There’s never a lot of pomp and circumstance or official announcements when it comes to Elkhart County’s RV Open House, an authentically different trade event that has grown over the past six years to become a key stop on the recreational vehicle industry’s annual show tour.
In fact, since there’s no governing board, show director or sponsoring organization, the dates are quietly set each year in contacts between the chief executives of the industry’s two largest manufacturers, Thor Industries Inc. and Forest River Inc.
Then, the rest of the participating RV builders – including most of the significant national-scale players — tend to fall in line and make plans for their own exhibits, mostly along County Road 6 and the adjacent environs of the RV/MH Hall of Fame on the northeast side of Elkhart.
And while it’s not a closely held secret at this point, the staff of RVBusiness — with the consent of both Thor and Forest River — wanted to make sure that everyone knows the exact dates of this year’s Open House: Sept. 16-18, although some corporate activities spill over into the rest of that week.
Driving down the Indiana Toll Road and passing the RV/MH Hall of Fame last week a person would have had to wonder just what’s going on.
As reported by the South Bend Tribune, hundreds of recreational vehicles were on display in the field adjacent to the hall, parking lots were busy, hotel rooms were full and lots of people were roaming the grounds.
Thousands of RV dealers from all 50 states, Canada and even China were in town checking out the 2013 model offerings of most major RV makers in Elkhart County.
Thor industries Inc.’s Open House was held at the Hall of Fame. But most of the other 11 shows were just a short distance away on County Road 6.
For dealers such as Bruno Tombari Jr. from Bella Vista RV Centre in Hawkestone, Ontario, it was quite an opportunity.
“We set our tone for our entire season pretty much at this show,” said Tombari, as he toured the grounds at the hall with his father, Bruno Sr., checking out all the latest offerings from Thor’s brands including Keystone, CrossRoads, Heartland, Dutchmen, Breckenridge and Thor Motor Homes.
“Thor is one of the largest lines we carry,” Tombari Jr. said
The South Bend Tribune reported that Thor’s President and COO Bob Martin said at least 3,000 dealers were at the Thor Open House alone from Tuesday through Thursday. But many dealers such as Tombari got in their cars and visited the other shows.
“We go down to Forest River and also to Fleetwood and Newmar as we represent those lines also,” Tombari said.
What Tombari likes most of all is how much he can get accomplished with so many shows going on just a few miles from each other.
“It allows you in a few days to do something that might take you four to five visits throughout a year,” he said. “Now you can do it in a three-day segment.”
In the business world, this is really a win, win, win with the dealers, the manufacturers and the town of Elkhart all reaping financial rewards.
It all started five years ago, with Forest River Inc. holding an open house for dealers, said Mark Bowersox, executive director of the Recreation Vehicle Indiana Council (RVIC). Thor got on board three years ago.
“With the two big players in the industry, all of the other manufacturers jumped on board,” Bowersox said.
The end result is a show that has doubled its numbers the past few years, says Diana Lawson, executive director of the Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Bowersox said one of the keys is the casual atmosphere of the shows.
Elkhart County’s 5th Annual RV Open House Week appears to be taking yet another step forward as a legitimate national industry trade event, judging by the number of companies and the expanded array of new model year RVs on display Monday (Sept. 17) prior to the more earnest Open House kickoff on Tuesday morning.
All in all, it was a pretty positive picture in the RV-building center of Elkhart, Ind., offering another vignette of an industry that clearly continues its gradual but consistent comeback from the recent global downturn.
From the RV/MH Hall of Fame, where Thor Industries Inc. was ready to begin hosting dealers with a divisional layout of more than 300 units, to Forest River Inc.’s already busy displays at its Dynamax facility on County Road 6, companies were coordinating sales staffs and fine tuning displays on Monday that, again, were clearly larger, more detailed and, in some cases, more professional than those of previous years.
The industrial park drive into the Hall of Fame has literally exploded with displays. Several companies, including Howe, Ind.-based DRV LLC and its sister division Cruiser RV LLC, Wakarusa, Ind.-based Livin’ Lite Recreational Vehicles LLC and Middlebury, Ind.-based EverGreen Recreational Vehicles LLC and its divisional sibling LIFESTYLE Luxury RV, have set up shop in a big way on land opened up for the week by cooperative developers – all of those virtually paving the way into competitor Thor’s impressive, mulch-covered exhibit area.
Across the street on the northwest corner of County Roads 17 and 6, is a highly visible display set up by new manufacturing entrant Augusta RV, a fledgling towable builder that started up in January in Bristol, Ind.
Down C.R. 6 at KZRV LP’s display, with the company’s senior management in place and the soft drinks already chilled, is an array of new SportTrek towables from KZ’s new Venture RV division founded in July and headquartered in Shipshewana.
Farther to the west on Monday, Open Range RV Inc. unveiled its 10,000th unit to a small gathering of local and industry press while a steady flow of U.S. and Canadian dealers were already showing up at the doors of area supplier like Lexington Corp., Lippert Components Inc. and Coast Distributions Systems Inc., which was serving the area’s popular Nelson’s Golden-Glo chicken and a few libations to a good crowd of dealers at the company’s Husky towing products Technical Center on C.R. 17.
