Goshen News, Goshen, IN

September 18, 2013

As economy improves, annual RV Open House shows that recession is in the rear-view mirror

By SCOTT WEISSER
THE GOSHEN NEWS

ELKHART — The RV Open House had a different kind of kick-off this year. That’s fine with Dustin Johns.

“I’m always happy to see the sun shine,” the president of New Paris-based Travel Lite said Tuesday afternoon. In 2012, the Open House began with two days of rain.

Johns was sounding an upbeat tone Tuesday. He wasn’t alone.

Thousands of dealers from across North America are expected to visit Elkhart County during the official three-day run of the sixth-annual Open House. Begun by Forest River as a smaller, company-only event, the recreation vehicle showcase has since grown to include most of the RV companies in this area.

Bob Martin, president and chief executive officer of Thor Industries, was expecting people to show up at the industry showcase Tuesday. And they, apparently, were eager to be there.

“We officially opened at 9 (a.m.),” Martin said. “There were people waiting in line at 8 to get in. There were people sneaking in (Monday). Just trying to see what’s new and trying to get the advantage, and if there’s a new line everybody wants to know if they can try to figure out if they can get it before their competitor.”

Both Martin and Johns were highlighting their products on the grounds of the RV/MH Hall of Fame near C.R.s 17 and 6. Johns said Travel Light has been part of the truck camper industry for more than 15 years. The company has also expanded into travel trailers, with a focus so far on smaller-size trailers.

Johns indicated Travel Lite has grown more than 300 percent in the past three years, adding that other manufacturers are showing gains, too.

“You can see the climb out of the recession,” he said.

Martin was with the Keystone division of Thor during that recession.

“It was a tough time,” he recalled, with companies pulling back, retracting and shutting down plants. Fast-forward a few years and there’s a brighter picture.

“The travel trailer and fifth-wheel side of the business has caught back up to close to where it was pre-recession years, and motorized is just starting to trend that way as well,” Martin said. “For us, we’ve been growing our business and growing market share.”

Martin pointed out that Thor’s seven RV companies have separate displays at the event, with more than 350 combined units.

Johns said the Elkhart Open House gets bigger every year. He also compared it with the Louisville show, which he said has been the predominant RV show for decades.

“With the expense of that show, the distance away from our home base here in Elkhart, I think this is the way to go,” Johns said. “It’s not free to show our units (here), but it’s certainly not nearly as expensive as to haul them down to Louisville.”

In his view, September weather has benefits over a wintertime trek hauling units to Louisville.

Martin sounded a similar theme.

“Typically, there’s been a shift in the industry from December to September as far as showing new products,” he said. Martin said Thor still has a presence in Louisville, but added, “The bulk of what we present that is new and sell has really become an open house September timeframe that works out better for the dealers.”

Getting away

Across C.R. 17 from the Hall of Fame, Bob Miller and Bryan Heard were having a chat.

Miller is a regional sales manager for Starcraft RV, and Heard is a dealer from US Advent RV in Davenport, Iowa. At the Starcraft display area, they were enjoying a discussion inside a Launch Ultra Lite — suggested retail around $25,000. “You could sleep seven people pretty comfortably in this,” Miller offered.

Miller said Starcraft has had a great year, and the Elkhart show is going well. Heard feels the Open House affords opportunity.

“(It’s) a good time to get away from the dealership for a couple of days and see what’s new and see what we’re going to sell next year and see what our competitors are selling,” he said. “It’s a good learning experience.”

The Open House continues through Thursday.