There were plenty of innovative new RVs on display at RVIA’s 48th Annual National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky., and that’s no surprise because tough economic times tend to bring out the best in many companies as they turn up the R&D focus to better compete for market share in a tight market.
Among the most eye-catching were Evergreen Recreational Vehicles LLC’s starkly different Element travel trailer, Fleetwood RV Inc.’s innovative rear-slide Tioga and Jamboree Class C, Monaco RV LLC’s futuristic Holiday Rambler Trip Class A, Earthbound RV’s chic new travel trailer, Airstream Inc.’s classy Eddie Bauer Edition Airstream, Open Range RV Inc.’s patio-equipped fifth-wheel, Dutchmen Manufacturing Inc.’s new high-end Voltage toyhauler and Winnebago Industries Inc.’s redesigned Winnebago Tour/Itasca Ellipse Class A.
But the RVBusiness staff’s unanimous choice for “Best of Show” was Thor Motor Coach’s A.C.E. Class A motorhome.
“In our view, the A.C.E. – an acronym for “Class A & C Evolution” – is a prime example of a post-recessionary motorhome that addresses the changing tastes – and wallets – of American consumers yet retains in the process a degree of style, dignity and even a touch of class,” stated RVBusiness Publisher Sherman Goldenberg.
Bottom line, the A.C.E., designed on a 16,000-pound GVWR, gas-fueled Ford chassis to combine the best attributes of Class A and C motorhomes, is a sharp-looking, kid-friendly, entry-level coach with full body paint, electric jacks, rear-view camera, kitchen slides, optimal storage, pet-friendly accoutrements and an electric drop-down cockpit bed that retails for under $80,000.
“You’ll see show specials for $69,995,” said Thor Motor Coach President and CEO Bill Fenech, “which will be a great deal for the customer, and the dealer should be very happy with his margin on that. We want our dealers to make money, but we want our customers to be able to get into the coach. They are going to get into it for not much more than a Class C price point.”
“The ACE is a real neat project,” added Fenech. “It started out as an entry-level motorhome. We wanted to get into that price segment even more than we were. We wanted to be aggressive. So, instead of just coming out with a price piece that is just another me-too motorhome, we looked at the market a little differently. We looked at the Class A and Class C markets, and there are some advantages to both products for the buyer. We looked at the two, hence the name A.C.E. – A & C Evolution.”
Floorplan, eye appeal and price are the key ingredients that appeal to the retail buyers, said Fenech, and the A.C.E. was designed with those three priorities in mind.
Consistent with a market that in some cases has consumers looking for smaller vehicles, the A.C.E. is a relatively short 29 feet, 7 inches, in length – shorter than some Class C motorhomes – yet it offers 84-inch headroom.
The cockpit tends to appeal to more of a Class C buyer, with a moderate exterior eyebrow in a front cap that houses an overhead front bunk and smaller windshield with an integrated visor that, according to Fenech, limits distracting direct sunlight and heat. “Women are saying that this doesn’t feel as overwhelming as a big bus,” says Fenech.
In addition, drivers can check out the coach’s passenger side with a uniquely placed floor line window while a large conversation mirror above the driver’s seat affords a good view of the living space.
Storage capacities, on the other hand, lean more toward the traditional Class A, with exterior “mega-storage” including a relatively huge rear curb-side compartment.
Major passenger-side basement storage compartments are located under the patio awning, while noisy heat-generating appliances are located on the driver’s side of the coach away from the activities. Campsite hookups are situated on the driver’s side rear of the coach.
Incorporated in the entry step is a storage drawer and toolbox for keeping tools, gloves and other RV gear without having to track through the coach, and there’s a broom and coat closet at the entry door in addition to a “Motorhome Mud Room” at the main entrance door for dirty shoes and gear.
In the final analysis, however, the fact that the A.C.E. is inordinately pet-friendly – with an “integrated tiedown” for dogs outside plus an inside “Kibble Station” for feeding pets – was the icing on the cake in opting to name Thor’s A.C.E. “Best of Show.”
“We tried to do a price leader coach before,” added Fenech, “but we could never get it right. Everything we put in this coach, we did for a reason. Every single dollar we spent or dollar we took out, we did it for a reason.”
Thor Motor Coach’s innovative A.C.E. motorhome drew crowds of enthusiastic dealers during the 48th Annual National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky., last week, the company announced in a news release
“There was a non-stop flow of dealers and press from the start of the show until the end, waiting to hear the full story of the A.C.E.” said Dana Simon, general manager of the gas Class A and C division of Thor Motor Coach. “Listening to the input from dealers and paying attention to what the retails customers actually want, our staff put together a truly exciting product that is clearly a hot product that’s a winner in today’s market.”
