A changing of the guard for RVIA trade shows 

The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) is well underway with plans for its new all-industry trade show set to take place in the spring of 2019 following the surprising mid-January announcement that the trade group’s board of directors had unanimously voted to replace the traditional, 54-year-old RVIA National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky. – effective this year — with a “completely new” type of event unlike anything the industry has seen before.

The fact that the “Louisville Show,” held in late November at the Kentucky Exposition Center, had outlived its usefulness as a “selling show” is a widely held view throughout the industry, and there has been very little pushback within the industry to the recent decision in an era when Louisville Show attendance has dwindled and traffic at September’s popular 10-year-old Elkhart RV Open House has continued to grow.

Now that the national trade group’s board has moved affirmatively to replace the Louisville Show comes the strategic planning task of creating an altogether new event that gets buy-in from a wide representation of the industry.

Indeed, this new industry show is the leading source of table talk right now around the RV-building hub of Elkhart, Ind., and elsewhere, as RVIA’s staff and board members work on some of the basic plans for a state-of-the-art, trade-only venue that’s positioned to reach North American consumers afterwards through the media – social and otherwise – on the brink of the summer season.

There’s also rather serious talk of a post-event “road show” designed to further spread the word about the latest supplier and OEM products available at dealerships throughout North America as part of a show that will be smaller in size and should include only the newest products — not all the other me-too models that manufacturers might have brought to Louisville.

As RVIA’s leadership has openly stated in the presentations it’s been doing for key members around the industry, there are still a lot of unknowns on the table, including a location – it may be held in different cities each year – as well as dates within the March/April 2019 time frame.

Kentucky Exposition Center

The association’s goal is to finalize the basic framework of the new event — after completing site visits in various cities over the next few weeks — in time for the organization’s March board meeting and to submit a revenue model and budget for final board approval during RVIA Committee Week in June.

Here’s a few bullet points culled from RVIA’s presentations regarding plans for the new show, which were made available to RVBUSINESS.com in a quick meeting this week at the national trade association’s Elkhart office with RVIA Chairman Bob Parish, President Frank Hugelmeyer and Senior Vice President of Marketing Communications James Ashurst on hand.

The Elkhart RV Open House was a game-changer: The 2017 National RV Trade Show saw a 2% increase in attendance (to about 7,500 people) with several new programs this year such as a “40 under 40” promotion, a popular “Top Tech Challenge,” RV Industry Awards and new educational seminars. Yet, it wasn’t enough to resolve “systemic issues” and placate restless exhibitors.

“Open House, along with manufacturer, dealer-focused events, currently fulfill most of the order-writing needs for the industry in the show environment, which historically has been the focus of the National Show,” stated RVIA in its Power Point presentation. “Based on dealer surveys, attendees want an (RVIA) event where they can see new product and learn about the latest technology and the trade show was not being used to highlight innovation.

Timing issues remained in RVIA’s view: The trade show is at the end of the current industry show cycle “when all new product had been seen” and the winter time frame made it nearly impossible to drive extensive exposure for an industry focused on recreational travel during warmer months.

“The association could not have waited for complete failure before seeking a new beginning,” stated the scripted presentation. “We need a platform to promote our successes and celebrate our wins to better connect to our consumer base and make them more aware of our products. Now was the time to redefine our event and create a new platform that will propel the RV industry forward for the next 50 years.”

The goal is to develop an “uncopyable” event, which is why the trade association right after the 2017 National RV Trade Show participated in a strategic session with a consultant who helps organizations “separate themselves from the crowd” and, in this case, create “the single-most important event that brings together all industry stakeholders.”

“Aligned with OEM new model launches during the spring, the new event will be designed to spark consumer interest through PR as we lead into the RV selling and travel season,” the presenters noted. With a target audience comprised of “C-Suite and upper management at dealerships,” the mission will be to deliver “unparalleled” education, “magnify” the role of service, launch a “reimagined product experience,” push innovation and recognize industry achievement.

RVIA is also talking about hosting a “Smart Bar” through which attendees can set up appointments for one-on-one sessions with “thought-leaders” and industry professionals on specific topics to help them address issues of concern in their businesses.

The end of the “arms race” in terms of product displays: “The Trade Show we’ve known will be no more, and a reimagined product experience, focused on the new, will emerge,” stated RVIA. “Besides the latest and greatest RVs, dealers will be able to visit with aftermarket suppliers and outdoor lifestyle product companies to expand their offerings to consumers, creating additional revenue streams for their businesses. Exhibitors will be encouraged to hand-pick their must-see vehicles and components and use digital technology to showcase variances in the products from features to colors.

“This is not designed to be an arms race!” the presentation asserted. “Many OEMs, including our own committee chair, mentioned how they would (previously) bring 40 to 50 models to the trade show and only three or four were new to the audience. We will encourage our members to be selective, highlighting only the best new products each and every year.”

Leveraging the Go RVing experience: “The event will also deliver an array of valuable elements, including unparalleled education and leadership training for all industry segments with a focus on new dealer sales and service models,” Hugelmeyer told RVB. “We will provide dealers with the tools that they need to reach into the consumer market more effectively including utilization of the marketing assets of Go RVing.

“We will maximize the role of service techs and their impact on customer satisfaction and repair event cycle times. We will elevate the best of the best with the ‘Top Tech Challenge” and this will ultimately result in increased service training on a national level.”

No longer, stressed Hugelmeyer, are show sales the main goal, which is one of the main questions industry people seem to be asking right now.

“This is a B2B (business-to-business) event that we’re launching,” Hugelmeyer told RVB. “It’s a platform for industry development and growth, and that’s what it is. And, again, if you’re to compare it to something, we’ve never had anything like this before in the industry. We have a great sell-in show, the Open House where we’re taking orders and we’re selling into dealerships. This new show has more to do with how do we work with our dealer partners, with the rest of the industry – all of our partners – to expand that business and sell it through and excite the consumer.”

Another question industry pundits are asking right now has to do with repeated references to a “consumer-facing” event. What does that mean, they ask, when the new show is a trade-only venue?

“This is about an event that has unprecedented media coverage for this industry,” responded Ashurst. “The Go RVing campaign has over the course of the year driven media interest about RVing. But this is an opportunity to have a kickoff event in a market somewhere in the country that truly excites consumers on a nationwide scale about what they can find on dealer lots – whether it’s new RV’s, whether it’s products, whether it’s aftermarket products or new technology, it’s a real opportunity.

“We will look to push this out to as many media as possible,” observed Ashurst, “but we will most likely look to try to find a consumer media partner who would be on-site covering this event on a regular basis and pushing that stuff out to generate interest with the end-consumer and drive them to the dealer.”

Added Parish, a vice president for Wells Fargo CDF’s RV Group: “So, we’re calling it a platform for an event because it does set the stage for the rest of the year and it means different things to different segments of the industry. Envision this, as (Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) Chairman) Tim Wegge suggested, as the world’s fair. Imagine you’re going to Epcot and you walk in and you’re going around to all these different vignettes that are used for different purposes throughout the year. Some of them are consumer facing. They’re social media, training and possibly a Go RVing road show. Others just remain B2B. But the entire event takes place within a B2B environment. So, it follows that the consumer will be involved at a later date, but not during the event itself.”