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RV industry's recovery gains speed in 2012

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The RV industry's recovery from the Great Recession has picked up speed.

Recreational ehicle makers are churning out higher numbers of travel trailers bound for dealers' lots and, ultimately, campgrounds.

Overall shipments from manufacturers to dealers — a key measure of consumer demand — are expected to rise 10 percent in 2012 and could gain another 4.5 percent next year, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association said Tuesday.

Through September, shipments were up nearly 11 percent from the same period last year, the group said. The higher-than-expected number had dealers, manufacturers and suppliers feeling more optimistic as they gathered this week for an annual industry trade show.

At General RV Center in Huntley, operations manager Keith Lessner said sales are up over 2011.

"There's been huge growth from last year," Lessner said of the dealership, which has been open one and a half years.

He said a trend has been new units over used units. "You're getting a lot more for your money with a new unit," Lessner said.

"A 26-foot Prime Time Avenger bunk-bed unit sold for $13,000 10 years ago," he said. "It still sells for $13,000, and you're getting better construction, technology, better everything."

He said low interest rates have contributed to the popularity of new units.

"People are tired of being told not to spend money and starting to enjoy themselves," Lessner said.

"We made up a lot of ground this year," said Jeffrey Pastore, owner of Hartville RV Center in northeastern Ohio. "We're seeing a lot more buyers walking in the door, and we're seeing those buyers with more money in hand."

Sales at his dealership are up about 18 percent so far this year, and he's predicting another 15 percent gain in 2013. It's a big turnaround from 2009, when sales plunged 40 percent amid the country's worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

"It was dreadful," said Tom Stinnett, an RV dealer in southern Indiana. "There were a lot of us wondering if we were going to make it."

Shipments to dealers slumped to 165,700 units in 2009 from 353,400 in 2007. Weak demand and evaporated credit left dealer lots clogged with RVs and forced the industry to lay off tens of thousands of workers. This year's shipments are expected to be better — hitting 277,300.

Jobs are coming back, too. The industry's workforce has risen to 375,000 from less than 250,000 in 2008, according to RVIA. It's still below the 530,000 from 2007.

Driving the industry's gradual comeback have been less-expensive towable RVs attached to pickups or hitched to other vehicles.

Towables, which now account for about 90 percent of the new RV market, cost between $8,000 and $100,000, with an average price of $32,000, according to RVIA. Before the recession hit, towables represented eight out of every 10 new RVs shipped.

By contrast, stand-alone motor homes range in price from $55,000 to $1.5 million for top-of-the-line, bus-like vehicles. The average price is $100,000 for the amenity-filled moving homes.

"It's a given that consumers love to do this, or there would be no market at all because they don't have to have it," Stinnett said. "But they're simply not willing to commit as much money."

KZ RV, based in Shipshewana, Ind., has regained about three-fourths of its pre-recessionary business, but the manufacturer has seen the shift in consumer demand toward towables. Its most popular products cost between $10,000 and $35,000 — well off its top-of-the-line RVs, which run about $90,000, said Andy Baer, the company's vice president of sales.

"Seven years ago they didn't give a thought to buying a top-of-the-line product, kind of similar to the housing industry," Baer said. "People are more in tuned with what the reality is that they can comfortably afford today."

Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Thetford Corp., which supplies toilets and sinks to RV makers, saw its business plunge by 70 percent during the recession. It survived the downturn because RV owners upgraded existing models, said Executive Vice President Kevin Phillips. Now, the company is having a good year as existing RV owners purchase upgrades and entry-level buyers enter the market, he said.

Winnebago Industries Inc., best known for its premium products, also has adjusted to the new market.

The company, headquartered in Forest City, Iowa, is rolling out towable products again after a decades-long absence from that market.

And Winnebago has stepped up its presence in the market for entry-level motor homes priced in the $60,000 to $70,000 range. Those vehicles offer fewer features and amenities than their pricier counterparts.

"That's where we see a lot of the movement in the industry," said Scott Degnan, the company's vice president of sales.

Winnebago's profits soared in its last fiscal year, which ended Aug. 25. Winnebago earned $45 million over those 12 months, up from $11.8 million in the prior year. Revenue rose 17 percent to $581.7 million.

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