Starcraft Finds Success in Tapping Travel Trailer Market
Starcraft RV Inc. has long been known for its folding camping trailers that as recently as 15 years ago accounted for nearly 80% of its company production. More recently, however, Starcraft has repositioned itself by adding an array of expandable hybrid trailers and more traditional travel trailers and fifth-wheels to its lineup.
Although folding camping trailers are still a significant percentage of what Starcraft builds, popups in 2005 accounted for a shade under 43% of Starcraft's total production.
"In the last several years we've come to understand the markets that we want to attack," said Donald J. Walter, president of the Topeka, Ind., subsidiary.
Currently in an expansion mode with the introduction of the new entry-level "stick-and-tin" Starcraft ST travel trailer, the company recently took over the full use of a 100,000-square-foot factory in LaGrange, Ind., that had been used by parent-company Jayco.
Starcraft was founded in 1903 in the heart of Northern Indiana's Amish community to make livestock tanks and other farm equipment. Boats were added to the company's repertoire in the 1920s, and Starcraft began building folding camping trailers in 1964 — later expanding to soft-sided truck campers and lightweight and full-size travel trailers and fifth-wheels.
The folding camping trailer market has been going through a transition for several years, and Starcraft's production reflects that fact.
Although December shipments of folding camping trailers increased 26.3% to 2,400 units compared to 2004, shipments for the year totaled 32,800 units, down 3.8% from the prior year. And that's been the trend for a couple of years.
But even as the folding camping trailer market declined last year, Starcraft's 11.6% share of the retail folding camper market was up 7.7% from 2004, according to research firm Statistical Surveys Inc. "Even in a down market, we were still up," Walter said.
At the same time, as of early February, Starcraft had the largest backlog in company history, according to Walter.
The largest part of that, Walter said, is from the company's rugged RT folding camping trailer equipped with macho off-the-road features such as 15-inch knobby tires with mud flaps, higher ground clearance, leaf-spring suspension and a front-end cargo platform. "We got rather creative," said Walter, adding that the design was borrowed from a trailer made by Jayco in Australia.
"It was half their production," he said. Walter, 60, a former administrator at Miami University of Ohio, came to the RV industry in 1973 when his car broke down in Forest City, Iowa. While waiting for repairs he toured the Winnebago Industries Inc. factory, becoming enthralled with what he calls "the little houses on wheels."
Following stints as an executive with Coachmen Industries Inc., Elkhart, Ind., and as president of Holiday Rambler Corp.'s RV Division, Wakarusa, Ind., Walter joined Starcraft as president when Middlebury, Ind.-based Jayco acquired the company out of bankruptcy in 1991.
"For a company that had been in bankruptcy before Jayco acquired it, it's been nothing but profitable since," Walter said. Long involved in RV industry issues, he was appointed in 2003 co-chairman of the Go RVing Coalition.
Despite steadily declining sales of folding camping trailers in recent years, Walter isn't even close to writing their obituary. "There's always going to be a market for the open air and the garagability, towability and price of a camping trailer," Walter said. "If there is a true entry-level price in the RV industry, it is in camping trailers."
Walter attributes the advent of expandable hybrid travel trailers — hard-sided trailers with tent-like bunk extensions at one or both ends — for the decline in folding camping trailer sales in recent years. "The camping trailer market has been the victim of the popularity of the expandable product," Walter said. "That in a nutshell is the reason. Our expandables have been our most popular products since we started manufacturing them." Starcraft's repositioning began to occur in the 2002 model year with Starcraft's introduction of the Aruba travel trailer with a non-traditional white, open interior. The next year, Starcraft introduced Aruba fifth-wheel floorplans and launched the Homestead towable series with a more traditional interior.
In the repositioning, some Starcraft brands disappeared. "We redefined and reduced our offerings because it was getting too unwieldy," Walter says. "There were too many variables that were offshoots of the core brands."
In part, Walter said, that also meant simplifying products. "For instance, on the Homestead, we maintained the look and most of the features, but we targeted floorplans that were appropriate for half-ton trucks. We can build a 40-foot, quad-slide, tri-axle fifth-wheel," Walter said, "but that's not our market. We've settled into a niche with products that can fold and products that are able to pulled by half-ton pickup trucks.
"Our dealers, particularly Danny Fults (owner of Payless Auto and Campers sales) have been helpful guiding us in that direction."
Production of Starcraft's more conventional trailers was augmented in 2005 by an order that Starcraft completed in February for 1,000 30-foot units sold through dealerships for emergency Gulf Coast housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina.