Travel Lite’s Bright Idea
By all accounts, Travel Lite has enjoyed considerable success in its truck camper manufacturing business, experiencing growth rates that company officials peg at 40 percent a year for the past three consecutive years.
But rather than resting on their laurels, the RV manufacturer’s management team came up with the bright idea to leverage their experience by expanding into the ultra-light travel trailer market. They gave their new product the name “Idea,” partly because of all the thought that went into it, and partly because the non-traditional name helps convey that it is a standout product.
|Travel Lite’s Ryan Spencer (left) and Dustin Johns are pictured next to one of the company’s new Idea i15 travel trailers. Spencer serves as the director of sales and product development; Johns is the company’s vice president.|
“We didn’t want it (the name) the sound too RV’ish because we knew it would have its own kind of feel,” says Dustin Johns, vice president for the manufacturer.
Entering the ultra-lightweight travel trailer market – where there is plenty of established competition – represents a gamble for Travel Lite, Johns acknowledges. Still, he says he believes the company can be highly competitive by creating a unique product in the marketplace – something that blends distinctive styling, a healthy dose of standard amenities, and a light towing weight at a competitive price point.
“With so many brands in the ultra-light trailer market and competition so fierce, we knew we had to come out with something different in order to compete in the market,” he says. “Our solution was a modern take on design that you don’t really see in a travel trailer; it’s a more aerodynamic feel, a clean concept. We wanted something with an innovative feel.”
A Stylish Design, Inside & Out
As an example of the travel trailer’s modern design, Johns points to the Idea’s aerodynamic molded front cap. To give the trailer that clean look, the RV’s propane tanks are encased in a molded section in the front cap, with an easily accessible and removable front cover, and the trailer’s battery is located inside the coach. The Idea’s full-size spare tire is located on the back of the RV.
“We kept the tongue area very clean – it’s just the ball receiver and the cap,” Johns says. “The end result is a more aerodynamic streamlined trailer that gets much better gas mileage.”
The RV also offers gel coat sidewalls free of aluminum or fiberglass strands, which Johns says gives the product a high-gloss shine, which is complemented by an exterior graphics package. The RV’s exterior also features 14-inch mag rim radial tires, a 52-inch passenger-side window, a 13-foot awning, and plenty of exterior storage space.
The RV boasts what Johns calls “larger-than-average” holding tank capacities of 27 gallons black, 27 gallons gray, and 37 gallons fresh water. It comes standard with a window-mounted air conditioner.
|Travel Lite takes pride in being a family-owned company. The company’s executive team includes Johns, Sales Administrator Lindsey Johns, and company founder and President Larry Johns (seated).|
Johns describes the travel trailer’s interior as “plush,” noting that it features cherry cabinetry throughout the unit; raised, picture-style cabinet doors; Granicote countertops and tables; brushed nickel hardware; and two-tone, 5-inch-thick cushions wrapped in polyfabric. Johns notes that Travel Lite manufactures its own countertops and table tops and that the company’s cushions are 1-2 inches thicker than those used by competing manufacturers.
“We don’t take shortcuts,” he says of the production process. “It may take a little longer and more work to build, but it pays off in the end.”
Travel Lite’s Idea i15 model is a 16-1/2-foot unit that weighs 2,575 pounds (dry weight). Johns says Travel Lite was able to offer plenty of standard features on the trailer while keeping the towing weight down by using banak wood – a high-priced lumber from South America that weighs only half that of regular wood – in the sidewalls and throughout the trailer.
The RV manufacturer also makes two other Idea models: the i16 is a rear-expandable hybrid unit measuring 17-1/2 feet, and the i17 is an 18-1/2-foot model featuring a rear bunkhouse and front U-shaped dinette. The i16 weighs 2,690 pounds while the i17 weighs 2,780 pounds.
The Big Idea: Make It V6 Towable
The Idea models’ comparatively low towing weights are a point of pride for Travel Lite.
