Editor’s Note: The following is a column by Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) chairman and general manager for Forest River Inc. The article appeared with the Winter 2014 issue of RVIA Today.

Happy New Year to all! 2013 was an absolutely fantastic year for our industry, so it’s not that I’m happy to see it go or anxious about becoming another year older and losing a little more steam on my sinking fastball, it’s just that 2014 looks even better!

As I write this on Jan. 25, many of you are either at retail shows this weekend kicking off the year, following up on business from shows just completed, or preparing for upcoming shows. The “retail show season” is a critical part of our industry’s annual cycle that often sets the tone for the rest of the year for all sectors. If the early shows are any indication, 2014 is going to see a smooth continuation of the industry momentum that we enjoyed all through 2013. Attendance has been up across the board at events throughout North America, the Florida RV SuperShow being a prime example with 57,000 attendees setting a new attendance record.

In examining what will keep the RV industry growing and thriving in 2014 and beyond, we cannot overlook the importance of the satisfaction level of the overall RV experience enjoyed (or not) by our customers. This begins with the “shopping” process and how it is impacted positively or negatively by the way people are initially treated at a dealership or retail show. There are a lot of factors at work here: is there adequate inventory to evaluate; is the salesperson knowledgeable and helpful; is there helpful information to be found on dealer or OEM websites; are there attractive financing options, etc. The more enjoyable the process and the easier it is to buy, the more folks will! This step can be the easiest, but is not a given. Too many people still get frustrated with one of the above or something else I failed to mention while shopping for an RV.

After our potential customers take the plunge and become owners, things get a little more challenging for all of us. Did we design the product they chose well? Did we sell them the right product or type of RV to meet their needs? How many times have we talked with folks that bought something too heavy for their tow vehicle, wish they would have gone with a Type A instead of a Type C, or never knew about the second air conditioner option? I could keep adding to this list but the fundamental takeaway is that the better job we all do putting them in the right RV the first time with the right equipment to meet their needs, the easier it is to keep them happy when they have a legitimate warranty or service problem and consequently, the easier it is to sell them their next RV!

I think all of us would agree that the toughest part of keeping our customers happy after the purchase is the parts and warranty challenge. It is likely that somewhere along the line some customers will need warranty service. Even if they never need warranty work done, eventually they’ll probably need post-warranty service, help with maintenance, or replacement parts. It’s imperative that we all continue to strive to raise the bar in the areas of the quality and design of products, adequate parts inventories, right-part-the-first-time initiatives, reasonable delivery dates on parts shipments, service work done as to not require repeat visits for the same problem, repetitive defective parts, and so on. This involves suppliers, manufacturers, and dealers alike working together.

The campgrounds are another key element of the overall experience that aren’t mentioned enough. How many folks have been oversold and under delivered in this area? Complaints range from “the website looked great, but when we got there the spaces were too small for our rig,” ” the electrical service wasn’t 50 amp,” or “I couldn’t get WiFi.” How much happier are the people that bring up the beautiful campground in the mountains or along the coast that had incredible views, great facilities, easy spaces to park in, and WiFi access? Or the people that love the campground they have their destination trailer/park model RV in so much that they never even look for another? Or the “snowbirds” who have fierce loyalties to the campgrounds they travel to each year and the friends they can’t wait to see again. These experiences put the icing on the cake and lead to more referrals for the RV lifestyle and an ever growing customer base for all of us!

Even though our industry is on a roll and continues to improve, I feel it’s important to touch on these areas (I know I didn’t cover them all) for potential improvement. Why? Because we can, need to, and will do even better in the future! This statement is one of the reasons that I’m eager to get to work every day. I look at how well we are all doing as an industry and as individual companies, and then I look at how much room for improvement we all have. And it cranks me up another notch! There’s not a day that goes by that Pete isn’t telling one of us at Forest River, “We can do better!” As an industry, let’s not get complacent and “settle!”

On to some predictions for 2014:

“¢ Prediction  No. 1 – The industry will rise to the challenge of continually improving the “customer experience” by dedicating more effort and resources to the goal than we ever have. In addition to RVIA and RVDA’s increased efforts to coordinate and expand training, OEMs, suppliers, dealers, and campgrounds will also do more this year both jointly and independently in this area than ever before.

“¢ Prediction No. 2 – January’s industry shipment numbers will soundly beat those of last January despite crazy weather which impacted production for both suppliers and manufacturers, and certainly restricted transportation for a couple of days. Northern Indiana had overnight snow accumulation ranging from 12 inches to 18 inches along with temperatures down to -16. On days like those, some of us hate Lance Wilson (from the Florida RV Trade Association whom we really do love) just a little bit!

“¢ Prediction No. 3 – Our elected officials will deal with the upcoming debt limit issue this time in advance of some midnight crisis towards the end of February. I think the threat of default on the nation’s debt last time and the “tremors” it created woke some of them up. I’m not saying that they’re all wide awake, but most of them seem to at least have their eyes open now!

In closing, I want to thank Mary “Mike” Hutya for the outstanding job she’s done for both RVIA and the entire industry for the last 38 years! Anything that Mike has been involved with or managed has always been first class and professionally executed! Any project, committee, show or meeting the she has overseen, you never worried about again after she said “I’ve got it.” She’s a remarkable woman who’s done an extraordinary job! I invite all RVIA members to attend the upcoming Annual Meeting to experience what she puts together and personally thank Mike for all she’s done for all of us!