Going To An RV Trade Show Was An Adventure More Fun Than An Auto Show

Rvoverload

I’ve been spending the past couple of days out in Elkhart, Indiana, mingling with RV makers, dealers, and suppliers in a massive trade show. I have so many stories to tell you over the coming days, but as I’m about to head home, I want to reflect on just how fun this whole thing was. Playing with RVs for a couple of days has been even more fun than going to an auto show.

I had no idea what to expect when I started driving towards the RV Open House. Now 55 years old, the Open House is a show meant for dealerships. At the Open House, the nation’s largest RV manufacturers all roll out their best campers for dealerships to explore and play with. And the big guys aren’t alone, as they’re joined by small and independent companies also trotting out their best. The goal? Get those dealers to buy those campers so they can sell them to people like you and me.

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Until now, I’ve only been to shows that eventually become open to the public like the Chicago Auto Show or the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. And of course, this year I went to the humongous and amazing EAA AirVenture Oshkosh fly-in.

But I haven’t been to an RV show. So this is new. I left home with a gameplan to work it like an auto show, visiting each brand, collecting information and pictures along the way.

One huge difference between this RV show and a car show is scale. At Detroit, I found under 200 cars, and many of them were the same car, but in different colors. When I took the pictures for Jason’s article on the average car face, I was able to knock that out less than a workday, exploring a single floor of a convention center.

It’s a similar deal in Chicago, America’s largest auto show. You can knock it out in less than a day and not miss anything. But this show? It was something very different.

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Elkhart RV Dealer Show

The RV Open house is known to pull in some 500 or more camping units. And they aren’t all in one place, but scattered all over Elkhart. Thor Industries and Forest River are the two largest conglomerates at the show. Some complications with the latter meant that I was not able to get a credential.

However, I did get into Thor Industries’ display, and quickly learned that my gameplan was going to take far longer than expected.

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Thor has a huge number of brands under its umbrella from Airstream to Jayco and Dutchmen. It took me over an hour just to make it a good distance from Thor’s entrance.

I spent Monday and some of Tuesday in Thor’s goliath display, but I also made sure to do a full sweep of the small brands and independents, as well as other giant brands like Winnebago.

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At the show, I learned a lot about the current state of the RV industry. I talked with a number of dealerships about falling RV quality, I talked with suppliers about innovations in RVs, and I even found an owner or a few looking for a new rig.

What I learned is that the stories about dealerships complaining about abhorrent RV quality are true. More than one dealership was there not just to find the latest and greatest RVs to sell to you, but what RVs that dealers shouldn’t sell to you because the campers couldn’t even make it down the street from the factory to the trade show without problems.

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This awning was screwed on with chaos, more on that later…

I also learned that a lot of manufacturers are really selling more or less the same thing, but with ever so slight differences in colors, features, and build quality. If I removed the brand names from many trailers, you wouldn’t be able to tell who actually made them.

And that leads into the next thing: innovation. I toured countless campers and coaches from more brand names than I can even remember. I loved every single one of them. But something that I noticed is that most of the campers weren’t rocking the boat with tech or layouts. At its core, a Jayco Jay Flight isn’t much different than a Keystone Passport.

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You might see a camper with a deployable party deck, or one with a slide that runs nearly the whole length of the unit, but nothing that really changes the game. This feeling was echoed by the dealerships and a supplier that I talked with.

That’s part of what makes the Airstream eStream so nice. When campers are so similar, the eStream stands out for doing something so radical and different. The dealerships certainly agreed.

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And Airstream isn’t alone. The independent brands are where experimentation is alive and well.

Taxa Outdoors was at the show with its durable, insect-themed off-road trailers. I camped in a Taxa Mantis Overland earlier this year and was joyed by how simple it was.

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Taxa’s trailers have few parts to break, and it seems that they could be repaired with a hammer and a screwdriver if you did manage to break it.

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My favorite feature of a Taxa is how they basically explode open to make the trailer a part of the outdoors. No other camper seems to do that nearly as well. Not even its direct competition.

Also in the indy campers is Mission Overland. This is a company competing with Taxa, featuring a President that used to work for Taxa. It’s no surprise that the two are similar.

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However, Mission Overland has an interesting approach to the same formula. This company does away with the milk crate storage of the Taxa units for metal bins, and its shower is separate from your cooking space, which is outside.

Taxa’s founder loves insects and looking weird, but Mission Overland’s president tells me that one of his goals was to make campers with tons of sex appeal. So his campers look like they could be habitats on the Moon.

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Both companies have a philosophy that off-road campers should be light, and not take you out of the outdoors. I plan to compare both of these brands side-by-side because honestly, both of them are pretty awesome to me.

