Saturday, September 20, 2008

RV dealers hope to inspire sales

News & Observer - Raleigh,NC,USA
With gas once again hovering around $4 a gallon and credit tight, this might not seem like the best time for an RV show. But on Friday, a recreational vehicle show at the new Raleigh Convention Center drew both die-hards and the merely curious.

Turning those window-shoppers into buyers is critical for the dealers and manufacturers at the event which runs through Sunday.

It's a precarious time for their industry.

After five years of record growth, RV sales have slowed and are expected to drop 24 percent this year.

John Cathey, owner of Carolina Coach & Camper in Claremont, said his dealership is a $50 million operation. Last year, he sold 800 RVs. This year, he expects sales to be flat -- a first in his company's 15-year history.

"Every 11 or 12 years, you go through a mean year, and I think this is our mean year," Cathey said.

"A lot of people believe all coaches get three to four miles per gallon," Cathey said. "Some get 20-plus."

"People don't realize how incredibly effective the engineering people have been," Cathey said. "They're safer now, they're lighter now, and they get better gas mileage."

That's a big deal when you have to fill a 100-gallon gas tank on a large RV. Even tanks on smaller RVs hold 40 or 50 gallons.

Still, it's the midlevel RVs -- with the smaller tanks -- that are seeing the biggest sales declines, dealers said.

People are buying pop-up campers and small trailers for family outings that cost $10,000 or less. And folks with money are buying the big luxury motor homes that can cost $400,000.

Those big models keep getting bigger -- many now reach 42 feet long -- and fancier, with flat-screen TVs, leather seats, keyless entry and convection ovens.

The buyers often are baby boomers who generally have a little more money to spend and are a little less sensitive to gas prices.

But boomers aren't enough to reverse the downward sales trend. Cathey said he is seeing fewer first-time buyers. In previous years, those buyers made up 30 percent to 35 percent of his customers; now they are 15 percent to 20 percent.

"I'm expecting it to continue this way till after the election or first of the year," he said.

Still, RVing has plenty of loyalists. Karl and Madelyn Brenneman have been RVing for 25 years and are now "full-timers," meaning they don't own a house and live in their 36-foot RV.

"We started on the back of a motorcycle with a tent," Madelyn Brenneman said.

The couple calls Oregon home, but they are traversing the country. They've put 50,000 miles on their RV in the past three years. On Friday, they were in town visiting their granddaughter and decided to see what the latest RV developments were. Even with $4-a-gallon gas, the Brennemans said they have never considered driving less or parking the RV because of fuel prices.

"Instead of paying taxes or something like that, we buy fuel," Madelyn Brenneman said.
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