Credit crisis, economy hit RV industry

LOUISVILLE — Under the gloom of plunging motor home sales and with travel trailers stacking up on lots, recreational-vehicle makers and dealers at their national trade show this week tried to lift their spirits by joining in song.

"You gotta have heart," they sang at the kickoff breakfast, trying to stay resilient in an industry that's hit a big speed bump. The swooning economy and a credit crisis that makes it tougher to finance a six-figure purchase are keeping potential RV buyers off the road.

"These are ugly times," said Richard Coon, president of the Virginia-based Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. "I've seen lots of downtrodden faces, and for good reason."

RV companies showcased their newest models at the industry event Tuesday through Thursday, including hybrids and slimmed-down motor homes touted as more energy-friendly. Now the trick is to lure skittish customers to dealers' lots.

Through October, shipments from RV companies to dealers for the year fell 27 percent from the comparable period in 2007, according to the RVIA. The downturn is expected to stretch into 2009, when shipments are forecast at 186,800 units, about 25 percent lower than this year's projected total of 248,000, according to the association, citing statistics from the University of Michigan.

At the height of the industry's upturn this decade, shipments totaled 390,500 units in 2006.

Tom Stewart, a retired oil company employee who heads an RV owners club outside Seattle, said the club's members are taking shorter trips and looking for ways to save money.

"We're doing a lot more inexpensive overnighters, looking at the free RV parking," he said. "If we're en route to a stop, rather than pull in to an RV park with full hookups and pay $25, $30 a night, we have lots of casinos out here that welcome RVs, and we'll use those."