas prices are lower and summer homes are less attractive because the housing market crashed, said Rick Harper, the University of West Florida’s Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development.
The uptick is just one of many recent indicators the local economy is climbing out of the recession, said Janet Watermeier, Bay County Economic Development Alliance executive director.
“These are really good signals that we’ve turned the tide,” Watermeier said.