The last few years have not been kind to the RV business. Sales across the country of that very discretionary toy dropped by almost half from 2007 to 2009. In Jacksonville, Fla., they dropped more than that, the Florida Times-Union reported.
“For 2 1/2 years, you couldn’t give them away,” said Richard Gore of Dick Gore’s RV World.
But things have changed.
- Three months ago, Gore opened a new location in St. Augustine.
- In Orange Park, General RV is expanding its dealership from five to 25 acres.
- Rivers RV delivered two units each in December 2008 and December 2009. In December 2010, it delivered 14 and signed contracts on twice that many.
“I’m flat-out speechless,” said Karen Schaffer, sales manager at Rivers RV.
Gore said he started to see things pick up last year.
“My customers said they were tired of listening to Fox and CNN and they were going to go out and have some fun,” Gore said. “People are feeling better.
“But it’s not like it was,” he said. “We’ve still got problems.”
Sales of new RVs last year in the Jacksonville area were still less than half of what they were three years ago.
But with the increased sales late last year and attendance at RV shows, dealers are getting ready for major increases. Manufacturers are expected to ship 246,000 units to dealers this year, that’s 80,000 more than 2009.
The drop in sales had a major impact on the manufacturers.
Now, Gore said, the manufacturers are telling him another story.
“They’re building more at the plants,” he said. “Instead of working three days a week, they’re back up to four and five days.”
Which types of RVs are leading the charge depends on who you talk to.
Schaffer said she’s seeing the biggest increase in the diesel motorhomes, which can run as high as $300,000 on her lot.
At General RV, a national chain that opened two years ago on Wells Road in Orange Park, it’s towables: travel trailers, fifth-wheels and popups.
Gore said he’s seeing a bit of everything.
But they all agreed that the buyer is changing.
“Back in the early 2000s,” Schaffer said, “the average demographic was the retired couple, with only the occasional 30s and 40s.”
Though retirees still buy the bulk of the large motorhomes, younger buyers are now a bigger chunk of the market.
“If you’ve got a young family,” said Dennis Anderson with General, “it’s a lot more affordable to camp in a travel trailer than it is to rent a condo or getting in an airplane and flying somewhere.”
R.J. White, a 33-year-old construction project manager, just ordered a new 21-foot travel trailer from Gore’s RV World. He’s not new to it, he’s had a pop-up that he’s taken around the state.
“We just get out to the state parks,” White said. “Blue Springs, Hillsborough River, Torreya. We’re going to try to get up into Georgia with this one.”
White doesn’t have a family yet, but he’s engaged.
And he chose the 21-footer because it has a couch that folds into a bed for children, just in case.
In addition to consumer confidence, Schaffer said much of the improvement has come because banks have started loosening up on loans.
Five or six years ago, she said, it was easy for an RV buyer to get financing, particularly if the buyer were trading in.
“You could just roll over your negative equity from your old RV with no money down and do it over and over,” Schaeffer. “It wasn’t uncommon to see people do that three times.”
But then the banks started wanting higher down payments and credit standards went up.
Of course, a lot of RVs, as with homes, were being repossessed.
“We had people wanting to come up here, park it and hand us the keys,” Schaffer said.
But more available credit and more eager buyers has things looking up.
Gore said his father, who started the business in 1985, made this observation years ago: “He said ‘The RV business is the first people to feel a recession and the first to come out of it.’
“I’m starting to see good things.”