Camper trailers are such a familiar concept here in Australia. To us, they’re a means of making the most of the outdoors – a vital extension upon any 4WD hitch, an enabler of cross-country adventure. Even if you ask an Aussie who isn’t a camping enthusiast, they’ll usually be able to tell you what campers are, at very least. Campers even form an important entity within our economy, by supporting a number of variously sized business (in both RV and component fields), as well as the tourism sector, regional towns, and the community more broadly (through taxable income).
Given camper trailers are so familiar to us, it’s startling to discover just how foreign a concept they are to others; in other countries around the world, they are a largely unknown. That’s a situation worth challenging, on the basis of principle and business opportunity – as we’ve seen happen with the occasional overseas sales of Australian camper trailers for many years now.
The US stands out as the land of opportunity for manufacturers based here in Australia. Camping is popular over there, only not as of yet in the same shape and form; and the landscape, varying from desert to mountains and as vast as you can imagine, definitely suits the lifestyle. To date, there’s only been a couple of serious attempts to sell them in the general US commercial market; for example, Cub did it for a brief period in the 1990s. But now, following the lead set by Patriot from early 2017, BRS is setting its sights firmly on America, even to the extent of setting up a manufacturing facility there.
BRS Target US Sales and Manufacturing
BRS burst onto the Australian camper trailer scene in 2015 when founder Ben Souter released his Pursuit, a high-stepping hybrid which has taken off in sales and enabled Ben to start directing his attentions to other projects.
In April 2018, BRS released its Sherpa, a highly innovative and high tech teardrop design that rated very well with judges at this year’s REDARC Camper Trailer of the Year – so well in fact that it won in the over $50K category. However, it was there that Souter announced that, while he was busy refining the Sherpa and was keen to see it do well on the Australian market, he had planned and developed it with a view of selling it in the US market.
“Our first container load of four campers will be shipped out to the US early this year,” he told Camper.
“We have a distributor lined up, which is the third largest outlet for Jayco vans and the largest for Airstream in the USA. They tell me that they have eight dealers for us already and the first dealer to get our campers will be Rocket RV in Tennessee.
“We have looked at one of their best selling campers, a brand called the Taxa Cricket, which was designed by an ex-astronaut. By our standards it was very basic and quite expensive, yet they have sold thousands of them. We will be sending over whatever units we can from Australia to satisfy those eight dealers, but really to meet the demand I am expecting that we will need to be manufacturing in the USA.”
Souter explained that to this end he had already found a factory site in Alabama.
“They have the cheapest prices on aluminium in the world, so that will have some serious impacts on the commercial price of our campers,” Souter explained.
He added that he did not see any problems with supplying after sales service to those campers which would initially be exported from Australia, as major appliance brands are all available in the USA as well as here, and the rest is simple fabrication of component parts.
“I see BRS as fitting right into that market,” Ben said.
“The Americans have a long standing cultural association with the teardrop design, going back to the 1930s, and I see the USA as an ever growing, green market. The Sherpa is way ahead of anything they have in that market niche.
“I’d like to be able to supply them from Australia but we simply couldn’t meet the level of potential demand that is there from our current set-up. We are based in the Hunter region of NSW, and that is heavily focussed on the coal mining industry, so anyone with skills with fabrication expects to be paid at least $40 per hour, a sum we simply can’t afford to pay. For us it is hard to expand our Australian operations unless we were prepared to completely relocate to a whole new region.
“We plan to offer the Americans both the Pursuit as well as the Sherpa models.”
Souter explained that he plans to keep the Australian manufacturing arm of the BRS business going regardless of what happens in the USA.
“We are very fortunate in that people like Patriot have been paving the way for Australian product in the US market and have earned us an excellent reputation. It’s a very niche market right now but it’s going to grow like the market did here for hybrids a couple of years back.”
The US market generally has not been very responsive to most Australian campers, finding them too large and heavy, but Souter explained that this is because much of the offroad travelling with campers is done with four cylinder Jeeps and anything with a Tare over 1000kg is not seen favourably.
With a Tare of 1040kg in maximum fit-out and down to 880kg in more basic form, the Sherpa drops right into that market.
Souter explained that his Australian operation is going flat out to meet local demand as well as the initial order of five containers of campers, due in the US mid-year.
Meanwhile, Patriot continues to grow overseas sales
While BRS begins the process of expanding into the US market, Patriot Campers has continued to slowly grow its US market profile while reaching out to other overseas markets, in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Patriot co-founder Justin Montesalvo told Camper last month that their second year on the US market had been one of steady growth.
“This isn’t an instant huge hit,” he explained. “There just isn’t that automatic market recognition that we have here in Australia. We’re having to in effect create our own market niche, but it’s happening steadily and consistently. That’s probably a good thing because we are finding that we’re pretty much at manufacturing saturation as things stand, so we couldn’t deal with any more orders than we have. In fact, we’re in the process of looking for another factory site right now.”
However, there have been some very promising developments in the USA over the past year, with Patriot being approached at this year’s SEMA (Speciality Equipment Market Association) show in Las Vegas by both Jeep and Ford for joint marketing programs of the PCOR (Patriot Campers Off Road) line of canopies and trays as factory options for their pick-up models. This is a potentially huge deal, with an F Series Ford pick-up, for example, being sold every 30 seconds in the USA alone.
“Australian build standards are highly regarded in the US,” says Patriot co-founder Sarah Montesalvo. “They see what we do as very innovative and of the highest standards.”
This is something that wouldn’t have taken place unless a lot of notice was being taken of the Patriot campers by a lot of important people.
“As an innovator and developer I love being a part of the scene in the USA,” Justin Montesalvo continued. “They have no tolerance of those who steal intellectual property. There were a number of exhibitors at this year’s SEMA Show who were escorted from the show and banned for life because they were deemed to have stolen their ideas or were actively engaged in stealing ideas from other exhibitors. That’s the sort of intellectual property protections we should have in this country.”
He went on to add that he knew of one of Patriot’s campers and one of their toy hauler campers which were currently being copied in China, but said “our lawyers are dealing with that right now.”
In the meantime Patriot’s first shipment to the European market has just left. This was a container of eight campers going to a dealer in Germany. Montesalvo said he did not know how that market would develop for them, but they were happy to see it grow; Patriot did not pursue the arrangement but were approached in the US by the European dealer.
In addition the brand’s first shipment of 15 campers has been prepared for the Middle East, for Qatar Airways, which has landed them for use by their customers.
A small Patriot shipment has also been made to Singapore.
Add to that the development of the Patriot Supply Co which is dedicated to the selling of all those non-installation extras which go with the camper trailer lifestyle, such as first aid, fans, fridges, knives, tools, water storage, sleeping gear, swags, chairs, solar, bags, lighting, tables, crockery, cutlery and cooking gear, and you begin to wonder where the time comes from. It probably helps that Patriot now employs over a hundred people at its Queensland headquarters.
Could all this be the beginning of a camper trailer-led balance of payments turn around for Australia?