BROOKSVILLE — Vendors and motor coach dealers wore smiles on Wednesday as they greeted eager visitors at the 29th annual South East Area Rally of the Family Motor Coach Association. The 13th rally at the Hernando County Airport expects to attract thousands of people, many of them potential customers, through the weekend.
Frank Colletti, the rally's local director of community relations, walked through the 200-plus booths in the vendor tent, noting the appeal to hard-core RVers — hundreds of whom were patiently waiting for the flaps of the huge tent to open.
"Motor home owners wait for the rallies to shop,'' he said. "They know they get the best selection and prices."
At the nearby outdoor coach display, Bill Lambutis, representative of Harberson RV in Holiday, said, "There's definitely more traffic" than there was last year. "Stuff's starting to sell better."
With reservations still coming in Wednesday morning, the official opening day, camping commitments numbered 1,326 units, said rally chairman and SEA president Tom Eller.
"It isn't what we want to have, but it's better than last year,'' he said. "It's coming up; we're getting there."
Eller referred both to the 1,300 motor coaches that lumbered in from across the country in 2009 and to the record 2,057 that took up temporary residence on the 50-acre site in 2007. With two people on average in each coach, the number of visitors this year could easily top 2,600.
Eller had been hopeful the event might sign up 1,500 registrants this year. "I think the economy just hasn't turned around enough so far," he said.
Nonetheless, Colletti observed, "We've got a real city going here."
First-time rally camper Mike Muller of Holland, Mich., noted, "This is a lot larger" than rallies he had attended in Arcadia and in Michigan.
Colletti said that of 10 geographical areas of FMCA, each of which stages a once-a-year major rally, the SEA's rally is the biggest in terms of registrants and visitors.
Muller and his companion, MaryAnn Nash, also of Holland, Mich., were headed for the vendor tent. He went to a seminar on RV antennas for TV reception, while she headed for a class on making eyeglass holders.
Another first-timer, John Mauk of Zephyrhills, looked over vendors offering satellite dishes, flooring replacements and engine monitors. He bought his first RV in June, a used 40-footer 2000 model that he wants to upgrade.
"A lot of the vendors are RV oriented," Colletti said. But many are tendering general merchandise: jewelry, clothing, outdoor grills, canvas camp chairs, name signs, property insurance, retirement residences, vacation destinations.
Noted Lambutis of Harberson RV: "All the big dealers are here." Motor coaches selling up to $100,000 "are doing well," he said; "used, terrific."
Harberson's top item on site was a 43-foot Itasca Ellipse, on sale at $289,000 from a list price of $338,000.
Como RV of Inverness and Homosassa was touting its high-end 38-foot Fleetwood, regular price $147,000, for $106,000.
For the more budget restrained, it's also offering a pre-owned 34-foot model at $18,000, said Tim Hudson, a sales representative for the company he described as a "small town dealer (to) treat you as a person, not a number."
After a respite last year, LazyDays of Seffner, the largest single site dealership in the nation, has returned to the rally with a display of 26 units this year, priced from $60,000 to $700,000, new and used.
LazyDays recently emerged from bankruptcy.
"The industry is coming back, allowing more money for advertising and off-site promotion," said the firm's event coordinator, Snow Chamberlain, of the company's reappearance this year.
The visitors have been venturing outside the event grounds, Colletti said, driving cars they have towed to tour around and using discount coupons to local businesses and restaurants brought to them by the Greater Hernando Chamber of Commerce and the county's tourism bureau.
"The proprietors of Brooksville love us,'' he said. "We bring in so much money. The restaurants are full, so I think everything right now is positive."
Nash, the first-time rally attendee who has camped at the airport site since Monday, said, "So far, I wouldn't change a thing."
Beth Gray can be contacted at email@example.com.