After what can undoubtedly be dubbed a horror year with staff layoffs, halted production and companies propped up by JobKeeper, Australia’s RV industry is in the midst of a boom. As planned international holidays began to fall over, Australians’ travel plans pivoted to our own backyard.
Money earmarked for a luxury cruise or taking the kids to Disneyland is now being poured into new and second-hand campers, caravans and motorhomes by young families and retirees alike thanks to a surge in domestic tourism and adventure travel. And manufacturers and dealers are struggling to keep up with demand.
Victoria’s lockdown 2.0 from July to September has blown out delivery times for most new models well into 2021 as manufacturers grapple with the unpredictability wrought by 2020.
“We are on our 26th budget at Jayco since April,” says Gerry Ryan, founder and chairman of Aussie RV giant, Jayco. “By April 1 we will bring out the budget for the next 12 months and a forecast for the next year beyond that. It has been very strange. Open up, shut down, open up.
“But we were confident that the industry will have growth for the next 12 months.”
Stuart Lamont, CEO of the Caravan Industry Association of Australia (CIAA) agrees. He expects a strong rebound for manufacturers and retailers, and solid bookings for caravan parks, too.
“The industry will be one of the big winners out of international border closures as Australians redirect their holiday options into domestic travel, and many of them try caravanning and camping for the first time,” he says.
“It will be important that as an industry we take advantage of these opportunities in the market.”
According to the CIAA, there are approximately 195 Australian manufacturers and 52 imported brands. About 25,000 RVs are locally manufactured annually with another 10,000 imported. This latter number has grown substantially over the past five years following the introduction of the Free Trade Agreement with China in 2015. There are more than 750,000 registered RV products in Australia.
In terms of jobs, there are about 30,000 full-time employees in the RV sector, with many part-time and casual roles as well as indirect jobs servicing the industry. Of those, approximately 5700 are employed by manufacturers, 3400 by dealers, 1200 are suppliers and 10,000 are in the caravan park industry. Other employees include parts and accessories, service and repair, hire and camping retailers.
Consumers spent more than $10 billion annually on RV tourism in 2019 (pre-COVID) taking over 14 million trips and staying 60 million nights.
“This positions caravanning and camping as the number one holidaying option for Australians travelling domestically, and the number one provider of paid accommodation in regional and rural Australia,” Lamont tells Caravan World.
There is a groundswell of opinion that now — in the midst of Australia’s economic recovery — is the time for consumers to prioritise buying locally-made RVs. But will it sway new entrants to the market, and why is it so important?
AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE
The Australian Made campaign and its trademark logo — a green triangle with the yellow ’roo — has been around since 1986 and is now administered by not-for-profit group Australian Made Campaign Limited. Its premise has always been simple — to showcase local products and support Aussie businesses.
This sense of commercial patriotism has been reinvigorated by our triple-threat disasters of the past few years — the continuing and devastating drought, summer bushfires and now the wreckage caused by COVID-19.
Darren Swenson, General Manager — Sales and Marketing with New Age Caravans, says RV buyers are increasingly factoring in the origin of a product when visiting the showroom.
“Our dealers tell us every day that when customers come in it's one of the factors in their buying decision — they'll actually ask, ‘Is this an Australian-made product?’,” he tells Caravan World.
“I think with the pandemic that people are now very conscious of wanting to know that they're supporting the local industry and therefore they are buying an Australian-made product. That’s why we're very proud to be part of the Australian Made campaign.”
JOBS, JOBS, JOBS
So what does buying Aussie-built products mean for the industry? In simple terms (and at the risk of sounding like a politician on the campaign trail), it’s mostly about jobs. Buying a van built in Australia means manufacturers employ local factory workers, engineers, administration and marketing staff, and tradespeople.
The outlook is positive as the country assimilates to post-lockdown life, with many companies including New Age and Jayco increasing their workforce to cope with boosted demand.
Ryan says all 80 staff laid off at the beginning of lockdown have now been re-employed and a further 160 people will be added to the payroll across the company by the end of February 2021. By that time, Jayco will employ around 1300 staff. The goal, Ryan says, is to increase production by 30 per cent to 13,000 units, an uptick that can be well accommodated in the company’s 80,000sqm factory floor space in Melbourne.
“If you are buying Australian, you are keeping several people in a job,” he says. “We want to rebuild and retrain our new employees properly with our training program so by February we will be hitting our straps at the highest volumes we’ve ever done.
“At Jayco we don’t just assemble caravans, we build caravans. We have the biggest chassis shop in Australia, we built a sewing section so we can make our own tents, we make our own cushions and curtains. It is a cross section of trades that we use.”
Swenson made the decision to bolster New Age’s workforce by 25 per cent to 280 after the first lockdown because of skyrocketing demand for vans from his interstate dealers.