“Every one of these units is V6 towable. It can be pulled by minivans and crossovers and similar vehicles,” Johns says. “We really wanted to go to the mainstream part of the market; obviously if someone has a truck like an F-150 or anything along those lines this would be no problem at all. Basically, if you can put a hitch on a vehicle, you can pull an Idea.”
The Idea has a starting MSRP in the low $10,000s. A standard upgrade package, called the Genius, costs $1,250 and includes a power awning, a roof-mounted 13,500-BTU air conditioner, a gas and electric DSI water heater, an electric tongue jack, and a 19-inch flat-screen TV with DVD player that comes with indoor and outdoor mounts.
Travel Lite had considered entering the travel trailer market for the past several years, according to Johns. Still, serious planning on the Idea didn’t begin until mid-2011. Johns says that once Travel Lite’s managers decided to pull the trigger, they were able to move quickly thanks to the expertise of their engineering and production staff as well as the existing capacity at the company’s 45,000-square-foot manufacturing facility located on 5 acres in New Paris, Ind.
|Travel Lite’s Idea travel trailer features an interior company officials call “plush,” noting that it includes cherry cabinetry throughout the unit; raised, picture-style cabinet doors; Granicote countertops and tables; brushed nickel hardware; and two-tone, 5-inch-thick cushions wrapped in polyfabric.|
Production on the Idea began in mid-November and the travel trailer was officially launched at the 49th National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky. Johns says the Idea was very well-received at the December show, and as a result the manufacturer has added staff and ramped up production. Currently, Travel Lite employs about 50 people, up from about 30 people a year ago, and Johns says the company is looking to add more workers as needed.
Johns anticipates Travel Lite will be manufacturing about 25 Idea trailers per week once it gets fully up to speed in 2012. While 25 units a week pales in comparison to the production levels of many large RV manufacturers, that’s exactly the way Travel Lite likes it, according to Johns.
“Producing RVs in smaller batches lets us focus more on the quality of those units and on production details,” he explains.
A Family-Run Operation
Being a family-owned business also is a point of pride for Travel Lite. Johns’ father, Larry, started the business in 1998, and several family members work there, including Johns’ wife, who is the sales administrator, and his mother, who is the office manager.
“We take pride in being a family-operated business,” Johns says. “For us, part of what that means is we go above and beyond for our customers. We are accessible. When a dealer calls, they get a human on the phone. It’s a more ‘real’ experience.”
Josh Blount, floor team leader for Travel Lite, uses a saw on the production floor. Long associated with the production of truck campers, Travel Lite in late 2011 branched out into the lightweight travel trailer market.
Marvin Kemp (foreground), cabinet shop team leader, works on Travel Lite’s production floor. The RV manufacturer says a tremendous amount of detail goes into each coach it builds.
Being an independent, family-operated business also means the company can focus on its own priorities and goals. Johns cites as examples Travel Lite’s commitment to build RVs in an environmentally friendly fashion by limiting waste in the production process and its commitment to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. The RV manufacturer has vowed to contribute $100 to the nonprofit low-income housing provider for each Idea sold and has set a goal of raising $50,000 in one year for the charity.
“It’s something we’re really happy to be a part of,” Johns says. “RVs are usually a luxury item – a home away from home. But there are people who don’t have even a primary home and we want to make a difference.”
While Travel Lite is expecting big things from the Idea – with plans to launch two more models in time for the Elkhart County Open House events in September – Johns says the manufacturer remains very much committed to the truck camper market. He notes that Travel Lite, which is the largest manufacturer of truck campers in the Midwest, currently produces more than 30 floorplans for truck campers and is particularly known for its lightweight models that fit onto half-ton and shortbed trucks.
For 2012, the company redesigned the interiors of its entire fleet of truck campers.
“The interiors are brand new, from the linoleum flooring to the wallboard to the materials we use for our cushions and curtains to the cabinetry. Absolutely everything is different,” he says. “To do that, we had to revamp our inventory. It wasn’t a small thing, but we think our dealers and end customers will appreciate the extra effort.”