ELKHART — The bulk of RV Open House Week doesn’t start until today, but Monday’s early events had manufacturers hopeful for a good week as hundreds of RV dealers from around the U.S. and Canada came to the area.
In addition to the tourism boost, increased dealer attendance means increased dealer interest. That, in turn, likely means increased dealer orders, which is good for the local economy.
“This is a good little pump in the arm for the community, no question,” said Paul Campbell of Gulf Stream as dealers walked by, checking out roughly 50 units on display Monday afternoon at Gulf Stream’s Nappanee headquarters.
“We’re surprised at the interest and the number of people who are here. We’re gratified there have been hundreds,” Campbell said. Hundreds showed up Monday, and thousands will stop through the displays along C.R. 6 in Elkhart through Thursday, according to registrations received by Forest River and Thor, the biggest manufacturers.
At Gulf Stream, dealers looked at new features like a slide-out that greatly expands bathroom space, or a new cover for slide-out sections, one developed by Lippert Components. A group of dealers checked out the new feature, offering critiques and concerns about whether the black color might warm up the interiors for their customers.
Nearby, another couple of dealers talked about how their sales are up this year, which is true across the industry, according to the most recent market report from the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. “Through July, manufacturers have reported a total of 177,845 shipments to retailers, up 9.8 percent over this same period one year earlier,” according to the report.
Upward of 80 percent of those are made in this area, according to Mark Bowersox of the state RV trade group.
Campbell said, “You’ve got a competitive, entrepreneurial group around town that’s all competing for this business.”
On Elkhart’s north side, one example of that entrepreneurial competition had reason to celebrate Monday. Open Range RV turned over the keys to its 10,000th RV to Larry and Keith Waits of Palm Beach RV in Florida.
Keith Waits said their family-owned dealership sells RVs from other manufacturers, but they especially identify with Open Range, started in 2007 by Randy and Pam Graber and a staff of six.
“We’re a family-owned dealership. It’s really nice to have that mom-and-pop relationship with them.” They started with Open Range in 2007, right after the company started.
While some would, in retrospect, think the start of a major recession is a horrible time to start an RV shop, it was the opposite for Open Range.
“We grew right through it,” Randy Graber said.
Micah Staley, who was one of the eight people there when the company started, said, “as everybody else was laying off and downsizing, we were hiring. We were scooping up workers left and right. It’s amazing how it all worked out. We’ve never had one layoff session, ever.” The company now employs more than 300 people, he said.
Like all other RV manufacturers, they worked to find their niche and differentiate themselves.
“We’re so blessed to be able to build RVs in this part of the country. It’s amazing,” Graber said.
Staley said in talking with their dealer network, “everybody has said this has been a phenomenal, record-breaking year,” though it’s not hard to beat the numbers of the past few years, he acknowledged.
“This is going to be a great week for us, a huge week,” he said.
Despite concerns that politics might dampen the market, “it hasn’t slowed things down a bit,” Staley said.
The RVIA’s report agreed. “In spite of this uncertainty, consumer sales of RVs have remained quite active. In our manufacturer survey of retail activity, final sales of all RV categories surveyed have been measured at or above this same period one year earlier for nearly a year now,” the report said.