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McClatchy-Tribune  08/24/2014 7:34 AM ET
Will RV boom stay for years? [South Bend Tribune, Ind. :: ]

Aug. 24--The many recent moves in the RV business suggest the industry is not lacking confidence for the long run.

Jayco, Thor Industries' Keystone RV and RV supplier Dometic all announced expansions last week. That's on the heels of the last year when Thor, one of the world's largest manufacturers of RVs, and major supplier Lippert Components, among others, made a series of major moves increasing production.

What it continues to say is that both suppliers and manufacturers not only have confidence in the industry right now, but for the long run.

"I think most people will tell you we are in a long-term growth mode that goes back to probably mid-2010 going forward," said Mark Bowersox, executive director of the Recreation Vehicle Indiana Council. Factors that are fueling the RV industry right now are favorable into the foreseeable future, perhaps as long as 2022.

"You've got baby boomers retiring at a record rate," he said. "You've got the RV industry getting younger and pulling in younger demographics and getting more inventory turned."

An external factor, like the stock market, is essentially at an all-time high, Bowersox added. And then, to him, there's this other very important intangible: "Consumer confidence is more flexible than before."

A one-day 30-cent rise in gas prices or a stock market drop of 50 points in a day, does not result in a panic any longer, he said. "Now, the stock market can bounce around along with fuel prices, and you've got unrest in various parts of the country, and consumer confidence keeps marching along."

Bob Martin, president and CEO of Thor Industries, agrees the industry is in a good place now and looks strong for the future.

"The RV industry is linked to macro economy, so it is subject to any blip that could happen throughout the world," he said. But he quickly added, "Barring that, we see slow and steady growth for the industry for many years to come."

Like Bowersox, he cites the baby boomers. "We still have five years of baby boomers buying into our demographic, which helps us," Martin said. "But then there's also the shifts in products that we're building that appeal to younger generations."

The market is targeting Gen X and millenials, Martin said. And those generations can find travel trailers that cost less than $15,000 "with everything you need to go camping," Martin said.

They also realize other things when they enter the RV lifestyle. "It's a great way to spend time with your family, to explore the outdoors, the national park system," Martin said. "Just reconnect with the natural beauty we have in North America."

The result is a lot of first-time buyers, he noted. "And that's what's driving a lot of the optimism from dealers, manufacturers and everybody," he said.

Bowersox said his organization has done six shows this year in Indiana including one in Michigan City this weekend and one in Elkhart recently. The shows would not be happening if people were not buying, he said. Indeed the industry has had 30 straight months of shipment increases compared with the same month the previous year and is well on its way to its fifth straight year of growth in shipments. "Now is a good time to be in the RV business," Bowersox said.

"Lighter weight and more affordable just opens up more markets for us," he said. "If you can buy an RV for $1,000 down and $100 a month," without having to upgrade a vehicle to pull it, owning an RV becomes "much more within reach for most American families," he said.

Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County, said the county is running out of sizable buildings to lease and that plans are in the offing for 40,000 and 100,000 square-foot expandable spec buildings.

The EDC, meanwhile, continues its efforts to ensure that the RV boom also will include diversification in industry and bring balance to the county, she said. "It is a perfect time to diversify while the market is good," she said. "Retool while life is good."

Meanwhile, don't expect a slowdown in expansion of the RV industry anytime soon.

"We are always looking for opportunities," Martin said. "We see many positives in the industry for the long term."

Jim Meenan



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