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A group of dealers meet with several Gulf Stream Coach executives including Phil Sarvari and Dan Shea, second and third from left, respectively, at the company’s hybrid Open House display. (Photo: Shawn Spence/RVBusiness)

The North American RV industry, by and large, seems to have done a pretty good job of making the best of a tough situation this week after the annual Elkhart RV Open House – now the industry’s only national-scale trade show – was cancelled for the second year in a row due to an ongoing global pandemic.

The result, of course, was a “Plan B” that no one would have preferred in the first place – a quiet, almost leisurely scenario where a smaller contingent of dealers from throughout the country still converged on the Elkhart RV marketplace on a one-by-one basis at more modest displays set up at manufacturers’ plants throughout the area.

Dealers did so by appointment or sometimes on a drop-in basis rather than touring Open House displays that are normally set up around the streets of northern Indiana’s Elkhart County – particularly around the grounds of the RV/MH Hall of Fame (HOF) on the northeast side of town.

Nowhere to be found were the more elaborate displays manned by corporate staffs with expansive tables full of hors d’oeuvres served at parties – some of them with rather noteworthy entertainment – for which the Open House has become known over the past ten years.

Also missing, for the same reasons, were the supplier exhibits that had been planned for the HOF.

Then again, when the industry looks back at what some are referring to as the “Hybrid Open House” they’ll probably remember how many RV industry companies clearly made the best of it in a business sense, meeting with dealers, reaffirming long-term relations and sometimes doing business with a limited inventory on hand.

Jeff Runels

“Yes, we did make the best of it,” said Jeff Runels, president of Keystone RV Co. Inc. in nearby Goshen, Ind. “Our teams put a nice setup together, a much smaller version of what we would have had over at Open House. And I think a lot of the dealers, I would say a small percentage of the dealers, kept their flights. So, we saw a good mix of faces through this week.

“I think a lot of people (retailers) got a lot out of coming to see what we had in terms of products, although we just didn’t have as much new stuff to show this time around because it’s just so hard to get parts and get everything coordinated right now. And even though it wasn’t anyone’s best option, I would say, all things considered, it was a success.”

His comments are consistent with what RVB’s staff has been hearing from legions of others staffing corporate displays throughout the area.

Don Clark

“This week is certainly not what we were anticipating,” said Grand Design RV President Don Clark in a “Capitol Talk” video posted yesterday on RVBusiness.com. “And it’s too bad, you know, the Open House being canceled. Dealers were really looking forward to it. But it’s a crazy world right now with COVID, and we’ve had to adjust our sails, boat pun intended. …

“But dealers insisted on coming – not all – but some dealers insisted on coming. They wanted to see the new products. They wanted to strengthen relationships and in some cases create new relationships with our folks. So, we set up a little display here right in our parking lot and we had a great flow of dealers coming in.

“They didn’t come in droves and we’ve been careful about things. But it’s been good connecting with the dealers who have come.”

What were others saying as the week closed out?

Coachmen RV President Mike Terlep: “At Coachmen, we accommodated dealers who still made a trip in and wanted to meet and look at product, but we did it in a very responsible manner and it was certainly very low key and very low scale,” said Terlep, adding that “it was clearly unusual and unfortunate that we needed to cancel the Expo (Open House).

“But it was still the responsible and the correct thing to do,” he said. “Our flow was pretty limited. It was reasonable. But again, it was a very responsible way to handle things.”

Chris Andro

Chris Andro, Hemlock Hill RV, Southington, Conn.: “I think it was a good stand-in event for what we have on our hands,” said Andro, 2021 chair of the RV Dealers Association (RVDA). “Obviously it’s not the major event that the Open House would have been, but I certainly didn’t waste my time coming out here. I’ve learned a lot on this trip.

Adam Christoffersen, senior product manager for Winnebago Towables: “We tried to schedule as many appointments as we could, and we ended up bringing our whole sales team in from around the country,” said Christoffersen on behalf of the Middlebury, Ind.-based Winnebago division. “And we tried to schedule a lot of dealers so we made sure we had proper coverage.

“At the same time, we had a number of dealer prospects just drop in – checking out products they’d heard about in 20 Groups and so forth. So, it was a good week and, if you’d ask me, the Open House really shouldn’t have been canceled.”

Christoffersen, moreover, said his team wrote plenty of orders, contrary to what some OEM’s – himself included — had expected.

Windish RV Center General Manager Corey Shaw: Like many attendees, Shaw had a pretty upbeat assessment of the whole hybrid Open House sequence of events. “We were able to get out here and see some product and get some of the management staff out from the dealership and actually see the stuff in person,” said Shaw, whose dealership is located in suburban Denver.

“So, it was really for us to come out and just build relationships with our manufacturers, to keep things going. Seeing the product, there’s some new stuff right now, but there’s not a ton of it just because they’ve already made a lot of those changes for us. But the market right now, it’s obviously fantastic for everybody.”

Forest River Inc. Divisional GM Don Gunden: “Well, our time was well-spent because, like I’ve said before, this wasn’t about an opportunity to sell trailers. It was just a chance to look people in the eye, have dinner, talk, whatever. It was more of an opportunity to build business relationships.”

And it goes without saying that Gunden, like the rest of the industry, looks forward to things returning to something like normal by next year’s Open House – which, in itself, is a gross understatement. “I would certainly hope so. I think we’re just tired of the COVID crap.”