Resurgent recreation: RV show in town for second year as industry bounces back

Resurgent recreation: RV show in town for second year as industry bounces back

March 22nd, 2014 by Alex Green in Business Around the Region

Jason Guy, left, of Monteagle, Tenn., looks at a $200,000-plus Class A motorhome during the first day of the Chattanooga RV Show at the First Tennessee Pavilion on Friday.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

What: The Chattanooga RV Show

Where: The First Tennessee Pavilion, 1826 Carter St., Chattanooga

When: Today 10 a.m.- 7 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.

How much: $6 admission, children under 12 free, parking free

Malcolm Johnson made no bones about what the last few years have been like in the campground business.

Bad.

At The Chattanooga RV Show on Friday, Johnson and his wife, Barbara, worked a booth promoting their campground, Big Meadow Family Campground in Townsend, Tenn. This is the second year in a row that the show has come through Chattanooga.

Johnson said that in 2007, on the verge of the Great Recession, Big Meadow's total revenue dropped about 15 percent, after growing steadily every year prior. And things got far worse before they got better.

"The first year of the new presidency, people were terrified," he said.

"The writing was on the wall," said Johnson. The housing market was unraveling. The government was scrambling to save the big banks, lenders and domestic auto makers. And folks were trying to save money.

"Everybody was afraid," said Rob Lynch on Thursday, before the RV show opened. Lynch is owner and manager of the RV show which tours around the Southeast.

Most RV and camper manufacturers slowed down production to avoid sitting on huge surpluses.

But the good news is that camping is coming back.

"From [2007] we've climbed back up, and we're probably 60 percent above where we were in 2007," said Johnson. That sounds good -- and is good compared to 2009's numbers -- but a 60 percent gain only took about two years before 2007, compared to seven years now.

Even so, Johnson said this turnaround happened suddenly, just as the downturn did. Last year, the rapid rise in business actually caught him by surprise. Johnson thinks folks are trying to get back to how life was before 2007 and the recession, when there were a few more luxuries to be enjoyed.

"I think [people] are tired of being conservative," he said. And he believes consumers think "I've done without enough. If the country's going to go bankrupt, I'm going with them."

Make no mistake, camping isn't cheap, at least in the fashion on display in many of the campers at the RV show. Lynch called consumers in the RV and camper market "the economic movers," because of their buying power, which allows them to make big, non-essential purchases.

And thank goodness for them, he said.

Because while dropping $100,000 or more on an RV is still frowned upon in some circles, there are businesses and workers relying upon that spending, whether in RV and camper manufacturing, or camping supply retail -- even in campground ownership and travelling shows like Lynch's.

Even Chattanooga gets a boost from the industry. Lynch's show only comes here and up to Knoxville when it passes through Tennessee.

Jim and Wilma Craven live 40 miles away in Dayton but were in town on Friday to check out the RV and camper show. They are avid RVers, and went about six times last year. They don't claim to be economic movers -- just fans of camping.

"Once you've already got everything and got it set up, it's really not that big of a cost," said Jim Craven. "We've never quit."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.