RV Industry Keeps Elkhart Rolling

Used by everyone from Seattle sightseers to snowbirds in the Florida Keys, there are few more ubiquitous elements to American vacation spots than RVs. But as far and wide as you find these vehicles, it may be surprising to learn that the vast majority come from the same place: Elkhart, Indiana—the RV Capital of the World.

That title is no understatement. Eighty-three percent of the RVs shipped each year are manufactured in and around the 50,000-resident city of Elkhart, attracting a large chunk of a $9 billion industry. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this local economy is that it is made up of not a handful of large manufacturers, but 61 separate middle-market companies.

“When you look at the companies in the Elkhart area, you can really understand the importance of the middle market,” says Tim Hyland, president of the RV Group at GE Capital, Commercial Distribution Finance. “The RV industry accounts for about a quarter of all employment in Elkhart.”

An Employment Generator

Bob Parish, VP of National Accounts for GE, has been coming to Elkhart regularly for 31 years to work with RV manufacturers. During that time, he’s watched RV-related businesses gravitate toward Elkhart, expanding the city’s economy along the way.

“This is like building a home,” Parish says of RV manufacturing. “In addition [to the manufacturers], you have transport companies, you have suppliers who bring everything in, from steel and fiberglass and wood and tile. With this middle market RV industry, you probably bring in 300 and some additional suppliers into the marketplace.”
That means the ripple effect translates into more and more jobs. “It’s a very strong market feeder,” says Parish.

A Changing Industry

Like so many other industries around the country, the RV industry was impacted by the recent economic downturn. But that trend didn’t stick, because the RV manufacturers—and consumers—wouldn’t let it.
“What we’ve seen is the RV industry has come together and created a marketing campaign called ‘Go RVing,’” says Hyland. “They’ve come together to really highlight the RV lifestyle, and have gotten people to connect to the RV lifestyle.”

The national Go RVing campaign is coordinating with the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association to make consumers aware of the broad range of RVs available at various price points, from cheaper towable options to more expensive motorized vehicles.

“One thing that is resilient about the RV industry is the fact that it’s a lifestyle,” says Parish. “Consumers are committed to that lifestyle. We’ve always managed to build RVs.”

A Bright Future for RVs – and Elkhart

With the economy on the upswing, RVs should be built for many years to come.
“Since the economic crisis there has been an uptick in the economy,” says Hyland, “and in turn, an uptick in the RV industry.”

That’s exactly what the Elkhart Truth recently reported. According to the local publication, Elkhart County’s economy showed significant growth in 2011, and that trend is expected to continue when 2012 figures are released. If the growth in the RV industry has anything to do with it, those expectations should be met. Hyland reports that in first quarter, towable RV sales have risen 13 percent, and motorized RV sales have grown by 15 percent.
“Our optimism continues,” says Hyland.

With such a concentration of RV manufacturers and related businesses so close together in Elkhart, the area’s identity as the RV Capital of the World has certainly attracted economic growth. And thanks to those middle market companies’ ability to come together and collaborate to combat an economic downturn with an innovative marketing campaign, the industry is back on track to keep the economy of Elkhart growing and vacationers around the country moving along to their next exciting destination.

Photo: ThinkStock