In conversation with Hermann Pfaff, who was appointed president of the ECF (European Caravan Federation) in September after being passed the baton from François Feuillet. He will have to lead the association with a firm hand to face a complex phase ahead, but also a promising one, like the current one.
Words Antonio Mazzucchelli
At the Salone del Camper di Parma 2020, we met Hermann Pfaff, who has a long history in the RV sector. Since 2014, he has been president of CIVD (Caravanning Industry Association, which brings together the German manufacturers of the RV sector), and has now also assumed the position (since September 2020) of ECF president, replacing François Feuillet. Hermann Pfaff has lived in Italy for many years when he was at the helm of the Laika brand, so speaks excellent Italian as well as English. It was a very interesting conversation with a man who, thanks to his long experience in this sector, knows the European market very well, having in mind the potential of the RV sector and the various problems that slow down its growth. But Pfaff doesn’t talk about problems: for him there are only challenges rather than problems. The Covid-19 pandemic has created havoc, but the low stock levels are a good sign for the European market in 2021.
Aboutcamp BtoB: As the new president of the ECF, could you introduce yourself to us?
Hermann Pfaff: I started my career in the caravanning industry in 1976. I had several sales roles at Hymer where I was responsible for Germany and export, then I went away from the caravan industry as I wanted to sell bigger vehicles and worked for a bus company, first as export manager then responsible for worldwide sales.
I had always had a good relationship with the Hymer family and when they bought a company in Italy, they knew I spoke a little bit of Italian, so they asked me if I wanted the job as general manager. It was a fantastic time in my life. After that, I returned to Hymer as a board member for four years, then for the last eight years I have been responsible for business development for the Erwin Hymer Group, looking for new products and new markets which involved spending a lot of time in USA and Asia. So, for the ECF I have a lot of experience and a large network in this industry. I started in manufacturing organisations in Italy, then, when i went back to Germany I joined the CIVD Board in 2011 and was first time elected as CIVD President in 2014. I was vice-president at the ECF for five years together with François Feuillet.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What is the main focus and targets for the ECF, and what do you offer the members?
Hermann Pfaff: We start by focusing on the latest technical regulations from Brussels every year. We have to see and understand what this means for our industry and see if we can lobby to make sure this works in the right direction for our industry. The other is to make sure we understand the market. As a board, we come together with the members from the big markets to discuss the market situation. A few years ago we started discussions on a marketing campaign, although this was not as easy as we thought as every country and market is different, so we are still working on this. We have suppliers with us who we also discuss compliance regulations with, but also about the markets. The members can possibly understand the market better and we have more possibilities to lobby if we do it together. Like all things in the EU, we need votes from all countries who each have to do their own lobbying.
Aboutcamp BtoB: The marketing activity is quite new, but is it working? Each country is doing its own thing and not sharing too much, so is this something that will work?
Hermann Pfaff: We knew the campaign would not be easy and we learned that all the different markets need different marketing approaches. The French, Germans and Italians all have different marketing, but what we can do, especially for smaller markets, is to give them, where possible, already existing materials and our experience of doing different campaigns, so we can help them, if they want. We tested the campaign in Holland and Belgium, which I thought went very well, but now they have to do it for themselves and they do it very well. The bigger markets like Italy, Germany and France have their own organisations and do their own marketing, but we also discuss what’s good and what’s not been so successful.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Will you continue François Feuillet’s Presidency for the future, or do you have some ideas to improve or do things a different way?
Hermann Pfaff: I am very happy that François Feuillet is still on the board as vice-president because, with all his experience and networks, he is very important for the European industry. What we are doing now is to bring the projects we have forward and the board will look for new projects for the future. All the members from the board give their input, then we decide what is good and important, and then make a list of priorities.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Are you doing some lobbying in the European parliament?
Hermann Pfaff: This is one of the main things we have to do. The driving licence weights issue is very important and will be decided in Brussels, therefore we must lobby in all the countries to bring them together to make the strongest impact we can. This is quite difficult, as in a few countries whose vote we need, they do not have any motorhome production in their country.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What are the main problems for the European caravan industry?
Hermann Pfaff: I would say there are challenges rather than problems. As you know, the biggest challenge is the issue of weights. We always have to make new products with more comfort and equipment, but we are all limited by the 3.5 tonnes limit. We have tried for many years to find a solution to get a higher weight or change the driving licence, or whatever, so will see if there is any possibility to find a solution.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How does it help if any member country takes its own path for lobbying?
Hermann Pfaff: We need every country to help. For example, only the Italians can discuss weights or driving licences with the Italian minister of transport – we can’t do it as Germans. We need the all the countries as we need their votes.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How was the Caravan Salon in Düsseldorf? How was the market and were the exhibitors satisfied?
