RV industry’s top Elkhart event hits stride with major activity

Elkhart RV Open House Week was running full steam by Tuesday, Sept. 17, with dealers and manufacturers alike reporting pleasure with the event and optimism for the industry.

Posted on Sept. 17, 2013 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on Sept. 17, 2013 at 7:01 p.m.

ELKHART — Thousands of RV dealers from across North America came to town to see thousands of recreational vehicles on display Tuesday, Sept. 17, the first full day of Elkhart RV Open House Week.

Tom Peay of Idletime RV in Allen, Okla., has been coming since Forest River started the event in 2008. In the middle of the Thor brands’ mini-town outside the RV/MH Hall of Fame, Peay said, “I believe we get more good out of this than Louisville,” which is where the post-Thanksgiving annual industry trade show is put on by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.

Doug Peay said the advantage of the open houses for dealers is that “we get to see everything new. Pretty much all of the big boys are set up here.”

Nearby in the Heartland RV display, dealer Mike Hymer of Pharr RVs in Lubbock, Texas, said he thinks the open houses will eventually supplant the Louisville event. “It’s a lot better atmosphere, it’s just a better setting,” he said.

Like the Peays, Hymer likes seeing new and updated products here, and he also likes the social aspects, “talking to the other dealers.”

From hog roasts to bonfires to casino night, there are plenty of activities for visiting RV dealers, and the manufacturers are putting up a lot of money. Thor and Forest River rented hotel rooms for thousands, but the open houses are a major sales time for the manufacturers.

At last estimate from the RVIA, 83 percent of all RVs are built in and around Elkhart County, and the industry continues to see double-digit growth this year.

Through the first six months of this year, Thor and Forest River — both based in Elkhart — each had about 35 percent of the retail sales in the RV market in North America, according to tracking firm Statistical Surveys, Inc. Most of the manufacturers who make up the other 30 percent of the overall market are also set up near the hall of fame or along C.R. 6.

“This is our event now, the big show kick-off for the year where we show all the models,” said Bob Martin, president and chief executive officer of Thor Industries. “It’s been a great positive response” from dealers, he said Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s been packed all day. There were people standing in line at 8:30 and the parking lot was half full,” Martin said. “It’s been great attendance so far. Dealer attitudes are really positive,” he said.

For Thor, last week’s huge retail show in Hershey, Penn., was as strong as 2012 for towable RVs, and “motorized were quite a bit up,” Martin said. “All that optimism carries through,” he said.

In fact, dealers tried to get in Monday before the Thor display opened, trying to get a sneak peek, said Keystone’s Jim Mac.

“This is really an important time for dealers for the early spring shows. Dealers can see what’s new, they get new products and they get it in time for the shows,” Mac said.

“This timing is just, it’s perfect. This event came about because dealers wanted to do it. This time of year works well for dealers and I think that’s why it’s grown,” he said.

Mac expects the final two days of the open house to be major, with the event representing a significant percentage of sales for the company.

Matt Zimmerman, Keystone’s president, summed up the start to their open house with one word: “Phenomenal.”

Jeremiah Borkowski of Thor Motor Coach said that halfway through Tuesday the open house was already going “better than last year, and last year was great.”

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