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Dispatch From Dusseldorf

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Every morning huge crowds gathered in the lobby of the Caravan Salon 2008 RV show in
Düsseldorf, Germany. When the clock struck 10am, this great herd of humanity moved quickly
through the controlled turnstiles. Clearly the people attending the event were RV
enthusiasts – or, at the very least, were serious enough to be considering getting into the
lifestyle. What seemed like miles of RVs were stacked like cordwood awaiting the potential

We recently joined a host of United States’ RV industry executives in Düsseldorf,
Germany, at the Caravan Salon – the “World’s Largest RV Show.” The event attracted some
158,000 visitors from 38 nations for the late-summer event, which showcased 585 exhibitors
from 22 countries.

You could see (by their animated expressions) and hear (because I
learned enough German to eavesdrop a bit) that the Caravan Salon visitors had fuel costs on
their minds. Yet, the excitement of the show and the lifestyle kept them moving from coach
to coach, looking for the perfect unit. They apparently were determined not to let the fuel
prices and a worrisome economy spoil the fun of hitting the road. They’re clearly
infatuated with the freedom of the open road – even though European roads are not exactly
spacious. And, while the camping areas are not anything like those in the U.S., European RV
enthusiasts are just as energized about the lifestyle as their American counterparts.

Walking up and down the seemingly endless aisles of the show, it was obvious that the
European RV industry has proven that innovation can overcome the lack of interior square
footage, held in check by narrow roads and historically high fuel prices.

Throughout the
more than 2 million square feet of floor space, spanning 11 exhibition halls and outside
areas, were 2,000 RVs from the European manufacturing and supplier communities. In the
motorized segment, it seemed like Class C‘s dominated the offerings, including a display by Great
Britain’s giant manufacturer, Swift, showing for the first time in Düsseldorf.

Builders of
these Class C‘s excel in zeroing in on potential occupancy when designing
floor-plans. Rigs earmarked for families typically have a cabover bed and a second fixed bed
in the rear. Larger families are accommodated with unique placement of bunk beds. Almost
universally, once the sleeping arrangements are implemented, the rest of the interior real
estate is split up for the galley, bathroom and living area – all tiny by U.S. standards,
but amazingly efficient. Slide-outs are virtually nonexistent (mostly due to much more
compact campground sites) and huge trunks are commonly built into the rear of the coach
where bicycles or other large implements are housed. Towing cars is not big in Europe – yet
– although Roadmaster was exhibiting its line of tow bars.

The European builders
are masters at space utilization, evident by the innovative use of space within the tight
quarters of the dozens of Class B motorhomes that were on display – however, when provided with
the additional footage afforded by a Class A chassis, livability is expanded remarkably.

Interior design and
aesthetics are key elements in carving out floor-plans that fight claustrophobia and work
well for families. Modern laminates and the use of rounded corners help open up the
interior visually while providing excellent storage capabilities. Technoform, an Italian
design firm deeply immersed in the European RV industry, is a key player in promoting new
materials. The company specializes in cabinet doors, interior doors and counter-tops.
Descriptions of new offerings never use the word “square” as free-flowing lines and rounded corners are clearly the company’s main expertise.

Product Development Manager Alessandro Rossodivita guarded his latest design prototype (see photo) behind a locked door and allowed only invited guests to take a peek. The new galley structure prototype uses very modernistic-appearing laminates for its seemingly free-floating overhead cabinets and huge drawers designed to handle all kitchen storage needs. Innovative storage systems behind cabinet doors utilize just about every square inch of space and were easy to access without going into back-breaking gyrations. Consideration is given to comfortable counter heights
for cooking and washing dishes and features are often designed for more than one use. A
computer desk, for example, doubles as a makeup table and uses a “magic mirror” that
features a hidden TV screen behind the mirror that can also be used as a computer monitor.

At the show, there were a number of creative exercises in radical design, including a few
motorhomes designed for severe service – think adventure and exploration to remote,
off-road locations.

