The president of the US RV Industry Association speaks with Aboutcamp BtoB about new buyers entering the US market, the current RV inventory pipeline and thoughts on extended supply chains.
Words Craig Ritchie
Craig Kirby had big shoes to fill when he assumed the role of president at the RV Industry Association (RVIA) in October of 2019. Following in the steps of the widely-respected Frank Hugelmeyer, who stepped down as RVIA president in order to pursue new opportunities in the boating sector, Kirby wasted no time in putting his own mark on the national trade organisation that represents the US RV industry and, arguably, the world’s largest RV economy.
A 25-year RV industry veteran, prior to taking over as president Kirby served as the RVIA’s senior vice president of government relations and general counsel – a high-pressure post from which he led federal and state government relations, oversaw legal and industry standards, and contributed deeply to the organization’s international business teams. It’s experience that has positioned him well to guide RVIA – and by extension, the US RV industry – through the global upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The US industry hasn’t just survived the effects of the coronavirus, it has succeeded in capitalising on a unique opportunity to capture new market share and attract massive numbers of first-time buyers. Aboutcamp BtoB recently spoke with Kirby about what has worked for the industry through this upheaval, and what the US market might look like in the months ahead.
Aboutcamp BtoB: RV wholesale shipments for 2020 are expected to exceed 400,000 units in the US. How much of that growth would be attributed to consumer response to the pandemic, as opposed to the arrival of a huge cohort of new buyers as millennials reach a point in life where they have more disposable income?
Craig Kirby: We’re expected to finish the year at around the low 420,000-range for wholesale shipments. And at the beginning of the year, I think on the high end, we were right around that number as well. If you just looked at the numbers, it looks like a typical year. But what has happened in between is just remarkable in the way that the industry has overcome enormous challenges presented by the pandemic.
The number of first-time buyers has absolutely skyrocketed this year. I would say that we’re seeing anywhere from 55% to 70% of RV purchases being made by first-time buyers. It’s just a huge number. We conducted a consumer survey and we found that more than 46 million Americans plan to go on a RV vacation within the next 12 months. Our country’s population is 330 million, so that is an enormous proportion.
There’s no question that the pandemic has driven some of that, as people can no longer travel overseas or go for a cruise. RV buyers can vacation with the ability to control their environment. They don’t have to stay in a hotel or eat in a restaurant, they don’t have to use public restrooms. And so it’s a safe environment and, of course, it’s just a lot of fun. So obviously the pandemic has driven a lot of people to look at RVs. But there are also a lot of young families buying RVs, so there’s more to it than just that.
Aboutcamp BtoB: We’re being told that the first-time buyers aren’t starting out by purchasing entry-level product, and are increasingly buying more content-rich units. What is your thought on that?
Craig Kirby: Part of the problem right now is there has been a shortage of inventory. In many parts of the country, people were just buying whatever they could get. So it’s hard to get a truly accurate read on consumer trends in that kind of a market. People are buying units at the basic level, or with advanced features, because in many cases those are the only units they can get. But other buyers who have more options are still choosing units with more bells and whistles, and maybe a little larger in size.
Overall, what we are seeing is that fifth-wheels are up this year, and what’s really up are van campers. Year over year, van campers are up by 48%.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How does the industry look right now in terms of an inventory pipeline?
Craig Kirby: Inventory is low right now, there’s no doubt about it. The demand has just been so strong, and manufacturers and suppliers have struggled to meet that demand. They’ve gone from a complete shutdown to getting quickly started back up again while making sure everybody is safe and compliant with all the guidelines. That is an enormous thing to ask, and there’s no question that the industry is still experiencing some pandemic-related supply chain issues. At the same time, sales have been very strong, so that hot market has made it even harder for everyone to keep up.
Compounding that further, there’s been a bit of a labour shortage in some areas, and that has represented an additional challenge. Not everyone has come back to work, some people have chosen not to, perhaps they’re just not comfortable with the environment. Because the industry is just booming right now, we can’t fill all the job vacancies and that has contributed to pipeline challenges.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Has this year’s rapid resurgence of the market led to increased quality control concerns? There have been a number of reports of consumers encountering difficulties with their new units?
Craig Kirby: I think what isn’t being reported is that because the majority of these purchases are being made by first-time buyers, the real issue is that these new RVers are simply not as familiar with the product as we would normally expect to see.
Through Go RVing we have produced a number of instructional videos for first-time buyers to help make different processes easier for them to understand. A number of the RV manufacturers have also developed their own instructional videos to address the same problems, and help educate the consumer on how to operate their unit. That has helped address some of the problems because, like I mentioned, there are an unusually high number of first-timers out there.
Campgrounds are also going out of their way to help first-time campers get set up in campgrounds, show them how to level their unit, empty their tanks, and just work together with them to ensure that the consumer has an excellent experience, so that we can keep them in an RV over the long-term.
I’m honestly not aware of any actual increase in warranty claims. But what I can tell you is that one thing we’re all focused on is repair event cycle time, which is the amount of time that it takes to have a repair completed. That is one area that we do want to improve on. We’re working very closely with our dealer partners to shorten the repair time.
Aboutcamp BtoB: RVIA’s projections call for continued growth in 2021, with a forecast of shipping more than 500,000 units. The last time we saw more than 500,000 units ship was 2017, and that lead to congestion in the inventory pipeline. How is it different now?
Craig Kirby: The key factor to consider is that the current pipeline is very lean, and that we have very low inventory right now. Even if there were no sales tomorrow, the dealers would still need to buy a lot of units just to restock their lots. And, we now have all these first time-buyers continuing to come into the market.
We need to make sure that if they experience a service issue, that that’s repaired in a timely manner. And we need to make sure that they have adequate campgrounds available. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re so excited this year that the Great American Outdoors Act was passed into law by the federal government. That legislation is going to funnel billions of dollars into national parks and state parks, to help modernize and enhance and expand their campground facilities amongst other things. It’s the biggest investment in parks in more than six decades, so it’s truly a big deal.
That initiative will also drive interest in the outdoors. So in view of where we are now, and in view of what the future looks like, I don’t feel a forecast of shipping 500,000 units in 2021 is unreasonable at all.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Is there a worry of not being able to meet that sales objective if more winter RV shows are cancelled due to the pandemic?
Craig Kirby: I empathize with the show organisers who have had to cancel their events. We had to cancel our event too. It’s an important part of the industry and it provides funding to the associations, so that was disheartening.
I think that because demand for RVs is so high this year, and because we already can’t keep up with consumer demand, I don’t see the show closures as having as much of an impact as they might have otherwise. Dealers are also short on inventory right now, so some of them might not have enough inventory to display at an RV show.
There’s no question that RV shows are very important, and particularly when it comes to reaching new buyers. Right now, luckily, those buyers are there, so for the moment we can get by.
Aboutcamp BtoB: As we prepare to enter a new year, is there anything you’re keeping an eye on right now?
Craig Kirby: Well the obvious one is that we’re still going through this pandemic, and I think there’s always the potential that we could be shut down again, possibly for an extended period of time.
I think that still is the biggest threat, by far. And as a global pandemic, that is a real threat in the US, in Europe, in Australia, and everywhere else. This is unprecedented and every day the story evolves. So the industry will continue to make smart decision, operate safely and be ready when this pandemic is finally over.