Featherlite Enters the RV Mainstream With SURVs
Aluminum cargo trailer and luxury coach manufacturer Featherlite Inc. moved into the more traditional recreational vehicle segment in April with the debut of the Featherlite SURV, a line of travel trailers and fifth-wheels featuring popular "garages" to haul outdoor equipment.
Featherlite, headquartered in Cresco, Iowa, has equipped its specialty aluminum trailers, used by race-car teams, serious hobbyists and horse owners, with customized living features for 15 years. But the new Featherlite SURV, with MSRPs below $46,000, is a mainstream product with modest price tags compared to Featherlite's specialty trailers, which sell for up to $700,000.
"Our specialty trailers are made to haul something – horses, cars, motorcycles – and we have equipped some of those with living quarters," said Conrad Clement, chairman, president and CEO of publicly owned Featherlite. "The SURV basically has some of the same characteristics of our specialty trailers – similar all-aluminum construction, for instance – but it will be much less expensive. And while the specialty trailers are custom-made – and our luxury coaches are custom – the SURV is going to be standardized."
Clement said Featherlite has taken the increasing general popularity of SURVs as an opportunity for dealers to sell more Featherlite products.
"We wanted to diversify our product line and leverage on the Featherlite brand and give dealers another product line to sell," he said.
Featherlite's traditional aluminum trailers are sold by about 240 trailer dealers nationwide, and by June about 25 dealers had signed separate deals to sell the Featherlite SURV.
"We have a lot of specialty trailer dealers who are anxious to take on the SURV line," Clement said. "This is going to allow them to diversify a little bit. Featherlite always has been at the top of the product line. That is what we are going to do with the Featherlite SURV. We’re not going to see how cheaply we can build them. We are going to build a quality product and sell it at a fair price.
"The big thing is that our dealers have been getting calls for this type of trailer and haven’t had a competitive product to sell."
Clement said the Featherlite SURV will attract RVers who've owned lesser-quality units. "These are going to appeal to people who know the difference between a higher-quality trailer and a low-quality trailer," he said. "That's the way our specialty trailers sell. We usually are not the first trailer that someone has owned."
In 1988, Clement, then a farm-equipment dealer and auctioneer in Minnesota, bought Featherlite from its founders who at the time were making aluminum horse and livestock trailers. Two years later, Clement began to diversify by building a custom auto hauler for NASCAR team owner Richard Childress, whose driver at the time was Dale Earnhart.
"We saw that NASCAR was beginning to expand, and our second trailer was for Richard Petty," Clement recalled. "It all began to evolve from there, and later we became the NASCAR's official trailer and then for the Indy Racing League and the NHRA."
About the same time, NASCAR drivers and teams in other racing circuits started to use motorhomes to live in at the track. "That's what got us expanding into the luxury motorcoach business," Clement said.
Starting in 1994, Featherlite built its first three luxury diesel-pusher motorcoaches at its Cresco factory and in 1996 purchased Vantaré Inc., Sanford, Fla., from founder Mike Guth and created the Featherlite Luxury Coaches Division, which converts high-end Prevost bus shells.
"At that time, it was a small company making about 12 to 15 coaches a year," Clement said. "Now we make about one new bus conversion a week."
Featherlite continues to make a standard line of utility trailers and specialty aluminum trailers that can be customized to suit customers' specific needs. About 15% of the specialty aluminum trailers are equipped to some degree with living features such as beds, kitchens and bathrooms. "We do a lot of RV-type things on the specialty trailer side," Clement said.
The longstanding perception that all-aluminum trailers are more expensive is disappearing as the price difference has decreased between traditional stick-and-tin or fiberglass-and-aluminum towables, he said.
"That has made aluminum trailers more competitive," Clement said. "And they are lighter, so they take less fuel, which has become a big deal. They also will last forever because they don’t rust or corrode like a steel-framed trailer."
To prove his point, Clement noted that the first Featherlite trailer manufactured in 1973 is still around. He bought the 20-foot livestock trailer in 2000 and it’s still in use around Cresco today.