Cautiously optimistic. It’s a phrase you heard a lot at industry events last fall and earlier this year, but it seems to hit the mark with many, including Ember RV’s Ashley Bontrager Lehman, founder, president and CEO.
“Yes, cautiously optimistic. We’ve had that mindset, honestly, since summer of last year. We saw a slowdown in retails happening, so we said, OK, let’s not just keep going as crazy as we had, or as the industry had been, during the pandemic years. So, we’ve been cautiously optimistic for quite a while now,” she told RV PRO in late March. “I do feel like it’s the opening of spring season right now – it feels like it’s picking up again. We’re feeling a little bit better. We’re still signing some new dealership locations, so that’s exciting. Dealers are still wanting to partner with us, which is fantastic.
“I would say that where I’m at today, I still think it’s a put one foot in front of the other, keep your eyes open, let’s get the data in, let’s keep checking the numbers, let’s keep watching everything that we need to and making the best decisions that we can. Something that I’ve been preaching a lot this year is that if we can make smart, steady and stable decisions, we will have a sustainable future.”
Lehman has been holding fast to that message, not just internally at Ember RV, but externally to the RV industry at large.
“Let’s really try hard to get away from reactionary decisions,” she says. “Because while they may be great in the moment, they aren’t necessarily always great in the long run. So, if we can stop, take a breath, have some patience, and think through what our next move should be, we’ll be better off in the long run.”
A Successful Two Years
That ability to see the big picture and think long-term has served Lehman well. While Ember RV is only two years old, as the granddaughter of Lloyd and Bertha Bontrager, the founders of Jayco, Lehman has the industry in her blood.
Ember launched in 2021 with its Overland Series, followed by its Touring Edition at last fall’s Open House.
“We did launch our second product line, the Touring Edition. That was aimed to be a little bit of a more conventional travel trailer than our Overland Series, which was very much geared toward going off-grid and off-road with that independent suspension, larger tank sizes, fully composite build, off-road tires, stronger chassis,” Lehman says. “We kind of refer to that as our ‘hiking boots.’ And now we introduced our Touring Edition in September, which we consider to be more of our ‘running shoes.’ Still an upgrade over a conventional travel trailer with the amenities included…but made to go more on road.”
The newer Touring Edition was well received, Lehman says, and users are still interested in the Overland Series as well. It was the economy shift, inflation and interest rates that provoked the slowdown the industry has experienced compared to the pandemic years.
“Dealers couldn’t hardly keep inventory on their lots. Everybody wanted to buy an RV to, now this – I don’t want to say abrupt, as we saw it coming – but it did hit us a little bit harder than we thought,” she says. “I think many of us are predicting there needs to be a shift on the manufacturing side as well as on the dealer side to make sure that we’re still an appealing way for our customers to get out and enjoy time with family and friends.
“I personally have been to many retail shows the past three or four months and I have felt like, for the most part, at all the different shows I’ve been to, retail traffic is still pretty heavy. There’s still near record numbers of people coming to the shows to see what’s new in RVs. There’s still a lot of interest out there.
“But I do think there has been a shift in the way that retail customers are thinking about discretionary purchases today versus how they were during those pandemic years.”
Appealing to Today’s Buyers
Ember RV has definitely seen a lot of interest from first-time buyers, Lehman says.
“I don’t know if I can put my finger on that exactly other than to say, I think initially with our Overland Series, people were seeking options to get off the beaten path. Not only were campgrounds typically fuller than they had been in the past because of the rising interest, people just wanted to get away and not necessarily be at a campground with a hundred other people. So, I think that appeal of our Overland Series drew people in as well as our commitment to quality and also building a “camping correct” RV. I believe that is the same with our Touring Edition.”
By “camping correct,” Lehman is referring to the attention that Ember RV pays to the small details – to how people actually live in their units.
“I do hear a lot of people who come into our Touring Editions while I’m at the show and say, ‘wow, I can see the quality. Wow. I can see that you thought this through. Thank you for designing it this way. I’ve owned a camper before and the layout was not great.’ Or ‘I needed an outlet over here for my coffee maker, and it looks like somebody actually intentionally designed it.’
“I’m very proud when I hear that because we certainly try to focus on intentionality in our design and the quality aspect as well. So, I think today’s buyer is much more discerning and they are looking for a true home away from home that gives them the amenities that they’re going to need and that they want on the road, along with the quality that they expect.”
Lehman says the team at Ember RV has learned a lot after two seasons – they have paid attention the data, such as which floorplans have been most popular. For the model year 2024, she doesn’t expect many changes coming in the Touring Edition as it’s still fairly new. But the Overland Series for 2024 will include some “refinements” or broader offerings on specific floor plans, she says.
“We don’t see a whole lot of changes necessary going into 2024, but we always like to stay innovative and inventive. So, you may see some new floorplans from us within those two product lines, and maybe some little tweaks here or there. But for model year ’24, we’re not planning anything too crazy this year. But we won’t just sit on our haunches either.”