Bob Green,General RV’s general manager, stated, “Looking at the A.C.E, I have to say, Thor Motor Coach has really captured what the market is asking for and hit a remarkable price point. I have no doubt, with their continued commitment of providing high-value coaches for less, Thor Motor Coach will be successful.”
The “Class A & C Evolution,” or A.C.E., backed up its hype with a story behind its long list of features and benefits while hitting its price point, the release continued. The evolution begins in the cockpit where the windshield and front cap’s integrated visor are designed to help eliminate distracting direct sunlight and heat. The driver will get enhanced vision of the passenger side of the coach with the window on the floor line. The driver also benefits from a well-positioned large conversation mirror above the driver’s seat giving a complete view of the living space.
“The functionality continues with Camp-Sense, the company’s answer to basement storage that properly locates major storage compartments on the passenger side, under the patio awning, keeping it dry and easily accessible on the camp side. A Camp-Zone design centrally places the noisy heat-producing appliances on the driver’s side of the coach away from the activities. Intelligent design can be found with the A.C.E.’s Camper’s Corner that conveniently locates all the campsite hookups to the driver’s side rear of the coach,” the release stated.
The majority of RV owners are pet owners and the A.C.E. introduced a solution to the overwhelming demand for a pet friendly motorhome. “Owners have always had problems finding a good place to attach their pet and often had to resort to using the entry handle as an anchor for their pet’s lease creating a tripping hazard around the entry point of the motorhome, but that will never be an issue with the A.C.E.’s Pet-Link, integrated exterior tie down. The coach also has a Kibble Station, an integrated food bowl that is FDA approved. The paw and claw friendly linoleum is an absolute must have for a successful outing at even the muddiest campground,” the release continued.
“Intelligent design is also found in the extra wide entry door area that hides numerous storage spots, including a Motorhome Mud Room to store dirty shoes and gear. A storage drawer and tool box are incorporated in the entry step which is great for storing tools, gloves and other RV gear without having to track through the coach. Even a well-placed broom and coat closet at the entry door follow the conveniences typically found in a home,” the company stated.
Livable elements are found elsewhere in the EVO29.1 floorplan, including a family-friendly electric overhead bed, pantry storage in the kitchen, dual linen closets in the bathroom area and a dish work station with 12-volt and 110-volt connections. Find more information on the A.C.E. at http://acemotorhome.com.
Bill Fenech, Thor Motor Coach’s President and CEO, said, “At an unbelievable price point the A.C.E. has hit the market with unique industry changing features never seen before. A lot of the excitement comes from common sense innovations that will change our industry. We are incredibly excited for our dealers and retail customers.”
Shares of Thor Industries Inc. moved lower Tuesday (Nov. 30) by 12.22% to $29.53 after posting a first-quarter profit increase that missed estimates. Approximately 2.72 million shares traded with market capitalization of $1.65 billion, EFPR reported.
Net income for the first fiscal quarter climbed 1.3% to $23.7 million or 44 cents per diluted share, compared to $23.4 million or 42 cents per share in the prior-year quarter. The reported net income missed the analysts’ estimate of 54 cents a share driven by heavier discounting.
Sales increased 21% to $606.7 million from $502.6 million in the year-ago quarter. RV sales advanced 30% to $506.56 million from $389.93 million last year, benefiting from the remnants of dealer restocking as well as a significantly easier competitive landscape, with many players going out of business or faltering in recent months, which has led to market share gains for Thor. The recently acquired Heartland RV (late September) added $50 million of towable sales. Bus segment sales of $100.12 million were down from last year’s $112.62 million, with orders related to the 2009 economic stimulus having all but flowed through backlog.
The company’s gross margin declined 130bps year over year to 12.6%. The margin was affected by cautious dealer purchasing during the seasonal slowdown and increased promotional activity as manufacturers appear to be aggressively competing for dealer space.
The company also saw incremental expenses of roughly $8.0 million in the quarter related to its Heartland acquisition, an ongoing SEC investigation, and trademark impairment charges related to the combination of its Thor Motor Coach operations.
Thor Motor Coach announced today (Nov. 29) the “New Era Begins” at the 48th Annual National RV Trade Show, which takes place Tuesday through Thursday at the Kentucky Exposition Center (KEC) in Louisville, Ky.
The company will introduce new floorplans, upgraded standard features and an evolutionary product called A.C.E.
