Park model builder Woodland Park Inc. will be hosting an Open House at the company’s manufacturing complex in Middlebury, Ind., Sept. 20-22 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. The event will coincide with the 4th Annual Elkhart County Manufacturers’ Open House running Sept. 19-23.
“It will be an Open House unlike any we’ve had for 20 years,” said David Burroughs, North American sales manager for Woodland Park, founded in 1983.
According to a press release, Woodland Park will display new park models designed for both the U.S. and Canadian markets. “In fact, we will have one of the largest displays of custom-built park models in Elkhart County,” Burroughs adds. “This will give our dealers the chance to see first-hand the quality and customization that goes into each Woodland Park model.
“We’ll feature exciting residential options in décor, furniture, appliances and wood finishes, touches that give Woodland Park homes that designer feel. The dealers will also have the opportunity to meet our staff, ask product questions and learn more about Woodland Park products and how they can thoroughly satisfy a dealer’s clientele.”
A dealer’s luncheon is planned on Sept. 20 at 11:00 a.m. “There we will welcome dealers, new and old, and treat them to lunch,” said Burroughs.
Later this month, the Kampground of America (KOA) campground in Herkimer, N.Y. is going to start renting out the nation’s first park trailer to achieve “Emerald” status from NTA Inc., a Nappanee-based company that specializes in certifying “green” manufacturers.
Phoenix, Ariz.-based Cavco Industries Inc. received the Emerald status for the Herkimer park trailer in late April after proving that the unit met NTA’s highest green standards.
Indeed, the Herkimer KOA unit, believed the first “off-grid” park trailer in the country, features numerous green features, including solar panels capable of producing 2 kilowatts of power, bamboo flooring, LED lighting, recycled axels and tires, recycled lumber composite decking, on-demand water heating, energy efficient heating and air-conditioning.
But while this unit may demonstrate one company’s efforts to prove how green it can be, in reality, park trailer manufacturers in Elkhart County, Ind., and across the country are increasingly seeking green certifications, not only for their products, but for their manufacturing processes.
And several consulting engineering firms are helping them obtain their green certifications. In the past year, TR Arnold & Associates in Elkhart has certified Elkhart-based Trophy Homes Inc. and Forest River Inc. as well as Middlebury-based Woodland Park as green manufacturers, while Athens, Texas-based Athens Park Homes also met NTA’s requirements for green certification. Elkhart-based Country Log Cottages, for its part, has also obtained green certification from Anderson, Ind.-based BIS LLC, as has Chariot Eagle Inc., an Ocala, Fla.-based park trailer manufacturer.
Olin Wenrick, president and CEO of Trophy Homes, said consumers are becoming increasingly educated about the merits of green products and it may eventually get to the point where manufacturers are at a disadvantage if they aren’t able to tell their customers they are green.
“It’s coming. So why not start now?” Wenrick asked. “It at least tells people out there that I’m trying to do the right thing for the environment.”
In Trophy’s case, it already was. Trophy had already adopted environmentally friendly manufacturing practices, such as recycling its construction waste, so it was relatively easy for the company to get green certified, Wenrick said.
Dave Burrows, national sales manager for Middlebury-based Woodland Park, said his company also achieved green certification with relative ease.
“We didn’t really have to change anything,” he said. “We had been manufacturing to green standards for quite a while. There was just not a certification process or a verification process for our industry.”
But TR Arnold & Associates, NTA, BIS and other consulting firms have tried to fill that void, and park trailer manufacturers are finding it’s worth their time and effort to seek green certifications.
Burrows, in fact, said Woodland Park’s dealers applauded its green certification. “Basically, the dealers looked at it as a move in the right direction. They looked at it as another tool for them to sell our product. And my Canadian dealers absolutely loved the thought of a green product.”
Mandy Leazenby, TR Arnold & Associates’ green program manager, said her company looks at several criteria before determining whether a company’s manufacturing operations can be green certified. “We look at indoor air-quality, resource efficiency, energy efficiency, water efficiency, operations and maintenance and innovative practices,” she said. “We also look at the attitude of the company and the extent to which they recycle materials during the construction process.”
But while obtaining “green” certification has been relatively painless for several Elkhart County manufacturers to achieve, selling “green” units is another matter, said Wenrick, adding that his company’s green status hasn’t yet translated into increased sales.
That day may come, however.
In fact, while many consumers may not yet be ready to purchase an “off grid” green park trailer with all the bells and whistles, such as solar panels with backup generators, consumers are showing interest in purchasing park trailers with energy and water saving features, such as LED lighting, low flow faucet and showerheads and energy saving appliances.
Dick Grymonprez, vice president of marketing for Athens Park Homes, which achieved its green certification last year, said his company is seeing increased demand for instant hot water heaters.
