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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.

owners vs industry

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.

183 comments

  1. I feel sorry for these young people who bought an RV that was built badly from Keystone RV. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlfVREhxCyk

  2. I agree that many problems people experience with their RV are from poor factory build, but let’s not forget that these homes on wheels are also subjected to many road hazards, sometime earthquake-like experiences and prolonged exposure to the elements, regardless of build or manufacturer. It’s a competitive RV market with price points that are engineered into the final marketed product. Few realize, that there are nearly 20,000 job openings in the mecca where 85% of the RV’s in the USA are manufactured. Think of the supply and demand issues, employee turnover, reduced skill labor force and many unqualified people filling vacancies, despite paying very competitive wages and then factor in a high consumer demand, you’ve then got an industry that is ripe for inconsistencies and shoddy construction.

  3. I purchased a 1992 Roadtrek and owned it for 10 years where I experienced very little or no problems with the quality and ease of operation and maintenance throughout those 10 years. We sold this Roadtrek Poplar 190 and went without an RV for quite a few years until 2015. We then decided to purchase a new 2015 Roadtrek Poplar 190 thinking that we would experience the same level of dependability, ease of maintenance, and value as we did with the 1992 that we had prevoisously owned. Boy were we mistaken. The 2015 Roadtrek Popular 190 that we now own is more modern looking but it is inferior in almost every way that we can think of. Roadtrek’s quality and choice of components are just marginal if that. I don’t want to take the time or space to go down the list, but after experiencing owning this 2015 Roadtrek and comparing it to the 1992 Roadtrek that we previous owned, I would recommend to anyone in the market for a small RV to just stay away from Roadtrek. The Customer Service representative that we spoke to at Roadtrek was very rude and disrespectful to us. He refused to acknowledge any blame for the reduction of quality over the years and tried to put the blame on the comsumer (me) for not maintaining the RV properly. I maintained my 1992 Roadtrek the same way I have maintained this 2015 Roadtrek and I never had any issues with the older model. The newer models are using components that are just more prone to failure and not as robust as they used to be. This reduction of quality and resilience to failure is due to the manufacturers looking for ways to reduce costs in order to maximize their profits. This puts the responsibility on the consumer to cover the cost of more frequent repairs. The businesses that offer RV maintenance to us consumers are happy with this reduction of quality, because it offers them a chance to increase their business and once again charge us consumesr for these repairs that should not be occurring as frequently as they do.

    Let the buyer beware!

  4. Just want to say that I would not recommend purchasing a Keystone Rv. Bought ours new in 2011. Front in bubbled up. Roof started leaking. Had a new one installed. Slide out bombed out. Parts inside started falling off. Tires had to be replaced. Lot of other items. All at our expense because after the one year warranty went out it stated going down hill. 30 foot travel trailer. Spent thousands on it. Emblems faded in a year and had to be replaced etc. etc. Buy one at your own risk.

  5. We have a Puma we bought in 2007 (New 2006) and have few problems. The occasional fuse, etc.. The floor on the slide rotted out last year and the wonderful rep I corresponded with sent us a new floor! Yes, we installed it, but they didn’t HAVE to do anything. Darn thing is 9 years old! While we were at it, we found some flaws in the manufacturing but they were all easily repairable at little or no cost (materials we had around.) We don’t think we will ever buy new after all the recent horror stories but my little puma (31 ft) is perfect! We are going to remodel now that we don’t have young ones going with us and I have a feeling she will be even better. That Puma was well worth the price!

  6. Reading thru the numerous complaints of RV owners & their manufacturer warranty of 30 ft or 30 seconds whatever comes first is EXCATLY why I build high quality tiny homes. Having briefly worked at a RV factory in 1997 I was disgusted with what was assembled & sold as a “premium coach” when I complained to my supervisor of obvious defects especially in areas the consumer would rarely ever see I was told to do my job as the work the factory does is what the industry labels as”commercially acceptable” when I listed several major framing defects to him he promptly informed me “quote” no problem that’s why each unit has 3-5% of its sticker price dedicated to warranty issues. The rotting floors & slide outs literally collapsing is no isolated problem, poor or non existent flashing to keep rain & snow out is a major failure in so many units that I refuse to repair them for consumers anymore, no matter how much effort or carpentry skill I apply they simply can’t be fixed by their poor design. Again it’s why I have built my own models & design for tiny homes for the last 7 years, my first tiny home built in 2010 is still in perfect condition absolutely no leaks, damage or mold ANYWHERE and ironically enough it’s built from a 1998 RV chassis who’s factory coach body had rotted so badly it was totaled by the previous owners insurance for severe water damage. I bought it from the previous owner for its frame Value & reconstructed it from the chassis up, thus proving beyond doubt a quality unit CAN be built & survive all 4 seasons year after year. My coach sits out in the open weather ( never covered) or under any protective structure and easily withstood 38″ of snow this year 2016-17. I didn’t even think twice about shoveling it off because I designed it to handle much more than that. 55 lbs per sq ft to be exact. Your run of mill factory so called premium coach will pop interior trim with barely a 30 lb snow load on its roof ( I’ve seen it personally this winter on a major brand name 5th wheel) to be fair to the industry there are a select few who build what i would label a “decent coach” but these are in the price range of my Tiny homes & most of the time much higher. Lastly No one privately or commercially can build a flawlessly perfect Coach/ home, why? In my opinion & experience its what every consumer knows all to well, we live in a throw away society! I’ve told my tiny home buyers over and over again that I build a high quality structure but I have NO control over the lack of quality in the appliances, electrical devices,fixtures,mechanical or any other item produced outside of my environment. As I humorously told my last tiny home buyer “your propane stove may fail within 2-3 years but you WONT be replacing or repairing the structure at the same time as your stove on my units.

  7. Stephen Karponai

    2016 Keystone Mini roof leaked. Have not used it yet. In shop for repairs. Checked roof, and gap between roof and side wall. I knew better to buy an RV but wanted one. They may total the unit. Will never another RV. Have a cargo trailer and will build 1 myself for camping.

  8. Greg,

    I guess my question to you is why do “we” keep buying “junk” instead of requiring a better product?
    The Industry has TV cheer leading including such shows as Big Time RV and Going RV that basically shows people doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for new RV’s that are basically problem ridden vehicles. I have heard several stories from tech’s for RV Dealers selling the high end coaches that say they NEVER get a coach in from any manufacturer that is not full of issues that must be resolved BEFORE they can even put it out on the lot. One owner spent over $700,000 for a coach that died on the side of the road less than one mile from the dealership when they drove it off the lot.

    Not to just be totally critical here, I do enjoy the lifestyle but when I see where we are and where we could be if the industry just put a little more effort and responsibility into what they manufacture, you would think it would be a no brainer to them

    I think we need to take the industry to the woodshed

  9. Being in the automotive repair business I can say the mechanics are not trained and the managers are worse and worse than that are the owners an corporations that operate these.

    Now every industry today is ran poorly and once they get your money your on your own. People don’t care about anything but themselves for the most part so what can you expect in todays world.

    I was born 44 years ago and have seen mankind go from kind and loving to hating and being about there own happiness and not caring about other people.

    The world is screwed up and only getting worse. Best thing to do is pray hard and not become like most people in the world today. Prioritize morals and values is about all I can say.

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