The Class A & C Evolution, or A.C.E., is the motorhome with a story. Blurring the line on what traditionally was called a Class A or Class C, the A.C.E. creates a class of its own, according to a news release. This class of motorhome was designed, inspired and dedicated to the retail customer and the demand for a shorter, fuel efficient, ultra functional and affordable motorhome. “It’s truly innovative in design and functionality, and priced for the masses. It is my job to make sure we build motorhomes that function into the future, and the A.C.E. is the motorhome of the future,” said Ann Spratt, vice president of operations at Thor Motor Coach.
Bill Fenech, Thor Motor Coach’s president and CEO, said, “With input from dealers, retail customers and using motorhomes ourselves, we were able to load the A.C.E with several all new innovative features. I believe the A.C.E is the most practical and user friendly motorhome on the market. It truly combines many of the best features of a Class A and a Class C motorhome with some unique features never seen before at an unbelievable price point. This product is so exciting, I can’t wait for dealers to see it.”
Dealers and the media are invited to come early to visit the Thor Motor Coach booth 1101 at Louisville, to get the show started with the most innovative product for the new year.
Keeping the customer in mind, Thor Motor Coach has expanded their already powerful diesel lineup. The Tuscany, a sophisticated combination of high-end living features and elegant automotive design, is now equipped with a 450-HP Cummins Engine standard on all tag models. This addition makes the 42’ Tuscany’s the most affordable 450-HP motorhome on the market. The Tuscany will also introduce the new 42FK floorplan with a front kitchen and L-Shaped sofa.
The Astoria ushers in the dawn of a new era in affordable luxury. Building on the already popular 40KT’s success at the Hershey Show, the new Astoria will add a 40-foot Bunk model to the lineup. The new 40BQ will debut at the 2010 Louisville RV show.
The Serrano, with its European exterior styling and the comfort you have come to expect, introduces the 33A floor plan. The 33A continues the aerodynamic exterior design and fuel efficiency you expect from the Serrano. This innovative floorplan design will include lighted countertops, a retractable 32-inch LCD TV in the Living area, a functional bathroom, with an extra wide sofa and chaise lounge.
On the Class A & C gas front, Thor Motor Coach will introduce several new floorplans and leading-edge features. The Hurricane will introduce the 31J with a queen AeroBed mattress, and drop-down bunk. The electric bunk is kid friendly, and comes complete with wrap-around netting, and electric switch with parental shut off for added piece of mind. The Windsport, has a new 32D floorplan that includes a capable kitchen design with spacious countertops that allow for a practical food prep area. The 2011.5 Challenger has new front caps, freshly upgraded interiors, ingenious floor plans like the 37KT, offering triple zone living. The Daybreak now features premium Toshiba electronics and a new 27PD floorplan. The Four Winds and Chateau will introduce a new 28Z floorplan, designed with retail and rental customers in mind.
Bill Fenech, president and CEO of Thor Motor Coach, and Matt Thompson, vice president of diesel sales, along with several other Thor Motor Coach employees and a few friends and family, met with four Marines out on a training exercise at the Elkhart Municipal Airport this week, the company reported in a news release.
The mission was simple: break bread, give thanks and allow Thor Motor Coach engineer Del Littrell to visit with his son, Marine A.J. Littrell.
The Marine crew, stationed in Johnstown, Pa., flew into Elkhart’s airport in their Bell UH-1N Huey. Marine Gunnery Sgt. A.J. Littrell has served for 15 years and was accompanied by Staff Sgt. John Lastinger (eight years), Lt. Colonel Charles Watkins (21 years), and their pilot Capt. P. Byrd (15 years).
Gunnery Sgt. A.J. Littrell has over 1,000 hours as a flying crew chief and door gunner. In eight years Littrell has had seven combat tours in the Middle East. His wife, who is also a gunnery sergeant, has three combat tours in the Middle East. A.J.’s father, Del Littrell, also served his country 40 years ago in the Vietnam War, and has another son and son-in-law in the military.
After a brief tour and photo shoot, the crew was transported to a local restaurant in a 2011 42RQ Tuscany for lunch and fellowship. “Thor Motor Coach is humbled by these men, we honor them for making the choice to serve our country, and feel proud to know them,” the release concluded.
You can find more photos here: http://thormotorcoach.com/news.php?id=7.
Thor Motor Coach today (Nov. 9) officially launched new retail sales and dealer support websites.
The retail site, www.ThorMotorCoach.com, is designed to be an intuitive customer-focused website, according to a news release. The fully featured site integrates multiple user-friendly and interactive features. Further, the retail website boasts straightforward navigation making the site “user-friendly.” Finding products, information, news and support is easy and effortless.
Each of the 15 Thor Motor Coach brand sites have been seamlessly integrated into the site’s navigation with uniform functionality throughout that will engage customers while surfing the site.
