When members of the Texas Recreation Vehicle Association (TRVA) met Aug. 15-18 for their annual convention in San Antonio they could take some comfort knowing that RV sales in the Lone Star State haven’t been impacted by a sour national economy as much as other parts of the country.
“There’s a good market here,” said Amy Pennington, owner of RV Outlet Mall, a towable and motorized dealership in Georgetown, noting that sales of ultra-lightweight towables have been particularly strong. “We’re probably making a little less, but we’re still selling RVs,” she said.
Indeed, through June, Texas had outperformed national averages for the sale of both motorized and towable RVs, although registrations declined compared to 2007, according to Statistical Survey Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich. For the first six months, Texas towable retail sales measured against 2007 were down 9.4% while motorized had dropped 27.3% compared to a decline nationally of 18% and 32.4%, respectively.
“It’s a tough time and we feel the way most do, that we will see a turn sometime next year, hopefully,” said TRVA Executive Director Clark McKewn. “In spite of gas prices and in spite of tightening of money, my dealers are doing better than other parts of the country.”
About 225 people representing some 65 RV dealerships, manufacturers and service providers attended the annual convention at the Marriott Plaza in downtown San Antonio, which featured a 25-booth trade show and sported the theme “Texas Great in ’08: A Celebration of Who We are and Where We are Going.”
The highlight was a Sunday morning panel discussion with nine top RV industry executives, including Richard Coon, president of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), Go RVing Coalition Committee on Excellence co-Chairman Jim Sheldon, Monaco Coach Corp.’s special assistant to the CEO, and Paul C. Eskritt, president of Fleetwood Industries Inc.’s RV Group. Also participating were Mike Sheetz, product manager, Sunnybrook RV Inc., Middlebury, Ind.; Don Clark, senior vice president, Keystone RV Co., Goshen, Ind.; Claude Donati, executive vice president for motorized, Gulf Stream Coach Inc., Nappanee, Ind.; Stan Sunshine, president and CEO, Stag-Parkway Inc., Atlanta; Doug Gaeddert, general manager, Forest River Inc., Elkhart, Ind.; and John Sammut, vice president of sales and marketing, Newmar Corp., Nappanee.
Phillip Fry, owner of Franklin’s Big Country RV Outlet, a towable dealership in Abilene, said he had “an extremely good year,” boosted by sales to construction workers in oil production and others building wind farms. “As of July, we sold 10 units more than we sold all of last year,” Fry said. “High gas prices are going to be a fact of life from here on out, but people are going to get used to them.”
The availability of credit has hurt sales more than fuel prices, Fry said. “It surprised me that we’ve gotten as many deals sold as we have where people could not get financing through my sources,” he said. “Some of them have then gone to their own banks and gotten it done. If they can, they are financing for shorter terms, which is better for us because we will be able to get them out of that unit in two or three years.”
TRVA’s immediate past president, A.L. Oltmer, owner of Sunbelt RV Center, Belton, said that service and parts sales have been strong at his dealership. “We are doing better, I think, than last year, but still slower than years in the past,” he said. “I’m hearing some horror stories from the East and West coasts, but we’ve had no problems like that here.”
Kevin Ketner, general manager of Ancira RV, a towable and motorized dealership in Bourne, agreed that credit seems to be affecting sales more than high fuel prices. “Things are going decently,” Ketner said. “There’s a little bit of a turndown; the banks are sort of controlling it. But we are fortunate. Our economic cycle has not hit the low that it has in some other places.”
Jim Pope, national account manager for floorplan lender Textron Financial Corp., Providence, R.I., said that financial firms are going through “uncharted water.”
“Western Canada and Texas generally have been very good for us,” Pope said. “The rest of the U.S., we can’t say the same thing. We are going through a difficult time.”
Scott Anderson, a representative for Merrick Bank, South Jordan, Utah, which makes retail loans in 46 states, said Texas businesses have done well. “We’ve heard and seen on the national market that there has been some tightening in the lending market, and there are some lenders who have left the market,” Anderson said. “Our market has done pretty well. I would hope that credit would start to ease up nationally.”
“From our perspective, things are holding firm,” said Danny Swafford, RV specialist for Capital City Insurance, Austin, which provides dealership insurance. “We are not withering on the vine like they are in other places in the country.”
Service business in the west-central Texas community of Alpine has been strong, according to Regina Boling, who owns Alpine RV Service Center along with her husband John, a master certified technician. “There hasn’t been a shortage of business,” Boling said. “Because of the economy here, we’ve had a hard time getting help.”
Kelly Hammack Sr., owner of RV Master Inc., Houston, said his service and repair business “actually is doing OK.”
“The folks that own units are wanting to take better care of them to make them last,” he said. “And many of the ones who are looking to purchase an RV are looking at used units, which, of course, falls into my category also.”
While sales are down both nationally and in Texas, RVers are still using their units, said Ed Thorp, vice president of sales for Coach-Net, Dallas, a provider of roadside service for RVers. “Our registrations are down, but our call center is getting increasingly busier and busier through the summer months,” he said. “There are plenty of people using their RVs.”
Thorp added that although the RV industry “is in a tough situation,” circumstances may be getting better. “I see in a lot of areas where our dealers are turning around already, slowly. It’s not astronomical, but they are doing better and better on a monthly basis.”
Stewart Hamilton, vice president of marketing for Assurant Solutions, St. Petersburg, Fla., also has the sense that the RV market nationally may have hit bottom. “I don’t think we are totally out of the woods,” Hamilton said, noting that dealers should be preparing for a turnaround. “This is the time for dealers to work on their training, their best practices.”
Bill Koster, vice president of RV sales for Protective, Birmingham, Ala., a company that markets retail service agreements and extended warranties, said that after the “perfect storm” of the upcoming presidential election, high fuel prices and tight credit, the RV industry would recover.
“If you talk to dealers who were around in the ’70s, we’ve been through this before and we’ve bounced back,” Koster said.
During the convention, Pennington was elected president; Steve Spearing of Crestview RV, San Antonio, vice president; Ketner, treasurer; and Dean Nelson, of Professional Sales, Collyville, secretary.
Oltmer and Ron Hoover of Ron Hoover RV Centers, Rockport, received the TRVA lifetime achievement and lifetime membership awards, respectively, and the Texas State Technical College Star Award for dealerships that made a difference was presented to RV Outlet Mall and Walkabout RV in Hewitt.