Recreation is the key principal at this dealership
by Will Lindner
Since 1985, Bruce Mekkelsen and his sister Connie Mekkelsen Cherrier are in the driver’s seat at Mekkelsen’s RV Sales & Rentals in East Montpelier, the company started by their parents, John and Grace Mekkelsen, in the late 1960s.
Fran Roberts, the founder of Long View RV Superstores in Windsor Locks, Conn., has been selling motor homes, travel trailers, and pop-up campers in Massachusetts and Connecticut since 1959.
“I like to tell people that we sold the first covered wagons that went across America,” he jokes, alluding to how long he and his wife have been in business.
Yet there’s more than a grain of truth in what he says. The RV (recreational vehicle) industry was very much a creature of its times, emblematic of a new mobility Americans were enjoying in those post-war days, with cheap gas, a growing middle class, and the birth of the interstate highway system. Roberts is very cognizant of the ribbon of pavement (I-95) connecting his New England showrooms to warm and sunny Florida.
It took slightly longer for the RV industry to take hold in Vermont, which was more remote, more rural, and less affluent. But in 1965 Grace Mekkelsen, a nurse and mother of four in Barre, had the notion of renting a pop-up trailer to go to Maine, where her son John wanted to cheer on his Little League teammates who were playing in an all-star championship in Portland. Grace’s husband, John, thought she was nuts. He had grown up on a hilltop farm in Barre and was a partner with Joe Tofani in Tofani Motor Sales, at the time a struggling auto dealership. Heading off into the unknown towing some kind of trailer didn’t make sense to him.
“We weren’t wealthy enough to stay in a motel,” says Grace, who like her husband, is 91. She wanted to try a small camper-trailer from one of the dealers in the area. John Sr. went along “begrudgingly,” as his son Bruce, who was then a toddler, describes it.
Fifty years later, Bruce and his sister Connie Mekkelsen Cherrier are running Mekkelsen RV Sales & Rentals in East Montpelier, the business that grew out of that long-ago adventure when the family of six, in a rented Apache camper, camped at Moody Beach, Maine.
“Dad had a blast,” Bruce recalls.
Subsequently, the family took trips to Cape Cod and other destinations within driving distance, and in 1967 John purchased a shipment of about four campers from an Apache dealer, and added them to them to the Saabs, MGs, and German Lloyds he and Tofani were trying to sell to a Ford, Chevy, and Chrysler clientele on Main Street in Barre.
Trouble was, there wasn’t much room on that lot for the pop-ups. Then one day in 1969, Grace, driving her rounds as a visiting nurse, happened to pass through East Montpelier.
“I saw an old farm for sale on Route 2,” she says, “which is a pretty well-trafficked road, and I thought, ‘This would be a good place to establish the business.’”
The 120-acre farm was a mess. Decrepit machinery and farming detritus were scattered about, and the house, which became their sales office for lack of an alternative, was a fixer-upper.
“My wife worked every night after work, taking off wallpaper,” John recalls. “Grace is the one who was responsible for us going into business and being where we are today. I keep telling the kids, ‘If it weren’t for your mother we’d all be on welfare!”
Bruce and Connie — general manager and rental-and-operations manager, respectively — agree it was their mother who prodded and planned and envisioned a family-owned RV business. But it’s also true that their father enjoys casting himself, undeservedly, as a buffoon!
“I’m not the sharpest guy in the world,” he says. “Early on, we had a trailer set up at the Sportsmen’s Show at the Barre Auditorium. In those days you’d set up the canvas separately. An Apache dealer from Burlington came by to see what was going on, and he looked at the trailer and said, ‘Would you mind if I put this together right for you? We had so many people help us get started.”
Their circle, in fact, grew to include Fran and Shirley Roberts, the pioneering RV dealers in Connecticut, with whom they have traveled the world.
From those early, uncertain days, Mekkelsen has become a landmark on the edge of the village of East Montpelier, with its oversized inventory lined up on both sides of the roadway that takes commuters into Vermont’s capital city.
