With a collective eye cast toward a prosperous 2004, attendees at the 41st National RV Trade Show converged in record numbers on Louisville’s Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center (KFEC), primed and pumped to help Americans Go RVing in 2004.
The nation’s RV manufacturers – even those that are generally conservative in their public observations – were reporting a Louisville Show that was “gangbusters” in terms of both traffic and outright sales. Based on activity levels in Louisville, in fact, some speculated whether 2004 – barring any unforeseen or “cataclysmic” circumstances – might generate double-digit growth, especially in towable segments.
“It was unquestionably a record show for us,” reported Pete Liegl, president of growing full-line manufacturer Forest River Inc., Elkhart, Ind., echoing reports from across the industry. “If we don’t see double digit-plus growth next year in our towables, then I’ll be disappointed. But our motorhomes were also very well received. I think, dollar-wise and unit-wise, we’re going to have a very decent increase next year, across the board.”
“No doubt this was one of the best shows ever,” added Sid Johnson, director of marketing for Jayco Inc. Middlebury, Ind. “There were more dealers coming through our display than I’ve ever seen before. And it wasn’t just current dealers, it was new dealer prospects. The extraordinary thing is that I did not hear one negative comment. We heard a lot of encouraging things about our products and our sales programs.”
Considering the strong order backlogs with which some manufacturers left Louisville, there’s talk of ramping up production. “Our orders at Louisville were up 70% over last year,” stated Ron Fenech, president of Keystone RV Co., Goshen, Ind., a company that had been posting regular market share growth prior to the show. “We’re rolling out a new plant in January and are looking at a couple of additional plants to help us retain quality and increase efficiency.”
The same goes for Coachmen Industries Inc. Michael Terlep, president of the Coachmen RV Group, including Coachmen Recreation Vehicle Co., Viking Recreation Vehicles and Georgie Boy Manufacturing, said the company posted combined sales of about 3,200 units, a 75% improvement over a record 2002 Louisville Show.
“For us,” said Terlep, “it was a strong show all the way around, in all sectors, including camping trailers. I think one of the keys was that nearly half of our models were new or newly designed, which is what the dealers are looking for. Obviously, things are looking good for the coming year and we’re planning on increasing production rates in nearly all of our facilities in 2004 to accommodate our dealers.”
The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), sponsors of the Louisville show, backed up the manufacturers’ optimistic outlook with some record attendance figures for last week’s show. Overall attendance was listed at an all-time high of 13,371, up 7% from 2002, while representatives of the four “buying categories,” operators of dealerships, accessory stores, campgrounds and distribution firms, also showed up in Kentucky in record numbers. RVIA reported a total of 5,925 from the key purchasing groups, up 6% from last year.
Enthusiasm was such that even the daily maneuverings between landmovers and construction crews in the arena’s front parking lot – initial signs of a much-needed expansion project at the facility – were ignored. And that was somewhat out of character for both show exhibitors and attendees.
“We didn’t hear any complaints about the parking lot situation,” noted RVIA President Dave Humphreys. “It seems people just wanted to get to the show.”
Humphreys’ observation reinforced the focused, sometimes frenzied pace of the 2003 Louisville Show. Dealers and manufacturers were eager to do business, as the show’s opening day uncharacteristically turned into a “closing day” for salespeople. Deals were being sealed and tire kickers forced to move into to the slow lane. “I always expect to see our display crowded,” said Claire C. Skinner, chairman and CEO of Elkhart, Ind.-based Coachmen Industries Inc. and current chairman of RVIA. “But our first day was dynamite.”
Dynamite indeed. Chris Braun, new senior vice president-RV Group for Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., Riverside, Calif., reported that “around 800 towables, 225 motorhomes and 130 folding campers” were written up in the opening day. “The numbers reaffirm our opinion that the first half of next year will be strong,” he told RVBUSINESS.COM. “We just have to make sure we have enough capacity, and we already have plans in place for more capacity, if needed.”
Again, that first-day tempo was apparently evident throughout the show. Steve Paul, vice president of sales and marketing for Dutchmen Manufacturing, Inc., a Thor division in Goshen, Ind., noted, “From an order standpoint, we had as good a day on Thursday (Dec. 4) as we did on Tuesday (Dec. 2). It was definitely a record show for us. The dealer attitude was extremely upbeat and they were very positive about where the market is headed.”
Clearly, based on all of the above inputs and those of countless others during and since the show, the general outlook is quite positive – a perception fueled on the short term by some comforting economic indicators and in the long-term by an infusion of younger consumers. “For several years,” Keystone’s Fenech observed, “we have talked about the stars beginning to align. Right now, we’re looking at excellent demographics, low interest rates, affordable gas prices and some very good economic indicators. The stars have never been aligned like this before.”
Stars or no stars, the show reports were consistent across the board. Consider the impressive comments of Claude Donati, vice president of sales and marketing for Nappanee, Ind.-based Gulf Stream Coach Inc.: “It was one of the busiest Louisville shows in recent memory. The interesting thing is, in our motorhome division, we went into the show with a backlog that was 400 units larger than previous years, so we didn’t know what to expect. We came away with nearly 900 motorhome orders, which was 300 more than the previous year.”
“Industry-wide,” quipped John Nepute, president Monaco Coach Corp., Coburg, Ore., “the atmosphere of this year’s show was upbeat. As a company, all of our brands performed well. It was a particularly good show for our gasoline class A coaches and towable products, although our diesel products also continue to enjoy success. As this show often sets the tone for the coming year, we are optimistic regarding 2004.”
Lance Camper Manufacturing Corp., Lancaster, Calif., set a record with 70 orders on opening day, according to Norm Jacobson, director of sales and marketing “Overall,” he said, “we were almost at 170 orders, which was more than we’ve ever taken.”
Chanute-Kan.-based NuWA Industries, a high-end fifth-wheel builder, also had a “very successful show,” according to sales/marketing representative Ed Cox. However, he noted, Louisville was consistent with his company’s performance over the past year. “We have experienced double-digit growth in the last five quarters. We think Louisville just helped set the table for us to continue growing and gaining market position in 2004.”
Likewise, Roger Martin, vice president of sales and marketing for Winnebago Industries Inc., Forest City, Iowa, agreed with Cox, maintaining that this year’s Louisville Show was not an anomaly for those who have stayed close to industry sales trends. “Louisville is a bellwether of sorts – and we had a great show – but it’s not the only time of year we’re out there selling,” said Martin. “We figure that if we go to Louisville and we’re overwhelmed with sales, then we haven’t been doing our job the other 51 weeks of the year.”