10 August 2020
10 August 2020, Comments Comments Off on RVing in Canada
RVing in Canada

Focus on the Canadian RV market

With a stable domestic market and a healthy export business built upon multiple free trade agreements, the Canadian RV industry has been a global bright spot. As the country emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, manufacturers there look to grow even stronger.

Words Craig Ritchie

With a stable domestic market and a healthy export business built upon multiple free trade agreements, the Canadian RV industry has been a global bright spot. As the country emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, manufacturers there look to grow even stronger.

It was all going so well. Sales were solid, RV shows were well attended, interest rates remained low and the cost of fuel was minimal. The currency exchange against the US dollar had settled into a sweet spot for both import and export trade and, most importantly, consumer interest in going RVing was growing exponentially. By the end of February 2020, the Canadian RV industry was flying high. Then not even two weeks later it all came crashing to a halt as the country went into Covid-19 lockdown.


By mid-March Canada’s handful of isolated coronavirus infections had exploded to the point where most of the country was under a state of emergency, with new travel restrictions, aggressive social distancing measures and all non-essential businesses closed by government order.

While the directives worked from a healthcare perspective – Canada quickly flattened its infection curve, with most regions peaking by late April – the economic impact has been enormous. By late April the federal government had committed nearly C$300 billion in support of Canadian businesses and announced first steps toward to re-opening the economy, leaving RV manufacturers, dealers and parts and accessory manufacturers with hope, but an unclear path forward. “The saving grace in all of this is that the reasons for consumers to buy an RV haven’t changed, they’ve only grown stronger,” says Canadian RV Association (CRVA) president, Shane Devenish. “The buyers have been confined to their homes for the last couple of months, so we expect that when restrictions are relaxed many people will want to get away and be outside. I don’t think they’ll have much appetite for taking a flight or going on a cruise in the near future, so it’s quite possible we will see a bit of a sales surge later in the year.”

The domestic RV market

The RV industry is big business in Canada, averaging approximately C$3.4 billion in retail sales each year. Post-purchase expenditures contribute another $1.7 billion or so to the Canadian economy, in the form of value-add costs like insurance, storage and fees. Tourism spending associated with the use of RVs exceeds $3.3 billion each year, with Canadians taking an average of 8.8 million trips per year according to the Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association of Canada (RVDA Canada). The organisation’s 2018 Economic Impact Of The Canadian RV Industry pegs total consumer spending on RVing at over $6.1 billion every year, generating $1.9 billion in tax revenue, $4.2 billion in labour income and supporting more than 66,000 jobs.

In spite of lower wholesale shipments over the past 18 months, RV retail sales in Canada have remained brisk. “Over the last two quarters of 2018 and through all of 2019 dealerships were busy clearing their lots, there was just too much inventory in the pipeline,” says Devenish. “That’s the reason manufacturers were shipping less product. People see the shipments were down by 32 percent and think oh, that doesn’t sound very good, but in reality the dealers were selling a lot of product and doing quite well, and right across Canada.”

Prior to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, retail sales in Canada had been very good indeed. The consensus among dealers suggests that while sales coming into March of this year remained slightly behind 2019 numbers, they were clearly gaining pace. “January was a little bit soft and I think part of that was weather-related, as we had a number of major RV shows in different parts of the country that were impacted by winter storms,” says RVDA Canada president, Eleonore Hamm. “But the rest of the shows did really well – at least until we came to March, when things got scary and they started to be cancelled. The Canadian RV industry had ended the 2019 season down 13.1 percent compared to the previous year, but the dealers were optimistic that 2020 was going to be a rebound year and they were going to move a lot of inventory. Everything was certainly pointing that way, sales were clearly picking up.”