“Some people just focus on solar panels, but there are different shades of green,” said Leazenby of TR Arnold & Associates, adding that there are many green features in today’s park trailers that are very positive features for consumers, such as units with low-VOC paints and finishes as well as formaldehyde-free carpets, wall materials and flooring.
After enduring the biggest downturn in the history of the recreational park trailer business, several recreational park trailer manufacturers are reporting increased sales and renewed interest in their products, which are used by consumers as vacation cottages and by campgrounds as rental accommodations, according to a Recreational Park Trailer Industry Assocation (RPTIA) news release.
“It looks like spring is definitely going to be better than it was last year,” said Tim Howard, president and CEO of the Breckenridge Division of Damon Motor Coach, a Thor Industries Inc. company in Nappanee, Ind., that has long been one of the largest park model manufacturers in the country.
“In the past two months, we have seen a better market, a better demand for products, broadly, than we saw during the same period last year. This is an encouragement, certainly, because it was a long, painful ‘off’ season.”
Granted, Howard said his company’s backlog is still “not anywhere near what it would have been in normal times three years ago,” but it’s moving in the right direction.
“Several park trailer manufacturers are saying their orders are up at least 10% to 15% from where they were a year ago,” said RPTIA Executive Director William Garpow, whose association represents park trailer manufacturers. “Of course, park trailer shipments were down about 50% last year, so we’ve still got a long ways to go to get back where we were three years ago, but at least we’re heading in the right direction.”
Indeed, several Elkhart County, Ind., park trailer manufacturers say they are seeing a sustained increase in orders and inquiries this year, which they say bodes well for the future.
“Business is a little better than last year,” said Dave Burrows, national sales manager for Middlebury, Ind.-based Woodland Park. “It’s definitely not the 2006, 2007 or 2008 numbers. But consumer optimism and demand here over the last two months has started to increase, which is nice to see. Prior to that, dealers were extremely nervous and skittish about putting any product on their lots. Now they’re starting to see traffic coming in. My dealers are more optimistic this year than they were last year.”
“Sales are up nicely,” said Jim Foltz, general manager of Forest River Inc. in Elkhart.
Other companies say they are seeing even stronger business levels.
“So far this year, our business seems to be back to normal for us,” said Curt Yoder, vice president of Kropf Industries Inc. in Goshen, Ind. “There’s definitely much better activity and interest this year compared to last year. We’re running at full capacity now and we hope to continue that.”
Olin Wenrick, president and CEO of Elkhart-based Trophy Homes Inc. said his business is up, too, this year, but is still off about 50% from where it used to be. But Wenrick said he is optimistic about his business prospects this year. “We’re beginning the climb,” he said.
Other park trailer manufacturers across the country are similarly optimistic.
“Our park trailer business year-to-date is up over last year for January, February and March,” said Dick Grymonprez, vice president of marketing for Athens Park Homes in Athens, Texas. “We’re encouraged that it’s going to be a better year.”
Grymonprez added that the biggest impediment to improving park trailer sales is the same impediment facing every other industry in the country: limited bank financing.
Like other RV manufacturers, recreational park trailer builders have been hard hit by the recession, with unit shipments being roughly half of what they were in 2006, when a record number of 10,100 shipments were recorded.
“I think the market is starting to improve. We’ve seen some movement in the marketplace. And a few manufactures even report having a small backlog, which is something that we haven’t experienced in the past year,” Bill Garpow, executive director of the Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association (RPTIA) in Newnan, Ga., told RV Business.
But manufacturers remain cautious about the economy, and generally don’t see the recreational park trailer or “park model” industry to rebound until the nation’s banks are in better financial shape.
“As I talk to my contemporaries, I’m hearing the same from everyone, that it’s really tough out there. And what business is out there is really tough to get,” said Tim Howard, president and CEO of the Breckenridge Division of Damon Corp., a Thor Industries Inc. company in Nappanee, Ind.
Like most manufacturers, Breckenridge has had to dramatically scale back its work force to remain viable during the current economic downturn. “We’re in very good shape,” Howard said. “Our balance sheet continues to be very strong. We have virtually no debt.”
But as a manufacturer, he said, it has been “heartbreaking” to have to let staff go because of the economic downturn. “You have an emotional bond to quality people and an investment in quality people,” Howard said, adding that Breckenridge has just over half as many employees as it did a few years ago, when the park model industry was experiencing record sales.
But even though all segments of the RV industry have been particularly hard hit by the current recession, Howard and other park model manufacturers and industry officials believe the park model industry still has a long ways to go to reach its full potential.
“I’ve always said this market is in its infancy, and I still do, especially given the trend from a transient to permanent camper,” said John Soard, a longtime park model industry executive who spent 20 years with Breckenridge and Middlebury, Ind.-based Woodland Park before becoming general manager of Nappanee, Ind.-based Fairmont Park Trailers in 2005.
Indeed, Soard and other park model manufacturers believe consumer interest in “destination camping” will continue to increase, and as it does so will demand for park models.
