ELKHART — Six years ago, Forest River started what has grown into the major phenomenon of Elkhart RV Open House Week.
This year, that event brought in at the very least hundreds of millions of dollars worth of orders for the recreational vehicles made in and around Elkhart County.
Forest River alone, which accounted for 35 percent of the RV market for the first half of the year, had a massive showing for thousands of dealers at its open house.
“What I’m seeing already is we did about three-quarters of a billion dollars in three days,” said Doug Gaeddert, one of the company’s general managers, in terms of orders for their products.
“It’s been freakin’ phenomenal. It’s the best yet by far,” Gaeddert said in a building on Forest River’s Dynamax campus on C.R. 6.
“We’re killing it,” Gaeddert said. “Dealers look at us as family, dealers are doing business with the same people,” and they like the consistency they see in Forest River, Gaeddert said.
The open houses allow manufacturers to get feedback from dealers on all products, and they allow dealers to place orders that will be filled before the retail show season starts early next year.
They also allow manufacturers to use dealer feedback to refine products before the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association national trade show in Louisville, Ky., after Thanksgiving.
Even with Thursday’s rains keeping dealer traffic low through the open house shows, the event represented an upswing for both big and little operators.
Going into Wednesday, Mark Boessler, president of EverGreen RV, said, his company was already up over last year’s open house in terms of sales.
“We’re ahead of the numbers of dealers we forecasted,” he said, and they liked the growing variety of products.
“We’re optimistic for not only ourselves but our competitors and the industry in general,” Boessler said. EverGreen has added two new facilities in less than 18 months, he said. “We’re really investing back into the manufacturing side, investing in the community.”
Gaeddert, too, said Forest River has added new buildings and added onto existing ones over the last year, and suppliers are doing the same to try to meet growing demand.
“I’m hearing from dealers, ‘Hey, I didn’t buy enough last year and I thought I did,’” he said.
Tim Stevens of Atwood Mobile Products said the company ramped up production to meet RV customer demand, and they’re running into the same problem Gaeddert described, a problem with finding motivated workers.
“There’s constant turnover in labor force.” The problem isn’t detailed skills, it’s “showing up each day, working hard,” Stevens said.
They don’t have much trouble getting people started, but the turnover in the first few months is high, he said.
Gaeddert said, “the biggest problem the industry faced this year was workforce. We’ve got a tremendous core, and I think everybody else does,” but it’s hard to expand, he said.
The growth of the market, and of the event, isn’t enough for the manufacturers, though.
Gaeddert, talking about the roughly $750 million performance this year, said the company looks at it like Pete Liegl, founder and head of Forest River, would. “As Pete would say, a billion would be better,” Gaeddert said. He recalled a few years back when Forest River management was talking about how to reach the $1 billion sales mark for a year. Less than a week later, Liegl called Gaeddert and started to talk about reaching $2 billion, Gaeddert said. Now, “ as a company, how are we going to hit 4?”
As Forest River personnel work toward that goal, the open house phenomenon they started has helped smooth out the manufacturing output for RV companies through the year and it brings in thousands of people to the area for the event. “The economic impact, it’s a beautiful thing for this area,” Gaeddert said. “That has turned into a community event for northern Indiana and southern Michigan.”