Increasingly, those sales were being made to first-time buyers. According to RVDA Canada and CRVA data, an estimated 2.1 million Canadian households – or around 15 percent of the national total – already own an RV. New buyers to the market are, in many cases, new to RV camping altogether. “It’s not just the baby boomers any more, millennials now represent one of the largest buying segments in Canada,” says Hamm. “And they’re not using the RV just to go camping. They use it to go fishing, or rock climbing, or to attend concerts or do other activities just for the day. The industry’s consumer messaging has been about enjoying experiences, and these buyers have extended the definition of that.”

What is particularly surprising with so many first-time buyers in the mix is that Canadian RV sales through March have been trending upward not only in unit numbers, but in dollars as well with a clear increase in average retail prices. Where first-time buyers have historically purchased entry-level units, that is not the case anymore as young families place a premium on upscale features and in particular, electronic amenities.


That said, baby boomers remain the largest consumer group overall, with most now putting a premium on comfort and high-end finishes. “We were seeing very strong sales all across Canada and in the US prior to the arrival of Covid-19,” says Keith Donkin, president of Kelowna, British Columbia-based truck camper and travel trailer manufacturer Northern Lite. “Most of our buyers are still the baby boomers who want high-end everything, and that has been reflected in our sales. But I’m sure we’ll see more millennials moving forward because they also place a high value on quality and premium amenities.”

Donkin notes that while the truck camper market has continued to grow steadily across Canada, Northern Lite has recently expanded its product line with a re-launch of a travel trailer product – seen as being more appealing to young families with children, and offering greater comfort to aging boomers. The first SKU to be offered will be its new-from-the-wheels-up Boreal 23FB. Featuring an edgy, futuristic design, the 23-foot fibreglass travel trailer sleeps four and features the latest in high-tech appointments, including a pair of 100-watt solar panels. “We’ve had a lot of interest in the trailer line from both dealers and consumers,” he says. “It’s been in development for the last year-and-a-half and is a one-piece, four-season travel trailer which is absolutely seamless, which is an industry first. We anticipate they should begin arriving on our dealer lots by late summer.”

Also launching a new travel trailer line this year is Hensall, Ontario-based trailer manufacturer General Coach. President Roger Faulkner believes that the large-scale market consolidation taking place among US trailer manufacturers has created opportunities for more nimble Canadian builders, which can generate rewarding profits with products built in more modest volumes. “As a manufacturer you have to find an empty room,” he says. “There’s no sense in trying to go head-on against huge competitors that have massive resources, and trying to beat them at their own game. You won’t win. So we’re building products that no one else is even looking at.”

The company’s new Citation Reward trailer line is described as “a very high-end, very expensive smaller trailer” that will appeal equally to affluent baby boomers and upwardly-mobile millennials. “We were just about to launch it into the market when the Covid-19 pandemic hit,” says Faulkner. “So for now we’re holding it back until things improve, but we’re absolutely going forward as soon as we can. We have 10 dealers in Canada at this point and we’re looking forward to bringing this to market.”

A return to manufacturing travel trailers is a natural progression for General Coach, says Faulkner. Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, the company is best known for its park model units, although the firm has also gained extensive experience over the past 15 years crafting custom trailers for the motion picture industry in Canada, the US and Europe. “The theatrical trailers provide a place where the cast and production crews can prepare for a shoot, or go between takes to unwind and relax,” he says. “The movie industry has been growing exponentially, and it’s been a good business for us. We have an experienced team applying the knowledge they’ve gained serving that market to our new Citation Reward line, and we’re looking forward to the official launch later this year.”

Free trade
The manufacture of RVs in Canada represents at least $470 million in economic impact each year according to RVDA Canada and the CRVA, with 80 percent of the product exported to foreign buyers – the vast majority of them located in the US.

The great irony is that in the face of that massive export business, approximately 95 percent of the RVs sold at retail in Canada are imported from manufacturers based in the US. “Canada has a strong manufacturer base for Class B motorhomes, truck campers and park models, in particular,” explains RVDA Canada’s Eleonore Hamm. “But travel trailers and fifth wheels are still the largest segment of the industry, and there are very few domestic manufacturers in Canada producing those. So the product we’re exporting is quite different from the product that we import.”

