RV Business – September 28th, 2023

The 2023 Elkhart RV Open House, the industry’s largest trade-only event, wrapped up today as dealers, manufacturers and suppliers concluded four-plus days of equal parts business and pleasure – with a Tuesday afternoon rainstorm thrown in for good measure.

With the industry currently navigating its way through a soft market – which was at least a contributing factor to foot traffic that seemed noticeably down compared to past years – observers all agreed that 2024 model year product was indeed a highlight, as was the opportunity to nurture dealer-manufacturer relationships.

Jeff Runels

“I think a lot of people will tell you the show is not what they expected. And I would say, from a Keystone, Dutchmen and CrossRoads perspective, this is about what we expected,” said Jeff Runels, Keystone RV president, early Wednesday afternoon. “I think we’ve seen a lot, if not all, of the dealers that we really anticipated would come in. There’s been a lot of good feedback, and a lot of it was from people who will tell you the truth about they don’t know what they don’t know about what this winter’s going to be like.”

Because of the cloudy economic forecast, Runels said many dealers were being “cautious” as far as business was concerned. However, all liked what they saw in terms of 2024 model year product and, once the market shows signs of its return, the industry will be ready to ramp up again.

“They’ll be ready and we’ll be ready,” he said, adding that dealers seemed very pleased with how his divisions were able to reach lower price points on many of the lines.

“I think one of the biggest bright spots in this show is, and we got a little bit of it at Hershey as well, is we’ve adjusted a lot of price points,” he said. “We’ve changed a lot of content, we’ve added some content, we’ve taken some other content out. So, the shiniest, brightest spot of the show is we got great feedback on we went where we needed to go. We were very careful about how we did that, so when we came here we needed to know that we did it right. And for the most part, I think we got very high marks.”

As far as attendance being somewhat down, Runels pointed out that the continued consolidation in the dealer ranks plays a part in that.

“That’s right. A lot of people who have been in this industry a long time are going to look around these aisles and they’re going to say they expected it to be busier. But I can tell you if you’ve talked to one dealer, then you’ve talked to 10 different dealerships or 20 different dealerships or even 200 different dealerships. So, these aisles and these shows are never going to look like they did 20 years ago. You’ve got to keep that in mind.”

Winnebago Towables Vice President of Towables Joel Eberlein, left, and Adam Christoffersen, the company’s general manager of the towables division, with the all-new Access.

Looking back at the show on Thursday (Sept. 28), Joel Eberlein, vice president of Winnebago’s Towables Division, said things went well for Forest City, Iowa-based Winnebago at the Open House despite a general air of caution among the dealers after a relatively “tough” August in terms of RV sales.

“From Winnebago’s perspective, we had really good energy at the display,” he said. “A lot of our dealer partners came in, so we were really ecstatic about the traffic. You know, we had done a digital launch with regard to the new Access on our travel trailer side and the Solis (Solis Pocket Class B) on the motorhome side as well as the EKKO Class C on the Mercedes Benz chassis. So, the new products drew a significant amount of interest and we had a lot of engagement and it was a full couple of days.”

In fact, Eberlein says that both Tuesday and Wednesday went well in terms of traffic despite the inclement weather that set in Tuesday afternoon at the Elcona Country Club east of Elkhart, where Winnebago again showed its wares. “It’s been a great venue for us and I think that dealers like to come out here away from the traffic. It’s a nice wooded and welcoming environment with the campfire, so when dealers get out here they’re very focused and they don’t have other brands around them. So, we get a lot of personal engagement and it’s really been a great week in that regard.”

“And, I think that from the Winnebago standpoint, there was a lot of optimism. Dealers were excited that we’re playing in some entry-level price points in both our Access and M-Series towables where we’ve never played before, so we had a lot of energy around our brand. But as a whole, I think dealers are still pretty cautious moving into the fall,” Eberlein said.

Ember Recreational Vehicles President & CEO Ashley Bontrager Lehman.

