Kings of the Road
How Lloyd Bridges Traveland helped invent the motorhome industry and survived the recession
by Janet Ogle-Mater
From the May, 2014 issue
Recently, Vaughn Butterfield hooked up a 2014 Montana High Country fifth-wheel trailer at Lloyd Bridges Traveland and drove it 2,200 miles to Menifee, California. Butterfield had previously bought two recreational vehicles from the Chelsea dealership--but this wasn't a vacation, and the trailer wasn't his. Butterfield is one of five full-time drivers who deliver trailers and motorhomes from Chelsea to customers across the United States and Canada.
"I believe the furthest we have delivered is to Edmonton," says Jerry Bridges, who owns the company with his brother, Charlie. "But we routinely go to Florida and California."
Butterfield's run to California began with a potential customer's price request on the company's website, funrving.com. Scott York, who joined Traveland in 2009 in the parts department and is now in sales, went to work.
In an email to York, the customer, David Marino, explained that he's on the road eight months of the year and wanted an RV as an alternative to living in motel rooms. While working in North Dakota, he'd put a deposit with a dealer in Bismarck, but decided to check prices online before taking delivery. Marino says the same Montana High Country 355RE was advertised by Traveland at $15,000 less than the price he'd been quoted and adds that "the salesman in Bismarck started stuttering and denying that anyone could beat his deal."
Even after York faxed him a quote confirming Traveland's price, Marino found it hard to believe--so during "a lull in my work load I decided to drive to Chelsea and make sure I was not being scammed." Seeing the dealership put his mind at ease, and he went ahead with the purchase: "They got me a good loan, delivery went flawless, and all the paperwork for the California DMV was in order (amazing when you consider the California DMV)."
"I hear that every day," says Bridges. When he asks customers by how much he undersold their local dealer, he says, "It's usually $10,000, plus."
The wanderlust industry
year, young families, empty nesters, and retired couples take off in recreational vehicles for weeks or months of mobile living. Towing trailers, or driving self-propelled motorhomes, they wander the highways of America on a classic journey. The Bridges family has been helping Americans meet the demands of this wanderlust for nearly fifty years.
Almost as soon as there were cars, Americans were figuring out ways to live in them. According to a 2013 article in Smithsonian magazine, the first commercial house-car was a 1910 Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau with a chamber pot and a backseat that converted to a bed. But at first, mass-produced models were rare--more typical in the early years were makeshift conversions, a car with some traveling amenities, or a handmade trailer.
After World War II, American families took to the highways in force to explore the country and ushered in a new era of recreational vehicles. Among them was Ray Frank, a farmer and owner of a small manufacturing company in Brown City. Wanting to find a better way to house his family while vacationing, he set about engineering an improved mobile accommodation.
Unlike earlier house-cars, Frank's design was neither a simple travel trailer nor a conversion of an existing car or truck. Using a Dodge truck chassis, it was built from the ground up to be a self-propelled home on wheels. He coined a name for his new invention: the "motorhome." And then he contacted the Chrysler Corporation to see if he could buy 100 truck chassis to start production. But in 1958 Chrysler did not sell raw chassis, so they referred Frank to their largest Dodge truck dealer, who happened to be Lloyd Bridges in Walled Lake.
"My dad sold him the 100 chassis and then bought some [motorhomes] from Mr. Frank," Jerry says. "So we have been selling them from the very beginning." Lloyd Bridges Traveland, incorporated in 1966, became a major dealer of recreational vehicles. Lloyd Bridges was the nation's number-one seller of Travco motorhomes, based on Ray Frank's streamlined, fiberglass-bodied design.
In 1972, Bridges purchased the former Spaulding Chevrolet dealership and moved his operation from Walled Lake to Chelsea. In the late 1970s, he sold the Chevrolet business and started selling recreational vehicles full time. Jerry joined the company in 1980, followed by Charlie two years later. Today, Jerry handles sales and administration, while Charlie oversees the parts and service department.
Lloyd Bridges Traveland saw success through the 1980s and into the new century, earning national awards like "Top Ten Dealer." But then the Great Recession turned the industry upside down.
Turning to trailers
The recreational vehicle industry "has always been the first one to go" when the economy turns downward, Jerry says. "RV sales take a crash before automobile sales ... A conservative guy who worked all his life isn't going to make a move [on an expensive luxury like an RV] when there is a lot of uncertainty. He won't risk what he does have. He waits and sees."
Through forty-eight years in business, Traveland has weathered many changes within the RV industry, including the demise of Travco in the 1980s. But none was as painful as the recession that followed the 2007 financial crash. Industry-wide, trailers have historically outsold more expensive motorhomes about three to one, but Bridges had been an exception: "Up until the big economic crunch five years ago, we probably sold about 50 percent motorhomes to 50 percent towables," Jerry recalls. But during this last recession, "about 60 percent of the manufacturers who built motorhomes went out of business, including National RV, Gulf Stream, and Country Coach."
Traveland still works with the motorhome manufacturer Forest River, one of the few companies that made it through the economic downturn, and some of the other brands "have been bought up in the last year or two and are being manufactured again," Jerry says. But his customers are now "much heavier into trailers, with about 90 percent [of sales] ... compared to about 10 percent motorhomes."
Trailers are commonly used for short weekend trips and summer vacations, while many motorhome enthusiasts are retired and full-time travelers. A 2011 University of Michigan study for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association found that nearly 8.9 million households own an RV; the average owner was forty-eight years old, married, and had an annual household income of $62,000. The study also found that the fastest-growing age group of RV owners was made up of working-age people between thirty-five and fifty-four, which may also help explain the turn toward trailers.
But Traveland hasn't given up on the product it helped create. Two years ago, with the economy still struggling, it bought an empty lot in Chelsea to expand its inventory of used motorhomes, many of them bank repossessions. "During those years, travel trailers were still selling and doing okay," Jerry explains, "but if someone could afford a motorhome they wanted to save money, so used motorhomes became in higher demand, and they still are." He continues to acquire used motorhomes and trailers at auction, while also buying new units in the off-season, when they're cheaper.
"The way of doing business has completely changed," he adds. "We used to advertise locally, and our market area was thirty, forty miles from our dealership. But today, we spend more money on the Internet, advertising worldwide, than locally."
To bring in customers like David Marino, Traveland also has cut its markup. "We have to sell twice as many units today to see the same profit ... as we did in the past," Jerry says. "To be competitive is to have the best products at the best price and be ready to make a sale quick."
The days when salespeople sat around waiting for customers to walk in are long gone. Now, Traveland's sales staff of eight is on call twenty-four hours a day to respond to prospective clients like Marino. Web sales and long-distance delivery are becoming the norm, Bridges says, though some customers arrange to meet the driver midway to save on mileage charges. And some still come to Chelsea and drive their new purchase off the lot.
The RV rebound
Jerry says the RV industry is now rebounding from the economic downturn. According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, manufacturers shipped more than 300,000 units in 2013, a level last seen in 2007.
Traveland sold 500 units last year, its highest total in five years. "Travel trailers continue to sell, because the price ranges are considerably less and people can still afford them," Jerry says. Towables start at $8,900 and go up to $80,000, while motorhomes range from $55,000 to $130,000.
Though the company's sales are now mostly web-based, the Bridges still believe in personal service. "I think we have survived because we are family owned and operated, and you can always speak to one of the owners," says Jerry.
"We do stuff as much as possible in an old-fashioned way--but in a big way, to be competitive."
[Originally published in May, 2014.]
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