Fans of RV travel are a hardy group. They endure traffic jams, mosquitoes and the occasional bear, so fluctuating gas prices won’t keep them and their RVs parked at home this summer.
According to an Associated Press report, average U.S. gas prices rose above $3.90 this spring, though they had dropped in most places by the start of June to $3.61 a gallon. But whether they’re up or down doesn’t make a huge difference for those driving motorhomes, like Bill Battle’s Winnebago Itasca Suncruiser that averages about 7 mpg.
Battle and his wife plan to drive their 38-foot motorhome (towing their Jeep) about 1,400 miles round-trip from their home in southeastern Michigan to Forest City, Iowa, for the Winnebago Grand National Rally this summer. It will likely cost them between $700 and $800 in gas, depending on pump prices, plus another $750 for food, campground fees and other expenses. The rest of the year they expect to stay closer to home, driving less than 600 miles per trip.
Even if gas were to go as high as $5 or $6 — though that seems unlikely given the direction prices are headed at this point in the season — Battle, a 68-year-old retiree, said they wouldn’t stay home. “We’ll still go, but we’ll do shorter trips,” he said. On the other hand, a steep drop might inspire more travel: “If fuel prices were $2.50 a gallon we probably would have made a second big trip to the Western U.S.”
A recent survey shows others have arrived at the same conclusion. Of nearly 425 RV owners interviewed in March by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), 60% said fuel prices were affecting their plans, and that they would adjust by driving less and traveling to destinations closer to home.
KOA, which represents about 500 campgrounds, has been marketing to the “camping closer to home” crowd, and reservations for this summer are up about 4% over 2011, said spokesman Mike Gast, in Billings, Mont.
There are about 9 million RV owners in the United States, and sales of new campers are expected to increase 5% this year, said RVIA spokesman Kevin Broom, in Reston, Va.
About 90% of the units sold are towable trailers, as opposed to motorhomes. Broom said that has less to do with high gas prices, and more to do with the purchase price. The average price of Class A motorhome is about $176,000, while a small travel trailer averages $20,900 and a folding tent trailer $9,400, Broom said.
In fact, manufactures have been conscious of rising gas prices for the past few years, making campers smaller, more aerodynamic and fuel-efficient. A new 32-foot Class A motorhome, for instance, might get up to 15 mpg, Broom said.
The industry commissioned a study on the cost of RV travel last summer, and PKF Consulting found that the average weeklong two-person vacation using a Type A motorhome, staying in campgrounds and cooking all meals, would cost about $4,285, when factoring in the RV purchase price, maintenance and gas.
The cost for two people flying economy to their destination, renting an intermediate car, staying at a standard motel or a hotel like Days Inn, and eating in restaurants for the week would cost $2,735. Only with first-class plane tickets, premium SUV rentals, dining out and the most expensive hotels — like the Ritz Carton or Four Seasons — did it become more costly than Type A motorhome camping, averaging $5,360 per week, the study found.
On the other hand, pulling a travel trailer with a light truck and staying and eating at campgrounds would cost about $1,845 for the week, it found. Savings or not, Battle likes his 5-year-old Winnebago Class A motorhome and has no interest in flying. He reels off a list of reasons why camping is better: no airports to deal with, no security lines, room for more luggage and golf clubs, a fridge and freezer he can stock, no bedbug worries and the company of Buddy, his chocolate lab.
“One day we can be in a quaint village touring wineries and the next we can be in a RV park on the shore of one of the Great Lakes,” Battle explained.
In order to watch the pennies, Battle said he uses an interactive AAA site to map his route and check the prices at gas stations along the way. He and his wife will often barbecue instead of eating out, and they’ve been known to overnight in a casino parking lot.
“You know what you have to spend and you make your plans ahead of time,” he said. “We love the convenience of the motorhome.”
The days of someone plunking down $200,000 for a motorhome, driving it off the dealership lot with a little help from easy credit, are largely over. But, according to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the recreational vehicle business has weathered one of the tougher periods in its history and, to some extent, has made a comeback.
While sales are still off from the peak years before the recession, they’ve returned to more sustainable levels in an industry with fewer manufacturers and dealerships.
“It’s not like the good old days, for sure, back in 2005. But I think the tough times made us better business people,” said Kim DeHaan, owner of DeHaan RV Center in Elkhorn.
Today (Feb. 23), dealerships get a glimpse into the 2012 selling season when the Milwaukee RV Show opens at Wisconsin Exposition Center at State Fair Park. The show, which runs through Sunday, includes more than 100 vendors inside the exhibit hall.
“I think everybody is still being cautious,” DeHaan said, but the mood in the industry has definitely improved as the result of better attendance and sales at shows in Green Bay, Madison and Chicago.
