Dealer Associations Give Their ‘State of the State’

Reps from several of the largest state dealer associations offer insights on how their members are faring under the ongoing cloud of COVID-19.

As 2020 moves into the rearview mirror, RV PRO reached out to the executive directors of some of the country’s largest dealer associations to get their take on the impact of COVID-19, to talk about other challenges and accomplishments, and to get their prognostications for the rest of this year and the start of 2021. Here is what they had to say:

Bob Zagami, executive director New England RV Dealers Association (NERVDA)

“By now, all our dealers are operating at full speed. Sales volumes are ‘off the charts’, with many breaking records every month since May.

“As a result, many are down to their lowest inventory levels in decades. We even have dealers with no new inventory, which is unheard of.

“While our members have a heightened concern over product availability, they are extremely optimistic about the explosion of interest. Traffic is way up, even on weekdays, and weekends look more like open houses than standard weekends. When visiting, I sometimes have trouble parking.

“We haven’t done any in-person training; dealers just cannot afford to have technicians away from the shop. Increased demand for PDI and customer orientations has pushed everyone to their limit. Some are trying to deliver 10 to 20 units on a Saturday, leaving them with barely time to grab a sandwich.

“We have several excellent webinars designed to improve business operation, revenue and profits – but nobody attends. This is not due to indifference. Everyone is just too busy; they are so overburdened they can’t complete their work in a normal eight-hour shift.

“The only show NERVDA is responsible for is the Boston RV & Camping Expo in Needham, Mass. We are still scheduled for MLK weekend 2021. We are awaiting confirmation from the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and Massachusetts Governor Baker on rules and precautions. If we cannot host the show on the traditional dates, we will look for dates in March or April. Our dealers are excited. Some who have never participated are asking if there is space.

“There is no discussion about a ‘virtual’ show – and I would never recommend it.

RVers want to see, touch and spend time in RVs. It is a proven formula that works for dealers.

I imagine some of the smaller shows in New England will not hold their shows, so we may see a shrinkage in the number of shows in 2021. In concert with preparing for shows, many of our dealers are preparing for 2021’s open houses.”

Dave Kelly, marketing director Florida RV Trade Association (FRVTA)

“Unlike some other states, RV dealerships in Florida never had to close. We were included with the auto industry as essential. By now, most of our dealers have returned to allowing walk-ins rather than requiring advance appointments.

“While sales are very good, all our members are reporting issues getting both product and parts; everyone is getting pretty thin on both. Dealers want to sell more inventory and service customers’ repair needs in a timely manner and are worried about not being able to do either if the supply chain is not repaired quickly. Some are ordering online and even using eBay to acquire what they need.

“Because all our training courses were already 100 percent online, we did not have to cancel any, so C-19 had no effect. The number of participating dealers is about the same as last year.

“On the other hand, C-19 has dramatically affected our show schedule. We cancelled both Tampa shows, and our events in Fort Walton, Jacksonville, and Fort Myers. We are planning our annual SuperShow in January 2021 and expect to host all our 2021 shows with no plans to do any virtually. While we did lose revenue, we are in great shape financially.

“The Florida Legislature just passed a law to create an LP gas license solely for RV dealers. Previously, they had to comply with regulations on things that had nothing to do with RVs. Eliminating items which are irrelevant to our industry allows dealerships to make sales and repairs faster. Because it passed so recently, the implementation details are still being worked out.

“Going into 2021, our most important goal is making sure the SuperShow happens in January. … Our plan is to do any and everything to make it happen.”

Bill Sheffer, executive director, Darren Ing, director, Michigan Association of RVs & Campgrounds (MARVAC)

“Following the chaos of closing two major shows scheduled for March in March – when Governor Whitmer forbid gatherings of more than 50 people – we began dealing with campground shutdowns. That lasted until just after Memorial Day, when most opened with the mandated changes and camper protocols.

“We have been hearing about difficulty obtaining inventory. Manufacturers are short on parts to finish RVs and they cannot ship what’s not completed.

