When Traveland in Irvine, Calif., closed earlier this year, it looked like the end of an era.
The family-oriented, Old West-style recreational vehicle mall – one of the first of its kind in the country – was disbanded after a nearly 40-year run when the Irvine Co. decided not to renew Traveland’s lease, the Orange County Register reported.
With $4-a-gallon gasoline and a struggling economy, it would seem like a bad time to be in the RV business, much less thinking about expanding it.
But that’s what Brent McMahon, CEO of McMahon’s RV and one of the former Traveland dealers, has decided to do – but with a 21st century twist.
McMahon has set up his new RV shop on the old Sunset Ford property in Westminster and has a three-year plan to develop the four-parcel, 20-acre site into a new version of Traveland.
As McMahon envisions it, he will bring together not just RVs, parts and maintenance services, but all kinds of outdoor vehicles – motorcycles, bicycles, all-terrain vehicles, personal watercraft – all in one place.
“I plan to develop a recreational center that will be very diversified,” McMahon said during a recent walk-through of the new site.
He thinks it’s a concept that makes commercial sense, while providing a measure of defense during the inevitable economic downturns.
“When you drive by and gas is $5 a gallon, who would consider driving one of these?” he asks gesturing toward a lot full of RVs.
But he figures they might consider a motorcycle or a bicycle and then maybe come back when times get better to look at an RV or trailer. And that, McMahon believes, will help even out the ups and downs of the business.
McMahon’s plan comes at an interesting juncture for the RV industry.
A few years ago, after being whiplashed by a failing economy and skyrocketing gas prices, the death knell was sounded for the business.
RV deliveries fell 9.5% in 2007, 32.9% in 2008 and 30.1% in 2009, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
Nearly two dozen RV manufacturers closed nationwide and the number of dealers reportedly was cut in half. Stories ran with headlines like, “The RV’s last roundup.”
“It’s been a war,” McMahon said.
But things began to turn around in 2010 when vehicle deliveries nationwide jumped 46% and in 2011, which saw a 4% increase.
Richard Curtin, a University of Michigan professor who does forecasting for the RV industry, recently revised his 2012 forecast to a 5.1% increase in deliveries from his original projection of a 2.6% decline this year.
While conceding the industry has seen a very slow recovery – deliveries this year are expected to be only two-thirds of the peak year in 2006 – Curtin thinks demographics and even the economy will provide a boost.
He noted that most RV owners are at the prime age of 35 to 54 and they see RVs as an economical way for a family to travel, even with $4-a-gallon gas. RVs also work well for the shorter getaways that many travelers now favor, Curtin said.
Baby Boomers also are beginning to retire and are turning to RVs for travel.
Larry Kosmont, a Los Angeles expert in redevelopment, was a little more skeptical.
“ATVs, motorcycles and RVs can be pricey,” he said. “They rely on a more robust economy because they are voluntary purchases.”
Kosmont said a mall like McMahon’s will only be successful if it can generate volume.
McMahon is undaunted. He is convinced that when he builds it, they will come.
“I’m going to develop a center that can attract more people who can enjoy the great outdoors,” he said.