Attendance down but show still solid

Attendance at the RVIA's 50th Anniversary National RV Trade Show in Louisville is softer than last year, but Elkhart County RV suppliers still find value in the show.

Posted on Nov. 28, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Two days in, the 50th annual National RV Trade Show has been good for some local RV suppliers, even though attendance at the show’s first day at the Kentucky Exposition Center was lower than last year.

“From a supplier side, it’s been consistent,” said Jarod Lippert of Lippert Components and Kinro in Goshen. “It’s surprisingly busy,” said Lippert, though he heard from some of his customers — the RV manufacturers — that things had been slow for them.

That certainly wasn’t universal, with several manufacturers seeing steady traffic, but other RV suppliers reported a mixed bag.

Tom Parker of Cass Hudson in Elkhart, which provides parts for the industry, said on Wednesday, “it seems slower than last year, but I have no complaints” with the traffic he’s had. “It’s about building relationships.”

Gary Wager of Elkhart Tool and Die said the company was back this year after a 13-year hiatus from the show. “We still have OEM business, we have an awful lot of aftermarket business,” he said. It’s all American-made, right in Elkhart.”

While it is a small shop, it produces steps and hinges for the industry. “As little as we are, we’re a global company,” Wager said, with customers in Europe, Asia, Australia, Central America and South America, with one purchase Tuesday coming from a company in Lima, Peru.

The show is exposure, Parker said.

There are fewer manufacturer personnel, fewer dealers and fewer suppliers at the show, put on by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.

According to the RVIA’s preliminary numbers, Tuesday’s opening-day attendance was down seven percent from the same day last year, even as the industry enjoys double-digit growth. The show ends today.

Even with the decline, there were more than 6,700 people at the show on Tuesday, according to the RVIA.

Tom Englebert of Future Sales, another Elkhart-based RV supplier, said “this used to be the show where they introduced the new models.” That has changed over the years, partly due to growing industry lead times, but also because of the September open house phenomenon that’s popped up in Elkhart County over the last five years.

The Louisville show gets manufacturers and dealers under the same roof, along with suppliers. However, dealers are also connecting with manufacturers at the open houses.

Lippert said with that changing dynamic, “maybe this show becomes more of a supplier show.”

However, Englebert pointed out, “With the exception of Winnebago and Tiffin, we see them every week.”

As the show decreases in prominence, Englebert said he may keep shrinking the size of the booth Future Sales sets up at the show and “use the savings to wine and dine them.”

On the other hand, Scott Devlin of Horizon Transport in Wakarusa said the show has been good for them. The last year has provided steady growth, and it expects more over the next year. Horizon is one of the transport companies hired to bring units to Louisville, and then to tow them to dealers after the show.

It exhibits at the show mainly to support the manufacturers, Devlin said, but it’s also had contact with dealers that could provide extra jobs for them.

A few yards away, Dexter’s Jeff Free said they’ve come to the show for a long time, but not to generate new business. “We’re just here to support our customers. We don’t really write orders at this show,” he said.

The suppliers have items for manufacturers and for dealers. Sunnie Tsai of Magellan GPS was showing off the wide range of RV-specific features the company offers. “When you’re driving the RV you’re going someplace fun,” she said, and Magellan tries to make it easier for RVers. Dealers often buy its units and give them to customers as perks, Tsai said.

Despite a slight decline in the show’s size, 50 years was something celebrated Wednesday afternoon with the cutting of a cake shaped, of course, like an RV. “It’s been good to be able to count on some things that have endured,” said Richard Coon, RVIA president.

Harold Workman, president and CEO of the Kentucky Fair Board, which oversees the Kentucky Exposition Center, said in his decades working with the RVIA on the show. “I’ve seen a lot of growth and a lot of change in your industry,” he said.

More change is coming.

Wednesday morning, Don Clark, Bill Fenech and Ron Fenech packed a meeting room to standing room-only as they introduced dealers and suppliers to their start-up company, Grand Design Recreational Vehicles.

The trio of industry veterans said they plan to get away from some of the approaches they pioneered in the industry, like having competing product lines within the company.

“We all come from an entrepreneurial background,” Clark said, explaining the new company.

Ron Fenech said the company will operate differently than approaches he helped pioneer at Keystone. “What does today’s dealer want that separates us from the pack?”

Bill Fenech told the dealers, “At the end of the day, we’re going to do this right.”

They have a 67-acre site at S.R. 13/U.S. 131 and C.R. 2. “We wanted to be in that area because of the experienced workforce,” Clark said.

Right now they have eight Amish men putting together their first prototypes, and they told dealers they plan to ship their first model in January, rolling out two more lines next year.

The back-and-forth discussion showed dealers like many of the ideas, though the dealers split on some issues.

The extensive talk ranged on everything from quality of electronics inside of the units to timing of new model years, from shipping rates to some large dealers who undercut others online.

The trio and their team aren’t necessarily aiming to create the biggest RV company in the industry, but “we want to help lead it,” Clark said. “It’s a great industry.”

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