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Big wheels on the move

TAMPA — Stocks are up, executive bonuses are back and Bob Phebus is ready to sell some multimillion-dollar motor homes.

"The last two years have been terrible for business," said the director of sales and marketing for Marathon Coach Florida. "But we just had the best December that I have seen in 17 years. I really think we have turned a corner. I really think the worst is behind us."

Judging from the turnout at the opening day of the 26th annual Florida RV SuperShow in Tampa, Phebus may be right.

A steady stream of potential customers from as far away as California and Canada lined up to check out Phebus' Oregon-built recreational vehicles.

The 45-foot-long 1180 XLV Triple Slide Marathon Coaches retail for anywhere between $2 million and $2.8 million, depending on the optional equipment such as leather seating, hardwood floors or Sub-Zero refrigerators.

But don't expect any bargains from the San Antonio, Fla., RV dealer. At this year's SuperShow, inventory is limited, and cash is king.

"We built both of these coaches just for this show," Phebus said. "But both of them were sold before they even got here."

In fact, it was a bit of a challenge even getting something to show at this SuperShow. Marathon scaled back production during the recession and concentrated on moving existing inventory.

Before the economic downturn, the company made 55 motor homes a year. In 2011, Marathon plans to make only 25.

The owners of the two RVs on display at the Florida State Fairgrounds wanted delivery of their vehicles. But Phebus needed the RVs in Tampa.

"This is the largest retail show in the world," he said. "If you are not here, then you are nobody."

Phebus hopes to sell several luxury RVs before the show packs up Sunday afternoon.

And the RVs that do sell this weekend won't be delivered until July or August at the earliest.

"If we have to ramp up production, we will," Phebus said.

Marathon, one of the top luxury coach builders in the United States, weathered the economic downturn better than most in the industry. Phebus estimated that roughly 50 percent of RV-related businesses dropped out of the show during the past two years.

"Our industry didn't get hit as hard as the boating industry," he said. "We just didn't have as much inventory. So when the market got bad, we didn't have as much to move."

Others, such as Parliament Coach Corporation, diversified their operations. The Clearwater-based company specialized in customizing RVs.

"Our most notable project to date was CNN's coach for the 2008 election," Parliament Coach president Steve Mitchell said. "All the candidates were on board. We even had Obama playing Wii."

But when the recession hit, Parliament started repairing, refurbishing and upgrading existing RVs.

"It was tough there for a while," Mitchell said. "But 2010 was better than 2009, and we expect 2011 to be better than 2010."

Parliament is back in the custom motor home business. The company's latest project is the Mercedes Sprinter, a V-8 diesel van that is turned into a small, luxury motor home, ideal for weekend getaways. It starts at about $150,000.

"We are optimistic," Mitchell said. "This could be a good year."

Dennis Witherow, general manager of Oak Water Village Resort in Ocala, echoed Mitchell's optimism.

"In our opinion, the high-end market is where you're going to see the real influx, especially with the baby boomer buyer coming in," Witherow said. "… It's a home, but it doesn't come with all of the tariffs or (expenses)."

Dave Kelly, marketing director for the Florida RV Trade Association, said that if turnout on the opening day of the SuperShow is any indication of things to come, 2011 could be a good year for the industry.

"I think a lot of people are tired of waiting to see what happens with the economy," he said. "Hopefully, this show might be all some people need to make a move."

Staff photographer Stephen J. Coddington contributed to this report.

Big wheels on the move 01/13/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 13, 2011 8:17pm]
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