Soard, in fact, noted that many of the leading RV manufacturers are now building towable trailers up to the 400-square foot limit precisely because they believe consumer interest in destination camping is growing. “Each one of these major RV manufacturers has a destination travel trailer that’s intended to be parked, not towed,” Soard said.
Garpow, for his part, noted that park models remain one of the most profitable investments campground owners can make, a point that was underscored by Atkinson of KOA. Park model rentals typically generate two or three times as much revenue as a typical RV site, plus they stay rented for longer periods of time throughout the year. “Park models not only generate more revenue, but they do it for longer periods of time than a typical RV site,” Garpow said, adding that campground owners often generate enough income from their park models to pay them off in three years or less.
Garpow also noted that the Obama administration’s efforts to increase CAFÉ standards could further increase demand for park models. “One way to increase fuel economy is to produce lighter vehicles as well as vehicles with smaller engines, the net effect of which is to reduce the vehicle’s towing capacity. But as towing capacities are reduced, it’s going to be harder for consumers to find vehicles that can tow the biggest trailers, and that could lead to increased demand for park models or for destination camping.”
As a result, he said, many consumers may find it easier to purchase park models that are professional installed on permanent campsites than large travel trailers or fifth wheels that require a tow vehicle. This is precisely what happened when CAFÉ standards were increased in the late 1970s and 80s. In fact, the resulting reduction in vehicle towing capacities helped foster the birth of the park model industry.
Garpow also noted that many of the nation’s campgrounds have yet to open their doors to park models, either for rentals or sales, and that represents a significant growth opportunity for park model manufacturers.
Many campground operators say they are pleased with the return of investment on park models, including Jeff Gordon of Raintree RV Park in Rockport, Texas, which sits along the Gulf Coast roughly 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi. In addition to 80 RV sites, Gordon also offers one cabin, two fifth wheels and four park models for rent.
“We’re actually going to phase out the fifth wheels and just go with park models,” Gordon said, adding, “All of our requests are for park models. They’re nicer accommodations, and that’s what people want in this area.”
Coincidentally, Gordon had to interrupt his interview with RV Business to answer questions from a woman who called on another line to reserve one of his park models. He said he’s also had some people change their vacation plans to coincide with days when he has park models available.
Such is the demand for park model accommodations, which is why campgrounds and RV parks continue to invest in these units, even during the current recession.
“Roughly 25-30% of the nation’s private campgrounds offer park models as rental units, and the numbers are growing,” said Garpow of RPTIA.
Mike Atkinson, facilities development manager for Billings, Mont.-based Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), said his company’s park models, which it markets as Kamping Lodges, have the highest occupancy rate of any category of rental accommodation in the KOA system. He said KOA parks had taken deliver of 163 park models as of early June.
KOA, like other campgrounds, furnishes its park models with beds, linens and kitchen utensils. “Our numbers show that the customers who are coming to our campgrounds want lodging that has amenities,” Atkinson said. “They want a bathroom. They want a comfortable bed. And they don’t want to pack their car with everything. They don’t want the labor.”
Park operators often invest in park models so that they can have rental units available for people who don’t have their own RV. Many park operators also take it a step further and form their own park model dealerships. This way, they can potentially make a profit on the sale of the park model in addition to generating ongoing revenue from the campsites they lease to park model owners.
Some parks also set up rental pools using the park models they have sold at their parks. This way, the owners can make money on their park models when they’re not using them.
While park models have long been a rental option of choice for Winter Texans, Gordon of Raintree RV Park said boating enthusiasts also like to rent them as well. “We’re on the coast, so we get a lot of people from San Antonio, Austin and Houston and the surrounding areas,” Gordon said. “But if they’re pulling their own boat down, they can’t pull a camper, too.”
Park models are also ideally suited for campgrounds in popular tourist destinations that want to broaden their business base to compete with hotels and motels.
Crater Lake RV Resort in Fort Klamath, Ore., purchased three park models in 2006 and installed a fourth one this year. “They are our most requested cabin,” said resort owner Babe Hamilton, whose park also features 14 RV sites. “They’re just a nice looking cabin with the wood siding. They all have their own gas barbecue on the deck, and they’re right on the creek. It’s a very nice setting.”
Some private park owners are also finding that park models can be used for more than guest accommodations.
At the River’s Edge at Deer Park in Heber, Utah, which is close to the Deer Valley and Park City ski resorts, Cavco park models are being used not only as guest accommodations, but as seasonal employee housing for during the winter months, said resort owner John Kenworthy.
“We’re continuing to expand the lodging part of our business,” Kenworthy said, adding that his park models remain are in high demand.
Garpow and Linda Profaizer, president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), are scheduled to discuss the merits of investing in park models on Sept. 15 during the 41st annual Pennsylvania RV and Campground Show in Hershey, Pa. The show features the largest park model expo in the country.