A few years ago, Forest River decided to have an open house event for recreational vehicle dealers to come to Elkhart, check out their products and maybe their facilities.
Since then, it turned into Elkhart RV Open House Week, a three-day (or four, for some manufacturers and dealers ) event which results in at least hundreds of millions of dollars worth of orders placed by dealers. That event has taken over as the major buying event, even though the annual Recreation Vehicle Industry Association National RV Trade Show continues to happen in Louisville, Kentucky.
Several dealers from across North America said they continue to travel to the RVIA Louisville show after Thanksgiving, though the hands-on event in Elkhart is where they get the bulk of their buying done. In Louisville, manufacturers haul down a slice of their offerings. Here, many of them rolled out every floorplan offering of every brand so dealers could see exactly what each looks like.
For manufacturers, they reported anywhere from a tenth to a quarter of the year’s worth of orders were written between Sept. 16 and 19 at this year’s open house.
It takes some of the buying pressure off dealers in Louisville, and they reported enjoying a more social atmosphere at the RVIA trade show. They also get to see the Louisville show entirely indoors, so rains like those that rolled through Elkhart Thursday, Sept. 19, don’t dampen enjoyment at Louisville.
Elkhart holds another major bonus for dealers, though – the major manufacturers pick up a lot of the tab for a trip to Elkhart.
Thor and Forest River put up thousands of dealers in hotel rooms. Most, if not all, the manufacturers offered food for dealers, and Thor and Forest River offered entertainment in the evenings.
So what does that mean for the future of the two events? Attendance was down for last year’s Louisville show.
Tom Peay of Idletime RV in Allen, Okla., has been coming to the open houses since the first one. 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.”
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.
Even though Keith Graham of Trailblazer RV in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, has come to the open houses for several years now, he continues to make the trek from Alberta to Kentucky for the RVIA show, too. “It’s becoming more of a social event, rather than a business event,” Graham said. With less buying pressure, attendees can enjoy more of the social functions put on by different industry groups, something that Graham said he didn’t have the luxury to do in the past.
While some dealers think Louisville’s star is falling somewhat, many expect that show to continue, and the manufacturers don’t think it’s an either/or proposition.
Doug Gaeddert, one of Forest River’s general managers, has a unique position. He’s been chairman of the RVIA for the last year and works for the company that started the open house phenomenon. Gaeddert believes the two events help push each other to improve. “The industry as a whole has benefitted” by having both, Gaeddert said.
“Out of here we get tremendous feedback,” he said Thursday at the last day of the open house. That allows them to refine products to show again in Louisville. “Louisville, it’s all under one roof,” Gaeddert said.
The two events “fit great, and it raises the quality of both,” he said.
Bob Martin at Forest River’s biggest competitor, Thor Industries, told RV Business that Thor still gives major focus to the Louisville show. “Louisville’s still an important show for us and, you know, we always hold a few surprises for Louisville and encourage everybody to come,” he told RV Business Publisher Sherman Goldenberg. “It’s another opportunity for us to spend time with the dealers and be under one roof and it’s a good venue for dealers to go competitive shop. So, after many of us head to RVDA for a few weeks and then right after that down to Louisville, it’s a pretty quick turnaround. But we’re prepared, and this year we have all the Thor companies at one nice location in the South Wing (of the Kentucky Exposition Center). So, we’re excited about having everybody there together for the first time.”
When he came to Elkhart in May for the inaugural RV Power Breakfast, RVIA head Richard Coon said the Louisville show is still a key industry event, and said the show weathered the recession better than the industry in general, in terms of the amount of space rented in the Kentucky Exposition Center.