ELKHART — About 1,000 movers and shakers came together Thursday for this year’s RV Industry Power Breakfast to hear from business leaders, top economists and government officials, including the governor, in a mostly upbeat reading of the industry.
Plenty of networking also was involved during the event at the RV/MH Hall of Fame. The breakfast is sponsored by the industry each year to present “pertinent, critical data” to help industry members improve their business strategies, according to organizers.
Gregg Fore, partner at RV Business magazine and Woodalls, said the industry is forecasting a year-over-year decline in shipments from RV manufacturers, though retail sales seem to be keeping up.
Phil Ingrassia, president of the RV Dealers Association, acknowledged that the retailing end of the industry has seen significant consolidation.
“But you should know there are still hundreds of independent RV dealers serving our mutual customers as well,” he said.
Ingrassia said there are about 2,600 dealer locations in the nation, but that the number of employees has increased by more than 20 percent over five years. A high number of sales has also led to growth in the service business.
“It’s estimated that the number of service technicians actually is higher than the number of sales people at RV dealerships across the country,” Ingrassia said.
Blue skies ahead
Kampgrounds of America CEO Toby O’Rourke said that another trend in the industry is that millennials made up 41 percent of campers in 2017, making them the biggest camping generation.
2018 was the first year that more new campers were nonwhite than white, according to a recently released KOA study.
The same study, O’Rourke said, showed that 97 percent of teenagers like camping because “it relaxes the adults.” About 67 percent of teenagers said they would still camp without technology.
One aspect of getting young adults to become regular RVers is keeping costs low. RV Industry Association Chairman Garry Enyart praised the industry’s ability to offer something for most people. `
“One thing I love about this industry is there’s a product for just about every price point,” Enyart said.
He addressed that there are some worries within the industry, saying that there is reason for optimism.
“What we do is cool and neat, and we need to realize that, yeah, there are some clouds outside right now, but there are going to be more blue skies going forward,” he said.
RVIA President Frank Hugelmeyer spoke about Go RVing’s sponsorship of the movie “Toy Story 4,” which will be in theaters on June 21; the plot revolves around an RV journey.
Hugelmeyer said this is the biggest and most high-profile partnership Go RVing has ever been involved in.
“We are staying true to our core message and reinforcing the family RV adventure category, because that’s our bread and butter,” he said.
According to Hugelmeyer, the 1992 release of “A River Runs Through It” resulted in a 20 percent increase in fly-fishing industry revenue, and the same happened in the archery industry after “The Hunger Games” in 2012.
“This is going to absolutely generate a lot of interest,” Hugelmeyer said.
Training center in Elkhart
Hugelmeyer also announced that the RV Technical Institute will locate a new training facility in Elkhart at 3333 Middlebury St. The building is move-in ready, though some minor renovations like branding will be made. The institute will feature seven classrooms and 10,000 square feet of shop space with 17-foot ceilings to accommodate two to three RVs.
“We’re going to be providing a lot of new talent,” Hugelmeyer said.
Also at the breakfast, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signed Senate Bill 130, which concerns the state’s definition of employment for the unemployment compensation system.
The bill would exclude from the term “employment” drivers who perform drive-away operations when the vehicle being driven is the commodity being delivered, and the agreement between the driver and the company having the vehicle delivered specifies the driver is an independent contractor and not an employee.
Holcomb spoke about several issues concerning Indiana, poking fun at Illinois on more than one occasion, but he also addressed the Elkhart area.
“It’s a powerful reminder of the entrepreneurial spirit every time I come to this breakfast, this being my third time. But that is where the State of Indiana is creating separation,” Holcomb said.
The governor said that, as he travels the country, the RV industry is one of the top things people associate with Indiana.
“It is becoming a calling card for us. People know the Indy 500, probably Larry Bird, they know where the RVs are made,” Holcomb said. “We are on the global scene.”
U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-2nd, was unable to attend the breakfast, as the House of Representatives is in session. Instead, she spoke to the industry through a recorded video, criticizing President Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, which she said are unfairly hurting manufacturers while putting a finger on the scale favoring metal producers.
“And now the administration is considering tariffs on cars and auto parts. These would be disastrous for RV-makers, because there would be no distinction between a component that is used in a car and the same part in an RV,” Walorski said.
But the Trump administration also won praise at the breakfast, as the U.S. economy is strong, providing more people with disposable income to spend on RVing.
“It’s not doing absolutely as well as it could, but it is doing very well,” said Peter Morici, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Maryland.
He said that under Trump’s presidency, more industries have become more efficient, making more with less, leading the country to growth levels that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not see during their terms.
That leaves a piece of advice for both presidents and business owners:
“You only live in an environment, in a place, in a time of limits when you start forgetting how to do things better,” Morici said. “As long as you can do things better tomorrow than you did yesterday, you can solve your problems.”
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter @ReadRasmus