Ember Recreational Vehicles President & CEO Ashley Bontrager Lehman’s view of the show? “Ember had our expo at our campground attached to our campus and we had a lot of dealers through to look at our newest products for model year ’24,” she said. “I felt like generally everybody was still fairly cautious with the way the economy and the marketplace is, but I really felt a great amount of optimism along with that caution. So, I think that things will continue to improve as we get through the next six to eight months and that the industry will come through like we always do.”

All in all, she tends to agree, it almost seems as though the industry – having been through multiple cycles before – has cultivated a rather mature approach to the whole turn of events this time around.

“I think, generally speaking, that 2020 through 2022 were really great years for the industry,” said Bontrager-Lehman, whose rural Bristol, Ind., firm recently introduced a competitively priced line of E-Series towables. “But I think ’23 has been in some cases a welcomed reset and a maturing of the industry, and I think that everybody’s very confident in the path forward. We just need to all get there together.”

Nate Goldenberg

Brinkley RV Co-Owner Nate Goldenberg says the Open House went “really well” for the year-old, Goshen, Ind.-based towable RV builder. “We did a display in between our new plants at our new complex, which was awesome because the dealers were able to see more than just the units themselves, but more of what goes into them,” he told RVBusiness. “But, honestly, we couldn’t have asked for a better show. So, we’re very happy with it. We’re happy if the dealers are happy, and they were.”

Consistent with their Open House experience, Brinkley management is maintaining a positive outlook going forward, despite the ongoing unpredictability of the U.S. economy. “You know, the general consensus that I’ve gotten is that inventories as a whole are falling in line for dealerships. I can’t think of one dealer that came through here during the show that didn’t seem to have their inventory in line. At this point, I think that most dealers are going to run very slim through the off-season and then kind of stock up in Q1 of 2024 during retail show season.

“But things, from all we can tell, are looking very up. I mean, everybody was very positive. There weren’t any dealers that were doom and gloom. So, I think it’s a good sign, as dealers are looking to fight their way through these interest and flooring costs,” he added. “That’s actually affecting inventory levels more than anything. But I don’t think that that’s a reflection on what next year’s performance is going to be. It seems really positive.”

Bob Fish, VP of Sales and Marketing at Sunset Park RV, Shipshewana, Ind., said he was “thrilled to report that despite the dip in dealer traffic, our show was a resounding success – and the number of happy dealers out there representing Sunset Park RV speaks volumes.”

Tom Muto, who’s the managing partner of Lee’s Country RV Sales, was on a mission during Open House to bring in some more lines for the small dealership located in Batesville, Ind. And, speaking at the end of Wednesday, he said for the most part he felt he was successful.

But he added that he was still hoping to find a bunkhouse for less than $25,000 retail.

I would love to see a single-slide bunkhouse, tandem axle, 26 to 30 feet total length bumper to hitch, that you could put your basic family back into. I feel like that segment has really dried up because it’s gotten too expensive,” Muto said. “Like I said before, with the price of the campers plus these higher interest rates, we just don’t see as many buyers when you start quoting them payments at $450, $500 a month.”

Donovan Windecker of Dekalin, an adhesives and sealants company based in Germany, was attending his first Open House. He told RVBusiness he was amazed at the differences between the North American RV industry and that in Europe.

“Everything is so much bigger here, starting with the sizes of RVs and the amount of dealers – and even the professionalism of certain dealers – who are hanging around here,” Windecker said. “From where I’m from, it’s a lot more mom and pop shops that are between 10 and 15 people. That’s considered big there. I’ve spoken with so many people here that have their own sales team, their own procurement teams, and they are just so much bigger than what I am used to that it’s been quite the breath of fresh air.”

Of course, Windecker is more familiar with the Caravan Salon show in Dusseldorf, Germany – the world’s largest RV show that drew 254,000 visitors from 65 countries this summer. But, as he’s been making the rounds and getting a better understanding of the North American market, Windecker mentioned that the Open House was quite a “spectacle.”

“Dusseldorf is a bigger expo, mind you, but this feels like an open house – which it is. And for an Open House it is huge,” he said. “It’s great. It’s really interesting. The food’s amazing. The people have been so friendly and so helpful. Every time I’ve talked to anybody, they have never been too busy to explain something to me, to explain new concepts to me and to just talk and be friendly with me and just introduce me to this interesting world of RVing.”