The most expensive motorhome at the show, a Class A Volkner designed to accommodate a small roadster in its street-side storage bay on a special platform, retails for $1.7 million Euros. At current exchange rates, that’s nearly $2.47 million U.S. dollars.

It was interesting to note that the European RV builders are picking up the pace on amenities, responding to the demand for satellite dishes, flat-screen TVs and lots of wine-glass holders. They’ve focused on lightweight designs, but not on spartan models. Surprisingly, air conditioning is not a priority, but, again, that cuts weight out of rigs.


After checking out hundreds of RVs, it was time to shift gears and prepare for the First
World Conference on RVs, which took place here in conjunction with the show. Entering the
meeting room for the World Conference on RVs was like entering the United Nations, but the
language diversity was offset by the use of wireless translators. This conference really
felt like a world event.
Richard Coon, president of the Recreation Vehicle Industry
Association, led things off with a description of how America’s trade association works.
Attendees were enthralled by the scope of the industry in the U.S. Even with the downturn,
no country comes even close to the number of rigs that are sold in the U.S. – and the
number of households owning RVs. When Coon said, “There’s no doubt in my mind, this
industry is moving toward a world business,” the mood was set for the day.

Canada’s Kevin
Betzold, president of the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association of Canada, followed Coon
and presented the audience with some interesting numbers. According to Betzold, about 14
percent of the Canadian population own RVs and they travel 38.5 million miles a year in
them. That’s certainly good for the economy.

China’s RV industry is just getting started,
and most likely will move fairly fast, as described by Wang Jidong, CEO of 21st Century RV.
With only a few thousand RVs roaming a very undeveloped campground system, China is
enthusiastic about developing standards and an RV infrastructure.

South Africa, in turn,
has an interesting RV community. Dennis Bouwers, managing director of Motorhome-World (the
country’s leading motorcoach builder), made it clear that RVs are, realistically, available
only to the affluent, though he is enthusiastic about building motorized products and
helping the country expand its RV infrastructure. Rigs designed for South Africa have to be
able to survive in the rugged outdoors. South Africa, we’re told, has few vehicle
standards, but lots of wildlife scattered around the county’s 900 campgrounds.

Australia had a large contingent in Düsseldorf. Ben Yates, CEO of the Caravan, RV and Accommodation Industry of Australia, spoke on its behalf at the conference. Yates pointed out that Australia is an exciting place to RV, and it attracts lots of tourists. But its RV industry has slowed down. Yates said that the people are buying homes, pulling money out of equity loans and watching the rates go up. Sound familiar?

Australia has a great campground system, with a big sector under the Caravan Holiday Park system (230,000 sites), and a fantastic outback to explore – often by RV. As Yates says, “Caravaning used to be for those who couldn’t afford something else; today it’s the preferred way to travel.”

Japan has 43 domestic RV manufacturers and 40 RV dealers. It also has 870 Roadside Stations designed for the traveler on the go. These are more than just places to pull over for the night, but
locations at which visitors can also swim and stock up on supplies. Keike Inomata, overseas
information director of the Japan Recreational Vehicle Association, entertained us with
Japanese ingenuity: pocket-size RVs. These tiny rigs, called minis in Japan, are small
enough to go anywhere – and each rig is supplied with a leaflet, “RVer’s 10 Clauses of

As for the domestic German marketplace, Hans-Karl Sternberg, director general of
the German Caravanning Industry Association, presented an overview of the bustling European RV market, and wasted no time taking a few digs at England – all in fun, of course. It seems the English have discovered scientific data that the human brain is able to deal with driving on the left better than the right. Most of Europe doesn’t buy into that.

The Germans and English are the biggest players in the European RV field, but don’t discount the Italians and French. Competition among designers is fierce, with the customers being the ultimate beneficiary, and that fact was not lost on the U.S. contingent.

Europe’s RV industry is carefully regulated, and all the players are working on unifying the standards. By the way, Sweden wins the rigs-per-capita contest: 299 RVs for every 10,000 residents. But in 2007 France registered the most motorcaravans.

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