Big Country RV logoIn October, Gary and Kay Craven, the owners of Big Country RV in Bend and Redmond, Ore., received an award from RVBusiness magazine, naming their dealership among the top 50 in the U.S. and Canada.

Though the award program is only two years old, the Cravens said they take pride in the accolade, partly because it recognizes financial stability as well as customer service, according to the Bend Bulletin.

“It really is exciting, especially for a dealer like us in Bend,” said Gary Craven, referring to the roughly 3,800 RV dealers — mostly in larger markets — eligible for the award.

Craven said the award also is noteworthy for its timing. He said it’s not an easy time to sell RVs, and hasn’t been for more than a year, but he sees some encouraging signs.

Two years ago, it was a different story.

In 2007, Big Country RV had its largest sales year ever, Craven said.

In July 2008, his dealership’s sales dropped substantially.

“It was like a cliff,” said Craven, who wouldn’t disclose sales figures.

He recalled a perfect storm of record-high gas prices and a deepening recession that was trimming credit and eroding consumer confidence. Craven said he and his staff “moved aggressively” to reduce inventory, adjust his product line to feature smaller RVs and beef up the dealership’s training and customer service. Also, several employees were let go.

The big bus-sized motorhomes get roughly 8 to 10 miles per gallon and cost around $200,000, Craven said. As Craven moved those off his lots, he didn’t replace them, opting for smaller motorhomes and less expensive, towable RVs.

“Gary was proactive in selling inventories instead of waiting too long and being forced to dump them,” said Suzanne Kelso, the company’s CFO.

Kelso said the dealership now has roughly 200 units on its lots, compared with 300 in 2007.

Craven said he also adjusted his mix of new and used inventory, adding more used units. In 2007, roughly 60% of the units sold by the dealership were new. Now, it’s roughly 50%.

Big Country RV features models from a number of manufacturers, including Forest River Inc., Fleetwood RV, Outdoors Manufacturing Inc., Komfort Corp., Keystone RV Co. and Northwood Manufacturing Inc.

The Cravens’ background seemed to have always pointed them toward owning an RV dealership. Gary Craven spent roughly 20 years working for a boat dealership before managing an RV dealership in Hermiston, Ore. Kay worked for many years at an auto dealership.

The couple decided they liked “selling fun” and purchased Big Country RV in 1997, when it was based in Redmond.

They expanded to Bend in 2000, to a lot at the corner of Northeast U.S. Highway 20 and Northeast Purcell Boulevard. They relocated the Bend dealership to its current location across from The Home Depot in 2004. Craven renovated the building, a former beer warehouse, and even installed an indoor fish pond.

He said it’s the only indoor RV showroom in Central Oregon.

The Bulletin asked the Cravens and Kelso a few questions about Big Country RV:

Q: Are people still buying motor homes?

A: Kelso: There are people buying. The key for Big Country is to be the place people go to purchase an RV. So we’re aggressive with our marketing and have to follow that up with strong customer service, because repeat business is a huge part of our business.

Q: How have your RV customers reacted to the recession?

A: Gary Craven: The Class A’s took the largest hit, and it’s harder for people to get financing, so more people are buying used RVs because people can afford them.

Q: Are your customers mostly local?

A: Gary Craven: Yes. The largest component of Central Oregon RVing is the local customer on a weekender, because there are so many places to camp, especially younger families who can get into a trailer for low cost. But we’re also driving sales through the Internet

Q: How have sales been this year? Are you optimistic people will buy RVs again?

A: Gary Craven: We’re ahead of our 2009 projection, which is exciting.

Kelso: For us, the last few months are trending positive, so it doesn’t feel like just hype.

Q: Given the current economic climate, is it hard to sell an RV?

A: Kelso: We ask people why they are buying and the knowledge of our sales staff is huge and our selection is huge, so people can buy and drive away … it’s about having the right floor plans and selection and being realistic about pricing.

Q: You have a full-service garage. Are your service revenues up?

A: Kelso: We have seen an increase in service numbers because of people extending the life of their RVs.