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Opinion: The RV industry death spiral – Part 1

Opinion: The RV industry death spiral – Part 1

Two weeks from today, I will be stunned if I have any subscribers or advertisers left on RV Daily Report. I’m adopting the old adage, “If I haven’t offended you already, take a seat. I’ll get to you soon.”

After covering the industry for 15 years as a journalist, one of the best career moves I ever made was to actually purchase a product produced by the RV industry and hit the road using it. I started observing how the industry works from the eyes of a consumer. It hasn’t been pretty.

I have come to realize the RV industry is in a death spiral.

The current business model is simply unsustainable and the professionals working in the industry either:

  • Know what’s going on, are in denial, and remain hopeful the problems will simply fix themselves.
  • Don’t want to know what’s going on and keep their heads firmly planted in the sand ignoring many very obvious signs.
  • Are aware of the problem, know it won’t end well, but are simply choosing to ride the wave as long as they can.

Every other day for the next two weeks, I’ll publish another opinion column targeting a specific segment of the industry and explain how that segment is contributing to the eventual demise of the entire industry. I’ll look at:

  • RV manufacturers
  • RV dealers
  • RV suppliers
  • RV wholesalers
  • RV parks and campgrounds
  • RV associations
  • RV owners
  • RV media

Consumers are frustrated beyond words over product quality and customer service. Every single day I hear about another issue involving a new or experienced RVer. RV owners are seething over the finger-pointing response they receive when attempting to get problems addressed.

Yet, industry professionals are fired up to see 400,000 RV deliveries to dealers this year – the most we’ve seen in a very long time. The twinkles in their eyes suggest they believe the industry can break the 500,000 mark. One person recently suggested we could see 600,000 RV deliveries in one year.

Riiiiight!  Under the industry’s current infrastructure, there is not a snowball’s chance in July that will EVER come true. Unless something is done now, the industry has less than 20 years of viability remaining. Every year it delays addressing these issues further accelerates its pending demise.

It is as though everyone is having a great time at the wild and crazy all-industry party while delicately ignoring the dinosaurs in the room.  I say dinosaurs because the problems have been around longer than I have – yet few people seem willing to really address them.

The most telling point for me occurred during this year’s RV Industry Power Breakfast in May where the chairman of Thor Industries and the CEO of Forest River both admitted that the “customer experience” needed to be improved.

During the introduction it was noted the two firms control about 72 percent of the entire RV market. With Thor’s acquisition of Jayco last Friday, that number is now up to 83 percent. If the two leaders of 83 percent of the RV market realize a problem exists with RV owners, then maybe a problem really exists.  But, will anything of consequence be done to address it?

According to the RV Industry Association’s market data and trends, there are 9 million RV-owning households in America today.

Funny thing is that a 1997 report from Dr. Richard Curtain claimed there were nearly 9 million RV owning households. By 2001, that number dropped to 7 million. But, in 2011, Curtain claimed there were again 8.9 million RV-owning households – which he described as “the largest number of U.S. households ever recorded that owned an RV.”

So, there were 9 million RV owning households in 1997, and 9 million in 2011 and 9 million today. This despite the fact that, using RVIAs own shipment numbers, there were 5.7 million new RVs built between 1997 and 2015.

Yes, a whole bunch of RVers upgraded their units during that time, and some more than once. But the used RVs didn’t evaporate, did they? One would assume that people bought the previously owned RVs and added to the number of RV-owning households.

But, if there are just as many RV-owning households today as there were in 1997 — despite the flood of 5.7 million new RVs into the market during that time — then there were a heck of a lot of RVs junked in 18 years.

“Would you just shut up, Gerber! There’s nothing to see here. Move along.”

Oh, how I wish I could, but I’ve been too complacent for too long. Product quality and customer service was an issue when I first arrived on the scene in January 2000, and it’s an even bigger problem today despite the advent of technology designed to improve construction and service.

When the industry cheers the defeat of Lemon Law legislation, it conversely conveys the message to consumers that it is willing to tolerate imposing products that don’t work and can’t be fixed on unsuspecting buyers. Over the next few weeks, I will relay some real life experiences in hopes of educating people who can actually influence a solution.

As a full-time RVer I can see through the industry’s smoke and mirrors. The industry talks a good talk and markets the heck out of the lifestyle. But, it drops the ball big time when it comes to QSV — quality, service and value.

My goal in doing this series is to spark a desperately needed debate or at least a serious discussion. I’d be happy if professionals would engage in a 10-minute talk in some boardroom.

It is astounding how poorly connected the industry is to its consumers. Most RV industry professionals know at least one journalist covering the industry side of the business, but how many can name just one blogger?

Pick any three bloggers who have the ears of consumers and their combined audiences are likely larger than that of the Go RVing website – and the bloggers aren’t spending $16.5 million a year in advertising to get the traffic.

With the flurry of activity involving the ENTIRE RV industry including all the segments mentioned above, minus RV owners, it employs 289,852 people, according to the recently released RVs Move America Economic Report.

When compared to 9 million RV-owning households, people employed in the industry equate to just 3.2 percent of people who own RVs. This graphic puts it into perspective.

How 9 million voices can fall on mostly deaf ears defies logic. But, it happens. RV consumer forums and Facebook groups are brimming with horror stories about poor products and poor experiences. And it doesn’t just impact average everyday RV owners from Main Street USA.

Highly influential people in the RV industry have abandoned the lifestyle after the very expensive products they purchased failed to deliver on expectations.

I would stake my career on the fact that of the 289,852 people employed in the RV industry, just 3.2 percent – 9,275 — of them actually own an RV. A bunch more may borrow an employer’s RV for a long weekend, but my guess is they have never had to experience the pain of getting an RV serviced or in making a campground reservation.

I’m about to put it all in perspective and I’m probably going to offend a bunch of people in the process, especially when I show how RV owners themselves actually contribute to the problem. But, in doing so, maybe, just maybe, some eyes will be opened.

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About Greg Gerber

Greg Gerber is the editor and founder of RV Daily Report. A native of Madison, Wis., he moved to Phoenix in 2009 to escape the endless winters and wicked humidity of the six-week "summer" season. He's a DODO -- Dad of Daughter's Only -- who would crawl across the desert on his hands and knees for an In-N-Out Double Double. He has visited every state except Hawaii and is anxiously waiting for some RV company to host a conference in the Aloha State.

186 comments

  1. I advise you not to buy Keystone. Are Sprinter is 2 years old first year we took it back outside kitchen countertop was bucking they fixed it closed it up for the winter opened it up the counter was bucked again we took it back cuz we had the extended warranty well that’s a joke they are not going to fix it this year so two years in a row Keystone does not stand behind their products. It’s sad when you put that much money in a camper in Keystone will not back it up.

  2. We just bought a new Winnebago ERA, love it except for a few things concerning quality control.
    Not at all happy with Campingworld, their service, their phone system or their service departments.
    Why can’t such a big company act responsibly and efficiently?

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