“Our members are experiencing a subdued sense of optimism. They are pleased with how everything has turned out so far but are concerned about what happens when the trend ends.

“Virtual traffic is great. And overall sales for July are higher than they have been in 40 years. In fact, June and July brought in so much business they could hardly handle it all, which helped them recover from the difficult months of March and April.

“We have offered training for technicians and counter staff over the years, but that’s all on hold now. We’re trying to get our heads around all that virtual classes entail, so we opted not to offer them now. We have also not had any requests for them, so it’s not a frontline issue. Additionally, RVDA and RVIA are nearby and they do a good job at a reasonable price point.

“In June, we decided to cancel one of our two largest shows. The facility had not received permission to host gatherings of more than 50 people and that just would not work for us. We are scheduled in the same venue in February 2021 and hope to have some semblance of a show then.

“We are not planning any virtual shows. Should we not be able to do the February show, we will revisit the idea. We are reluctant to go virtual because we have not figured out how to create virtual walkthroughs of 360 units and the products of 70 booth exhibitors.

“The other concern is online shopping. Buyers like to see, feel, touch and go inside each unit. They like to engage with the dealer. Personally, I would never buy a car online; I can’t see people spending $50,000 $100,000, $200,000 or $500,000 on something they can’t touch.

“As for legislative issues, we are constantly monitoring anything that could help or hurt our members. Our current project is obtaining approval for an extension of the 15-day expiration on tags for new vehicles. This is especially an issue for the out-of-state buyer who wants to pick up their unit and travel in it for a week or two. Then they get pulled over and ticketed for expired tags. We want it extended to 30 days.

“Very early in the pandemic, we successfully lobbied the governor’s office to have RV dealers and campgrounds declared essential services.

“It seems odd to say but RVing is the ideal approach to a pandemic. Many people who had never considered it before saw the advantages of traveling in an enclosed environment. RVs have always been a wonderful, economic way to travel, but now they are not only affordable, they are clean and safe, making them a great way to enjoy vacations and time with family in Michigan and throughout the country.”

Heather Leach, executive director Pennsylvania RV & Camping Association (PRVCA)

“Currently Pennsylvania is in the ‘green phase’; businesses can operate at 75 percent occupancy, so dealers must limit the number of customers and maintain social distancing. Campgrounds are open with limited group events and accommodation of CDC guidelines.

“Every dealer we speak to with has reported higher than normal – if not record – sales. Many have very depleted inventories, and all have mentioned how difficult it is to get both inventory and parts. Some dealers have reported units sitting at the plant, ready to be shipped, while manufacturers search for transport drivers.

“The main issues are a combination of increased demand and decreased ability to get finished units to dealerships. The parts issue has always been a struggle, but it has been exacerbated.

“Overall, dealer’s outlooks seem positive. I am receiving far fewer calls than I did in April, when businesses were shut down. That’s always a good sign.

“In April, everyone was in a panic because it was the start of their selling season. I don’t think anyone could have predicted such a resurgence, but, by now, those who suffered so much those first few weeks have probably had the chance to make it up.

“Our technician training season is typically November through March, so we haven’t had to deal with C-19 yet. Class sizes range from six to 30 people, which allows us to comply with any restrictions on gathering sizes and social distancing. We will also offer webinars.

“We host America’s Largest RV Show every September and our board made the difficult decision to cancel this year’s event. Things were – and still are – very uncertain, and the concerns of our exhibitors greatly influenced our decision.

“Another factor was the many travel restrictions because the show attracts consumers from across the country. We are using our show website and all our social media accounts to host an exhibitor showcase. It’s a great way to keep our show on consumers’ minds while bringing in some additional business for those who had planned on supporting the event. America’s Largest RV Show will be back in September 2021.

“Our major accomplishment this year was hiring our first education director. As education is one of our missions, it was time to have a dedicated director to expand our offerings and provide a more comprehensive menu of trainings. Despite this being a year of massive show cancellations, I am happy to say we will be able to offer our members more benefits than ever.”