“Retail customers want to be able to shop online, find out who we are, find what brands fit their lifestyle and then get in contact with their local dealer and we make that easy.” said Jerimiah Borkowski Thor Motor Coach’s director of communications.
Thor Motor Coach introduced their dealer support site called “Insight” in conjunction with the retail site. Thor Motor Coach dealers can log in at www.dealers.thormotorcoach.com. “Insight” is being implemented to connect dealers directly to Thor Motor Coach’s resources and tools. A second phase of the implementation is expected within 60 days which will include several enhancements, making the service side of the business more enjoyable and extending the functionality, the company said.
Thor Motor Coach has introduced a new emblem.
“The Thor Motor Coach emblem symbolizes the foundation on which the company is built. We developed the shield over several months to represent the strength, stability, backing and support we are committed to providing to our dealers and retail customers,” said Bill Fenech, president of Thor Motor Coach, in a news release.
Along with the creation of the logo, a new aggressive advertising program has been put in place to help dealers and customers better recognize the new Thor Motor Coach. Over the next year a series of highly targeted print and web advertising will be strategically placed to develop a company image.
“We feel it is more important than ever to really promote what we are doing. We are a single company, and the number one retailer of motorhomes in North America, yet some still think of us as the best kept secret,” said Matt Thompson, vice president of diesel motorhome sales.
“Dealers are going to see the ‘gloves are off’ as we make the move to promote the overall strength of Thor Motor Coach. We are here to change the face of business in the motorhome market. The image of our new logo will stir the same kind of brand loyalty people feel with brands like Coke, Toyota and Boeing,” stated Dana Simon, vice president of gas motorhome sales.
The shield will be featured in several new ads, events and sponsorships and will be featured on the complete line of brands which include Hurricane, Windsport, Daybreak, Challenger, Four Winds, Four Winds Siesta, Four Winds Siesta Sprinter, Chateau, Chateau Citation, Chateau Citation Sprinter, Serrano, Avanti, Astoria and Tuscany.
As the dust settles from the first annual Open House Week in and around Elkhart County, Ind., the region’s recreational vehicle manufacturers are beginning to assess the impact of what they experienced this week as at least 15 RV builders followed the lead of Elkhart-based Forest River Inc. in opening their doors to thousands of North American RV dealer personnel.
What makes it so unique and novel is that few of these companies worked together in orchestrating these open houses. No chamber of commerce or economic development agency called industry players to the table and proposed that they all, in concert, host dealers the week of Sept. 27-Oct.1.
This, instead, was more of a spontaneous action by RV builders intent on capturing the attention of North American RV retailers in the fall, even in some cases if it means pre-empting to an extent the industry’s traditional “Louisville Show,” the 48th Annual National RV Trade Show slated for Nov. 30-Dec. 2 in Louisville.
Again, Forest River started it all in 2008 when the economic atmosphere wasn’t all that good and the Berkshire Hathaway unit’s senior management decided to do something to build dealers’ spirits. Their answer was a big product show on the grounds of the company’s corporate headquarters on the west side of Elkhart.
“The recession led us to this because of our financial strength, and, being a strong company, we wanted to show the dealers that we thought that they needed a boost because a lot of the morale was weak that year,” recalls Forest River National Sales Manager Jeff Babcock. “We wanted to build the dealers’ confidence that, of course, Forest River’s going to be here and have them come down here, as we said, and stroll through the acres of product and have a good time on us.
“And I think we’ve got a pretty good reputation for taking care of dealers down here,” Babcock added. “We thought that, hey, it would be a good thank you to the dealers to throw something here. And, you know, we had a good turnout that year, and every year it continues to grow and grow and grow.”
The difference this year is that other manufacturers decided to piggyback on Forest River’s event with their own open houses on the same week, and the dealers came in droves, flooding area hotels, restaurants and bars starting on Monday. The action built up on Tuesday and peaked for the most part on Wednesday evening when hundreds of dealers converged on two sites in particular.
The social hour hot spots were rather predictable, as three Thor Industries Inc. divisions, Keystone RV Co. Inc., Thor Motor Coach and Breckenridge, worked together to host several hundred dealers at a happy hour gathering in a tent outside the RV/MH Hall of Fame on Elkhart’s east side. Some estimated the crowd at 650.
On the opposite side of town, Forest River presided over a blowout party so big – they say it drew in excess of 3,000 dealer personnel – that the company’s caterers were hard pressed to keep up. The party tent, which also featured live music like Thor’s, was positioned amid 500 display units.
