Although attendance slipped 5% at RVIA’s 43rd Annual National RV Trade Show, Nov., 29-Dec. 1 in Louisville, Ky., participating manufacturers offered decidedly upbeat assessments regarding sales and dealer outlooks following the close of the so-called Louisville Show.
Indeed, the favorable mood that prevailed at the show should go a long way toward countering concerns among many in the industry over continued economic uncertainty, high gas prices and fallout from this year’s major hurricanes
“We didn’t get any negative comments whatsoever, and we were anticipating some,” reports Kean MacOwan, vice president of Peru, Ind.-based Timberland RV Co., dba Adventure Mfg., a towable RV manufacturer that reported particularly strong demand for its new RPM SURV as well as its lower priced Riverside travel trailers. “I figured we’d hear dealers say that things were too uncertain and that they wouldn’t be doing any buying until gas prices came down and interest rates leveled off. The negatives that seem to be right in our faces didn’t come up.”
Overall, a total of 13,716 attendees, down from 14,450 last year, and 5,231 dealers, off from 5,681 in 2004, browsed 90 manufacturer and 300 supplier exhibits. Exhibit space at the newly expanded Kentucky Exposition Center totaled a record 906,000 square feet.
Among the more upbeat OEMs at the show were the varied divisions of publicly traded Thor Industries Inc., which Tuesday (Dec. 6) reported receiving $301 million in show orders, a 22% increase over last year’s record sales of $247 million. The Jackson Center, Ohio-based OEM said that it had added 355 new dealers to its North American distribution network, compared with 275 new dealers last year.
Thor’s strongest business unit, Keystone RV Co., “blew away” last year’s show numbers, stated Ron Fenech, president of the Goshen, Ind.-based OEM. Fenech said Keystone personnel weren’t really surprised by the record sales results of the show, so much as they were pleased by the level of optimism among their dealers regarding 2006 – realizing that the industry is not coming off the best year in its history. “Clearly, this was the best show that Keystone’s ever had,” Fenech told RVBUSINESS.com.
Exactly how good? Declining to release details, Fenech would say only that the company’s show performance surpassed that of its overall fiscal 2005 growth rate of 24%.
Another Thor unit that reportedly exceeded Louisville Show expectations was Class A motorhome builder Damon Corp., Elkhart, Ind., which seemed to shrug off concerns about the impact of gas prices on the motorized sector. “We had a great order-writing show, phenomenal dealer response,” reported Damon President Bill Fenech, Ron’s brother. “I heard very few negatives for the upcoming year from the dealers.”
Two of Damon’s new products — a 35-foot, two-bedroom, family-oriented Daybreak Class A on Ford or Workhorse chassis plus a 40-foot, front-kitchen Tuscany A-body on a rear-engine Freightliner diesel rail — drew plenty of dealer interest at the show, said Fenech.
As a result of the show, in fact, Fenech is now looking for a decent year in motorized RV sales in 2006. “Dealer response and orders were excellent,” he added. “But, of course, it all lives and dies at retail.”
Coachmen Industries Inc., a publicly held firm based in Elkhart, Ind., that manufactures both towable and motorized products, also came away with a positive view of this year’s Louisville Show. “I’m pleased with the results,” said Coachmen Chairman Claire Skinner, adding that her staff was still tallying show results and making followup dealer calls early this week. “But, considering that 2004 was an all-time record high Louisville Show for us, the numbers that are coming in right now for us are quite pleasing, particularly on the towable side. Motorized was a little softer this year. Towable was a little stronger, and, again, remember that we’re comparing to record highs. ”
“It was the best Louisville Show we’ve had in years,” adds Sid Johnson, director of marketing for the Middlebury, Ind.-based Jayco Inc., which markets both towable and motorized products. “I guess we really didn’t know what to expect heading into the show because of everything that happened this fall with the storms, economy and gas prices. Given that, we far exceeded our expectations.”
Johnson said orders ranged “pretty much across the board with regard to product,” and attributed the strong showing to an optimistic dealer body. “Our dealers in most areas of the country are feeling very good about the prospects for 2006,” Johnson said. “There are some states, particularly in the Midwest, that are feeling the effects of higher unemployment, but, overall, the show was outstanding.”
Taking a more conservative view of the upcoming year, based on its own show experiences, is Southern California’s National RV Inc. “It seems like we have returned to what we call seasonal norms,” stated Joe McDermott, vice president of sales and marketing for the Perris-based assembler of Class A motorhomes. “Dealers didn’t lavish us with excessive orders, but they were optimistic.
“The high-end gas market seems to have softened a bit, which is why dealers are seeing more of our mid-priced gas motorhomes, and the entry-level Surfside, which we’ve reintroduced,” McDermot added. “The diesel market seems pretty steady through all of the price points.”
Roger Martin, vice president of sales and marketing for motorized manufacturer Winnebago Industries Inc., Forest City, Iowa, said that from Winnebago’s perspective the Louisville Show isn’t just a forum to sell RVs.
“The show was good, but we measure the show in a number of different ways,” said Martin, adding that dealers were particularly interested in new models in the Winnebago Aspect and Itasca Cambria Class C lines.
“In the traditional sense – order volume – we were pleased,” he said. “But the other angle of the show for us is that we bring our product development staff and it is an opportunity for them to work with our key suppliers. That helps us do our planning several months down the road.”
Martin said that despite motorized sales being soft, particularly during the last six months, Winnebago dealers are expecting a turnaround. “Their spirits were up a little bit, given that fuel prices have settled down a little,” Martin said. “They were guardedly optimistic that they will see some reasonably good results next spring and during the show season.”
Mike Snell, Monaco Coach Corp. vice president of sales and marketing, said towable sales for the Coburg, Ore., manufacturer exceeded those of its motorized products.
“It was a great towable show,” Snell said. “It exceeded our expectations and met our expectations in mid-line motorized. If there was anywhere the show did not meet our expectations it was in Class A gas. Class A diesel did well, though.”
Snell reported that Monaco has now signed up 85 of its approximately 250 dealers to participate in Monaco’s “Franchise of the Future” program, which made its Louisville debut with fully equipped brand islands that included brand walls, furniture, brochure racks, computer kiosks and 15-foot outdoor pylons promoting Monaco products.
In the emerging toy hauler arena, Weekend Warrior Trailers Inc., Perris, Calif., reported particularly robust demand from dealers. “The mood was upbeat,” quipped Gary Denton, vice president of sales and marketing. “Dealers were in a ‘gotta-have-it-now’ frame of mind. I think the barometer is really hot for toy haulers.”
Denton said that orders for new units are backlogged, and the firm’s Xtreme RV and Rage’n divisions, which also exhibited new trailers at the show, are enjoying strong popularity and growth as well.
Denton said that despite gas concerns, demand for all sizes of towable toy haulers remains strong, especially those equipped with walls separating living and garage areas. “Mark Warmoth (Weekend Warrior owner) and I walked the show, and we were in awe of how many manufacturers make toy haulers,” he said. “I’ve never seen so many ramp trailers in my life.”