Phil Elam, executive director Texas RV Association (TRVA)

“Presently, there are no statewide quarantine issues in Texas, although some cities have additional restrictions. For example, Austin has a stay-at-home order in place and congregations of more than six people are discouraged. However, citizens may go to restaurants and stores as necessary.

“In spite of difficulties getting out and about, our members report substantial increases in sales, especially in major metropolitan areas. Some dealers have reported shortages of specific units and many of those on order are already sold. Demand for units is at an all-time high and there seems to be an insatiable appetite across all age categories.

“There have been reports of parts shortages, particularly air conditioners, refrigerators, and trailer hitches. Suppliers are doing their best to keep up with demand and RV owners are making smaller repairs themselves.

“My friends know I represent RV dealers and, in the wake of the pandemic, a significant number of them have indicated interest buying. These are people who travel a lot and want to control their environment. This new interest in RVing has been incredible across all demographics.

“Naturally, with unprecedented new sales figures and significant increases in profitability in service and parts departments, our members are very pleased. However, they are also cautious about how long this can continue. No one wants to be caught with too much new inventory when the demand begins to taper off, but for now, getting inventory onto their lots is their highest priority.

“I have noticed some dealers who had stopped or slowed their advertising have picked it back up to keep interest from declining and remind consumers they have units on their lots.

“We do not offer direct training for techs because Athens, Texas, is the home of the National RV Training Academy, which is awfully good at what they do.

“We canceled our annual convention in August and our annual September Southwest RV Supershow in Dallas. Both events are scheduled for 2021. We held a virtual annual membership meeting to elect new officers and directors.

“The Texas Legislature meets biennially, so we are gearing up for January. We are always looking to defend our members from those who wish to seek potentially harmful changes in the statutes. Now we are working on decreasing Repair Event Cycle Time for consumers and expect to continue that effort.

“Our major accomplishment in 2020 was negotiating with the Texas Division of Emergency Management to have RV dealers deemed essential businesses. Being available to meet the needs of customers and address heightened demand put our members in a very suitable position when the surge of interest in RVing began.

“As a matter of routine, TRVA produces compliance alerts for our members. However, during C-19, we generated so many that Microsoft shut down our email system when one of their algorithms decided we were a phishing scam. Imagine their shock when I told them, ‘No, our members pay for this information.’”

“The association has had some great feedback regarding our assistance during member’s time of need, which is exactly what we want to hear, as it means we are doing what we were formed to do – serve our members’ needs.

“In 2019, TRVA entered its 45th year. To assure that we remain relevant, we hired consultants to review all our programs and services, which revealed that we depend too much on our convention and show income to finance our operating budget. We were digesting this information when C-19 struck, causing the cancellation of those events and highlighting the need to diversify our income streams. During the balance of 2020 and throughout 2021, TRVA will work toward that goal.

“In the meantime, as trade associations are not allowed to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program, we were in some financial difficulty. While we do have reserves to fall back on, those can only last so long. Thankfully, we were able to obtain an Emergency Injury Disaster Loan from the Small Business Administration.

“Upon hearing we had gone into debt, to ensure funding if our reserves ran out, four members created the Challenge Fund to encourage others to donate to pay back the loan and cancel the debt. I am pleased to report that, even though it is still early, our members have raised more than 72 percent of their goal.

“It is an awesome thing when members step up to protect and support their association. I believe it is a direct result of their recognition of our regular service to them and especially our assistance during their time of crisis. I am extremely proud of the way they have taken responsibility for the security of the association; they are truly TVRA’s owners.”

Lisa Dicksteen

Lisa Napell Dicksteen has been a writer and editor for more than 30 years, and has published on education, relationships, style, technology, theater, food, dance, literature, social action, religion, academic success, continuing education, the RV industry, and more. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, For Women FIRST, Newsday, Bride's, and numerous other consumer and trade publications. She holds a Master’s degree in teaching secondary English and currently teaches Media Writing and Business and Professional Speaking at UC-Denver. A native New Yorker, she has lived in Boulder, Colo., since 2007.

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