From all we can tell, most all of the parties involved this week seemed to come away with a good taste in their mouths for the entire sequence of events. The general consensus was that, whatever occurred here in Elkhart this week, it was all “plus business.” And that goes for some of the smaller companies like Open Range RV, Evergreen Recreational Vehicles, Dynamax Corp. and Carriage Inc. for whom a story was posted earlier this week.
Manufacturers say that Open House Week did a good job of servicing an industry that is still finding its equilibrium on the heels of a global recession.
“It was fantastic,” said Doug Gaeddert, general manager of several Forest River divisions and first vice chairman of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), sponsor of the annual Louisville Show. “Each year (the open house) gets better, and anybody who’s anybody in the RV business was pretty much in town this week. And, absolutely, it will be a record-breaking deal that will take us right on through into the first part of the year. It’s been fantastic.”
Gaeddert says everyone benefitted from the added participation of other companies. “I think it has benefitted the local community,” he said. “It’s obviously benefitted Forest River greatly and all the companies who have tagged on. I don’t know if there’s anybody left who didn’t do one this year. But if there are, I hope they do one next year.”
Forest River President and CEO Pete Liegl says the towable and motorized manufacturer drew in excess of 800 U.S. and Canadian dealerships and ultimately hosted 400 more people had pre-registered for the event, many of whom were bonafide buyers.
He says it’s all a general reflection of the industry’s surprising strength at this point in time. “Unquestionably,” said Liegl, “things have been good this year, and I think that things are going to be damn good next year. I really do.”
So, plan on Forest River following suit next year. “We’re running out of land,” said Liegl. “In fact, we added 20 acres next door that we didn’t have last year for extra parking. Heck, we can close down the streets next year, but I don’t know if we can outdo the enthusiasm of the dealers this year. I really don’t. Dealers are positive, happy, not only with us, but with everything. They’ve all had a pretty good year. They’ve survived 2009, and they’re operating much more like true businessmen, which is good, and I believe next year’s going to be even better. I really do.”
The general tenor of comments was much the same among the Thor companies that joined forces over at the Hall of Fame.
“It’s a good thing, a great thing for our dealers from all over the continent and overseas, and it’s a great thing for us as manufacturers,” Bill Fenech, president of Thor Motor Coach, told RVBUSINESS.com. “Dealers got to see a bunch of new products in a casual, relaxed environment. I can’t tell you how many dealers are saying ‘this is a great thing you’re doing for the industry.’”
“The venue here brings a whole different atmosphere,” noted Matt Thompson, vice president and general manager of Thor Motor Coach’s diesel brands. “And I think the dealers really appreciate it, and we’ve been able to really relax, sit down, spend a lot more quality time together with individual dealers and really rekindle some old relationships and build some new ones. It’s really unlike anything I’ve seen in the last ten years that I’ve been in this business.”
“For us, it was phenomenal,” Keystone President Bob Martin told RVBUSINESS.com. “It’s our first time doing it, and we’re very excited. We had great attendance.”
In anticipation of Open House Week, Martin said, Keystone moved some 2011 product changes forward on the calendar and had plenty for dealers to see. Fact is, Martin noted, September may be a better time frame for new model introductions rather than November or December when the Louisville Show is held – at least for some dealers and some products.
Thus, open house week could be playing a role in changing – to an extent – the industry’s habits. “It is,” said Martin. “Dealers are excited. They think it’s a good time of the year to come in and see product – a good time of the year to make buying decisions because they can buy new current product for the fall so they’re ready for spring show season. Everybody’s asked, ‘how does this affect Louisville?’ We don’t know yet. I mean, we’ll still have new products at Louisville and a reason to come to Louisville as well.
“Overall, though, it was very positive. Many dealers came through. They loved the product and the venue. You know, having it at the Hall of Fame is a draw. Many of the dealers actually haven’t been to the Hall of Fame, So, with that, it’s made the complete package with Keystone, Thor Motorized and Breckenridge. It’s been a very good venue for us.”
Indeed, the open house – a low-budget approach to manufacturer-dealer relations that has been used for years by individual companies — was a topic of choice over drinks at more than one local lounge as people began to analyze where all of this might lead.
Many in the industry have long treasured the fact that the recreational vehicle business still has a strong, single-site national show at which an entire spectrum of companies can participate, including component and service suppliers, aftermarket distributors, software vendors, finance companies, etc.
These open houses certainly aren’t cogent supplier venues, although a few suppliers did set up displays at a couple open houses. And their absence, most agree, would be a real problem if open house week ever gained an edge over Louisville.
Other concerns? How about the weather? The elements cooperated this past week; the weather was beautiful. But what if it wasn’t? With so many companies operating with outside venues, with tents in a few cases being the only shelter other than nearby factories and the insides of display units, the entire sequence of events was completely vulnerable to the elements. And everyone knows it.
