When the world changed, Sherman Goldenberg was about to board a plane in Harrisburg, Pa., according to a report in the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the publisher of RV Business magazine was trying to get back to South Bend after the biggest East Coast retail RV show of the year.
“I wound up with guys from three different northern Indiana companies who piled into an SUV, driving straight out like bats out of hell,” he said. “It was like being in a movie. Police at every overpass.”
For the first few days after the attacks, it felt disrespectful to carry on normal life – and therefore normal business within the RV industry, Goldenberg said.
“There was just this big pause, and everything was quiet, and sales were soft, but it wasn’t more than a matter of weeks.”
Retail shows started to pick up again. Consumers were interested in recreation again.
Everyday business returned, but not without caution, “almost like a cancer patient that is never comfortable coming out of remission,” he said.
There was a persistent worry that something else might happen to knock the industry on its side, and although competition remained keen among manufacturers and dealers in the five years since, the industry has taken on a quiet demeanor.
“In the old days, you’d hear guys full of bravado, pounding their chests about how great their company had done or was going to do,” Goldenberg said. “Even those doing well don’t seem to crow as much. … Who wants to be the last guy who said the wrong thing?”
If the industry lost some of its swagger, it didn’t lose its momentum. There’s still a huge market for RVs, and it’s only getting bigger.
In 2001, wholesale shipments took a 14.4% hit from the year before. The industry sent 256,800 units with a retail value of $8.6 billion to dealers and customers.
The next year, the industry shipped 311,000 units – a 21.1% increase. It’s been climbing ever since.
In 2005, the RV industry sent out 384,400 units with a retail value of $14.4 billion.
Rethinking travel
According to the Tribune, the industry as a whole faced a more challenging economic environment in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, said Jeff Tryka, director of investor relations for Elkhart-based RV maker Coachmen Industries Inc.
“Once you got a few months into 2002, the industry experienced somewhat of a boost given the fact that a lot of families were opting for alternate travel rather than airline travel,” he said.
Think about it: After the attacks, the federal government clamped down on airport security.
Screening became more intense, only ticketed passengers were allowed near gates and, sometime later thanks to a guy who tried to light his shoe on fire, we had to start removing our footwear to get through checkpoints.
Public attitudes toward travel refocused on the road – partly out of fear, partly out of the hassle of clearing security.
Public sentiment toward living life also played a role in the RV industry growing after Sept. 11, said Mark Bowersox, recreation vehicles director for the Indiana Manufactured Housing Assocation-Recreation Vehicle Indiana Council (IMHA-RVIC).
“A lot of people are living for today more so than they were in the past,” Bowersox said. “You see a lot of people that might buy that new motor home before they retire. Or traveling now, while their kids are young.”
In 2001, Indiana made between 52% and 53% of the nation’s RVs. Today that number is closer to 66%, Bowersox said.
Those trends were there already, he said, but Sept. 11 accelerated them.
But for RV companies, that doesn’t mean the years since Sept. 11 have been all sunshine and roses.
The Tribune reported that Monaco Coach shut down its Royale Coach division in Elkhart.
Coachmen is finishing up an “intensive recovery plan” – an attempt to bring itself back in the black.
The company reported a loss of $26.4 million in 2005 – a year during which it cut more than 450 jobs and shed some divisions. The company reported profit during the first two quarters of 2006.
The recovery plan, and the events that caused it, weren’t tied to Sept. 11, Coachmen’s Tryka said.
“You’re talking about things that happened four years apart,” he said. “At this point, we’re far more affected by what happens in our industry.”