With signs of improvements in the nation’s economy coming on the heels of reports about strong sales at retail shows this winter and spring, optimism is stirring at the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) with regard to the prospects for the association’s California RV Show and National RV Trade Show, both scheduled for later this year.

Interest in RVs among consumers remains high, RVIA maintains, with more than 44,000 people attending the Florida RV Super Show, 35,000 showing up for the Utah RV Show and 30,000 crowding the Maryland RV Show. The large crowds at these shows and others have pleasantly surprised organizers and dealers, says RVIA, adding that people are not just looking at RVs, but buying them, too.

“Our sales were up 20% over last year’s (Maryland RV) show,” says Charlie Wolf, sales manager for Beckley’s Camping Center. “People are still buying RVs. They still want to go camping, get away and have fun.”

And while RV manufacturers have requested about 35% less space for the upcoming National RV Trade Show, slated for Dec. 1-3 at the Kentucky Exposition Center, some in the industry feel that the show still promises to fulfill its designated role in a big way this year in terms of business relationships as well as outright wholesale trade.

“The National RV Trade Show remains one of the most important and valuable events on the RV industry’s calendar,” says RVIA’s Mary “Mike” Hutya, vice president of meetings and shows. “In addition to providing the opportunity to launch new products, the show is invaluable for helping companies gauge trends and generally stay competitive.”

There are those who contend that trade shows, especially important during a down economy, are a highly cost-effective means of reaching potential customers. An Exhibit Surveys Inc. study indicates that the average trade show enables exhibitors to reach more prospects in three days than they could with their sales force in three months, RVIA reports, adding that the average cost of reaching a trade show visitor is $177 compared to the average $295 cost of a field sales call.

Trade shows also require less closing effort – 0.8 calls to close a qualified lead compared to 3.7 calls to close a typical business sale, according to the study. And, on average, 54% of all orders placed as a result of a trade show lead require no personal follow-up visits, according to a separate McGraw-Hill Research Foundation study.

One of the biggest benefits of trade shows is the opportunity they provide for face to-face meetings with prospects, typically the fastest way to build relationships.

“In any industry, these shows provide a huge amount of networking,” says Peter MacGillivray, vice president of communication and events for the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA), Diamond Bar, Calif. “In this day and age, you’ve got websites that offer virtual networking on line. But nothing can replace face-to-face meetings. When you see how much networking takes place at a show, you realize what a bang for the buck they provide.”

“Whether they’re trade or consumer, these shows provide the most economical use of people’s time and money, enabling them to ‘do it all’ in one place,” maintains Ben Wold, executive vice president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) in Chicago. “We live in a three-dimensional environment, and the Internet only gets you so far. The ability to meet, talk face to face, see products is vitally important for staying on top of what’s happening in the industry and also for staying one step ahead of the competition. And that’s true in good times or bad.”

Jayco Inc., Middlebury, Ind., still hosts its own dealer meetings/shows. Even so, says Jim Jacobs, vice president of sales and marketing, no individual manufacturer’s show can provide the cost efficiency of a national show like Louisville in terms of reaching dealer customers and prospects. “We feel it’s extremely cost effective for showcasing products, getting with current dealers and signing up new ones,” Jacobs says, adding that the company tends to drive its new products around its June/July dealer meeting and follow that with the Louisville Show.     

Dropping out of the show altogether, RVIA maintains, can pose risks to a company’s image and reputation. SEMA’s MacGillivray agrees, adding that exhibit size isn’t as important as just showing up. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money (on a trade show),” he said, “but it’s important to be part of the mix, part of the industry. If you’re not at the show, you’re really doing your business a disservice. If you miss out and rely on hearsay, you’re giving up a competitive edge. Once consumers get back to spending money, you won’t have your pulse on the latest products and technology, if you skip such a major event.”

Skipping a show can also send a strong negative message about a company’s commitment to its market and dealers and its financial conditions, which competitors can exploit. As Jayco’s Jacobs points out, “A lot of dealers will question your staying power.”

RVIA is currently offering exhibit space for the 2009 National RV Trade Show and the deadline for securing exhibit space is July 7. To reserve space, contact RVIA at (703) 620-6003 ext. 305.