Hard to keep units on the lot

Sales of RVs are reportedly up across the country as people scramble to find a feeling of safety while traveling.

SHIPSHEWANA — Despite Indiana’s rising unemployment numbers because of the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on the state’s economy, northern Indiana’s RV industry is running at near capacity.

That’s because new RVs are selling faster right now that manufacturers can make them.

According to the RVIA, the industry trade organization that tracks RV production for the industry, May was a very busy month at RV dealers across the country. Sales were brisk outpacing supplies of new units.

Ironically, that report comes only months after industry insiders say poor demand for RVs in the first two months of the year had manufacturers talking about shutting down production lines and laying off workers.

That followed weakened sales throughout 2019, which causes some plants to slow down production.

The news comes as a surprise to some since the U.S. economy is showing signs of shrinking and the RV industry typically is the first industry to feel the effects of an economic upheaval. But the difference this year, said Monika Geraci, the senior manager of marketing strategy and operation for RVIA, is that the coronavirus pandemic has made many consumers cautious of air travel, cruise ships and hotels, and that they now see RVs as a safer mode of travel and better vacation alternative.

“As we emerge as a nation from today’s stay-at-home orders, it is clear that consumers want to get outdoors again,” she said.

Geraci said dealers from across the country tell the RVIA from the first moments those dealerships reopened following stay-at-home orders, customers have flooded sales lots. And many of those customers are first-time RV buyers.

Industry research shows because of the pandemic, people still want to travel but they are opting to stay closer to home. They also want to have control over their personal environment and how they come into contact with other people.

“That really lends itself to RV-ing, where you get to bring your own bed with you, your own dishes, food and all of that, and ultimately chose how and when you engage with others,” she explained.

Geraci said this could be the new normal in the industry, at least for the next year or two.

“There could be significant changes to how people travel,” she said. “RVs provide a wonderful opportunity for people to continue to enjoy vacations with their families, while still adhering to social distancing which will likely be around in some form for the foreseeable future.”

It’s surprisingly good news for an industry that saw two straight years of diminished demand.

According to RVIA data, the RV industry shipped 406,000 last year, a 16% decline from the total number of units manufacturers shipped in 2018. And 2018 was a down year too, with manufacturers shipping 4% fewer units than they did in 2017.

Mervin Lehman, general manager of Riverside RV, LaGrange, said rumors were rampant early this year that several of the large RV manufacturers in the area were poised to shut down production lines and lay off employees because of slumping sales.

Now, he said, those same manufacturers are increasing employee hours.

“I’ve heard they’re planning to start calling people in on Saturdays,” he said.

Riverside is a small independent manufacturer of RVs. It produces smaller, retro-style campers aimed at a niche market of consumers who enjoy Riverside’s 1950s look and styling. Riverside employs about 70 people and Lehman said his plant is planning to increase production to 35 units a month, up from about 28.

Geraci said new data from an Ipsos survey, an international data supply used by the industry, shows 1-in-4 Americans intend to take some kind of RV-related action in the next 12 months, whether that be taking an RV trip, buying or renting an RV, researching an RV or visiting an RV dealership.

“The same survey showed that 20% of U.S. respondents said they are more interested in RVs as a recreational travel option, which was the highest of any travel option tested. The study was done in conjunction with the RV Industry Association,” she explained.

Industry experts said consumers are interested in all makes and models of RVs, from pop up campers to motorhomes.

But locally, customers are showing a real interest in mid-range units like 25-foot travel trailers, said Devin Pucket, a salesman at Wana RV in Shipshewana.

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