GOSHEN — From the rally that the Ramblin Pushers Chapter 419 held in Louisiana, the memory of the fire ants remains the most vivid.
Not surprisingly, the recreational vehicle club looked to the north when planning its next rally and eventually landed at the Elkhart County 4-H Fairgrounds. Every year for at least the past 10, a majority of the chapter’s 700 members have gathered in Goshen for the group’s annual maintenance rally. Over the course of a six-night stay, the motorhome owners will have a selection of more than 100 seminars they can attend to learn how to use and care for their Holiday Rambler Class A diesel pushers (no gasoline powered Holiday Ramblers allowed in this organization).
Chapter 419, which opened its 2012 rally Friday, usually comes in early May and kicks off the RV rally season at the fairgrounds. From now through October, another 10 to 15 RV clubs will park their motorhomes or towables at the home of the county fair to socialize with other club members.
Being in the heart of the RV Capital of World, the fairgrounds is, understandably, a popular place for RV clubs — large, having 100 units or more, and small, having less than 100 — to meet. Over the course of the summer, an estimated 3,000 RV owners attend rallies in Elkhart County and while they often have plenty of activities to keep them occupied at the event, they do step out into the local area to see the sights, sample the food and tour the interesting destinations.
Roger Stickley, president of Ramblin Pushers Chapter 419, highlighted the irony of the RV lifestyle that leads to an economic boost. Most of the units have kitchens, he explained, but they do not get a lot of use because RVers love to eat out.
“Usually when we go to an area for a rally, the community definitely benefits from us being there,” he said.
A study by Goshen College confirmed Stickley’s contention, finding that RV rallies at the fairgrounds pump an estimated $2.47 million in the local economy annually. Nick Kieffer, vice president of the Goshen Chamber of Commerce, described the amount as a “good chunk of money” that definitely would be missed if it stopped flowing into local cash registers.
The Chapter 419 rally has a different focus than most RV club meetings with its emphasis on education rather than meeting new people and renewing old friendships. Members of the club spend most of their time learning how to service and repair their motorhomes as well as how to use the appliances in their coaches and, of course, how the newest gadgets and devices can enhance their RV experience.
Stickley calls Mustang, Okla., home and has been a Holiday Rambler owner for nine years. A motorhome is basically a house that goes down the road at 60 miles per hour, he said, so some part or system is either broken or getting ready to break.
Thus the need for a rally devoted to maintenance. And with a majority of the components and parts in the RV being made in Elkhart County, holding such a rally at the fairgrounds makes sense.
“We try to capitalize on the companies being here and being available to come over and give seminars,” Stickley said.
As an example of how important RV rallies are for manufacturers, Monaco RV, which makes the Holiday Rambler, is sending personnel from the Wakarusa plant to the fairgrounds to conduct some of the seminars. Also, company executives, including president William L. Osborne, will visit and talk with Chapter 419 members.
“They have been our loyal customers for years,” Jade Vira, marketing manager at Monaco, said, explaining why the company gives special attention to the rallygoers. “They believe in our product. They are the best ambassadors for our brand out in the community.”
In turn, Chapter 419 members, like most RVers, will take time to travel to the factory to see how the units are made. There they will see the motorhomes being built, talk to the production supervisors about what does and does not work, and pass along ideas for improving the coaches, Vira said.
EXPLORING THE COMMUNITY
The day before the Holiday Rambler rally opened, a couple hundred motorhomes, valued anywhere from $100,000 to $600,000, were parked in neat rows around the fairgrounds. In the heat of the day, many attendees had apparently retreated into their units but outside were lawn chairs and bicycles, evidence of their intent to enjoy themselves.
Also, nearly every unit had either a car or an SUV parked beside it. These vehicles, which are towed behind the motorhomes, are the favored modes of transportation that the RVers use to explore the popular tourists attractions in Elkhart County and the surrounding area. One frequent stop is Kercher’s Sunrise Orchard on C.R. 38.
“They don’t buy a ton of things because they don’t have much room but they will purchase a little jar of jam or bag of noodles,” said owner Maureen Kercher. Although small, every purchase helps, she continued, and occasionally, rally visitors will contact Kercher’s and order a case of something once they return home.
Even before the rally started, Stickley said he had made his annual trip to the Guggisberg Deutsch Kase Haus Cheese Factory in Middlebury to replenish his supply of cheese. Also, Cris Bootle, Chapter 419 publicity chair, and her husband, Terry, enjoyed a meal at their favorite local Mexican restaurant and then headed to Concord Mall.
The fun activities will not stop once the rally opens and the seminars begin.
“We have more tours this year than we’ve ever had,” Bootle said. “I think it’s a combination of members asking for it and one person in our group being familiar with this area and knowing the kinds of things we like.”
The rallies are largely planned and run by the RV owners with the fairground crew helping to set up and keeping the area clean. When Chapter 419 noticed a hanging tree branch that was blocking a parking space, the staff removed it within half an hour.
“Tanya and her team in the office respond instantly to our requests, which is one of the reasons we’re here,” Bootle said of fairgrounds rental manager Tanya Swihart.
Hosting the RV rallies provides another stream of revenue for the fairgrounds, Swihart said. Preparing the grounds for a rally does not require any extra work and usually the participants do not damage the facilities or leave behind any expensive clean-up work.
“These people are very respectful of the grounds,” she said. “They don’t come in and trash the place.”
Besides, she added, “we have to mow the grass whether the RVs are here or not.”