Highlights from the RV Dealer Open House

Keystone Montana with living room and windshield up front.
A hidden television pops up in front of the windshield.
This is my second year covering the RV Dealer Open House in Elkhart, Ind., for my "real job" as associate editor of RVBusiness magazine.

The RV Dealer Open House is not open to the public. Started in 2007 by Forest River Inc., the Open House is open to RV dealers only. Thousands of dealers descend on Elkhart -- where 85% of all North American RVs are made -- for four days of inspecting thousands of RVs that a dozen or so manufacturers have put out on display. This is where dealers will buy their inventory for the following year. About $2 billion (that's BILLIONS) of business takes place.

A big difference between the Open House and a typical public RV show -- besides who can attend -- is the number of RVs on display. Whereas the Detroit Fall Camper & RV Show will have just under 200 RVs on display this weekend, the Open House featured thousands of RVs. Dealers at public RV shows will bring one or two models of each line they carry; at the Open House manufacturers display every single model of every single line they build.

It is equal parts exhilarating and overwhelming.

Since that first year, Forest River and its divisions (Coachmen, Flagstaff, Rockwood, Dynamax and about a dozen others) have been joined by Thor Industries and its subsidiaries (Airstream, Keystone, CrossRoads, Thor Motor Coach and about a dozen others), Jayco and its divisions (Starcraft, Entegra and Highland Ridge), Allied Recreation Group's motorhome divisions (Monaco, Holiday Rambler, Fleetwood and American Coach) as well as many other manufacturers such as Newmar, Winnebago (towables only), Grand Design, EverGreen, Little Guy, Lance, Roadtrek, A-Liner/Somerset, Gulf Stream, Travel Lite, Cricket, and a handful of other smaller manufacturers.

Some of the manufacturers have created huge enticements to lure dealers to their displays: Thor gave away a choice of a Corvette Stingray, Mercedes-Benz SUV, Audi A7 or F150 Platinum edition; EverGreen brought in Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers; Grand Design had an invitation-only concert by 38 Special. Many -- Forest River and Thor chief among them -- offer catered meals like steak and lobster.

Again, it's truly a spectacle.

There's no way one person could see all of the highlights. Our staff of five probably comes the closest to seeing the truly noteworthy RVs that were on display. Our criteria: anything that's making its debut, or anything that, although not new, has a significant new feature such as a new innovation or unique floor plan.

Here's a rundown of the RVs that I thought were the better ones that I saw. This is a very limited list because, as I said, not one person was able to see everything.

Keystone Montana Front Kitchen
There's more Montana fifth-wheels on the road than any other brand. Why? Floor plans that are functional is a major reason, among many, and this year the Montana has one featuring a kitchen at the front of the unit. It's the first front-kitchen floor plan in a fifth-wheel that I know of, and incorporating a windshield -- first done by CrossRoads several years ago -- makes it a superb layout.

Thor Motor Coach Compass and Gemini
This was the first time we got to see RVs built on the Ford Transit chassis. The Transit, which has been in Europe for many years, is replacing the Econoline series for Ford. Winnebago, Coachmen also had Class B motorhomes built on the Transit at the Open House, but most of us agreed Thor Motor Coach nailed it.

Coachmen Prism and Leprechaun
The Prism, built on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis, and the larger Leprechaun, which is on the Ford E450 platform, both share a similar floor plan. Each has a full-wall slideout on the driver's side that houses a U-shaped dinette and king-sized bed. In between the dinette and bed is a 1-foot wide dividing wall that does something innovative: inside the divider is a cabinet unit that slides back into the living area of the RV. The cabinet unit houses a TV that swivels so it can be viewed in the living area or the bedroom. In the Leprechaun, the cabinet unit has a fireplace under the TV; it's a storage area in the Prism. What's nice is when the slideout is not deployed, you can still access the kitchen, refrigerator and bathroom.

Miscellaneous Goodness
There were many, many other RVs that most people will also appreciate once they get to see them, including:
  • Zero-G Ramp/Door on Dutchmen Toy Haulers (two-minutes to set up, one hand to lift, this is a game-changer; after six months other manufacturers will also be able to use the MORryde innovation)
  • Entegra Cornerstone Class A (just screams luxury)
  • Open Range Ultra Lite by Highland Ridge (Highland Ridge's quality construction is now available in a lightweight line)
  • Adria Travel Trailer (look for this sleek RV built in Europe to be available in the U.S. very soon)
  • 6-foot wide T@G by Little Guy Worldwide/Pleasant Valley (that extra foot adds a ton of room in this teardrop)
  • Ford-branded truck campers, travel trailers and toy haulers by Livin' Lite (with fifth-wheel models still to come, expect to see this well-executed line promoted heavily by Ford in the coming months)
  • Renegade Verona (this line of new Class C from low-volume, high-quality manufacturer Renegade RV is aimed at families)