As for expenses? While this whole phenomenon is sort of a low-budget sales tactic, it’s not all that cheap of an approach for the key manufacturers who covered dealers’ lodging, shuttle service and entertainment while in town.
And what about RVIA, the national trade association that depends so heavily on revenues from the Louisville Show to balance its annual budget? Louisville, loyalists point out, helps fund standards programs, political lobbying, public relations initiatives and so forth. What would become of the association and all of its critical services it if the wheels would ever come off the Louisville Show?
RVIA, for its part, is standing by and observing the whole scenario, cognizant, as RVIA President Richard Coon pointed out in a Monday (Sept. 27) statement, that “there continues to be strong, widespread industry support” for the Louisville Show.
“This year,” wrote Coon, “we will have 71 manufacturers and 230 suppliers displaying the latest RVs and products across more than 760,000 square feet of exhibit space. That is a substantial increase over the 604,000 feet of space used last year. Additionally, my colleagues at the manufacturing companies holding these events in Elkhart have assured me that the National RV Trade Show remains an integral part of their plans this year and moving forward.”
That said, few would argue that this past week’s activities around Elkhart County could be a harbinger of some eventual changes for the industry and, ultimately, for RVIA and the Louisville Show.
How much change remains to be seen.
“Well I think it’s changing the industry’s habits pretty greatly,” said Gaeddert. “As to the fate of the Louisville Show, which I know is a little bit of a question on everybody’s mind, I don’t think it threatens the Louisville Show. (But it’s) probably a little incentive for the Louisville Show to become a little more creative, raise the value of that product even further.
“Obviously,” he added, “I’m involved in RVIA, and I think it’ll push RVIA to increase the value of the Louisville Show and look at some issues – maybe timing – with respect to the value of that product. This is a competitive world, and I don’t care if you’re an association, a manufacturer, a publisher, if you don’t improve the value of your product continuously, somebody else will.”
“Louisville is a great show and it has its place,” noted Fenech. But he said that timing is a key issue because dealers who wait to buy at Louisville usually can’t get product in time for their key early retail shows – often not until February or March. In a perfect world where both the open houses and Louisville prevail, he suggests, dealers can do both – buy in September and December.
“Consider this a sneak peak at the Louisville Show,” adds Thompson, noting that his Thor division will be bringing significant new product to Louisville, including the company’s biggest unveiling of the year — a Class A that will be “one of a kind in the industry.”
“I think that dealers are taking more time in choosing the brands and the companies they do business with,” said Don Clark, president of Dutchmen Manufacturing Inc., a Thor division that set up separately on the north side of Elkhart in a vacant boat manufacturing plant. “And having an Elkhart open house will give them an opportunity to meet with the manufacturer and find out not only if the product is a good fit, but if the company and the people are a good fit for their businesses.”
Dealers with whom RVBUSINESS.com chatted in Elkhart generally viewed the open houses as a plus. “You can see product in a relaxed atmosphere,” said Doug O’Banion, president of Motor Home Specialist, Alvarado, Texas, a key Monaco dealer and one of Texas’s largest RV retailers. “It’s a great idea for the manufacturers and the dealers to come and see what they have to offer. If we see something we don’t have, we’ll order it.”
O’Banion, on the other hand, doesn’t see the open houses as a viable replacement for the Louisville Show. “As a dealer,” he said, “you will see at Louisville what the other manufacturers have. You have to go to Louisville.”
Jeannie Haught, co-owner of Northtown Motor Home in Rockford, Mich., also sees a lot of value in Louisville and suspects that the open house impact will be minimal. “This is a product show,” she said of this past week’s events. “Louisville is where you go to see what your competitors are carrying. This should not hurt the Louisville Show.”
But Roger Smith, owner of Smith Trailer Sales in Monroe, Ind., thinks this latest open house twist could make the Louisville Show obsolete. “I think we can do away with Louisville,” he said. “I saw more here than in Louisville. That’s the disappointment (vs. the National RV Trade Show).”
Based on what they saw and experienced this past week in Elkhart, meanwhile, Robb Cusack, Rod Roy and David Epp of Fraserway RV’s seven-store Canadian operations feel they may have seen a glimpse of the future. The trio, who visited Gulf Stream Coach Inc., R-Vision, Starcraft RV, Evergreen and Thor events, among others, think this whole open house concept is going to get legs in the future.
