RV industry approaching pre-recession shipments to dealers as recovery continues

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — RV manufacturers have made up more ground since being sideswiped by the Great Recession, and production of the rolling homes is expected to return next year to levels seen before the economic downturn hit.

Overall recreational vehicle shipments from manufacturers to dealers — a key measure of consumer demand — are expected to increase by nearly 4 percent to 361,400 units in 2015, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association said Tuesday. Shipments totaled 353,400 units in 2007, the last year before sales tanked along with the economy.

Shipments to dealers' lots in 2014 are forecast at 348,000 units, up 8.4 percent from the prior year, the group said. The momentum carried into the last half of this year with the strongest third-quarter shipments since 2007, it said. October sales reached a nearly 40-year high mark for the month.

"We are absolutely rolling," RVIA President Richard Coon said at the start of an industry trade show in Louisville.

Industry leaders point to pent-up consumer demand, low interest rates, available credit and an improved economy for putting RV makers and dealers who survived the hard times back on the road to sustained growth. Falling fuel prices are another boost, they said.

This year's projected growth would be the fifth straight yearly gain in RV shipments, following the low point in 2009 when sales totaled 165,700 units.

Next year's forecast would be the industry's best performance since wholesale shipments totaled 384,400 RVs in 2005 and 390,500 in 2006. Those figures were inflated by government purchases of travel trailers to help house victims displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

"It's hard not to call it boom times," said Airstream President Bob Wheeler. "There seems to be a lot of dealer confidence and consumer confidence and a lot of forward momentum. ... When you look at the numbers, we're really having a great run."

The Ohio-based subsidiary of Thor Industries is now producing more of its silver Airstream travel trailers than it did before the recession, Wheeler said. Airstream's workforce of about 470 has grown by about 200 employees in the past two years to keep up with demand, he said.

John D. McCluskey said sales are up 50 percent since 2009 at his RV dealership in Florida. Sales surged by more than 20 percent in the past year, he said. He has hired more sales and service staff to keep up with growing customer demand.

"It's a lot more fun to be in the RV business these days," he said.

Industrywide demand is up for towable RVs and pricier stand-alone motor homes. This year's shipments of towables are expected to pass 2007 figures, but motor home sales still lag behind pre-recession figures, industry officials said.

During the deep economic downturn, some RV factories were shuttered and those that survived cut their workforce. The industry lost about a third of its manufacturers, dealers and suppliers during the recession. The survivors are now reaping the benefits of market demand back in pre-recessionary territory.

"The people that are in the industry supplying product, marketing product today are making a lot more money," Coon said.

Industrywide employment also has bounced back. The total workforce among manufacturers, suppliers, dealers and service departments is estimated at about 525,000, according to RVIA. Employment peaked at about 550,000 in 2007, then plummeted to about 280,000 in 2009.

Indiana is the clear manufacturing leader, accounting for 83 percent of RV production.

Towables cost between $8,000 and $95,000, with an average price of about $29,000, according to RVIA. Stand-alone motor homes range from $45,000 to $1.5 million for the most luxurious, bus-like vehicles. The average price is about $128,000 for the amenity-filled moving homes.

This week's trade show gives manufacturers a chance to showcase their newest models to dealers looking to place orders for the coming year. Coon urged dealers to be aggressive with their purchase orders to keep pace with consumer demand.

"Buy," he said. "This is the time."

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