This map of Elkhart County shows some of the RV firms (shown in blue) that were exhibiting new products this week during the Sixth Annual Elkhart County RV Open House. Displays were most prolific along the C.R. 6 Corridor (shown in the top right inset) anchored by the Thor Industries Inc. at the RV/MH Hall of Fame. Map courtesy of RVBusiness.

Editor’s Note: The following is a column by Woodall’s Campground Management and RVBusiness Publisher Sherman Goldenberg offering some thoughts on the Elkhart County RV Open House which ran this week in northern Indiana.

As soon as my stomach lining returns to normal, I’ll do a more thorough assessment of Elkhart’s 2013 Open House. At the time of this writing, in fact, it wasn’t even over, although things were winding down pretty good at midday Thursday (Sept. 19) amid some heavy September rains.

But rain aside, I’ll go out on a limb and say this: In most every respect, from the professionalism of the presentations to total attendance to the general atmosphere of the entire affair around the northeast side of the RV-building hub of Elkhart this week — especially Tuesday and Wednesday — the Open House succeeded in taking another significant step forward this year toward becoming an industry fixture for most of the nation’s recreational vehicle manufacturers and virtually thousands of RV dealers from coast to coast as well as Canada.

There are also signs that, with Open House soirees held by key area vendors like Lippert Components Inc., Dometic Corp., ASA Electronics and Coast Distribution/Husky, this growing ad hoc trade show could someday become more of an important venue for a wider array of OEM suppliers. But hold that thought for the moment because, right now, the supplier role is still clearly secondary.

And while the industry’s two market share giants, Thor Industries Inc. and Forest River Inc., both showed their best sides at their huge respective exhibits at the Hall of Fame and on County Road 6, it was at last night’s climactic Forest River cocktail party at which things seemed to coalesce in my mind as to how far things have come since Forest River’s Pete Liegl first got a gleam in his eye in 2009 during the onset of the recession for a casual kind of dealer get-together during which retailers could cool their jets and relax and, at the same time, perhaps buy some product along the way.

It worked then and, I think most participants will quickly agree, it’s working today in a big way as the industry emerges from the global downturn in a fairly impressive manner. That’s certainly the view of Jeff Babcock, a general manager for Forest River who took a few minutes to chat with RVBUSINESS.com. He says things have gone really well from his perspective. “Yeah, we got a better turnout,” said Babcock. “We’re probably up 10% peoplewise from last year. I think 4,000 is about the mark on registrations – 4,000 individuals. As far as dealerships, I don’t know the number.”

That’s 4,000 registrants at Forest River alone, not including dealers who came into Elkhart to visit literally dozens of other manufacturers. Thus, it’s fair to say, the hotels were packed for miles.

“We’re basically sold out, and we’re just trying to find places (hotels) because, you know, we cut registration off last week and we were still getting calls from people who wanted to come in,” added Babcock. “I mean, we had a ton of dealers. And this place was packed both nights. We had a big country western band in here last night. And everybody’s been out in the displays. Again, we got lucky with weather on the first two days. And our venue is just the best in terms of being able to show a maximum number of products and floorplans. We’ve had more than 600 units on display. The dealers say it’s better than Louisville. The atmosphere’s great. Really, you can’t walk around Louisville with shorts on. This is the place. This is my favorite venue for a wholesale expo.

Dealers check out product at Forest River Inc.’s display during this week’s Open House. (Photo by Shawn Spence)

“The dealers just like coming here. It’s the right time of year. It’s the right weather. Things are kind of slowing down, retailwise. They don’t have to be at their dealerships all the time. And they come here, and, again, I think it’s our venue and the amount of product they can see here. They love it. You know, at Louisville we’ve got 100,000 feet. Here, we’ve probably got about 30 acres worth of RVs.”

Babcock says Forest River served close to 3,500 meals each night, and, while it’s hard to gauge the numbers ahead of time, the caterers were real close to running out of prime rib on Tuesday night. “I see this thing just getting bigger every year,” added Babcock. “I don’t think this will ever go away. Now, I can’t say that Louisville will ever go away either. I’m just saying that this won’t go away. It’s just the right time of year. Dealers love coming here for this show. And, again, you get to see so much product here that you can’t show at Louisville.”

The buying atmosphere was also good for Forest River and, from what we were hearing, for an array of other manufacturers as well.

“The best,” he noted. “I mean, we’ve sold a ton of stuff – both towable and motorhomes – our sales guys are knocking it out of the park. And we just want to thank all the dealers for coming out. Without the dealers we don’t have anything. “

And that’s the bottom line for now.