Belying the downturn that has stalled the recreational vehicle industry during the past year, Forest River Inc. opened its gates Wednesday (Oct. 22) to an anticipated 900-plus guests for a two-day dealer show with hopes of further cementing relationships while also moving some product.
Attendees, representing around 350 dealerships, roamed through over 350 units that Forest River assembled on an expansive 15-acre lot adjacent to the company’s headquarters in Elkhart, Ind. Jeff Babcock, director of sales and marketing, noted that all of the builder’s latest products, floorplans and innovations were on display.
“We’re showing everything here that we’ll be showing in Louisville,” Babcock said, referring to the National RV Trade Show set for Dec. 2-4.
“This serves as a prelude to Louisville for us,” said Pete Liegl, founder and CEO. “We’re really trying to cover all our bases. We know that we’re going to sign x-amount of dealers in Louisville. This allows us to sign some of those dealers now. It also gives us a chance to expand some of our existing dealers into other products.”
In addition to showing product, the Berkshire Hathaway-owned company is also intent on showing dealers its sound financial footing – a strong selling point in an industry that has endured some contraction over the past few years. Liegl has publicly stated that Forest River is in an acquisitive mode in the down market.
“From our standpoint, it’s really convenient to view all of their product in one place,” said Bruce Medlock, co-owner of Monticello RV Center in Minnesota. “From Forest River’s standpoint, it’s an opportunity to gain market share.”
“This is really an aggressive move on Forest River’s part,” said Ken Stumpe, sales manager for Seffner, Fla.-based Lazydays RV Centers Inc. “When most OEMs are pulling back, they’re putting on a full-court press.”
Ed Doss, owner of Waters RV Center in Michigan, noted: “This gives us a chance to really focus on product and see what’s new. But I’m sure Forest River is looking at getting some dealers to hone in on one manufacturer, which isn’t all bad. With their financial backing, people know that Forest River will be here when the dust settles.”
Along with rolling out new product, Forest River also provided hospitality. Situated alongside the display area was a massive tent that would host a steak dinner and live entertainment Wednesday night while serving as the backdrop for Thursday’s Octoberfest theme. Transportation was also set up to accommodate dealers staying overnight.
“We’ve had shuttle buses coming in and out from area hotels all day,” said Babcock. “We’re very pleased. Maybe this is a statement that things aren’t as bad as people are saying. We really didn’t know what to expect, but people seem upbeat.”
Lester Stoltzfus, owner of Stoltzfus RVs Inc., Adamstown, Pa., acknowledged that business was off around 20% this year but said the Forest River show was still well-timed. “I like this format,” he said. “It’s wide open, and you can talk with reps one-on-one without interruptions.”
Stoltzfus related that his company had been forced to deal with the closure of Sunline Coach Co., a Denver, Pa., OEM that went under in 2006. “It was rough. It makes you appreciate dealing with a manufacturer that is strong financially, especially in challenging times,” he said.
Forest River also addressed the nation’s credit crunch, which has tightened the lending environment. On hand during the show were representatives from Forest River-owned Priority One – a retail financing broker – and Textron, a wholesale financing company that Forest River partnered with in 2006.
“We want to show the full array of programs and services that Forest River provides to aid dealers,” Liegl said.
Product, however, was the focal point for the gathering, which represented Forest River’s first dealer meeting in a decade. The builder unveiled a new lightweight RPod towable line available in 16- to 18-foot lengths with dry weights ranging from 1,900-2,300 pounds. “With what’s happening with fuel costs and the auto industry, this product hits a key market for us,” Babcock said.
Forest River also revamped its Class A gas line of Georgetown motorhomes with a new front cap sporting a one-piece windshield, side-swinging storage doors and a redesigned interior.
Some of the new features for 2009 include a powered adjustable kitchen cabinet, powered TV lift and a Murphy bed that folds down onto a sofa when opened.
“I like what I’m seeing,” said Jeff Couch, owner of Jeff Couch’s RV Nation, Hamilton, Ohio, who is an exclusive Forest River dealer. “They’ve come out with some lines that fill areas they weren’t competing in before and also showed some innovative floorplans and new features.”