At Gulf Stream Coach Inc.’s opening casino night party, Chef Stanley’s sumptuous shrimp was a hit with an SRO dinner crowd that included an appearance by Olympic gold medalist diver David Boudia and served as yet another example of just how much this industry is on the mend.
As Gulf Stream’s President Dan Shea pointed out during his company’s opening night soiree, life is pretty good right now for the towable RV manufacturing company, just as it is for an array of other companies.
That’s the picture that most of us will probably take away from this year’s Open House.
“Yeah, it’s been very good this year,” Shea told RVBUSINESS.com. “We’ve established relationships with a number of new dealers and introduced a number of new products – particularly here at the Open House – that are going over very well and we’re looking forward to a great year next year.”
The bulk of Elkhart County RV Open House Week in northern Indiana doesn’t start until today (Sept. 18), but Monday’s early events had manufacturers hopeful for a good week as hundreds of RV dealers from around the U.S. and Canada came to the area.
The Elkhart Truth reported that in addition to the tourism boost, increased dealer attendance means increased dealer interest. That, in turn, likely means increased dealer orders, which is good for the local economy.
“This is a good little pump in the arm for the community, no question,” said Paul Campbell of Gulf Stream Coach Inc. as dealers walked by, checking out roughly 50 units on display Monday afternoon at the company’s Nappanee headquarters.
“We’re surprised at the interest and the number of people who are here. We’re gratified there have been hundreds,” Campbell said. Hundreds showed up Monday, and thousands will stop through the displays along County Road 6 in Elkhart through Thursday, according to registrations received by Forest River Inc. and Thor Industries Inc., the biggest manufacturers.
At Gulf Stream, dealers looked at new features like a slide-out that greatly expands bathroom space, or a new cover for slideout sections, one developed by Lippert Components Inc. A group of dealers checked out the new feature, offering critiques and concerns about whether the black color might warm up the interiors for their customers.
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With total attendance of ”just under 3,000” dealership personnel, Elkhart-based Forest River Inc. is expecting to garner $500 million in wholesale sales from Elkhart County’s 4th Annual RV Open House Week, Sept. 19-23 in and around the RV-building center of Elkhart, Ind.
“Tuesday and Wednesday were exactly what we thought they would be,” said Jeff Babcock, general manager of Forest River’s motorized operations, including Lexington, Sunseeker, Georgetown, Dynamax, Berkshire and Charleston motorhome lines. ”Sales were good. We were busy throughout all our displays.”
Forest River spearheaded Open House Week four years ago with a major dealer gathering at its Elkhart headquarters. Manufacturer participation has grown each year, and a couple of dozen manufacturers followed Forest River’s lead this year by holding dealer showcases of their own at various locations around the northern Indiana city.
Forest River showed some 620 towable and motorized units on 35 acres on the grounds of its newly acquired Dynamax subsidiary on the northeast side of Elkhart, where dealers were treated to free catered meals and refreshments.
”We had 2,000 dealers on the property at any one time,” Babcock said. ”You don’t realize how many people are out there looking at units until they come in for lunch and dinner.”
While Forest River expects to generate $500 million in orders through the end of the year from the open house, Babcock said sales weren’t as brisk as they might have been because of the volatility of the stock market and the political squabbling over spending and tax revenue in Washington, D.C.
”Dealers still have inventory on their lots and they are still a little apprehensive,” he said adding that the sales total includes motorized and towable RVs, cargo trailers, manufactured homes, pontoon boats and other Forest River products.
Maybe it was the blue skies and gentle breeze that pushed aside the endless dark rumblings of a bad economy and the clouds of concern that seem stuck over Indiana’s Elkhart County.
Or, as reported by the Goshen News, maybe it was the fresh and distant outlook from nearly 3,200 visitors to Thor Industries Inc.’s Open House, a three-day event that concluded Thursday (Sept. 22) at the RV Hall of Fame on the north side of Elkhart. Thor was just one of the dozens of manufacturers that displayed product during Elkhart County’s 4th Annual Open House Week.
Regardless, the outlook for the RV industry from the perspective of manufacturing executives and dealers seems to be a resilient sense of conservative confidence.
Numerous issues looming in Washington and abroad have the potential to drag down the economy and push it toward a double-dip recession. The jobless rate, fears of another Congressional impasse over the budget, a looming debate over a mandated debt plan, the debate over possibly another stimulus package and even the financial crisis involving the Euro Zone all seem to dominate the news.
And while consumer confidence can be a key factor, dealers and company representatives say they do not feel a sense of gloom.
One dealer from Texas was discussing a deal even as he caught wind that the New York Stock Exchange had suddenly dipped 400 points Thursday.
“They read the news and understand there is some concern in the marketplace, but overall they feel pretty good,” said Andy Cripe, general manager for Keystone RV Co., Goshen.
Customers are still flowing into the showrooms, Cripe said.
“It’s not the record breaking days, but it’s steady,” he explained. “There’s certainly not a doom-and-gloom mentality out there.”
Playing it safe
The Goshen News reported that most manufacturers and dealers are playing it safe in terms of inventories.
