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Attendees check out displays in Louisville

Attendees check out displays in Louisville

Now that the industry has returned from the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association’s (RVIA) 52nd Annual National RV Trade Show, Dec. 2-4 at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, the debate over the viability of the industry’s trade shows – and whether there’s just too many of them – appears to be gaining momentum.

Attendance at this year’s Louisville Show, a traditional venue including more than 755,500 square feet, 57 manufacturers and 227 supplier exhibitors, drew 7,525 total attendees representing a 3% dip from 2013 while the dealer count of 2,454 was off 4%. Registrations for buying categories — dealers, accessory store owners, campground operators and warehouse distributors – were down 2% to 2,813, according to RVIA.

“On the whole, we think the show was a success,” said James Ashurst, vice president of communications and marketing for RVIA, who was overseeing the Louisville Show for the first time following the retirement of RVIA’s Mary “Mike” Hutya. “Certainly you’d like to see the dealer numbers continue to increase. On opening day, for sure, there was a lot of activity on the floor. It certainly softened as the show went on and that has happened in years past as well. Are there things we can continue to work on? Absolutely.”

Indeed, Ashurst is well aware of the fact that many exhibitors considered the traffic at this year’s Louisville Show relatively light, especially after the first day and a half. He acknowledged that Louisville has forfeited some of its cachet and sales potential to September’s emerging Open House in the RV-manufacturing hub of Elkhart, Ind.

Yet, all things being equal, many industry constituents continue to ardently support RVIA and its national show for all of the reasons that people attend trade shows – selling product, generating new business and networking in general.

So, with that in mind, Louisville 2014 was not without merit for OEM’s like Forest River Inc., which again entertained hundreds of dealers nightly at the downtown Marriott, as well as companies like Grand Design Recreational Vehicle Co. and Thor Industries Inc.’s Goshen, Ind.-based Keystone RV Co. Inc.

Matt Zimmerman

Matt Zimmerman

Taking into account a highly successful Elkhart Open House in September and a solid autumn of consumer sales, Keystone President Matt Zimmerman was “pleased with the results” at the RVIA show. “Louisville gave us an opportunity to show some new floorplans that were not at Open House that were very well received in addition to seeing some dealer partners that could not make the Open House event,” Zimmerman told RVBUSINESS.com.

By the same token, Grand Design co-owner Bill Fenech said his two-year-old Middlebury, Ind., firm posted “great” sales at the 2014 Louisville Show, although he’s openly disappointed with the turnout. “I don’t know what the numbers will tell you, but traffic was off,” said Fenech. “It just felt slow. The first day, like most Tuesdays, was pretty solid. Wednesday was slow halfway through. It was very discouraging. And there was nobody around Thursday. And more concerning to me was what will happen in the future with some of the really large dealers who brought a significant number of people to a boring, uneventful, ho-hum show relative to products?

“That concerns me because if dealers don’t have a reason to come, they’re not going to come and that makes it a big problem for us,” he added. “It’s hard to tell what it means for next year. I hope we figure this out as an industry because it’s a lot of time and energy for all of us.”

“Clearly the show was down in attendance,” stated Chris Hermon, president of Heartland Recreational Vehicles, Thor’s Elkhart-based towable RV subsidiary. “It felt maybe even a little slower than the attendance numbers indicated. I think dealers continue to tell us that they see more value and more opportunities in doing business at the Open House. With that being said, even after posting some record (sales) numbers at Open House a few months earlier for Heartland, we wrote similar numbers compared to Louisville 2013. So, I think the companies that have the momentum maybe did OK at Louisville. Other companies may have really struggled.”

A cross section of exhibiting suppliers – a group that has felt increasingly left out of the trade show picture over the past few years at most venues – were largely upbeat about the show and the opportunities it afforded them to mix with current and potential clients.

“It (the show) started slow,” reported Mac Vanover, sales manager for Elkhart-based Vista Manufacturing, a lighting supplier to the RV, marine and aircraft industries. “But we had quality people come through. We forged some really good relationships, just as many as we would in a busy year. You know, we don’t come down here for cash-in-hand sales. It’s more relational. We try to get involved with the production and engineering staffs for the model year changes. We don’t want a ‘here-today-gone-tomorrow’ business. We want a partnership with these (OEM) companies, and we’ve been able to do some of that here this year.”

Sharing a similar view was David Robinson, director of Roadmaster Inc., a supplier of tow bars, braking systems and other RV accessories out of Vancouver, Wash.