Beyond the varied product mix, there is also the matter of dealer proximity. Canada’s vast geography and comparatively sparse population have typically seen domestic manufacturers do well in their own region, but face steeper competition in more distant markets where they come head-to-head with US-based competitors that may actually be located physically closer to local dealerships, in spite of being situated on the other side of an international border. In some cases, simple proximity allows an American manufacturer to better serve dealers in a given region than a Canadian builder can. This curious arrangement stems from the near-total integration of the Canadian and US economies following more than 30 years of free trade.

Canada has enjoyed free trade agreements with the US since the implementation of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement in 1987. This accord was expanded to include Mexico in 1994 with the signing of the North America Free Trade Agreement, and replaced again with the new US-Mexico-Canada Agreement in March of this year. While lost in the tsunami of Covid-19 news coverage as it happened, the ratification of this latest trade agreement by Canada marked an important step for the RV industry, by providing investors with greater fiscal clarity and manufacturers with much-needed stability in both their supply and distribution channels moving forward – including a measure of tariff relief.

Thanks to decades of free trade, supply chains and distribution chains in North America are today fully integrated, a situation that results in many parts and accessories crossing the border multiple times before they’re finally sold to an end-user. Bauxite mined in Canada, for example, is often refined by smelters located in the US, which may in turn sell the raw aluminium plates back to an RV builder in Canada. In many cases, the RV manufacturer then uses that raw aluminium in a camper, which is subsequently sold to a dealer in the US. This extensive cross-border movement of material has become commonplace, making the importance of a free-trade agreements absolutely paramount. Adding further material shipments to and from Mexico only underscores how complex North American supply and distribution chains have become.

Besides the US and Mexico, Canada enjoys free trade agreements with 22 other nations and now, with the EU through the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) signed in 2014. The country’s open trade policy has greatly benefitted Canadian manufacturers, who leverage a favourable exchange rate against the US dollar in order to enjoy a unique competitive advantage – the ability to sell their products worldwide on the basis of both quality and price at the same time.

Canadian RV manufacturers

General Coach Canada

Established in 1950, General Coach Canada is a family-owned manufacturer of premium park models, with an all-new travel trailer line debuting this year. With more than 220 employees, General Coach is among Canada’s largest RV manufacturers. The company also builds trailers for commercial applications, with a focus on the motion picture industry.

General Coach Citation Reward exterior and interior

Northern Lite Mfg.

One of North America’s most popular fibreglass truck camper brands, Northern Lite faced disaster in February 2014 when its Kelowna, British Columbia production facility burned to the ground taking most of the molds with it. Just over one year later the company resumed production in an all-new building, and for 2020 is launching an all-new travel trailer line.

Northern Lite 10-2EX LE exterior and interior

Roadtrek Inc.

Roadtrek remains the most-recognised Class B motorhome in North America in spite of a bumpy recent history that saw the iconic brand acquired last year by Groupe Rapido. Now operating as Roadtrek Inc., the brand builds five Class B models on the Dodge Ram ProMaster and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter platforms with firm expansion plans in the works.

Roadtrek Zion exterior and interior

Pleasure-Way Industries

Founded in 1985 when company owner Merv Rumpel couldn’t find a Class B motorhome that he liked, Pleasure-Way RV has grown to become one of North America’s premier Class B motorhome manufacturers. More than 150 employees build eight different models on the Dodge Ram ProMaster, Ford Transit and Mercedes-benz Sprinter platforms.

Pleasure-Way Plateau TS exterior and interior

Roulottes Prolite

Launched in 2000, Quebec-based Roulottes Prolite manufactures 14 models of lightweight travel trailers ranging from the 227 kg Suite for small cars to the 1,678 kg Extreme – including an all-new 12V model that sleeps three people and runs on batteries and solar panels alone. The company has further expanded into motorized product with its all-new Evolution Class B motorhome.