“I feel this is the new Louisville,” said Cusack, who runs the company’s Halifax store. “This is where dealers are going to come and see what’s new for the following year for product. I mean, it’s very exciting to be here. The weather’s awesome. And I’ll tell you what: The manufacturers have gone way over the top. There’s entertainment, food – I mean we didn’t buy one meal in four days. It’s amazing.”
There was a time in the 1970s until the mid-‘80s when the RV industry would gather annually each August in the sweltering heat of northern Indiana for what was then known as the South Bend Show. Dealers would come from near and far to be wined and dined by manufacturers and to see some new model year lineups.
New models would also be shown at subsequent private dealer meetings and then at the annual all-industry Louisville Show.
Now, the North American RV industry is headed back to the future to an extent this week as a host of companies — spurred by a budget-minded atmosphere in the wake of The Great Recession and by the success of Forest River Inc.‘s own big Elkhart dealer meetings over the past two years – beckon dealers to the flatlands of
Elkhart County for a series of “dealer open houses.”
Although it’s a bit later than the South Bend Show, which was held outside the Notre Dame Stadium, these new open houses should benefit the region’s hotels, restaurants, lounges and shuttle bus drivers in much the same way.
Forest River, a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary that again sets up shop this week next to its corporate headquarters on the west side of Elkhart, is expecting 2,800 people and reportedly had registered more than 700 dealerships by the beginning of this week. Along with a series of dealer displays that will include everything from conventional RV’s to commercial trailers, boats and mobile latrines, dealers can expect lavish buffets and a bustling Wednesday night cocktail party that should rival the best of those good ‘ole days at South Bend.
“I assume it’s going to be as good as last year,” Forest River President and CEO Pete Liegl told RVBUSINESS.com.
Much the same can be expected across town on the east side of Elkhart at the RV/MH Hall of Fame as three Thor Industries Inc. divisions set up shop for the first time this year on the grounds around the RV/MH Heritage Foundation Inc.’s museum, library and hall near the Indiana Toll Road. This is the first year that Thor, another market leader, has hosted dealers for a September open house and, in the process, did not manage to station all of its divisions in one place like Forest River did.
So, Thor Motor Coach, Keystone RV Co. Inc. and Breckenridge will be manning displays – Keystone itself is setting up about 200 units on the hall’s periphery – on Wednesday and Thursday. Also on tap at the hall: Seminars sponsored by Freightliner Custom Chassis Inc., GE Capital, Ally Financial and Statistical Surveys Inc. plus a Wednesday night cocktail party – scheduled, perhaps coincidentally, at the exact same time as chief competitor Forest River’s. Tunes are being provided by the popular John Kirkwood band.
Keystone President Bob Martin, who tells RVBUSINESS.com that he’s expecting somewhere between 700 and a thousand dealer personnel to stop by, says Keystone has always brought dealers in during the fall for a look at new product. And while they’re stepping it up this year, his Goshen, Ind.-based firm is still planning an aggressive display with additional new product at RVIA’s 48th Annual National RV Trade Show, Nov. 30-Dec. 2 in Louisville.
‘It’s a good opportunity to get in front of your dealers in the fall,” says Martin, whose company will also host vendor booths and meetings with customer service representatives and retail and wholesale financing sources.
Just down the street a few minutes to the west at a temporary rented facility at the corner of Marina Drive and County Road 6, Thor’s Dutchmen Manufacturing Inc. division will launch an open house of its own tonight (Sept. 27) with cocktails provided by the Thor division and entertainment supplied by a group called Blammo. Displays, complete with continental breakfast, are open all day Tuesday and Thursday, closing out Thursday at noon.
Also kicking off the festivities tonight down in Nappanee – with a tailgate party, casino night and poker tournament — is Gulf Stream Coach Inc., which will be featuring a favorite of the company’s founder, the late Jim Shea Sr.: Daily lunch consisting of Stanley’s famous steak, shrimp and eggroll. Gulf Stream’s event runs through Thursday
“We believe recent developments in the RV industry will create great opportunities for the independent manufacturers,” says Gulf Stream Co-President Dan Shea. “We developed many new dealer relationships this year and we look forward to showing our new innovative, value-packed models.“
Also opening their doors to dealers this week:
Carriage Inc.: Tuesday through Thursday at the towable manufacturer’s Millersburg, Ind., plant.
Dynamax Corp.: Monday through Thursday at the company’s north side Elkhart plant at the corner of Northland Dr. and County Road 6.
Earthbound RV: Monday through Friday at the Spring Meadow Farm Golf Club east of Elkhart in Middlebury, as well as at the firm’s new main plant 70 miles to the south in Marion, Ind.
Evergreen Recreational Vehicles: Monday through Thursday at the company’s plant in Middlebury.