“Luckily, most of the dealers and dealer inventories are in a pretty good place,” said Bob Wheeler, president and CEO of Airstream Inc., Jackson Center, Ohio. “It’s not like what we were seeing in 2007 where there was a lot of inventory out there.
“Dealers have kept things fairly lean, so even if things continue to limp along and grow slowly, most dealers are positioned to be profitable and not get buried by the inventory they have on-hand.”
Wheeler said he believes most industry executives are more optimistic than recent projections suggesting a 2% growth rate for 2012.
“Even the dealers are talking about growth,” he said. “Maybe not double-digit growth, but they are more optimistic.”
He added Airstream is forecasting strong single-digit growth.
The economy is not a concern for Rick Barecky, a dealer from Corpus Christi, Texas.
“It’s been great for us down there,” Barecky said. “We’re in the middle of a huge oil boom. It seems everybody who’s going out to drill needs a travel trailer to stay in.”
He credits the strong economy on the recent discovery of natural gas.
“People have money and they’re spending it.”
Paul and Berta Pereira, Ontario, Canada, offered a similar sentiment for business north of the border.
“RVs are booming up there,” Paul Pereira said. “The economy’s pretty good.”
He and his wife visited manufacturers in Elkhart in June and returned for the open house to finalize deals for nine models that will be part of their new dealership, Hitch N’ Go RV, which opens in about eight weeks in Delhi, east of London, Ontario.
They signed up models from Heartland RV LLC and Forest River Inc.. The lack of manufacturers in Canada necessitates them to shop in the United States and Paul Pereira said they like the convenient cluster of RV manufacturers in Elkhart County.
This year’s event really was bigger than previous years. This was the first time all of Thor’s RV companies were spotlighted. Those include Airstream, Breckenridge, CrossRoads RV Inc., Dutchmen Manufacturing Inc., Heartland, Keystone RV Co., Redwood RV and Thor Motor Coach.
The centerpiece of the open house spread was a bright, white 22,000-square-foot tent used for breakfast, lunch and dinner over the three days. On Wednesday night, the tent hosted a casino and a live band. Guests had their choice of prime rib and steamed shrimp.
The tent had a seating capacity of about 890 and was packed Wednesday night, according to several people.
And during the day, if a manufacturer was busy talking shop with a dealer in one of their coaches, caterers for Matterhorn Conference Center Banquets Catering, Elkhart, could be seen taking lunches out into the sprawling display area.
For Kurt Janowsky, owner of Matterhorn, the event might be a high point for his company this year. Providing food and drink required about 40 workers and nine vendors, he said.
“This is a fantastic boon for the economy, Janowsky said. “It’s great for everybody.”
The casual atmosphere and perfect weather set the scene for solid networking opportunities. Many of the guests lingered well after dark.
“It’s been like a campground here in the evening,” said Bob Martin, president of Keystone. “Dealers like the casual atmosphere here. It gives us a lot of time to talk and build relationships. That’s what our industry is all about — building relationships.”
The open house also included vendors and wholesale financing companies, including General Electric. Banks seem more willing to assist dealers than during the recession, Martin said.
“A few years ago that’s what really slowed down our industry — banks quit loaning money for a period of time,” he said. “It made it almost impossible for people to build. Right now, it’s very good. They’re aggressively signing new dealers.”
There was no question Monday night (Sept. 19) that Elkhart County’s 4th Annual RV Open House Week was off and running, based on a quick “kick off” social hour visit to Gulf Stream Coach Inc.’s “Casino Night” party in the Shea Pavilion at the company’s Nappanee, Ind., manufacturing complex.
True to the growing tradition of Open House Week, this was a social venue as much as a business venture.
And, much to the dismay of anyone in the industry attempting to maintain a conservative diet, it included a traditional buffet of steak, shrimp and eggrolls from Chef Stanley Lau, a longtime friend of the company who’s been cooking at special Gulf Stream events for nearly 45 years – dating back to the early years of the company and a longstanding friendship with late Gulf Stream founder Jim Shea, Sr.
Gulf Stream President Dan Shea said he was “very excited” by Monday night’s turnout, which totaled more than 100 dealer personnel, during an interview with RVBUSINESS.com and RVNN.TV.
“I think we were anticipating about 65 to 80 dealers today and we’re well over a hundred, and it’s still only 7:15 p.m.,” said Shea, whose company had set up about 45 units in Nappanee and another 60 at two different Elkhart Open House Week locations – one at the corner of County Road 6 and Northland Drive “We’re very excited about it and it’s been very well received by the dealers. Word is getting around town that
more and more dealers are referring other dealers to us. So, we’re very excited.”
In the big picture, Shea added, it looks as if Open House Week will take another step forward this year in terms of attendance. “Definitely,” he noted. “I’m sure that by sometime tomorrow we’ll have had more dealers at this open house this year than any other in the past… It’s kind of good to see the launch of the year a little bit earlier and, in working with the dealers, they’re excited to see the new products now rather than in Louisville. It allows them to plan for their year a little better because a lot of the (retail) shows have been earlier in January and February in (various) markets, and sometimes that first week in December’s just a little too late.”