Roulottes Prolite 12V exterior and  interior

The P&A sector
It isn’t just RV manufacturers that benefit from Canada’s passion for free trade. Canadian parts and accessory manufacturers also thrive on the improved market access which the country’s numerous free trade agreements provide. “The Canadian domestic market is obviously important for us, it’s our home, but it is also somewhat limited as a result of our small population. It is literally 1/10 the size of the US market, for example,” says Mitul Chandrani, marketing manager for Vancouver-area electrical equipment manufacturer Xantrex. “The US has 10 times the population of Canada, so the potential of that market is obviously huge. As a result our export business is extremely, extremely important.”


As a leading manufacturer of inverters, battery chargers, inverter/chargers, lithium-ion batteries and solar charging solutions, Xantrex enjoys strong business both as an OEM to major RV brands, and as a key supplier to the aftermarket. With campers becoming increasingly sophisticated and demands for stable electrical power increasing constantly, Xantrex has found itself in demand among RV builders who want to offer every modern convenience in their latest models, as well as current RV owners looking to update their existing unit.

While the company has dominated the inverter/charger market for years with a significant market share, it has more recently seen new opportunities through a product expansion strategy based upon lithium-ion battery systems and solar charging units. Used in conjunction with an appropriate inverter/charger, the battery and solar technology allows end users to eliminate the need for a gas or diesel generator altogether, and run their heat pump or air conditioner all night long in complete silence. “The RV industry has been very open to embracing this new technology,” says Chandrani. “Nobody wants to listen to the generator all night, and that’s a big reason why large US RV manufacturers like Coachmen, Midwest and Winnebago now offer lithium-ion in some of their models.”


Another Canadian manufacturer benefitting from free trade agreements allowing it to maximise its export potential is Wiarton, Ontario-based Caframo Ltd. The company, which is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, manufactures a wide range of fans, heaters, defoggers and air circulators for use in RVs, boats and residential applications, with sales in more than 60 countries worldwide. “The export business for RV products is much larger than our domestic Canadian market,” says Tracey Elkerton, Caframo’s director of business development, consumer products. “Australia and New Zealand is our largest export market, while the US is quite significant and Europe is growing. We’ve recently seen particularly strong growth in the UK, Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands and Sweden.”

While Caframo has maintained a European warehouse operation for several years, the company further committed to developing its business there in January this year with the launch of Caframo Europe BV. Based in Amsterdam, the new venture makes it easier for European customers to purchase from the company by eliminating the administrative overhead associated with importing goods into Europe. “We’re still using our warehouse as our fulfillment center,” says Elkerton. “The difference is that now our customers are able to buy locally because we have a VAT number. In that sense we have become more of a domestic vendor partner. It simplifies the whole process for our customers and will allow us to get product to them even faster than before.”

Looking ahead
While no one seems to have a clear line of sight on a return to more normal market conditions as the Covid-19 pandemic evolves, a number of manufacturers and dealers in the Canadian RV industry feel that the market should recover fairly quickly once current lockdowns and stay-at-home orders are lifted. The coronavirus crisis hit Canada in mid-March, just as most parts of the country were only beginning to emerge from a long, hard winter. In reality, most Canadians haven’t been confined indoors since March, but since last October while shivering through a traditional Canadian winter. Their sense of cabin fever is real.
“There are a lot of people who really can’t wait to get outside and feel the sun on their skin and enjoy the fresh air after such a long winter, and now this,” observes CRVA’s Shane Devenish. “I think we’re all hoping that happens soon. The season for commercial campgrounds in Canada is only four or five months long, they don’t have a lot of time to earn their annual income. We’re hoping to see them open by June, because if this lockdown lasts a whole lot longer then a lot of them will be left in a very difficult position financially. Once people get the green light to go outside and campgrounds get approval to open, then I think we will see a lot of pent-up demand and the industry should become a very active place. Everyone has their fingers crossed.”