It’s been gloomy in the motorhome and travel-trailer business for so long that it’s hard to recall when times were good. But there’s a glimmer of hope, according to recent figures showing some impressive gains that haven’t been seen in many months.

With a little luck, the recreational vehicle industry is “crawling out of a hole,” said Scott Stropkai, an analyst with Statistical Surveys Inc. (SSI), a Grand Rapids, Mich., firm that tracks national RV sales.

November wholesale shipments of travel trailers and other campers were up 138% from November 2008, according to the most recent SSI data.

Shipments of towable units increased 149%, according to new figures from Robert W. Baird & Co, while wholesale shipments of motorhomes grew 57% – coming off historically low levels.

The figures indicate that RV dealers were restocking inventories that in some cases had hit rock bottom.

RV manufacturers Winnebago Industries Inc. and Thor Industries Inc. have reported strong order backlogs, further suggesting the industry is on the mend from one of its darkest periods ever, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

While sales are still far below normal, they were down a little less every fiscal quarter of 2009, according to Statistical Surveys Inc.

“I think that consumers are just getting on with their lives,” Stropkai said. “People got sick of hearing the bad news and said if they were going to buy something, and they felt safe in doing it, they were going to spend their money.”

Sales of motorhomes and travel trailers generate millions of dollars in Wisconsin.

About 6,100 units are sold a year in the state, with 20% of them in the metropolitan Milwaukee area. Also, manufacturers such as Actuant Corp. make components for the RV industry.

People come here from the Chicago suburbs to shop for recreational vehicles, partly because of large nearby dealerships. In Racine County, about one-third of Burlington RV Superstore’s business has come from northern Illinois.

Running out of gas

In the worst of the recession, sales of motorhomes and travel trailers ran out of gas. Manufacturers filed for bankruptcy, some dealers closed, and banks repossessed many units costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The marketplace is still flooded with new motorhomes that did not sell, said Ron Peterson, owner of Scenic Traveler RV Centers in Slinger and Baraboo.

In 2010, wholesale shipments of recreational vehicles are expected to be up nearly 28% from 2009, according to a University of Michigan forecast.

Despite the recession, 15 new RV manufacturers began operations in the past year and 10 manufacturers have announced recent hiring and a return to five-day production weeks, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).

The industry is struggling to regain its footing, but things aren’t quite as bad as they were in early 2009.

Hanna Trailer Supply, an Oak Creek RV dealership, had some of its strongest sales months ever in 2009 – despite weeks of rainy weather that kept people from camping much in Wisconsin.

“We saw a surge in November and December that we weren’t expecting,” said Paul Downs, dealership owner.

“To me, the business climate seems a little better,” Downs said. “Credit is starting to ease up a bit. We have people coming into the dealership telling us they are looking to do something in 2010.”

Waiting list evaporates

Camp-Inn Trailer in use

Camp-Inn Trailer in use

Overall, Wisconsin RV dealers have fared better than dealers in some other states.

In August, Wisconsin sales actually increased nearly 4% from a year earlier – while the nation’s sales were down 19%.

RV sales typically are strongest early in an economic growth cycle when interest rates are low and consumer confidence is improving.

Camp-Inn Trailers, a custom travel-trailer manufacturer in Necedah, said it had three strong months last fall.

Camp-Inn trailers are styled after teardrop-shaped campers from the 1940s.

In 2002, the company’s first year, it sold 15 trailers. In 2009 it sold about 55 trailers – a 267% increase from 2002.

Camp-Inn trailers are hand built, one at a time. The company previously had a lengthy waiting list for its products, but that changed during the recession.

“We weren’t used to people canceling orders. Usually by the time they have committed to buying something like this, they have done their homework and are pretty serious. It’s not an impulse buy,” said Cary Winch, company co-owner.

Camp-Inn trailers are small enough to be pulled by almost any vehicle. The company has seen a trend of people buying smaller vehicles and then wanting a small camper to match.

That’s one outcome of the recession that has been good for the company, Winch said.