Tale of Two Centuries

Here we are nearly two decades into the 21st century. Smartphones. Streaming media. Electric cars. Digital 3D movie theaters. Wind farms. GPS routing. Flat screen TVs. All products of this century. So why is it that this far into the 21st century that RV products and the ownership experience still stay so persistently rooted in the last century?

I just recently replaced my Navion's water heater with a new, state-of-the-art Truma. The one we took out was essentially just like the one in my dad's 1971 Ute Liner. The only difference in about forty years? An automatic pilot light igniter.

As I walked through the various exhibit halls of the national Recreational Vehicle Industry Association in late November I was on the hunt for the future. With a few exceptions, all I saw was a repackaging of the past.

I walked into one competitive Sprinter-based motorhome product where they proudly were featuring a Honeywell touchscreen system that clearly was designed for home residences and screwed onto a wall for a "modern" effect. Lame. In another top-tier manufacturer's highest end diesel pushers I looked at their home system control screens with interfaces that took me back to my son's Nintendo 64 video game. Really?

And it's not just electronics. For years now the industry has equated different floor plans with being innovative. Well, you know what? In the name of innovation, all those floor plans add a lot to buyer confusion and manufacturing inefficiency. In the RV world, the idea of innovation and fashion often becomes conflated. Bolting on another gizmo or naming a cabinet color for a wood finishing process that nobody has ever heard of is not innovative.

RV's, and specifically motorhomes, are the love union of the automotive world and residential homebuilding. Those two industries are on wildly different evolutional timelines. The automotive industry is fixated on annual model years and constant engineering innovation. We consume and discard cars a lot more frequently than we do homes. Innovations in homebuilding are more on a geologic timetable with over-the-decades improvements in energy efficiency and construction materials. Beyond location, a home choice is usually predicated on aesthetic interests. The floor plan may be about the same with the ghosts of harvest gold appliances and green mini shag now futuristically reimagined in stainless steel and engineered hardwood.

In the general public's mind, the Winnebago brand stands for dependable recreational vehicles that get sub-categorized into a generic camping experience. It's not a brand, or for that matter an industry, that you'd associate with either innovation or fashion. And that's where it gets very, very interesting.

When you sift through the six-decade history of Winnebago you see many points of innovation and the inevitable market following of competitors that occurs afterward. The Winnebago View was the first Mercedes Sprinter-based motorhome in North America in 2006, but it was the product of two decades of experience on fuel-efficient chassis from Toyota, Renault, and Volkswagen. This is just one example of the company's market leadership over the years.

Coming out of the Great Recession, Winnebago was, like it's remaining competitors, battered and bruised and simply happy to slowly build back production volumes based on its pre-recession product lines. Orders slowly came back and new products were conservative refreshes of existing models. The course was solid but wholly unimaginative. Winnebago ceased to be a market leader and fell back into the comfort of being a safe, albeit unimaginative choice for RV buyers. A restlessness from the board of directors resulted in sweeping management changes with a clear expectation that the company needed to not only get their groove back but exceed even their past primacy as a leader in the RV industry.

Battleships take time to turn around, but in just two years the company has been making significant changes. Wall Street, investors, and, most importantly, buyers are noticing. At Winnebago, the 20th century is finally receding in the side view mirrors. It's happening in many ways that you can't see behind the scenes, but you're now seeing those changes show up in some exciting, market-leading products.

On the true innovation side, Winnebago blew the garage doors open when it introduced the Travato B-van several years ago. Industry-wide the B-van space is on fire and Winnebago's suite of Euro-based vans built on the Promaster (Travato), Transit (Fuse) and Sprinter (Era) well demonstrates the company's track record of finding success in developing new market segments.

The explosive and enthusiastic embrace of the Sprinter 4x4 Revel has been phenomenal. The company is ramping up production to an even higher than expected pitch to meet demand. It is bristling with innovation from onboard electronics and components, to a custom engineered living environment. The Revel is very compact and not for everyone, but to the untapped reservoir of outdoor adventurers, it streaked to the top of everyone's wish list.

The new Intent is far less sexy or overtly innovative as its spunky little Revel cousin. It's the most basic of traditional Class A gas motorhomes. But here too, the company's renewed passion for reinvention shows up with many behind the scenes manufacturing simplifications that improve quality and consistency of the product while, at the same time, lowering the purchase price.

Finally, there's the Horizon, Winnebago's newest up-market diesel pusher. It just won the RV Business Motorhome of the Year award in a contest that wasn't even close. Like its competitors in the $300,000 and up class it has all the standard check off luxury items, but unlike any Class A motorhome manufactured in America today, when you stand inside a Horizon, you know you're in the 21st century. It's akin to the same feeling you get when you settle behind the wheel of a Tesla and look at its console-wide vertical display. This is the future and you know it when you see it.

Innovation isn't just about technology, nor is it the transient moment of a shift in fashion. Innovation is the hinge point where desires shift and expectations raise. Innovation is about thought leadership, moving past the incremental into the uncomfortableness of dramatic change, which in time becomes so normal that it's hard to remember the time before. This is what's happening at Winnebago. The sweat, strain, and struggle of pulling the RV industry out of one century into the new one have been long overdue, and the RV industry, in general, owes Winnebago a real debt of thanks for leading the way.