Hermann Pfaff: The market was good and much better than we expected at the beginning of April, but it was different across Europe. In Italy we see that the market is growing, that’s the most important thing. France is OK, Germany is fantastic with incredible figures. The Caravan Salon was good with nearly 110,000 visitors and a lot of vehicles sold. The dealers were satisfied and sold a lot of vehicles and, therefore, so were the manufacturers. I think it was a very good show under these circumstances. The way it was organised was perfect. Before the show, I wasn’t sure, but when I saw what they’d done, it was really good.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Can you explain why production has decreased in 2020 so far despite the strong sales?
Hermann Pfaff: The problem was the shutdown in all countries – France, Italy, Slovenia, and Germany. That also means that, for example, in Germany, if we were able to restart production in Germany but were missing parts from the other countries we were unable to restart immediately. Also, a factory will not restart at 100% on the first day. You have to make sure everything is running well, so it is clear that we can’t have the same production figures as last year, but as the market is going so well, we have done our best in the last three months to build as much as possible.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Does that mean that stock levels have decreased?
Hermann Pfaff: In Germany, dealers do not have many display models and have sold some of these but are not delivering them until November so they still have some models in their showroom. It’s the same with used models. It’s very difficult to get hold of used models at the moment.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Do you have any figures on how stock levels have decreased in Europe?
Hermann Pfaff: I do not have the figures to hand, but it is obvious that if you have less production and more demand, there is only one possibility –stock levels will have gone down. According to the CIVD stock monitoring of the German market, we believe that unitwise we are somewhere close to the level of 2017.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Are the low stock levels a good sign for the market in Europe in 2021?
Hermann Pfaff: Yes, it is good start, as long as delivery times are not too long. In our industry, someone who wants a motorhome wants it straight away, not in six months, unless it is a large, individual model, perhaps.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Do you think main manufacturers have the capacity to increase production?
Hermann Pfaff: Yes, I think all of us do, but it was not so easy after the shutdown to bring production up to 100 percent, and now we need to increase it even more.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Are you worried about any member countries in Europe?
Hermann Pfaff: Yes, the UK. The market declined and then there is Brexit, so we don’t really know what the situation will be there for the European manufacturers for the future. It’s also not easy for the UK manufacturers as they buy a lot of components from Europe and we don’t know if they’ll have to pay tax, etc. It’s very uncertain for everyone.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Can you explain why the market in Germany is booming so much?
Hermann Pfaff: The market in Germany was booming even before the Covid pandemic. We’ve had a very strong market especially for the last three years. I think caravanning was seen as just a cheap holiday a few years ago, but it is completely different now. We have had a marketing campaign on TV in Germany for the last eight years or so, which has helped to make caravanning a cool holiday. People want more and more individual journeys, which will be even more so in the future after Covid. They want to be more spontaneous and not have to make bookings half a year ahead – they want to decide to go away for this weekend and go. We are also getting younger people who want to have caravan holidays. A few years ago we’d say they were 60+ and now we say 55+ and now even younger people who want holidays in a caravan or camper.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Do you think the trend towards campervans (which are easier/cheaper to produce) could be a problem for manufacturers who have invested lots of money in designing and building traditional coachbuilt and integrated models?
Hermann Pfaff: This is always a risk. In Germany, we have had a big increase in the whole market, but the biggest sector that’s proved most popular has been for the panel van campervans; however, sales of integrated and semi-integrated models have also increased compared to previous years, although not by as much as the panel vans, but they’ve still increased. We’ve seen car manufacturers like Mercedes and Volkswagen in the campervan market but their share is not increasing more than the market itself. There have been about 130,000 camper registrations in Europe, and approximately 40% of these (50.000 vehicles) comprise the van market.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Caravan sales seem to be decreasing almost everywhere, so what do you think is the future for the caravan?
Hermann Pfaff: In Germany, we have had good sales figures for caravans again. Our caravan market recovered because young families have chosen caravan holidays again. This year we will have a little bit less caravans sold, but otherwise the last few years have been good; however, in England, there was a big decrease for caravans, but they had the longest shutdown during the lockdown, so we will see what happens in the next few months and if they recover. Italy was always a smaller caravan market, and still is. France is a special caravan market. Holland is a market that has recovered and we will see if it comes back to the numbers it had in the mid 1970’s and beginning of the 1980’s. For the whole of Europe, I think we will stay on the current level (of caravan sales) for the next few years, plus or minus three to five percent. We also have to do something and make some changes. There are a few ideas and things which are being tested with big suppliers, so we will see what happens. I think there will be some new things in the next few years.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How do you see the total market in the next five years?
Hermann Pfaff: With all my experience, I have seen a lot of ups and downs in this industry, but I think we are really on a level where motorhomes are still increasing in the next five years. Maybe not at the level we’ve seen in Germany (23-24%) but if the full market increased between three to 10 percent, it will be very good or if it stays at this level it will also be good. I think it will be increasing. I can’t see any big things indicating that people don’t want them, unless there is a big recession, but I can’t see that happening.