As Economy Improves, RV Popularity Soars
Chris Adams says the reasons behind a resurgence in recreational-vehicle sales are obvious.
“The economy is getting better, and gas prices are going down quite a bit. The industry is way up,” said Adams, a member of the Pioneer Valley 8 chapter of the North American Family Campers Assoc., and co-chairman with his wife, Trudi, of the upcoming 2016 Camping & Outdoor Show at the Eastern States Exposition.
The statistics back up that assessment. According to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Assoc. (RVIA), RV shipments in 2015 are expected to top 365,000 units, which would be the highest total since 2006, and the sixth consecutive year of growth since sales bottomed out in 2009, the low point of the Great Recession.
But RV popularity isn’t only a recent phenomenon driven by economic winds. According to the RVIA, motorhome ownership has reached record levels, with more than 9 million households in the U.S. now owning an RV, the highest level ever recorded. That figure marks a 16% increase since 2001 and a 64% jump since 1980.
Marc LaBrecque has experienced the entire spectrum of that growth. He started servicing, then selling, towable RVs in 1973, at Minuteman RV in Chicopee. Today, he’s the owner of Diamond RV Center in West Hatfield, the region’s largest motorhome dealer, and a business reaping the benefits of not only a surge in sales, but growing demographic diversity among buyers.
“In 2004 or 2005, you could pinpoint the fifth-wheel buyer by age — 62 to 72,” he said, referring to a towable RV that connects to the rear axle of a pickup truck. “That’s really changed. That demographic starts now at 30 and goes to 70.”
Meanwhile, big-dollar motorhomes, the kind that don’t need towing, have become more popular with the 45- to 60-year-old demographic, when they were once dominated by older buyers.
“It’s getting much younger — probably because 20-year payments are available,” LaBrecque noted. “It’s almost like getting a mortgage on your home. You can get into a nice, new motorhome for $125,000, and that payment could be $600 or $650 a month.”
Still, he went on, “our bread and butter is still our travel trailers. You can get a nice travel trailer in the $25,000 to $35,000 range and have a payment about $250 a month — that’s affordable for many people.”
That affordability has drawn growing numbers of Americans looking for a more outdoor-oriented style of vacation, and perhaps new friendships, as regular campers tend to form bonds and meet up on weekends.
“It’s a nice way to just get away from the hustle and bustle of the work week and kind of kick back and relax,” said Adams, who has owned RVs for more than 20 years.
In a Harris Interactive survey on the benefits of RV ownership, experiencing nature and outdoor activities and enjoying quality family time topped the list. Owners also said they’ve built stronger bonds with loved ones, eat healthier food on the road, and enjoy sleeping their own beds and using their own bathroom facilities.
There may be financial benefits as well. A vacation cost comparison prepared last year by PKF Consulting USA showed that a family of four can save 27% to 62% on vacation costs by traveling in an RV, even when factoring in ownership costs and fuel. For a two-person traveling party, savings are 11% to 48%.
In addition to vacation travel, RV owners use them for tailgating, travel with pets, business, and to participate in outdoor sports and other leisure activities. As for vacation time, the survey indicates that owners lean toward shorter trips closer to home — enjoying campgrounds rather using up fuel and time on the road. More than 90% of RVers take three or more mini-vacations per year, choosing from more than 16,000 campgrounds nationwide.
For this style of vacation, fuel prices would have to nearly triple over current levels to make RV trips more expensive for a family of four than other forms of travel. “While fuel costs are a component of the overall vacation cost, fluctuations in fuel prices aren’t significant enough to affect a family’s decision of whether or not to take RV trips over other types of vacations,” said Kannan Sankaran, PKF’s lead researcher for the study.
It helps, Adams, that motorhome enthusiasts have many price points to choose from.
“It’s a large spectrum,” he told BusinessWest. “A family that’s just starting out, or that may not have a lot of money, may want to start with a pop-up camper or just get out there with a tent. It goes all the way up to people who are retiring and buying the big-dollar motorhomes with all the luxuries. There’s a huge variety all depending on where you are in life.”
LaBrecque said he started selling Newmar motorhomes — a high-end line, costing $250,000 and up — about two years ago. “We’re doing a pretty good job with the $400,000 Dutch Stars — 40- to 43-foot, diesel motorhomes with ceramic tile floors, cherry cabinets, high-end stuff. That market has come alive. It makes Diamond more of a destination point.”
According to the RVIA, manufacturers, recognizing the growing diversity of RV owners, are focused on offering products with an optimal mix of size, amenities, and price, including budget-friendly options like lightweight trailers and smaller, fuel-efficient motorhomes. Technologies such as solar panels and energy-efficient components are showing up on more models as well, to appeal to users with a bent toward going green.
LaBrecque said he’s selling more high-end models than ever to people who aren’t yet retired but are looking down the road to a luxurious mode of recreation.
“A lot of these guys have done OK in business, but were pushed into a corner” by the Great Recession, he explained. “They worked hard for the last 10 years to get through this stuff, not spending money. But now, things are OK, and they’re thinking, ‘I can afford to do this. My family suffered through the recession; let’s do it.’”
Whatever the level of luxury an RV owner prefers (or can afford), “once you get out camping with other people, you all have that in common,” Adams said, citing his own experiences with members of Pioneer Valley 8. “In our group, we treat it like a family; we all know each other. Everyone is friendly. If someone is having trouble with their motorhome, people stop and help them. We all relate to each other.”
These days, Adams and his wife are focused on chairing the annual Camping & Outdoor Show, a year-round task that heats up as the event approaches; the couple have been spending at least 10 to 12 hours a week on coordinating all the moving parts that will draw hundreds of vehicles and thousands of enthusiasts to the Big E on Feb. 12-15.
“Everything is put on by volunteers,” he said. “It’s a lot of work. It definitely would be a lot easier if it was a job with a salary, and you could focus on if eight or hours a day. But we’re all volunteers. It’s a pretty large undertaking.”
The show’s popularity seems secure, as analysts at research firm TechNavio estimate that North American RV sales will continue to grow at more than 8% per year, on average, through 2019. With buyers in the 35-to-54 age group now the largest segment of owners, according to a University of Michigan study, industry prospects seem secure. And no one is counting out the Baby Boomers, retiring with, in many cases, large nest eggs.
“This has made our advertising so hard to do,” LaBrecque said. “In the old days, we would hit country-western stations, the NASCAR people. Now, there’s such diversity. And with fuel prices down, so many people are buying SUVs again, and they have that tow trailer.”
In short, RV sales keep rolling along.
“The good economy is just getting started,” LaBrecque told BusinessWest. “I’m hoping we’ll be on a roll for awhile.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]