The North American RV arena is poised for another Elkhart County RV Open House, a bustling trade show scheduled for the week of Sept. 19 that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before because of the ways in which it defies all the conventions and standards of traditional trade expositions.
Yes, it’s like a lot of successful trade shows in that it involves thousands of new recreational vehicles displayed by a wide range of manufacturers to busy crowds of out-of-town dealers in the RV-building hub of Elkhart, Ind.
But that’s where the similarities end for the Open House, a 9-year-old post-recessionary phenomenon that started as a proprietary dealer meeting at the westside headquarters of Forest River Inc. Instead of immaculate indoor exhibits, the bulk of the Open House displays today are located outside or under tents on the northeast side of town — most of them along County Road 6 and along Executive Parkway leading up to the RV/MH Hall of Fame.
And the trade-only Open House continues to gain ground without the luxury of an administrator, a board of directors, an office, an entry fee, a registration desk, a badge, an agenda or even a telephone number to call to complain about the neighboring exhibitor’s loud music. No one, therefore, even knows how many people show up in a given year for the open house, although we, as media, generally guesstimate the attendance at around 4,000 dealer personnel. We don’t really know.
Nor does anyone know when the next Open House will be held until executives of the two leading manufacturers, Thor Industries Inc. and Forest River, agree to a date and gradually leak the news to the rest of the industry.
To what, then, does the Open House owe its considerable success?
Bottom line, we’re told, it’s all about the deal.
“Well, I think it’s a fun adventure, a treasure hunt of sorts, for the dealers,” said one industry executive. “They can come in one evening, attend a couple of parties and leave town richer two days later after making great deals that make their operations more profitable. It’s all about the deal — and it’s wrapped in an environment of fun. I guess you could say it’s a profitable party, a fast one where they eat, drink, laugh, meet people and then go home.”
While a lot of exhibitors enjoy the freewheeling, entrepreneurial atmosphere of the Open House, another respected industry pundit and associate of mine agrees that “the deal” at the end of the day is the genuine source of the Open House buzz. “Dealers from places like Kansas City and Quebec — some of them driving all night — show up here early in the week with business on their minds,” he said. “And, you know, with very little fanfare and ceremony, that dealer’s going to quietly commit to 40, 50 or 100 units — whatever the hell it is — for the best prices he’ll see all year. It’s kind of like high-stakes gambling, and every dealer thinks he got the best deal.”
Yet another source, a manufacturing exec, thinks that timing as much as anything is the main reason for the continuing growth of the Open House versus the Louisville Show. The crux of the issue, he argues, is that a September date serves both the manufacturers — who stand a better chance of keeping their assembly lines busy during the fall — and the incentivized dealers who buy at Open House and then have plenty of inventory for the upcoming winter/spring retail shows. “Sure, the dealers are looking for a party,” he told us, “but what they’re really looking at is their business plan and a chance to prepare for their spring shows.”