An aisle at a past Pittsburgh RV Show

An aisle at a past Pittsburgh RV Show

When their new 25-foot Four Winds International travel trailer needed routine end-of-summer maintenance, the Steinmetzes dropped it off at Cavalier Coach in Belle Vernon, Pa., the same place they bought it.

Days later, when they called to check on the repairs, they were told to come claim their travel trailer post-haste, because “we might not be here next week,” recalled Carol Steinmetz, of Shaler, Pa. Cavalier had just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and told Carol and Gregg they’d have to get their repairs done elsewhere.

That was in 2008, and it was symptomatic of what was to come: a devastating two-year recreational vehicle sales slump that resulted in closed dealerships, bankrupt manufacturers and thousands of layoffs across the United States. The RV — like its smaller cousin, the SUV — was a threatened species, a lumbering, gas-guzzling anachronism that might not survive the Great Recession, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Today, dealers are hopeful that the sales slump is nearing its end. Attendance at this year’s Pittsburgh RV Show — which started on the weekend and runs through Jan. 17 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center — should be a barometer, as it’s one of the first American RV shows of 2010.

“Last year at this time was probably at the bottom of the industry,” said Rob Young, promoter of the Pittsburgh RV show.

The recession prompted people to hoard discretionary income, if they had any at all. The credit freeze meant people who wanted loans for more expensive motor homes couldn’t get them, or had to come up with a larger down payment. People who already owned an RV elected to put a few more miles on the old one rather than trade for a new one.

It’s not unlike the throes that beset the auto and housing markets over the same time period.

“It was a weeding-out of some of the lesser manufacturers,” Young said. “The strong ones survived, the stronger dealerships survived.”

Dealers like Cavalier Coach didn’t; RV manufacturers Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. and Monaco Coach Corp. didn’t, either, as both filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2009. Winnebago Industries Inc., synonymous with the RV, had laid off half of its workforce by spring of last year.

There were worries that the RV market would take years to rebound, but that time line may have been too pessimistic.

“Definitely, things are looking up. Shipments have been improving,” said Phil Ingrassia, a spokesman with the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA), of Fairfax, Va.

Shipments of wholesale units are forecast to be up 27% in 2010, 203,000 units compared to 159,500 units shipped in 2009, the lowest number in years. Still, the 2010 forecast is “historically low,”  Ingrassia said. In 2006, 395,000 new travel trailers and motorhomes were manufactured and shipped to dealers.

That means from 2006 to 2009, deliveries dropped 40%. The RV association lost more than 6% of its members, and the ones that survived had a glut of unsold inventory.

The new, tighter credit environment still means it’s hard to get banks to issue loans — even small ones, said Randy Giancola, owner of Clem’s Trailer Sales in Ellwood City.

“Three months ago, if somebody came in with a 630 credit score, we couldn’t give them a loan for a $12,000 trailer,” he said. “A year before we could have given them that loan.”

Preventing consumers from taking out a too-big mortgage on a $200,000 RV is one thing, but locking people out of small loans hurts dealers of all kinds.

“Do we really want to leave those people out?” he asked.

Still, Giancola said, he’s bullish on recreational vehicles. He’ll be one of the many RV dealers with displays at this year’s show, and he’s doubled the amount of space he’s renting over last year, with 60 units on display.

“Our industry is going to rebound. Money is starting to free up from the banks. Manufacturers went through layoffs, but are hiring.”

Still, given the lending environment, sales of cheaper towable units are likely to rebound before the full-size motor homes. Citing statistics from financial analysts Robert W. Baird & Co., The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that shipments of towable units were up 149% from November 2008 to November 2009, while year-over-year shipments of motor homes were up by only 57%.

The good news, said Ingrassia, is that while sales of new RVs have been down dramatically, campground and RV park reservations were comparably steady, which means that the motorhome, a fixture on American roads since the 1950s, will remain so.