“The Louisville Show is great for our core business relationships,” Robinson told RVBUSINESS.com. “Our larger accounts are always here – and our distributor family is here, too. From an aftermarket perspective, more and more of the dealers are showing up with just the owners and sales managers – not so much the parts and service technicians. So, for our aftermarket business, if I was coming here just to meet our dealers, I don’t know that it would pay. But it’s still important to be here, and, particularly for our larger customers, it’s a great opportunity to meet with everyone in one place.”

In general agreement with that assessment was Robert Brammer, president of Traverse City, Mich.-based Stromberg-Carlson Products Inc., who was at Louisville to interface with customers with an eye toward closing sales at January’s distributor shows.

“Tuesday was an excellent day with great traffic and people interested in new products – both OEM and dealers,” said Brammer, whose firm markets camper jacks, electric steps and vented tailgates. “Wednesday was a great day for following up with a lot of the distributor people. Thursday morning was a little slow, but we still had a few followup meetings. All in all, in fact, I think it was a heartbeat better than last year. We had new products last year, too. If you have new products people want to come to your booth – dealers, distributors, OEM’s, we want to see them all.”

Dave Schutz

Dave Schutz

Dave Schutz, vice president of RV OEM sales and marketing for Louisville-based Dometic Corp., noted, “Though the traffic was noticeably slower from previous years, the show was great for us this year, particularly given the recent acquisition of Atwood (Atwood Mobile Products LLC) by Dometic. The show gave us an opportunity to talk to dealers and OEM’s face to face about the acquisition and what it will bring to them in the way of additional combined product offerings and future innovations.

“Additionally,” he added, “we were able to see customers from Canada, Europe, Australia and Asia. At the same time, we are able to see how our products are being marketed in the finished products (RV’s) on display by all our OEM partners.”

What are the dealers attending this year’s Louisville Show thinking?

“I always enjoy going to Louisville,” says Roger Sellers of Tennessee RV. “The relatively short trip from our Knoxville-based dealership — approximately 3 1/2 hours — allows me the opportunity to bring all of our managers as well as our entire sales staff. Having the luxury of an indoor venue makes it effortless to visit all of the manufactures that we work with. We also have the opportunity to check out new products that we may have an interest in as well as visiting with the best vendors in the industry. However, I do think there will come a time when a decision will have to be made between Elkhart and Louisville. Attending Elkhart, RVDA and RVIA at Louisville can take valuable time from the selling season.”

Equally upbeat was Mark Thompson of Thompson Family RV, Davenport, Iowa. “For us it was good networking with some of the manufacturers we do business with,” said Thompson. “We were happy to see some new floorplans they came out with since the Open House. Although we ordered the bulk of our units at the Open House and immediately afterward, it was good to make the seven-hour drive to Louisville and a great opportunity to make contact with our manufacturers. Of course, our wish, for everybody’s expense and time, would be that they package these shows so we don’t have as many.”

Likewise, Steve Richardson of Richardson’s RV Centers in Riverside and Menifee, Calif., believes “there’s one too many RV shows” and that Louisville, at least in its current iteration, may well be the odd man out.

“With Open House being so large — that’s where we do all the buying now — plus for us just having gone to Las Vegas (for the RVDA Convention/Expo) and Pomona (for RVIA’s California RV Show), there’s not a whole lot of (product) changes by the time you get to Louisville,” said Richardson. “I’m debating whether to still do Louisville or not next year. I’ve been doing it for so long I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t go. But after Open House, Pomona and Vegas and then Louisville, it’s just one show too many.”

James Ashurst

James Ashurst

Ashurst, for his part, trusts that the RVIA Show Committee will be open to new ideas for future Louisville shows, regardless of the specifics involved.

“What we need to do at this point is convene the show committee and get some recommendations from that group,” Ashurst told RVBUSINESS.com. “And we need to engage the executive committee of the board and have them decide how they want us to move forward with respect to Louisville and where it fits into the larger run of shows that are in the market now. Obviously, the Open House in Elkhart continues to grow and that’s a good thing for the industry. So we need to, as a group and as a board-driven entity, work with our members to find out what they want out of a Louisville show and make the changes accordingly.

“What I will tell you with respect to the show,” he added, “is that there’s not one element of it that won’t be on the table. We want to have, with the leadership of that group, a very open and honest discussion about the show so that we can begin work immediately on finding ways to grow the value of the event.”