“People still want their toys, and they still want to use them,” DeHaan said. “They’re going to travel, but maybe not as far if gas prices go up.”
In the worst of the recession, RV manufacturers went out of business, dealerships closed and banks repossessed units costing several hundred thousand dollars each. Surviving companies have since restocked inventories, albeit at lower levels, and they’ve come back with travel trailers that are more economical to tow.
“Look around and you will see the word ‘light’ everywhere at RV shows. Towable units are getting smaller, lighter and more aerodynamic,” said Kevin Broom, spokesman for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the lighter-weight trailers have opened a new market for units that can be towed by midsize cars and minivans. Some units are small enough to be towed by compact cars and motorcycles.
Another trend: Electronics, including bigger flat-screen televisions and electric fireplaces, are more widely available in trailers as the technology has improved and the cost has come down.
“You can put flat-screens in a small trailer and still have lots of livable space,” Broom said.
Brand new this year is the Forest River Aviator, a $60,000 trailer that allows the owner to sit on the couch and control the electric fireplace, three 32-inch televisions, music and home theater systems using a Sony tablet. The tablet includes videos on how to operate the trailer, including setting it up.
The price isn’t too high for many people, especially retirees seeking the RV lifestyle, said Tim Wegge, president and CEO of Burlington RV Superstore in Sturtevant. But it’s still largely unknown whether the high-tech trailer will attract many buyers.
“Certainly, lower-priced trailers are going to sell much better,” Wegge said. “You can get a very nice travel trailer for $20,000 to $25,000.”
Expandable trailers with hard sides have become more popular, said Gary Roskopf, owner of Roskopf’s RV Center in Menomonee Falls.
“You get amenities like a roof-mounted air conditioner, a bathroom, shower and kitchen,” Roskopf said.
Even in the recession, people attended RV shows to see what was new. They also spent a lot of time online, planning for the day when they could buy something, said Broom. Now, credit availability has loosened some – although it’s nothing like it was before the recession.
A mild winter may also trigger some sales this year as people think about spring and summer earlier than usual, according to RV dealers.
“We have been seeing some signs of pent-up demand,” Broom said.
Recreational vehicles are not necessarily getting smaller, but they are getting lighter, according to a report in New Jersey’s The Press of Atlantic City.
John Sulano, finance manager at Driftwood RV Center, pointed to a 3,200-pound, 21-foot-long model on the floor of the Atlantic City Convention Center during last weekend’s Annual Atlantic City RV Show. Ten years ago, a similar model may have weighed 1,000 pounds more, he said. “Weight is always a factor in the trailer business,” he said.
Manufacturers have been building recreational vehicles using aluminum framing instead of wood, and even making interior cabinets with lightweight compressed fiberboard or balsa wood, Sulano said.
“Every year the trailers get bigger and weigh less,” said Bob Burnett, rental manager at Driftwood.
Show Manager Anthony Tedesco said RV shows have had a good year so far with both attendance and at-show purchases, a change from several years ago when the economy had fewer people buying.
Kevin Broom, media relations director for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) said many manufacturers redesigned and innovated during those down years.
“Take a look around and you’ll see light, or ultra-light or super light. What you’re going to see is a lot of RVs that are smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic, more fuel-efficient,” Broom said. “While they’re getting smaller, they’re not really sacrificing living space. They’re using different materials to build.”
Meanwhile, as newer electronics such as flat-screen televisions became popular, they take up less space inside RVs, he said.
“Ten years ago, the tube TV took up a couple feet. Now a flat panel takes up 2 or 3 inches and you can hang it on a wall,” he said.
Lighter materials allow people to tow their RVs with smaller SUVs, he said.
Driftwood, with locations in Dennis Township and Egg Harbor Township, is one of the largest exhibitors at the show. The company typically has six to eight salespeople there, as well as managers, Sulano said.
Livin’ Lite Recreational Vehicles LLC will set up product next to the Forest River Inc. display at the Dynamax Corp. facilities on C.R. 6 as part of Elkhart County’s 4th Annual RV Open House Week, set to take place Sept. 19-23.
The company previously announced that it will also be hosting a Dealer Open House at its headquarters in Wakarusa, Ind., during the same time period, scheduled to run from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day of the event.
According to a press release, Livin’ Lite will be showing updated models of its all-aluminum and composite RVs, including the Quicksilver automotive tent campers, Camplite ultra-light travel trailers and truck campers, and VRV toy haulers.
“We will be debuting new models, including a new all-aluminum tent camper with full LP systems, the Quicksilver XLP, as well as two new Camplite travel trailer floorplans,” said Scott Tuttle, president. “We will also introduce two new truck camper models, including what is sure to be the lightest, fully self-contained model ever built for a short-bed, light-duty pickup truck.”
For more information, call Tuttle at 574.862.2228 or visit www.livinlite.com.