In 2004, the founders of Heartland RV redefined RV manufacturing with the launch of their first RV, the Landmark luxury fifth wheel. This approach was groundbreaking because manufacturers historically started their product lineup at the bottom of the towables ladder and worked their way up in price point. Landmark raised the bar on high-end fifth wheels, becoming a quick success.
In that same vein, a year later Heartland launched its first toy hauler, the Cyclone, which soon became a consumer favorite. See a pattern here?
Toy haulers have evolved into one of the most versatile RV types in the marketplace, and Heartland has been in the fore- front with many industry firsts. Recent ones include:
- The first side patio incorporated in the living area
- The first one-and-a-half bath model
- The first “three-seasons wall”
- The first toy hauler with “Hidden Garage Technology”
- The first toy hauler (Cyclone) to crack the Top 10 among all fifth wheels
- The first toy hauler to feature “slide-in-a-slide” technology.
- The first toy hauler with a side-shift bed tilt system
Consistently developing industry-first features, combined with sharp pricing and intelligently designed floorplans, lie at the heart of Heartland’s success in the fifth wheel toy hauler business, according to Joel Eberlein, senior general manager of Heartland RV’s Landmark, Big Country, Elkridge and Road Warrior brands, and A.J. Jones, senior general manager of Cyclone, Torque, Sundance, Gateway and Terry Classic.
Traditionally, Heartland has led the industry in larger, triple-axle models (Cyclone and Road Warrior).
“However, more recently a greater emphasis has been on double-axle (Torque) fifth wheels and travel trailers,” Eberlein says. “If you look at travel trailers, we are the fastest-growing brand on the market in this segment rolling 12 months. … We take the same approach to trailers as we do fifth wheels: high quality, innovative design and better features for a great value to consumers.”
Growing Demand Prompts Expansion
Cyclone – Heartland RV’s flagship toy hauler – leads the way in several respects. Cyclone represents the shift in the toy hauler market from a no-frills toter for motorcycles and ATVs to one of the industry’s most versatile RVs.
Cyclone is Heartland’s No. 1 volume producer, which might seem odd because the lower end of an RV product lineup is usually most prominent, Jones, says, adding. “We’ve always led the high-end in fifth wheels and been very dominant in that segment.”
He says Heartland’s dedication to toy haulers is the secret behind its success.
“We pride ourselves on true R&D; we ‘research and develop,’ not ‘research and duplicate,’” says Jones, an eight-year veteran of Heartland.
Toy haulers represent an estimated 15 percent share of this billion-dollar subsidiary of Thor Industries. Heartland’s toy hauler share of the total market grew by about 5 percent in 2017, the company states, and is likely to grow again this year, thanks to a significant investment in facilities, which will allow further diversification.
Because Heartland was predominately a fifth wheel builder, it was logical to start building toy haulers in that segment.
“We didn’t have the capacity to expand in the travel trailer marketplace,” Jones explains.
“We’ve been so dominant with our big, triple-axle units and innovative floorplans, we’ve owned this market segment,” adds Eberlein. “Now, we’re diversifying with some of our travel trailers and spreading ourselves out over price points and smaller segments, like double-axle fifth wheels.”
Over the last two years, Heartland has more than doubled its capacity for fifth wheel toy hauler production on the main Heartland campus in Elkhart and repurposed a 120,000-square-foot facility in Howe, Ind., just for travel trailer toy hauler production, the two men note.
The Heartland brain trust is under constant pressure to keep their toy haulers in the forefront for its 170-member toy hauler dealer body.
“It’s not OK to be as good as the next guy,” Jones says. “Instead, it’s ‘What features and innovations can we come up with that are different from our competitors?’ You’ll see a higher standard with Heartland products. It’s always been our philosophy everything should be built to those specs.”
Plenty New for 2018
So, for 2018, Heartland continues with innovation and debuted an industry-first, side-shift bed tilt system on a king bed in Cyclone’s master bedroom. The tilt allows the head of the bed to rise, thereby creating 18 more inches of living space. Heartland also introduced multiple floorplans with fully functional outside kitchens.
“No one else is doing that,” Jones says. Heartland also continues to feature the first “slide-in-a-slide” technology on living rooms and master bedrooms that it introduced two years ago. Slide-in-slide technology adds square footage without adding any length. These “jumbo slides” are available on both double- and triple-axle models.
Heartland also introduced its Master Chef kitchens in Cyclone. Most kitchens also feature tiered countertops and offer more storage than most toy haulers, according to Jones. Cyclone kitchens are designed to be multi-functional with the most storage and countertop space in the industry.
