- September 12, 2021
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ELKHART — For the second year in a row, the pandemic has resulted in the cancelation of the what’s turned into Elkhart County’s biggest party.
Forest River, which came up with the idea of a Dealer Open House in Elkhart more than 10 years ago, and Thor Industries issued a joint press release this week announcing they were pulling out of the show. About the same time, Winnebago Industries said they also wouldn’t be participating in the event, which typically brings in top-name entertainment and thousands of RV dealers and manufacturers from across the country.
“The companies’ top priority is the health and safety of valued industry partners, team members and the larger Elkhart community,” Forest River and Thor said in the joint release. “With local and national COVID cases rapidly increasing, safety mandates would be required to help mitigate risks, distracting from the positive experience industry partners expect.”
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The show was scheduled for the week beginning Sept. 26 and generally features lavish entertainment, food and other events on about 40 acres surrounding the RV/MH Hall of Fame complex just south of the Indiana Toll Road in Elkhart.
Manufacturers and suppliers typically report billions of dollars in sales during the event, but the RV industry has been operating at full capacity since the pandemic began. Pandemic consumers have been looking for new recreational outlets such as camping.
“It likely wasn’t worth the risk of anyone getting sick when everyone is needed to keep up with the high demand for RVs,” said Darryl Searer, president of the RV/MH Hall of Fame. “Everyone is having an exceptional year with backlogs that will take them through 2022.”
According to the RV Industry Association, the industry is on track to reach shipments of about 577,200 units this year, a 14.4% increase over the previous high of 504,600 set in 2017. And that trend is expected to continue into 2022, with projected shipments that could reach 600,000.
“With Thor, Forest River and Winnebago pulling out, it certainly didn’t make sense to proceed,” said Searer, explaining that the big three produce about 90% of the RVs made in the United States — the vast majority of which are produced in and around Elkhart County.
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Though the cancellation of the massive RV event won’t harm the industry, it will have a big impact on the local hospitality industry, which was counting on the event to help provide a big boost after more than a year surviving under the shadow of the pandemic.
The economic impact of the event has been likened to a big Notre Dame football weekend for the South Bend area.
“For us, it’s more like losing a Notre Dame football season,” said Kurt Janowsky, CEO of Navarre Hospitality Group. “Having it cancelled 19 days before the event is a tough one for us.”
Navarre is the exclusive caterer for Thor and its many brands, providing thousands of meals and a full bar throughout the multi-day event for Thor personnel and their many dealers and guests.
Beyond the hotels, restaurants and caterers, the cancelation of the event also affects a wide range of small businesses — decorators, florists, tent providers and many others — that see a big boost by providing services for the event, Janowsky said.
“This is heartbreaking for everyone,” he said.