Over 800 industry professionals packed the Northern Indiana Event Center Over 800 industry professionals packed the Northern Indiana Event Center (Photo by Shawn Spence)

Offering testament to Elkhart County’s status as an economic force in Indiana driven by a resurgent RV industry, this morning’s (May 12) 4th Annual RV Industry Power Breakfast delivered a wide-ranging, information laden program to a crowd of more than 800 RV professionals at the RV/MH Hall of Fame’s Northern Indiana Event Center “” many delayed by a traffic jam that formed leading into the facility. (To view a slideshow from the Power Breakfast scroll to the right side of the RVBUSINESS.com home page).

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, serving as keynote for the event, punctuated the region’s impact, noting, “Indiana is on a roll, and the RV industry is leading the way toward a more prosperous future. Indiana’s GDP is growing at a rate that is almost double the national average “” and the RV sector is a big, big part of that “¦ It’s a reflection of the character, the craftsmanship and the entrepreneurial spirit that make up this industry.”

The Power Breakfast, facilitated by RVBusiness and emceed by Dicor Corp. President Gregg Fore and Forest River General Manager Doug Gaeddert “” both former chairmen of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) “” offered a snapshot of hot-button issues impacting the industry presented by key leaders representing RVIA and the local OEM base while also offering perspectives from high-level officials from national, state and local governments. 

In addition to Pence, lawmakers contributing via video and/or teleconference included Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Indiana 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, all co-chairs of Congressional RV Caucuses, a legislative outreach of RVIA. Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese and Jeremy Stutsman, mayor of Goshen, also expounded on the industry’s influence in Elkhart County.  

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence addresses Power breakfast audience Indiana Gov. Mike Pence addresses Power breakfast audience (Photo by Shawn Spence)

“The people who put the Power Breakfast together, the organizing committee, the sponsors, the RVBusiness staff and our friends at the Northern Indiana Event Center & RV/MH Hall of Fame, couldn’t have asked for a better turnout and a more gratifying event than what transpired here today,” said RVBusiness Publisher Sherman Goldenberg, noting the Power Breakfast achieved the largest attendance to date at the Hall’s event center. “In my view, it’s a reminder of just how much the recreational vehicle industry has come of age as a job-building, manufacturing dynamo in northern Indiana at a time when manufacturing throughout America apparently hasn’t recovered quite as well “” as the presidential candidates keep reminding us.”

Pence, for his part, stressed that the building blocks for growth hinged on “policies, pavement and people.”

“Our policies need to help build a better environment for our businesses to flourish,” he said, noting the areas where his administration had eliminated “harmful taxation” that would stifle growth. “We also want to work with our high schools to make sure that kids wanting to work after graduation versus going to college have the training to go out and get one of these high-paying jobs in Elkhart County. We have provided an incentive structure that will align career and vocational courses at the high school with the jobs that are available.”

Pence also touted his administration’s advances in infrastructure, providing funding to initiate programs to improve the state’s system of highways while also applying monies to finish long-standing projects that had stalled, including the completion of U.S. 31 that links South Bend with Indianapolis.

But perhaps the cornerstone of Pence’s speech was the Regional Cities Initiative. Elkhart County, in conjunction with St. Joseph and Marshall counties, were selected to receive a $42 million grant through the state-funded program’s goal designed to subsidize developments that will help grow the state’s population.

Jayco's Derald Bontrager takes the podium at Power Breakfast (Photo by Shawn Spence) Jayco’s Derald Bontrager takes the podium at Power Breakfast (Photo by Shawn Spence)

“The Regional Cities Initiative challenged people to think across county lines,” Pence said. “The idea was born as we were looking into growing our economy and asking what we could do to create policies that will result in retaining and growing our workforce. We looked around the country at areas that had exponential growth, and they had one thing in common “” they had started to look at growth on regional basis. Well, we leveraged tax amnesty dollars, around $126 million, and began to think about growth on a regional basis. The response has been overwhelming.

“For north-central Indiana, this was a huge win. It’s a workforce play, it’s not just about brick and mortar. By making an investment on a regional basis, we will improve the quality of life and the job environment, and make it more attractive for young people to stay here and work here.” 

Donnelly, a long-time supporter of the industry, said one of the keys behind the Senate RV Caucus was that it was a bipartisan effort, helping place the interests of the RV industry front-and-center in Washington, D.C.

“One of the most important things that has come about through the caucus is that we have been able to coordinate with the industry on a regular basis,” he said. “We are able to focus on key issues impacting the industry, including the park model and fifth-wheel exemption with regard to HUD and the passage of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program to ensure that luan is still available to builders.”

He added, “We know that the RV industry is going to do its job. What we want to do is stay out of your way and make sure things are in place to guarantee success.”

During his remarks, RVIA Chairman Derald Bontrager, president and CEO of Jayco Inc., said all indications suggest 2016 will be the seventh consecutive year of increased annual RV shipments as the product innovation, the continued appeal of the RV lifestyle, and favorable demographics all add up to boom times.

“Certainly demographics are more favorable for the RV industry than ever before. The Baby Boomers totaling 75 million are still our core market. On the heels of the Boomers, however, are the Gen Xers followed by the Millennials, also 75 million strong. This suggests that the recent push and emphasis by the industry to bring in the Gen X and millennials to the RV lifestyle is spot-on,” said Bontrager.

Before giving way to RVIA President Frank Hugelmeyer, Bontrager repeated his bold prediction that the year for 500,000 annual shipments is not that far off, especially if the industry truly appreciates how critical it is that the consumer has a “fantastic RVing experience.”

Picking up on that, Hugelmeyer, who provided a nearly 20-minute address covering the National RV Trade Show and other topics, said the industry is seeing a “fundamental shift of the makeup of our consumer.” Baby Boomers will remain strong for the next four to eight years, but severely decline as a buying segment after that. In fact, by 2050, Hugelmeyer said there would be 79 million Millennials, 50 million Gen Xers and just 18 million Boomers. He cautioned that 40 million Millennial/Gen X consumers laden with $1.2 trillion in student loan debt is a factor to monitor.

“That market is so strong, and so powerful, but it’s different,” Hugelmeyer said.

As for the Louisville show, Hugelmeyer announced it would have a greater focus on new product as well as the product of the future with special displays of new materials that could influence design. He also said there would be an Outdoor Adventure Village for companies whose products, such as smaller towables and vans, appeal to outdoor adventure seekers.

The RV Industry Power Breakfast was co-sponsored by Cummins Inc., Dicor Corp., Dometic Corp., Forest River, Jayco, KOA, RVIA, Thor, Spartan Motors Inc. and Wells Fargo Commercial Distribution Finance.