Former classmates now atop county’s RV scene

Howard Vande Kieft and Don Buys say less disposable income hurting local sales

Room to spare: Wholesale Travel Sales owner Howard Vande Kieft inside a park model RV. The Lynden dealership usually has around 40 different RV models on site.

   Not unlike many classmates, since graduating from high school Howard Vande Kieft and Don Buys have stayed in touch over the years, keeping up an occasional telephone correspondence.
   When the two 1957 Lynden Christian High School alums get in touch, however, they tend to bypass talk about old chums, ex-crushes and glory days, and get right down to business.
   That’s because former Lyncs Vande Kieft and Buys are linked in another way — they run Whatcom County’s two largest recreational-vehicle dealerships, Wholesale Travel Sales and VacationLand R.V. & Truck Sales, respectively.
   And as other RV dealers in the area have come and gone over the years, the two have always viewed each other more as friendly competition than rivals.
   “If I don’t have something, I’ll send customers to Howard, and vice versa,” said Buys. “Our major competition comes from the south and they have larger selections and inventories, so in the county we have to give better service. Howard and I send business each other’s way and can rest assured customers are taken care of.”
   While Vande Kieft, who owns Lynden’s Wholesale Travel Sales, and Buys, who serves as general manager of Bellingham’s VacationLand R.V. & Truck Sales, are the current kings of Whatcom County’s RV roads, both say the industry isn’t without challenges.
   Earlier this year, according to figures supplied by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), deliveries on new motor homes to dealers fell 13.6 percent in the first part of 2005; 2004’s sales were the highest since 1978.
One of the biggest issues locally, Buys said, is the toll of skyrocketing housing prices on the RV industry.
   With the average price of homes in most parts of the county at or near $300,000, many young families, long a staple consumer in the industry, simply can’t afford RVs, which can cost between $10,000 for a small, used travel trailer to more than $60,000, for a new, deluxe fifth-wheel trailer.
   “In the ‘70s, RVing was definitely a family type thing,” Buys said. “Today, my customers are primarily more than 50 years old. The thing of it is, if you’re buying an RV, as much as it’s for family bonding, if you look at the price of homes, the discretionary income isn’t there for families anymore. It’s sad.”
   Keeping up with high demands for repair service in the spring and summer months is also a tough task for the local dealerships.
   During the peak of the RV sales and traveling season, which runs from April to September, mechanics at Wholesale Travel Sales and VacationLand, which both offer full-service repairs, are swamped with work.
   Wholesale Travel Sales, which has seven employees, specializes in towable RVs, like travel trailers and fifth-wheel trailers, along with park model RVs, which are similar to mobile homes; VacationLand, which has eight employees, specializes in used motor homes, as well as towable RVs.
   Vande Kieft and Buys said they could save money by only employing mechanics during busy times, but because it’s so difficult to find skilled RV technicians, they don’t want to lose any of their employees to other competitors in the region.
As a result, RV owners who may want to be on the road in the summer may have their departure dates set back a bit if their vehicle requires service and the local mechanics face their usual backlog of work.
   “There’s been times, and there still are, when we have to turn away service work,” Buys said. “The difficult part about running an RV business is that right now I could afford to bring on another mechanic but, come November, I don’t have the work for them. We want to keep our guys on year-round because you don’t find good RV techs falling out of the sky, and you can’t start in the spring with new help.”
Whatcom County’s unique geography also poses a challenge to the dealerships.
Most RV dealerships, said Vande Kieft, draw from a 30 or 40 mile radius.
   “Here, we’re bordered by the water, mountains and Canada so we don’t have a big draw capacity,” Buys said.
   At times, though, the county’s geography can be one of the benefits to selling RVs here.
   Many Canadians, Vande Kieft said, have memberships at local campgrounds near Mount Baker or Birch Bay so they buy park model RVs from him, which he then delivers and constructs for them.
   Also, because of the county’s numerous, nearby outdoor-recreation opportunities, high gas prices aren’t a big deterrent to many consumers, as they can be in areas where RV owners have to drive great distances to reach popular getaways.
   “We’ve never really found gas prices to be a problem,” Vande Kieft said. “When we had the first energy crunch (in the 1970s and 1980s), people who were concerned would just go shorter distances. We’re fortunate and blessed to be in an area where if you drew a 100-mile circle around the county you’d find so many campgrounds you probably couldn’t hit ‘em all in one summer.”
   RVIA statistics show Whatcom County’s demographics are also rather favorable for Vande Kieft and Buys. According to RVIA’s web site, the typical RV owner is 49 years old, married, with an annual household income of $56,000. Census 2000 found more than 35 percent of Bellingham’s population was over 45 years old and the average household income was around $40,000.
   In addition, a University of Michigan study predicts that as baby boomers enter their prime RV buying years, the number of RV-owning households will rise to nearly 8 million by 2010. RVIA reports there are currently some 7 million RV-owning households in the U.S.
   “I think the future looks good because RVing is definitely becoming something more older people do,” Buys said.
   Whatcom County’s RV scene has also benefited other businesses in the past and will likely continue to do so in the future.
   Because it’s believed RVs, which can run for more than 20 years, last longer if they’re kept out of the elements, many storage businesses cater to RV owners.
   At Pantec Mini-Storage, said manager Nadine Valerio, almost all of her RV spaces, which cost between $35 to $110 a month to rent, depending on size, are full.    Meanwhile, at least one more mini-storage facility has opened recently, in part to cater to RVs, while some private residences around the county have built facilities capable of storing multiple RVs.
   “Now there’s newer models coming into the industry and Bellingham isn’t really keeping up with them,” Valerio said. “People invest in these big motor homes and there’s not a lot of places to keep them in town, and people can’t keep them in front of their houses because of covenants and what not.”
   In addition to storage facilities, businesses such as fiberglass and engine shops are often frequented by RV owners. For example, an employee at B&J Fiberglass said his shop is often asked to repair damaged RVs, and an official at Northland Diesel Service said his garage works on several RVs a month, usually doing fuel-injection work.
   While there have been as many as six RV dealerships in the county at once, both Vande Kieft and Buys believe their local roots have helped with their success.
   Vande Kieft, who went to work at Wholesale Travel Sales in 1964 for h
is uncle, Peter Huisingh, and bought him out in the early 1970s, said he usually has around 40 different units in stock and sold more than 100 RVs last year.
   Buys, a former accountant, has been in the RV industry since 1984, when he worked at Bellingham Chrysler. He bought VacationLand in 1994 and recently sold it to Jim Clay, owner of Pioneer Ford. Buys, who was asked to remain as general manager, said there are about 35 units on his lot but declined to say how many were sold last year.
   Vande Kieft and Buys, who’ve both sold cars in the past, said selling RVs is much more enjoyable.
   “Everybody needs a car but you dont need an RV,” Buys said. “When people buy an RV, they know they’re buying fun, and I love to sell fun.”


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