Blue Bird Migrates to More Competitive Market
As it starts its fifth decade, Blue Bird Body Co.’s Wanderlodge Division, a manufacturer of stylistically unique high-line, diesel-pusher, bus-style motorhomes, is in the midst of a transition from custom-made coaches to more competitively priced production models retailing for as much as $400,000 less than a traditional Wanderlodge.
“Our luxury high-end L series platform is evolving into the high-end M series,” said Bryan Hays, director of sales and marketing for
Fort Valley, Ga.-based Wanderlodge. “We didn’t see any potential in the upper market. We see a lot more opportunities, particularly when you have people who continue to upgrade in the $400,000 to $600,000 range.”
Blue Bird began to phase out the Wanderlodge LX and LXI custom-made lines, which retailed for $600,000 to $850,000 in early 2003, as it introduced the lower-priced Wanderlodge M380 that debuted with a retail base price of $400,000.
“The M series is more production-oriented,” Hays said. “That’s one of the reasons for the drop in price. And we’ll have a more structured bill of materials along with increased production and accompanying labor efficiencies.”
In March, Blue Bird plans to release the Wanderlodge M450, a 45-foot diesel pusher with a base retail price of $595,000, and in June the M400, a 40-footer retailing for $495,000.
The transition began in November 2001, when Wanderlodge started making its own hybrid-monocoque chassis separate from Blue Bird’s bus manufacturing in Georgia. “Before that, Blue Bird was building our chassis body that we were upfitting,” Hays said.
Blue Bird, a leading school bus manufacturer since 1927, began to build high-end, distinctive looking, bus-style motorhomes and a loyal following among United States motorcoach enthusiasts in 1963. Blue Bird has been owned since 1999 by Henlys Group PLC of the United Kingdom, a major builder of commercial buses in Great Britain and Europe. Henlys also has a 50% stake in Canadian bus manufacturer Prevost Car Co.
Hays said Wanderlodge M series coaches will contain fewer options and be built with more standardized construction techniques. “We are only going to offer four colors, whereas with the LXI, they could order any color that they wanted.
“Standardizing is the key,” he explained. “By increasing volume, which will increase overall efficiencies, you can absorb more overhead.”
The distinction between the high-end market with coaches starting at a retail price of about $400,000 and luxury high-end with an $800,000 base price is important, Hays said. “The potential market in the high end is about 1,200 units annually, while the high-end luxury is about 400,” he said.
Hays said the transition is expected to increase Wanderlodge’s production by more than 100%.
“For the last five to eight years we have been averaging 65 to 100 motorhomes a year,” he said. “Going forward, we are looking to stair-step that production up to 250 to 275.”
In the M380’s first year of production, Wanderlodge built 85 units, which already has boosted overall production.
“What separates us from the high-end competition is we have the bus-body construction,” Hays said. “That affords you more structural integrity, more durability, as well as handling and solidness going down the road.”
Hays acknowledged that some Wanderlodge owners were skeptical when the lower-priced M380 was introduced last year. “But then they saw the finished product and they were fully convinced that this is a quality Blue Bird Wanderlodge,” Hays said.
Wanderlodge service is provided at seven dealerships and at seven independent RV service centers around the country. Hays said the company plans to add five new dealerships and certify five new service centers in the near future.