The words “recreational vehicle” and “motorhome” might not conjure up associations with leading designers, A-list actors or trophy homes but it appears that the cumbersome “lounges on wheels” ridiculed by the style police for decades have come into their own.
In Aesop’s fable the tortoise, handicapped by that lumbering carapace on his back, crossed the line ahead of the sprightly hare. So it is that roving homes and the outdoor lifestyle are in vogue even during the economic downturn, according to the Financial Times.
”We have lots of RV parks where occupancy rates are up 13 to 14%,” says Cheryl Smith, of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), which represents more than 3,700 sites across the U.S. The national increase averages out at nearer 5%.
”We expect that to increase when the winter kicks in and the snowbirds are on the move again,” continues Smith, referring to RV-owning retirees from northern states and Canada who typically head south during the winter.
Smith attributes this upturn to Americans’ bullish spirit of optimism in the toughest of times. “People might not be able to afford to fly or stay in hotels but they’re all remembering that RV in the backyard, dusting it down and taking to the road,” she says.
In so doing, friends and family not only bond with nature but with one another, reckons Smith. For in our high-tech age of multiple distractions, families sometimes need to get away from their main home and turn to a second home, on wheels, in order to reconnect with each other.
“People often come to parks without their cellphones. They make their own entertainment; they cook and eat a meal together, she said. Furthermore, the process of simply “getting there” in an RV is a family adventure that is easily more appealing than the horrors of peak-time airline travel associated with bricks and mortar second homes. Crucially in the U.S., such vehicles are also classed as second homes and are tax deductible.
News of the increased demand at RV parks and campgrounds in most of the U.S. is a welcome boost to RV manufacturers, who have been in the doldrums throughout the recession.
The sales of market leader Winnebago were down almost 80% in 2008 – ironically, the year that the company celebrated its 50th birthday. Not that Winnebago remains the byword for the RV it once was, as company spokesperson Sheila Davis concedes.
“Today it refers to all kinds of recreational vehicle, from motorhomes to travel trailers and pop-up campers,” she says. “In the past 10 years (especially), there’s been a huge growth in active lifestyle interests so both the image of the RV and kinds of vehicles available have changed to reflect this.”
Cultural cachet doesn’t get much better than being acquired by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA). In 2007 it hailed the 1963 Airstream Bambi travel trailer an American design icon.
It became only the seventh automotive design in MoMA’s collection, joining such classics as the Volkswagen Beetle, the Jaguar E-Type and the original Jeep. Suddenly not only was the Airstream, its riveted aluminium design resembling a bomber’s fuselage essentially unchanged since the 1920s, a metaphor for wanderlust, adventure and freedom, it was also chic.
“Design aficionados see Airstreams as cool retro collectables. They use them in new ways, from mobile architecture and fashion statements to guest houses,” says Airstream president Bob Wheeler. Indeed, one fashion designer uses his as a pool house and when fashion festivals come around hooks it to his car and hits the road.
Celebrity “Airstreamers” include actors Tom Hanks, Andy Garcia, Sean Penn, Sandra Bullock, David Duchovny, Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaughey and director Tim Burton. Designer Ralph Lauren owns four. Actress Pamela Anderson added a stripper pole, a vibrating bed, ceiling mirrors and white shag carpeting to hers but most prefer more sophisticated furnishings.
Gone are the days of the Formica kitchenette and spartan amenities. Most upscale RVs, from the Airstream (now also available in Europe) through to the market-leading Winnebago Adventurer, now come with all of the features you would expect in any modern home.
Revamped vehicles are attracting a new generation of “cashmere campers” in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom who crave the gypsy lifestyle but with the luxury and style of a five-star hotel. Moreover, should owners choose to use RV parks, they will find the standard of services and facilities in the US and their equivalents in Britain and Europe have improved greatly. Not only are golf courses, tennis courts, gymnasiums, spas and adventure playgrounds a part of the package but open-air cinemas, theatres and concerts are now de rigueur.
