ELKHART — Just as the recreational vehicle industry is growing and changing, Elkhart RV Open House Week continues to grow and change.
This year it’s not only bigger in terms of the core of the industry — more manufacturers, more display space, more units, more dealers, more entertainment, and yes, more blimp-type balloons along C.R. 6 — it’s spilling over.
Suppliers are jumping into the event, with Lippert Components showing off its wares and talking with dealers, Dometic hosting dealer tours of its huge factory, and even once-removed suppliers like Bright Ideas LEDs watching the trends in the industry.
“We’ve had dealers here on tours every day so far,” said April Klein, Lippert’s vice president of customer support services. “It’s going great. Dealers are very positive,” she said.
“There’s so many customers here, and we’re here to support them,” she said. “It’s nice to have it in your hometown.”
Bob Tiedge of Lippert said having the show in the front yard of Lippert’s new C.R. 6 headquarters “is so much better than Louisville.”
Lippert had a variety of products on display, from a basic RV frame to brakes to hitch parts.
A few miles to the south, Dave Schutz said dealers had been touring Dometic’s facility, seeing how the company makes refrigerators and air conditioning units that go into the RVs built in and around Elkhart County.
Dometic also provide stoves, toilets and awnings for the RV industry.
In 2009, the company spent $20 million to move RV refrigerator production from Sweden’s Electrolux headquarters to here because the RV industry is here. “Elkhart offered the best of the market,” and that brought 400 jobs here making hundreds of refrigerators and air conditioners a day, Schutz said. It has a testing facility in LaGrange that it offer to RV builders, and the company has benefitted from double-digit growth in the RV industry the last few years. “We’ve grown with it. Right now Elkhart is the envy of the Dometic world,” Schutz said.
Dometic sees growing demand for more luxury items, from powered awnings to four-door refrigerators with ice and water dispensers built in, Schutz said. He said, for instance, that powered awnings are getting to be more like cruise control in cars, once a luxury item, now expected.
While their six-cubic-foot refrigerators are still the largest selling refrigerator in the world for RVs, Dometic also has the top-end four-door models which are popular in extended-stay fifth-wheel trailers and in top-end class A motorhomes, Schutz said.
DEALERS SEE IT TOO
Those changes match up with what Larry and Keith Waits are seeing at their Florida RV dealership, Palm Beach RV.
Keith Waits said, “in my market, when they buy it, they want everybody to see it.” It isn’t just about flashy looks, though, he said. “They’re spending more money. They don’t want the stick-and-tin, the entry-level market,” he said.
Larry Waits said that over the last four or five years, customers “are making damned sure what they’re buying, they’re getting what they pay for.”
It’s part of what brought them to the Grand Design RV display. They’ve already had good response from Grand Design. When they got their first Reflection model on their lot, “it sold within 30 minutes,” Keith Waits said.
MANUFACTURER CATERS TO CHANGES
Grand Design, started by industry veterans Don Clark, Bill Fenech and Ron Fenech, started production in January. It’s already ahead of its initial plans, with three brands showcased at its display off Executive Parkway near the RV/MH Hall of Fame.
Clark points to the high-end design of their RVs, with hand-finished wood, full-height pantries, island kitchens and “if a closet could be sexy, this one is,” he said, pointing to the interior of the closet in one of the mid-profile Reflection fifth wheels.
“This show is affirmation,” Clark said. It’s the first time most dealers have seen the Reflection or the Momentum toy hauler, though the Momentum sold three models the previous week in Hershey, Penn., sight unseen, Clark said.
Within the first half of the first day of their open house show, it was already financially worth it for Grand Design to have rented the space and set up the displays, Clark said.
“Our dealers are asking for more brands,” he said. “Within the next 60 days we are moving into the third production line in our second facility,” opening up its next building, which is 170,000 square feet of manufacturing space on their campus north of Middlebury, “which obviously brings more jobs to the community and we couldn’t be happier with the quality of the workforce we’ve managed to attract.”
Grand Design has 250 employees and is growing. “Now we’ve got three brands, we can be a bigger presence on the dealers’ lot,” Clark said. “The touching thing is the level of commitment we’ve got from the dealers.”
THE FUTURE OF THE INDUSTRY
Looking ahead, the Waits and Clark all expect continued growth in the RV industry.
Clark said the market “is certainly not anywhere close to the peak,” but he sees more steady growth and fewer peaks and valleys.”
Keith Waits said, “I definitely see more younger people” getting into RVs, and they’re becoming more mainstream.
Larry Waits said in talking to the various manufacturers, there’s lots of optimism. “This year is the best they’ve had in a long time.”
Clark pointed out the importance of the industry to the Elkhart County area, with roughly a quarter of Elkhart County’s workers employed by RV manufacturers or suppliers. “So many careers in the whole community are relying on the RV industry,” he said.
Trent Wagner wants to add more people to serving the RV industry. Owner of Bright Ideas, an LED company on Elkhart’s south side, Wagner’s products already go into RVs through RV supplier Patrick Industries, but he wants to keep it growing.
With more RVs featuring LED lighting — including Clark’s “sexy” closet — Wagner could be poised to serve a growing segment.
It works in other markets, but for the RV industry it provides ceiling lights, under-cabinet lights and awning lights in any colors customers desire, Wagner said. Those represent energy savings of 66 percent over fluorescent lights and 83 percent over incandescent, and it’s something he thinks customers will demand in RVs.
“We’re competitive. We compete with China,” he said. His company offer a lifetime warranty in the RV market and it uses as many U.S.-made components as possible. “I want to buy a U.S. product. I want to put people back to work. I want to work,” Wagner said.