Pete Liegl

Pete Liegl

With the addition of a new towable division and an emphasis on a wide variety of towable and motorized product, Forest River Inc. welcomed an estimated 2,000 people representing some 700 RV dealerships Wednesday and Thursday (Sept. 23-24) to its second annual dealer meeting adjacent to company headquarters in Elkhart, Ind.

The second annual ”Pick Your Partner” dealer meeting was the coming out event for Forest River’s new Prime Time Manufacturing towable division and the first opportunity for dealers en masse to see products from the new Coachmen RV division, which Forest River purchased last December from Coachmen Industries Inc.

”We had considerably more people here than last year,” said Forest River founder and CEO Peter J. Liegl.

Fact is, this week’s dealer meeting was twice the size of last year’s and was widely viewed by the rest of the industry as a signal of the company’s aggressive stance for next year and of the RV sector’s ongoing exit from the 2008-2009 recession.

The company displayed about 350 towable and motorized units and Forest River General Manager Jeff Babcock reported brisk sales and optimistic attitudes from dealers across the board. ”We are selling a lot of stuff out there,” Babcock said. ”We think there’s a lot of pent up demand and we are setting the stage to go after it.”

The positive attitude of those attending the show was reflected by Mark Peterson, co-owner of Coates RV in Hugo, Minn. ”With events like this, what you get is a good read as to what is going on,” Peterson asserted. ”What I see is cautious optimism. I’m seeing people who are looking for a turn in the economy.”

Taking a signal from Fed Chairman Ben Bernake, Liegl was more direct. ”Obviously, we all know the recession is over,” Liegl told RVBusiness. ”It was over at the end of June. Recovery is going to take a little longer, but dealers are selling, dealers are getting flooring and customers are getting financing. The RV industry is not bad right now.”

The proof, Liegl said, is Forest River sales over the last three months were better than the same period last year. The company is on target for sales of $1.8 billion, which would put it ahead of last year’s pace. ”That’s a little misleading because we have Coachmen now with us,” said Liegl. ”So, obviously, we are not comparing true apples to apples. But even if we did compare apples to apples, we are doing better than we did last year during the same time period. You can just walk this show and not even hear anybody and look at them and you know the enthusiasm among dealers is high.”

Contrary to the atmosphere of eight months ago, dealers seemed far more interested in getting product quickly, though, rather than unloading it from their lots.

”Right now, our inventory level is down,” said dealer George Goodrick, owner of Adventure Sports RV Center, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. ”Demand is still there, but with manufacturers cutting back so much, you have to find someone who is going to produce stuff in a reasonable amount of time.”

Ron Kinsey, owner of Modern Trailer, a towable dealership in Anderson, Ind., said sales currently are being hampered by a lack of inventory.

”We’ve had two or three months in a row that we’ve been up,” Kinsey said. ”Everything is headed in the right direction. And if we had inventory, it would be better. Right now there’s a shortage of inventory on certain hot models.”

Liegl said that refilling inventories at dealerships throughout the U.S. as the economy recovers is going to be a problem with more than 20 manufacturers having gone out of business.

”I know there is going to be a product shortage,” Liegl said. ”Even if the market shrinks, which it has and is going to be smaller next year than it was a few years back, there are not as many companies to build the product.”

Babcock, meanwhile, said the company intends to push hard in 2010 on motorized brands even as that segment of the industry has struggled over the last year and a half. ”Even if the motorhome market continues to shrink … we are going aggressively after that market. We are going to become a dominant player in motorhomes.”

Liegl said that the changing RV market has given Forest River an opportunity ”for several reasons.”

”When you look at two other manufacturers that went bankrupt, there’s a heck of an opportunity there,” Liegl said. ”We are completely convinced the RV business is here to stay. It might be a little different than we’ve known in the past, but things are not bad out there and I think it’s going to continually improve.”

Besides Forest River’s Prime Time Manufacturing Division that debuted the LaCrosse laminated travel trailer line, the Georgetown motorhome division showed an affordable new gas-powered non-basement Georgetown Class A floorplan retailing in the high $70,000s.

Forest River’s R-Pod division also introduced hybrid floorplans with extending bunk ends for the small, retro-looking travel trailer while Coachmen show redesigned Freelander and Leprechaun Class C’s.