As to that inventory: “People misconceive the term RV,” says Connie, who at 54 is a year older than her brother and partner, Bruce. Understandably, she says, people assume that “recreational vehicle” applies only to the motor homes that represent the high end, cost-wise, of Mekkelsen’s business. “But actually RVs are all of it: travel trailers, fifth-wheels, and motor homes.”
Fifth-wheels are trailers with an overhang at the front that reaches over the bed of a pickup. Travel trailers can attach to cars or trucks, and come in a tremendous variety of sizes. In recent years a comparatively small, somewhat oval travel trailer called the R-pod has been all the rage. It’s light enough to be pulled by the moderate-size cars that are popular in Vermont. A flap opens on one end, covered by tent material with fine-gauge screening that lets campers sleep in the almost-open air.
Much fancier travel trailers also are plentiful on the Mekkelsen lot, proving that a customer can have virtually all the comforts of home in an RV, from lounge chairs to elaborate kitchen islands to wide-screen TVs to faux fireplaces, depending on budget and taste.
The Mekkelsens treat the staff like family, and the staff sticks around. Salesman Patrick Darling has the longest tenure at 26 years, while Peg Wilkins, the bookkeeper has logged 23. Kim Sample, service manager with 12 years’ service, just helped host a 20th anniversary party for RV technician David Spidle. Connor Towle, sales and service, is the youngest employee.
An aspect of Mekkelsen’s business that runs contrary to many people’s assumptions is that it markets the affordability of RV vacations. Rental contracts outstrip purchases by 2 to 1, says Connie, and the company does far more business within the broad category of travel trailers than with fifth-wheels and motor homes.
As Peter Hood of Middlesex (the Mekkelsens’ longtime insurance provider and a 20-year customer as well) points out, “The high-end motor homes — however much money you’ve got, you can spend it on one of those — hasn’t been the core of Mekkelsens’ business.Their business has been camper trailers, family-oriented trailers, the more economical end of the playing field. And that’s no surprise,” he adds. “That’s the customer base in central Vermont.”
Hearkening back to that trip to Maine, Bruce and Connie identify with that portion of their market, and see their longevity and sustainability within it.
“Families are always going to be important. And families are always going to take vacations,” says Connie.
The RV market has responded to 21st-century concerns. Portable solar panels, mountable on a camper’s roof or the ground beside it, are a popular amenity, and in an era of “staycations,” a light-weight travel trailer towed by a vehicle with good gas mileage can get a family to a campground with modest fuel consumption. Once the driving is over, Bruce points out, they can stay more cheaply than at a hotel where they’re purchasing meals, and impose less of a carbon footprint on the environment because of the “stay” part of staycation.
Campgrounds have been innovative, too. There are 135 campgrounds in Vermont, and in the early and late parts of the season, many will allow owners to leave their campers on the grounds free of charge during weekdays and return to use them on weekends.
Bruce and Connie took over the company in 1985 when they were just in their 20s. John senior explains that suddenly he’d had enough, although he worried they weren’t prepared for the responsibility. “I demanded monthly statements from them, and for 18 years they always showed progress. I guess I was wrong.”
They had grown up with business being concluded in the family dining room, transactions mingling with the fragrance of Grace’s pies and bread. A separate office building has since been erected.
Bruce and his wife, Laurie, live close by in East Montpelier with their four children, ages 10 to 18. Connie lives in Waterbury with her husband, Larry Cherrier, recently retired from a career at the National Guard airbase in Burlington. They are the proud grandparents of 8-month-old Liam, born to Connie’s stepdaughter, Emily.
When the Mekkelsens get away, they get away together! Along with their older sister, Jane (their brother John is deceased), they travel to Florida every winter to spend time with their parents, and as if working together weren’t enough, Connie, Bruce, and their spouses own a summer camp in Grand Isle.
This family orientation seems a natural fit with the convivial RV lifestyle they promote and live. Bruce acknowledges that “People who haven’t tried it don’t understand it”; Connie adds, “People who do it would never give it up.” •