Speaking of off-roading and campers, Black Series also made an appearance. These units follow the opposite philosophy as Taxa and Mission Overland, and they’re basically luxury apartments that you’re supposed to drag behind a big truck as you go off-grid.

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Black Series is big on off-road style and gear. These trailers have diamond plating galore with protective brush guards and D-rings for off-road recovery. Look underneath and you’ll see skid plates and instead of axles, the wheels are connected to thick control arms with shocks and springs.

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To put the girth of these things into comparison, Taxa’s biggest offering, the 19-foot Mantis Overland, weighs 3,486 pounds, less than some of the tow vehicles that I’ve seen hauling them. Black Series? Its 26-foot HQ21 comes in at a whopping 7,187 pounds.

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Its smallest, the HQ12, is 19 feet like the Taxa, but still weighs a thousand pounds more.

If you aren’t into off-roading and want something small and different, Little Guy Trailers made a showing with a teardrop that weighs around 1,960 pounds.

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And if that’s still too much weight, the company also has the little MyPod, which comes in at 840 pounds. A couple told me that they have one and tow it behind a Boss Hoss V8 trike.

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And really, all of this was just the tip of the iceberg. This show has something for everyone, from budget trailers to massive multi-million dollar palaces on wheels. And unlike a car show, you’re welcome to touch and examine just about everything. And of course, visit the RV Hall of Fame!

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Perhaps the biggest twist was how the manufacturers kept dealerships around. Bigger marques kept a steady flow of delicious food cooking alongside somehow bottomless alcohol. Thor even got some cooks from down south to give visiting dealerships some fantastic barbeque.

And yet, that wasn’t even the wildest part. Last night, Thor pulled out country group Florida Georgia Line for a concert, where at the end, rapper Nelly made an appearance for a song.

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Taken by a crappy tablet after my phone died…

As I said before, this event wasn’t really for the public (though many people found their way in) or the media, but for dealerships. So it seems that country music in the rain and endless booze are supposed to convince dealers to sell some Thor campers. I wonder how well it works.

I think that these shows will continue to have a place while the auto shows struggle. Sure, there’s not much that you can get from seeing a car in person that you already don’t get from seeing it on the internet, but it seems the inverse is true with the RV. With a camper, you don’t realize how well it’ll work with you until you step in and lay on the bed, touch the trimmings, or stuff yourself into the shower. And that makes these things interactive and fun.

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As I wrap this blog up and get ready to go home, I wish I had just a little more time. I didn’t even get to see anything at Forest River and I’d love to continue chatting with dealerships and suppliers. I’m leaving the Open House having learned a lot and having had a lot of fun.

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32 Responses

  1. RV shows are a lot of fun. Even though I have a trailer that I love, I still enjoy seeing what new stuff they come up with. Nothing has remotely convinced me to replace mine, in fact these shows have mostly convinced me I need to hold onto it for as long as humanly possible because they don’t make anything like it anymore, but it’s still fun to wander around different RVs and imagine what they’d be like to camp in.

  2. The entire industry is doomed to fail, and soon. Airstream wants $100k over the price of a base Mercedes Sprinter to build it into a motorhome. The low end of “luxury” models is half a mil, and the build quality is absolutely atrocious. I think it’s an untenable situation. Who’s going to pay half a mil plus for something that will fall apart and be worth $25k in 5 years?

    1. “Who’s going to pay half a mil plus for something that will fall apart and be worth $25k in 5 years?”

      Someone who doesn’t expect to be alive in 5 years and wants their inheritors to wail at the funeral.

    2. Well not everything is half a million…but I agree that prices are silly.
      Saw a bumper pull camper on the road the other day. Probably 30 or so feet long
      Looked like all the others with a generic name.
      Had dealer markings on a side window with the price..$49,900.
      Wow. That guy bought it but I sure wouldn’t.
      I can’t imagine what that Airstream EV Mercedes wrote about yesterday will go for.

      1. I don’t know if this is still true in the current market, but pre-pandemic RV MSRPs (at least on towables) were always 30-40% higher than what they actually sold for. A 30 foot trailer for $30k isn’t outrageous.

      2. Prices/values are definitely going to crap but campers are sold on the same principle as mattresses. Advertise never before seen or to be had again sales that seem to happen every week or miscellaneous holiday.

  3. What I want to know is why they all have the same basic themed paint job. White with some sort of little swoosh or striping. Most popular seems to be brown.

    Why can we not get trailers with cool colors as the base. Maybe a yellow base or blue or something other than white. I few small trailers are like that, but when you get into the RVs and bigger 5th wheels and tow behinds, they all begin to look similar.