Livin’ Lite Recreational Vehicles: Monday through Thursday at the firm’s Wakarusa facility a few miles south of Elkhart off of Indiana 19.
Monaco RV LLC: Tuesday through Thursday at the Navistar division’s Wakarusa plant.
Open Range RV: Tuesday through Thursday at the company’s facilities east of Elkhart in Shipshewana.
Sunnybrook RV: Tuesday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the company’s plant in Middlebury.
Meanwhile, adding to the week’s industry activities, Jayco Inc. will have about 250 retail personnel on hand for intensive sales training at its complex in Middlebury, Ind. Jayco’s second Master RV Product Training Session runs Monday through Thursday, with a graduation ceremony Wednesday at the Marriott in South Bend.
The merger in early September of Thor Industries Inc.’s motorized subsidiaries — Damon Motor Coach and Four Winds International Corp. — into Thor Motor Coach was spurred by the realization that the two companies were competing for the same dealers in a smaller marketplace.
More than 90% of today’s RV sales are towables.
”The motorhome market obviously is a fraction of what it was years ago,” said Bill Fenech, formerly president of the two companies and new president of the newly created company.
”And if you look at the number of motorhome dealers in the marketplace, before we’d have two, three, four and sometimes five strong dealers in the major markets, said Fenech, whose company is based in Elkhart, Ind. ”That’s not the case at all anymore and to have two separate companies didn’t make a lot of sense.”
The goal in forming Thor Motor Coach was to create ”a strong company name” while retaining most of the brands that Damon and Four Winds manufactured, Fenech said.
”Damon has ceased to exist and Four Winds International won’t exist any more, but pretty much all the brands are staying,” Fenech told RVBUSINESS.com. ”The bottom line is this whole consolidation was almost a year in the making. I saw what was happening in the marketplace. Damon was a good company; Four Winds was a good company. Now we are gong to leverage the Thor Motor Coach name and we’re going to go after it.”
Matt Thompson, formerly with Damon, has been named vice president and general manager of Thor Motor Coach’s diesel brands that include the Serrano, Avanti, Astoria and Tuscany.
Dana Simon, a 20-year Four Winds veteran, is vice president and general manager of gas Class A and Class C brands, including Hurricane, Windsport, Daybreak, Challenger, Four Winds and Chateau.
Thor Motor Coach, which employs more than 700 people, will be ”the golden thread that goes through everything that we do now” in terms of branding, said Fenech, one of the founders of Goshen, Ind.-based Keystone RV Co., a Thor Industries subsidiary.
”We are going to leverage the Thor Motor Coach name,” he continued.
The merger of the two companies has been in the offing since September 2008 when Damon, in the eye of the recessionary storm, moved its manufacturing operations into a 165,000-square-foot plant in Elkhart that formerly was occupied by Four Winds.
”At the old Damon facility, we had a bunch of little plants,” Fenech said. ”When the market softened, Four Winds had extra capacity that we combined into one major (Damon) plant.”
In June 2009, Fenech was named president of both companies which began to share more ”back-end” operations that included customer service, parts, IT and legal staff.
”What was very frustrating was that I couldn’t get both teams to share as much as I wanted to because they were competitors,” Fenech said. ”We would have them fighting each other for a dealer, and that didn’t make a lot of sense because of how few dealers are out there. Now Dana and Matt are trying to help each other instead of fighting with each other as vice presidents and general managers of different brands.
”Initially (the merger) already has cleared up a lot of stuff for us,” Fenech said. ”We can look at things more globally with everybody going in the same direction. We were always lean, but putting us together makes us even more lean, and we’ll save money.”
Fenech said that Thor Motor Coach will focus on value pricing. ”Damon used to have the buzz phrase ‘value by design,”’ Fenech said. ”That ties into what we are doing.
”We are not going to be the most expensive product. We’ll never have the high, high-end. We know who we are. I like to be the price leader in the meat of the market. That’s where I want to play.”
Given the soft recovery of the U.S. economy in general and the RV industry specifically, Fenech said it is hard to predict how the next few months will play out.
”The last couple of years have proven to be very difficult,” he said. ”I don’t think we will come back to the pre-’04 levels, but we are going to see some steady increases in the market.”
He also predicted that the move toward shorter and somewhat smaller motorhomes is likely to wane somewhat over the long haul, noting that the sales of larger, less fuel-efficient SUVs has picked up as the economy recovers. ”The American buyer has a short memory,” Fenech said. ”The focus is likely to be driveablity, not necessarily price or fuel-economy driven”
”Price is going to continue to be involved in the market over and shorter RVs are a very important part of the product mix, but I think we are still going to sell big ones.”