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RV industry gears up for record crowd at Tampa show

By Alli Knothe, Times Staff Writer
JAMES BORCHUCK | Times
Spectators gather outside the 2017 Marathon Coach H345 on Tuesday at the Florida RV SuperShow. The RV features a full kitchen, a master suite, three large flat-screen TVs and more.

TAMPA

With lower gas prices, an improving economy and what he deems the "Donald Trump effect," Mandy Alonso is gearing up for an exceptional week.

The founder of America Choice RV has more than 50 salespeople who will man roughly 100 RVs at the Florida State Fairgrounds, with plans to sell up to 120 of the recreational campers and road-hugging giants during the Florida RV SuperShow, which runs today through Sunday.

For industry representatives like Alonso, this year's event is shaping up to be a record breaker.

"Ever since Trump won the election, people are going crazy spending money," Alonso said.

The event has pulled in about 63,000 people for the past two years. If the weather holds up, Dave Kelly, head of marketing for the Florida RV Trade Association, has set the ambitious goal of 70,000 attendees.

The RV industry is considered a good measure of consumer confidence in the economy. RV buyers range from millennials shopping for light trailers that haul behind their cars to working-class families searching for mid-sized campers to business executives designing their multimillion-dollar luxury suites on wheels. It's a product for those who have the financial confidence to plan weekend camping trips and cross-country adventures. When consumers are feeling uneasy about the economy, that clientele dries up.

Bob Phebus, vice president of sales and marketing for Oregon-based Marathon Coach, which manufactures RVs costing up to $2.5 million apiece, said the company's workforce fell from 400 to about 250 during the recession. But it's been climbing ever since. He has showrooms in Dallas and San Antonio, Fla.

His 2017 model on display Monday afternoon was a 45-foot vehicle with heated marble floors, two bathrooms, a full kitchen, a master suite, a fireplace and three large flat-screen TVs, with an iPad for each that controlled not only the channel, but the lights, blinds, temperature and security system.

"There's a camera in the front of the vehicle that you couldn't find if you wanted to," he said. Accessible by the owner's smartphone, they can see any activity within the cabin going at all times. For remote areas, the RV can connect to any of the four national wireless network providers and hook up to the strongest Internet signal.

Of course, every year TVs get thinner and brighter, but major technological changes haven't come to the luxury RV industry in a few years, said Marathon Coach's director of engineering, Mark Bryan. The focus has been on keeping each vehicle's wireless connections secure, so that hackers can't access that hidden camera, the lights or the pop-out awnings. The company has both an internal data security team as well as contracted help, he said.

The gadgets are becoming more of a focus for all price points, Alonso explained.

"It used to be beauty and comfort," he said. "Now it's about all of the gadgets. . . . The more buttons you put in, the more (millennials and baby boomers) like it."

As it targets the younger generation, the industry is honing in on smaller, minimalist designs, many of which are on display at the show. Airstream, famous for its rounded, aluminium design, released a $35,000, 16-foot trailer called the Basecamp in September. Named the 2017 RV of the Year by RVBusiness magazine, it has a kitchen, bathroom and dining/sleeping area that they say can be towed behind a Subaru and carry a kayak while in transit.

There are more than a dozen other tiny trailer models on display from other manufacturers, as well, some just large enough to fit a mattress, or big enough to pitch a tent on. They started under $10,000 new.

"Smaller is the hot item right now," Kelly said. "The younger generation, they don't want a big motor home because they're not going to be inside it. They want something that they can sleep in at night but during the day they're going to be out doing things outdoors."

Contact Alli Knothe at [email protected] Follow @KnotheA.