Cyclone offers rear patio options on all models and side patios on select models.
Heartland made many of the same improvements with its Torque brand.
Meanwhile, Heartland used its experience with higher-end fivers and incorporated the needs and wants of those end users into Road Warrior with features not traditionally found in toy haulers. These include a 50-amp power cord reel, Zero G entry steps and larger Furrion oven and cooktop. Heartland also improved the TV location, placing it more ergonomically correct versus being placed up high.
Additionally, Heartland improved the kitchen cabinet layouts; created a unique look with an “infinity lighting” slide-out fascia and silver metallic painted cabinet doors; and upped the quality of the kitchen backsplash. What’s more, three floorplans offer swivel bar stools with granite-look seats that fold up for storage.
“Individually, these don’t seem significant. However, collectively consumers are wowed by the changes and realize this is not the traditional ‘toy hauler look and feel.’ There does not have to be a sacrifice on features and look in this segment,” Eberlein says.
These new features did not significantly impact Road Warrior’s retail prices, according to Eberlein.
“It’s been a segment we’ve led in the industry, so we wanted to stay in that same space. We are very conscientious where our prices land with consumers,” he says.
The response right out of the gate was rewarding. Heartland reported an all-time sales high for Road Warrior during the January Florida RV Super Show in Tampa.
Two new models in the lineup include the 396 with an unobstructed 15-foot garage, solid-surface breakfast bar and a walk-though bathroom that creates more space with a linen closet built into the bedroom slide, according to the company. The 387 is a two-axle floorplan with a 13-foot garage that incorporates Road Warrior’s best-selling kitchen design.
Quality Assurance Initiatives
As Heartland has expanded its facilities and tweaked its offerings, it also has undertaken several major steps to address quality assurance issues.
Last fall, Heartland announced a new, three-year limited structural warranty on all 2018 models, which includes toy haulers. The initial response to this initiative has been “fantastic,” says Eberlein. “This is another way we can say we stand behind our product. It’s resonated really well.”
Meanwhile, during the past year, Heartland has invested more than $4 million in creating a new PDI center for all units built in Elkhart. Up to now, the inspection rate was around 70 percent of all units.
The new facility will reduce dealer prep time and propel retail sales.
“The first manufacturer that can get product through the dealer’s service bays before and after the sale will dominate this industry,” Eberlein says. “We’re making a conscious effort to be that company.”
Changing Demographic & Product Uses
When the toy hauler segment of the RV market first emerged 30 years ago on the West Coast, it truly reflected its name: Toy hauler. Motorcycles, ATVs, canoes and kayaks were popular toys early on.
Toy hauler sizes grew as the range of toys expanded. Smaller toy haulers also appeared as the market became more specialized. Today, the name’s the same, but the toy hauler sizes are diverse, and users have spread out over a wider demographic.
Now, an estimated 30 percent of toy hauler owners don’t even carry toys. Buyers view the cargo area as a multi-functional living space or multi-purpose room, which can serve as a bunkhouse or a hobby or craft room.
The toy hauler market is challenging in part because, says Eberlein, “the products you build don’t resonate in every market. West Coast consumers are looking for different layouts and features than those in the East and Midwest. A toy hauler has different dynamics than traditional fifth wheels and trailers.
“The toy hauler market is growing, especially for fifth wheels in the $70K- plus retail price point and that is our wheel house,” he adds.
For now, Eberlein and Jones aren’t willing to reveal many details about their 2019 models, which will be unveiled during Elkhart Open House Week in September.
“We feel really good about the existing brands and their value in the market,” says Eberlein, so no new toy hauler brands will be unveiled. “We will continue to focus on diversifying them to hit more segments of the market.”
Jones goes a step further.
“I can’t get too detailed about it, but there will be a new floorplan for Cyclone that will shake up this industry,” he predicts. “It’s a different concept no one is really attacking now.”
Eberlein says Road Warrior has built a new identity in the marketplace during the last 12 months and dealers can count on more double-axle floorplans at Open House Week.
Meanwhile, new floorplans from most Heartland brands will come out this summer.
“Open House is a launching pad, but we’re always looking to improve all year long,” Eberlein says. “We always have floorplans that are pushing the market. It is interesting to look at others’ lineups and see how many other OEMs have adapted like floorplans shortly after we introduce something at Open House. … Heartland is the No. 1 manufacturer of high-end toy haulers and does it better than anyone.”