Dealer Conversations:
Martin O'Neill, Managing Director, Sussex Caravan Centre

Summer 2021 | 5 minute read


Our Dealer Conversations share first-hand experiences from dealers who’ve successfully navigated the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope their insight and advice will shed new light on your own situation, and inspire you on your own road to recovery.

In our second conversation with leisure dealers, we spoke to Martin O’Neill, Managing Director at Sussex Caravan Centre. With two branches in East and West Sussex, this family-run business has been trading for more than 30 years.​​​​​​​

  • Online sales continue to grow
  • Strong customer relationships ensure a steady supply of used stock
  • More people taking holidays in the UK means more leisure sales
  • The bulk of annual sales may soon come from local dealers, not national shows

How has COVID-19 impacted your business in 2021?

​​​​​​​We were able to use lockdown to look at some of the areas of our premises that really needed to be redeveloped but which we would never have time to focus on under normal circumstances.

“We completely redeveloped and expanded our shop. Investing that time would have been really difficult to do when we were trading.”

How have the changing foreign travel rules affected your business?
For the first time ever, everyone is faced with the same question: “What are we going to do with our holiday?” As a result, the caravanning and motorhoming thing has popped up on people’s radar. Caravan and motorhome holidays can make people more aware of what’s around them, helping them find new places that they never knew existed.

It’s given us the opportunity to show this style of holiday to people who wouldn’t have considered it before.

Has much of your business shifted online?

We’ve definitely put more effort into our online presence, and we’ve been making sales to people further and further away – particularly with used vehicles. We’ve even had completely remote sales using Black Horse’s new SignIt Anywhere feature.

Initially we were worried that people would be reluctant to pick up a vehicle they had never seen before. But that fear has been completely unfounded.

“Our customers are coming away with a vehicle they’re really happy with and a great service.”

Are you struggling to find enough stock?

People want to holiday in the UK and there are more people wanting to buy leisure vehicles than there were before, so there’s definitely a supply and demand issue.

Thankfully, we tend to deal with the same people over and over again, and they come back to us to trade in. Our supply of used vehicles comes from those trade-ins, and the vehicles have been looked after by our team so we know the quality of the stock. A lot of dealers that don't rely on repeat business are fighting over second-hand stock that comes available, but we’ve avoided that issue.

Are you seeing any changes in the demographic of your customers?

Traditionally, it was an older person’s type of holiday, because they had more free time to go where they want. But now new people who come into the industry tend to be younger people who have a friend who does it or a member of the family who has done it.

“The caravan and motorhome industries are going to feel the benefit of new people coming in and trying this type of holiday within the UK.”

What advice would you give other dealerships in your sector?

Our industry has always used national shows to sell their products, but you can sell 650 vehicles a year without having attended a single national show. It’s so expensive, and it’s just not worth it. We get customers coming to us who’ve bought a caravan from a show, had to travel to the ends of the earth to buy it, and now need to get it fixed – but the people they bought it from aren’t interested in fixing things.

Shows don't offer the benefit they once did. Even manufacturers would rather have local dealers looking after local customers because of warranties.

If you’re a customer, it’s better to go to your local agent and buy your products. That way, you know they’ll be there to support you.

We hope Martin’s insights provide food for thought as you and your team work to build back from the impact of COVID-19 and take your dealership further down the road to recovery. Look out for future Dealer Conversations, and please do explore our Dealer Resource Hub for other useful articles

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