Recent increases in the use of RVs build on a dramatic upturn in the US market earlier this decade, albeit for very sober reasons: the attacks of September 11 2001.
“Between 2001 and 2005 our company doubled in size,” says Wheeler, a rise in demand shared to differing degrees by most manufacturers, including Winnebago. “Americans were reluctant to travel by air plus there was a focus on family values and family activities within the US. This led to a boom in the motorhome industry.”
According to a 2005 University of Michigan study, one in 12 U.S. vehicle-owning households now owns an RV. More than 60% of recreation vehicles are made in Elkhart County, Ind., or “The RV Capital of America”. Earlier this year that label turned into the “job loss capital” when Elkhart County posted America’s largest jobless rate increase, up more than 10%.
“Usually consumers will trade their motorhomes every four to six years and so if 2004 was the peak year, we are hoping that people will be looking to upgrade to a newer model next year,” says Davis of Winnebago, which is based in Iowa. “Certainly consumer confidence is coming back and the market is improving.”
This is partly fuelled by the rise of sports and activity-based pursuits and attendance at countryside competitions which has seen enthusiasts turn to motorhomes as the best way of getting between meets.
“A lot of people have hobbies and will jet ski or sail every weekend,” says Ross Edwards, managing director of Travelworld, which imports European-built RVs into the U.K.
“Most want something big and substantial so that they don’t feel as if they are in a caravan. [They] can attend various meetings all around Europe, towing a couple of motorbikes. Other enthusiasts are older people who sell up and live in them instead of a holiday home or go to the continent and park them on a plot of land while they build their home.”
Then there are the music festivals – from Glastonbury in rainy Somerset, south-west England, to the Burning Man, in the scalding heat of the Arizona desert. Today’s “hippy” is unprepared to forgo his creature comforts and so opts for an RV over a tent.
“The UK industry is worth 6 billion pounds a year, between sales of new and used products and holiday spend,” says Louise Wood of the National Caravan Council. “In all there are about 360,000 non-mobile caravan homes scattered across 2,000-3,000 parks, about 500,000 touring caravans and 164,000 motorhomes.”
Particularly in areas such as the U.K.’s Lake District, where second homes are hard to find and expensive, a caravan holiday home is a good alternative. They are usually situated in the heart of a beauty spot and can earn decent rental income, arranged through the resort, when not in use by the owner. “In a good park, for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom caravan you can earn up to £1,000 a week,” says Wood.
According to Maxine Soghmanian of the Caravan Club, Europe’s largest touring association, which represents more than 1m individuals, the mobile home business in Britain is up 40 per cent this year. With a weak pound and uncertain property market, a lot of baby boomers are taking to the open road rather than sinking their assets into a second home on the Costa del Sol.
“It is increasingly common,” says Soghmanian. “France, Spain, Italy and Portugal are the most popular destinations but a lot are also now heading to Scandinavia and Holland and even Australia and New Zealand, where they will rent motorhomes.”
A yearning for Route 66 and the spirit of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road might be U.S. phenomena but wanderlust is by no means uniquely American. It is more than equalled in both Canada and Australia, countries whose scale and diversity lend themselves to prolonged periods of roving.
“Twelve per cent of our members live in their RV full-time and the number is growing,” says John Osborne of the 54,500-member-strong Campervan and Motorhome Club of Australia (CMCA), the country’s largest RV club. “Membership has trebled in the past 10 years, with 700 new members joining each month.”
“Growing numbers of Australians want to fully experience their country,” Osborne says. “The majority also own real estate. Some have sold their home to go on the road full time, after which they intend to settle down in the part of Australia that they find as their special place.”
As an era of conspicuous consumption, decadent trophy homes and one-upmanship is eclipsed by one of environmental concern and family values, the RV and even the humble caravan symbolise a quest for personal fulfilment and discovery. Even President Obama is a fan. “As soon as this convention is over, we are loading up our kids in an RV. We are travelling around to county fairs, eating ice cream and taking our two girls to the swimming pool,” he said during his presidential campaign.