“The orders just kept flowing, people kept ordering, people kept coming in, the enquiries kept growing,” he says.
“We came out of lockdown knowing that we needed to ramp up our production, so we actually went on a hiring program.”
THE FLOW-ON EFFECT
But, of course, buying Australian-made products doesn’t just help the folk on the factory floor earn a crust. That single purchase from a local builder then flows on to keep people employed in dealerships, RV parts or accessories companies, caravan parks, and businesses that provide warranty or maintenance services.
Ryan estimates that a further 900 jobs across Australia are supported by Jayco in this manner through associated firms including Dometic, Metatex, Thetford, Tricomposite and GB Galvanizing.
“It is very important for us to have great relationships with suppliers,” he says. “We have always said that the Jayco family is not just our employees but starts with our suppliers and dealers and finishes with our service agents.”
New Age is part of the Walkinshaw Automotive Group also based in Melbourne, a high-performance manufacturing and engineering company that works in tandem with the RV industry and other automotive leaders such as General Motors. Swenson says buying an Australian-made product also allows greater investment in R&D programs and talented people to run them.
“Some of the R&D that's coming into our business here is so unique,” he says. “Buying Australian products can only foster R&D development, with new people coming into the business, and new jobs being designed which supports the broader economy.”
Lamont says supporting Aussie businesses right now is important because not everyone is enjoying good fortune.
“There are still quite inconsistent reports coming out of the industry with feast or famine results,” he says. “While some businesses have seen record demand, others are still waiting for the recovery to extend across the country.”
BUILT FOR AUSSIES
Another benefit of Australian-built products is they are engineered by locals who live the lifestyle and consciously design RVs to handle Australia’s unique conditions.
“Australian caravanners and campers love to explore off the beaten track and test their RVs in a way which is not seen in other caravanning markets,” says Lamont. “Australian manufactured products are specifically designed to suit the way in which Australians use their RV products and it is no wonder that the average age of Australian RVs exceeds 17 years.”
Swenson says buying a model built by a company staffed by people who’ve been in the industry for many years is a distinct advantage. It ensures vans are fit for the purpose you have chosen whether that’s on-road touring or offroad exploration, and most likely have been rigorously tested in those environments.
New Age’s Head of Product Planning and Development, Adrian Di Vincenzo, is one of the company’s longest-serving employees and Swenson says his knowledge and skill set in the design of an RV for Australian conditions can’t be underestimated.
“Being able to see that the people who design and build the caravan that you're buying, who have that local understanding of what's required to build you a product that is right for you — you can’t put a price on that,” he says.
COMPLIANCE IS KEY
But not all RV manufacturers are created equally, and it’s imperative all new RVs are compliant with Australian safety regulations.
Lamont says all RVs are required to adhere to strict Australian Design Rules as per the Motor Vehicle Standards Act (1989). On 1 July 2021, new regulations via the Road Vehicle Standards Act will be implemented, which Lamont says
will result in stricter enforcement, from fines through to destruction of non-complying products.
Manufacturers and importers who are members of the CIAA’s RVMAP program commit to comply with ADRs and federal compliance regulations. There are 68 RV manufacturers and importers listed as members on the CIAA website, and Lamont says this is a good place for buyers to start researching.
The CIAA conducts inspections on products from members and non-members alike. Lamont claims more than 3000 have been conducted over three
years and those not aligned to the program have, on average, four times as many compliance concerns.
Ryan also says compliance is a huge issue in the RV industry and needs to be a high priority for buyers.
“I believe in a level playing field,” he says. “I think if we can’t build a similar product for the customer at an economical price that people are prepared to pay, what’s wrong with bringing imports in?
“I am not against that as long as they have got the same ADRs, the same approvals that we have. At Jayco, we spend a few hundred dollars just on certification for each of our products. I know there are imported products — and there are local products as well — that just don’t conform and that’s an issue.”
As far as self-regulation goes, Ryan said he would like to see the CIAA become stricter and more active in its audits.
Caravan World Editor-at-Large John Ford says buyers should properly research the manufacturers they are interested in and ask for compliance certificates.
“At the very least, a manufacturer should supply certifications from a qualified technician regarding their gas and electrical supply in the RV, and a certificate from a public weighbridge to determine its weight ex-factory,” he says.
Ryan’s parting advice to consumers is to also ensure that the manufacturer can guarantee excellent after-sales service and a network of operators who can help with warranty issues around Australia. This offers peace of mind for the consumer, and also helps to keep smaller, peripheral businesses afloat.
“The RV industry hasn’t got the best image for backing up products, so it is critical that businesses can not only sell a product, but back it up and service it with parts. ” he says.