It might seem like filling up the 75-gallon gas tank on a 33-foot motor home would make John Shepherd grumble and curse – and maybe rethink his vacation plans. Not so – not even with a gallon of gas costing $1 more than it did a year ago.
According to a report in the Daily Times, Salisbury, Md., Shepherd, of Lenhertsville, Pa., is about to leave for a months-long trek from Pennsylvania to Alaska, and plans another lengthy jaunt early next year. Like a surprisingly large number of recreational-vehicle owners, he’s unfazed by the $200-and-up cost of filling up his Fleetwood.
“If we were going in a car every night, you can expect to spend $120 for a motel room and meals,” he said. “It’s just a lifestyle. It’s more convenient.”
It’s a piece of the summer economy that is just not that sensitive to gas-pump shock, it seems, though the deep recession did cut deeply into sales of RVs for two years before rebounding last year.
Nationally, more than half of RV owners surveyed this spring by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) said they’ll be going camping more often than last year, with many taking more frequent, shorter vacations. Just 9% said they’ll go camping less this summer.
And the trade group expects overall RV shipments to rise to 263,100 this year, up 8.6%. That’s still a far cry from the 390,500 units sold before the crash in 2006 but is a nice rebound from the 165,700 units sold in 2009.
“When gas prices rise, they don’t stop RVing,” said RVIA President Richard Coon. “We will face some headwinds such as gas prices and uncertain economic factors, but overall, we have momentum now that will help us continue the recovery that began last year.”
This comes as good news to RV dealers and to the operators of RV campgrounds. Delaware’s campgrounds – public and private – reported being at or nearly at capacity for the Memorial Day weekend with visitors from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland and are looking forward to a strong summer.
“They’re still going camping, they’re just not going as far,” says George Kover, general manager at the Delmarva RV Center, which has two dealerships in Milford and Seaford. “Instead of going to the Outer Banks, they’re going to Killens Pond or Trap Pond.”
The RV trade group’s survey found 53% of RV owners planning to drive more this summer, with 65% planning “mini-vacations.” To trim travel costs, they plan to vacation more efficiently — driving slower, packing lighter to reduce weight and turning off home utilities while they’re traveling.
Even with gas at $3.74 in Delaware on Tuesday, they contend it’s still cheaper to RV.
According to a 2008 study for the RV trade group, a 238-mile trip from Pittsburgh to Lancaster, Pa., would cost about $840 for the owner of a medium-sized RV, including a monthly stipend covering the purchase price; the comparable trip in a car, staying at hotels, would cost about $1,050. The $1 jump in gas prices from a year ago would add $17 to the cost of fuel for the owner of that RV owner and $6 for the car owner. Gas mileage varies on the size of the RV from 6 to 12 miles per gallon.
But talk to RV campers and they’ll tell you the decision is less about money than lifestyle – the freedom and flexibility they have to go where they want, when they want and how they want.
Shepherd said owning an RV is an investment, and, like any investment, he wants to get his money’s worth out of it. The couple is set to leave this morning for a long-awaited journey to Alaska and Canada; in January, they’re going to take a couple months and drive to Texas, making their way to Florida along the Gulf Coast.
“It’s just a means to get us to the way we like to travel,” Shepherd said.
The experience is not what you’ll find at a top-end resort, but comfort also abounds at local campgrounds.
During the summer, the Jellystone campground near Lincoln charges $65 a night for a premium site, and campers get access to a swimming pool, outdoor movie theater, snack bar, arcade, on-site laundry, a playground, basketball and volleyball courts and horseshoe pits, along with cable TV and wireless Internet.
Brent Fannin, whose family owns the campground that began two years ago as Cedar Creek Landing, said its bookings are up more than 30% this year, with more than 200 of its 277 sites full for the Memorial Day weekend.
Fannin said it’s far enough inland to be away from the hustle and bustle of the resorts but also close enough to Rehoboth and other beach towns that visitors can go to the outlets or boardwalk. Many bigger RVs tow a small car so campers can travel while leaving the camper on site.
“You put all that together, and that’s why I think this place is going to be such a success,” Fannin said.
The industry isn’t entirely immune to the sluggish economy, however. Sales of large, self-contained RVs are very slow in Delaware, even as manufacturers prepare for an upswing nationally.
Kover, the manager at Delmarva RV Center, said his sales are up from two or three years ago overall, but big-rig sales are down or nonexistent. He doesn’t even stock the larger motor coaches anymore because there’s no demand.
“We’re not selling as many of the big quarter-million coaches on up,” he said. “But travel trailers, $150,000 and below, we’re moving them right along.”
Recent industry data indicates that sales of big rigs were up 16 percent in March. Shipments of more affordable medium-sized “Class C” RVs — which look like an oversized van — rose by 32% from March 2010 to March 2011. And shipments of towable — or pop-up — campers were up 7.4%, the RVIA reported.
At Parkview RV Center near Smyrna, sales of towable vehicles are picking up, said Joy Horsey, whose family owns the dealership. She’s also seen an uptick in service work, as owners try to make their RVs live longer.
Her family — including in-laws and grandparents — packed up four RVs and headed to Ocean City, Md., last week for a traditional Memorial Day trip.
“My husband and I try to go every Memorial Day,” Horsey said. “We make several camping trips a year, and then the rest of the family kind of falls in.”
Dick Harrison, owner of Leisure Point Resort in the Long Neck area, said some of his seasonal campers have said they’re not going to be visiting quite as often, though they’re staying longer.
“They still want to get away,” he said. “Camping is still very affordable for an awful lot of people.”