    1. Winnebago used to do a bunch of high gloss colors on their trailers in the later 2010s… and then went back to white. There were 2 main problems they found:
      1. With colors comes preferences. Same as cars but amplified – dealers can’t stock every color and combination, and the more it’s a real color the harder it is to sell to someone who doesn’t like it. I may love an orange camper to match my orange truck, but if I have a grey truck I might want the grey one and go somewhere else that has it. With the tiny volume campers sell relative to the number of floorplans they have, it probably was a big problem
      2. Shiny paint requires upkeep that people don’t do. If you ignore cleaning & waxing your camper for years and it’s white, you might get sticker fade but the clearcoat fade isn’t noticeable. Conversely with the Winnebagos if you didn’t wax and polish them every year the reds and blues became pink and light blue (like infant clothes color lite). When they fade so bad they are hard to resell, and people don’t put in the work to keep them looking nice.

      The swoopy decals? Yeah, I don’t get that either. But I have seen where people take them all off and that doesn’t look right either (just look at a plain white cargo trailer).

      1. This is actually a very good article. The interview at the end is particularly enlightening, they got a director from one of the manufacturers to go on record saying they hate the trend too and are trying to change it slowly. Why? It boils down to:
        1) Someone started doing this 20 years go and everyone jumped in the bandwagon
        2) Companies are scared to change and lose sales to competition
        3) (Not surprising and most telling of all) the userbase is deeply conservative – and this extends to design too. Regardless of political connotations, those customers *hate* change.

        1. It’s all stuff you learned at least in high school English classes. What drives me crazy is the inappropriate use of “myself.” When someone says something to the effect of “Jerry gave Joe and myself a new calculator” it drives me straight up the wall. There’s an aversion to using “me” because sometimes it doesn’t sound right.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out! I generally read through a couple of times to check for errors, yet I still missed that one. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I wrote the whole article on an 8-inch screen. Still, thank you! 🙂

  4. What I’m curious about is who makes all the nuts, bolts, trim, hinges and other hardware that seems to be found only in RVs. Most RVs look they are made from the same parts no matter who makes them.

  5. Oh man, the screws holding that awning on are the same self-drilling tech screws I use at work to attach cable straps to extruded aluminum rail. They’re perfectly appropriate in that application. In the photo here though, you can see them already tearing through the sheetmetal. Insane.

  6. I have a real love/hate relationship with RV’s. I like the concept but I have flashbacks to traveling in a friend’s years back, thundering along up the mountain (literally cause of the engine being RIGHT THERE in the console) struggling to go 35 mph and getting 4 mpg while doing it. Oh, and then being like #43 in the wagon train of RV’s entering the park that day. It was okay once we got parked and stopped quivering… part of which was because my friend declined my offer to pay the hook-up fees at the camper park. Whew! I will say it was pretty comfy in a tiny-house sort of way during our couple days there, and it was a nice neighborhood; a sort of wandering-wheeled-Suburbia. And just when I’m about to make up my mind, you show me that 1937 Hunt Housecar….damn. Hmmm, a modernized one of those…??

    I am much better about trailers, but only Airstreams, really. They’re quality pieces of kit. And (I know I’ll be reproached for starting a sentence with ‘and’ but so be it) I think the electric power boost is brilliant! That really changes towing a trailer. I also like modern design of the Manta and its kin. One of those behind a pickup with a couple of street legal dirt bikes in the bed could make for a pretty nice mountain/beach vacation…

    So… maybe?

  7. Oh man, Elkhart, Indiana. I had a summer job in Goshen *mumble mumble* years ago, and the people up there are all crazy. For one thing, you NEVER knew what time it was two towns over, because between Michigan being so close, and towns to the west being on central time, and different rules about daylight savings time, it was impossible to keep track for someone not from there. I was doing service calls in a company van and I’d always have to doublecheck where the work order was for, because I don’t know how many times I ended up being an hour early or an hour late. All of the industry up there is either RVs or musical instruments, basically – CONN Instruments is based up there, too. Your high school band trumpet probably came from Elkhart.

    Also, I have never met so many Notre Dame fans who went to a different college. Like half the Irish fans I met up there went to Ball State or IUPUI or Bethel or Butler or some other school.

    Fun fact: they also build a ton of modular homes up there, which got started because of all of the RV construction experience. That’s why so many early doublewides had such janky appliances/heating/cooling/plumbing systems – they were all RV based, instead of home-construction based.

  8. We have a 92 Winnebago and the build quality compared to new units is amazing. We went to a local dealer and saw doors with the knobs an inch different in height, screws missing structure and cracked welds on frames, on new RVs. These are built fast and shoddily, there are a few videos floating around showing factory tours from a few years back and the things you see are appalling. I worked in a dealer finance arm and did a few tradeshows, one manufacturer was extolling the virtues of their particleboard and 2×2 construction, I laughed and said I wouldn’t mention that let alone brag

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