Editor’s Note: The following story aired Saturday (Oct. 16) on National Public Radio. To hear the broadcast, click here.
The RV industry, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, has had a bumpy road lately, but now it may be turning the corner.
Winnebago Industries Inc., one of the top manufacturers of recreational vehicles, posted stronger than expected quarterly profits Thursday (Oct. 14). The company said its results were lifted by increased motorhome deliveries, “particularly in the Class A category,” which can sell for as much as $300,000 each.
The last few years have been among the most difficult ever for the RV industry because of high gas prices and the recession: Manufacturers closed plants and laid off thousands of workers. But at Camp-Land RV in Burns Harbor, Ind., about 40 miles southeast of downtown Chicago, owner Al Paschen says business is picking up.
“We never had a losing year through all of this,” he says, “and this year is turning out to be one of the better years we’ve ever had.”
Paschen says sales are up 20%. That’s partly due to the fact that several nearby competitors have gone out of business, leaving Paschen’s Camp-Land as one of the few RV dealerships left in northwest Indiana.
But Paschen also says he thinks consumers are finally starting to feel more optimistic about the economy. And, he says, buyers are getting younger.
“During the summer, we always see a lot of families, but we’re seeing younger couples, too, people in their 30s, 40s,” he says. “The retirees have sort of been absent here for a few years.”
The Vista, a small, 26-foot-long Winnebago motorhome. With more buyers seeking smaller, lighter RVs, the Vista has become Al Paschen’s best-selling motorhome this year.
Paschen says the hit many retirees took to their savings is keeping some of them out of new RVs. Among those who are buying, trading and and trading up, he says, tastes are changing.
“Now we see them upgrading but not getting bigger,” he says. “In fact, we see some are getting smaller.”
He points to the Earthbound model, a small, but expensive travel trailer. “This one is, some people would say radical,” he says. “It’s modernistic.”
The travel trailer is made of lightweight aluminum and composite materials.
“Even the doors on the cabinets are made of composites instead of wood,” he says. “This whole thing is very light.”
Sleek and curvy travel trailers like the Earthbound are getting smaller and lighter so they can be pulled by cars that are getting smaller, lighter and more fuel-efficient.
Outside the showroom, on his 6-acre lot of more than 200 RVs, Paschen says even motorhomes are shrinking.
“This is a really small Winnebago as Winnebagos go,” he says, pointing at the 26-foot Vista model. “It’s the best-selling Winnebago on our lot right now.”
But as RVs get smaller, they are getting a lot nicer, too.
The R-Pod, one of the smallest of the new, lightweight campers and travel travelers that are helping revive the slumping RV market.
Glossy finishes on the cabinets and other high-end and high-tech features such as flat-screen TVs show that many consumers are demanding more luxurious road trips and camping trips.
Compartments that slide out on both motorhomes and travel trailers create more living space inside. That’s exactly what Harold and Georgia Phillips of Valparaiso, Ind., are looking for.
“We’re spending a lot more time in it now that he’s retired; we went to Alaska last year,” Georgia Phillips says. “And, it’s a matter of tripping over each other and we just thought this one would be more comfortable for us.”
The Phillipses are a little disappointed they won’t be able to hit the open road in their new RV for another month or so: The model they want is on back order, a sign RVs are selling better than they have in years.
A recent RV show in Edmonton, Alberta, gave consumers a glimpse of the future in RVs.
The Shasta trailer is built by Coachmen Recreational Vehicle Co. Constructed with today’s technology, the Shasta captures the look of the original with a lightning bolt stripe on the side and wings on the rear of the trailer, according to the Edmonton Journal.
Ted Trowsse said he signed up to sell Shasta trailers on the condition he could have the first one built to bring to the recent RV show. That meant he was displaying the trailer before dealers in the United States had an opportunity. The Shasta was one of several retro-look trailers at the show.
Trowsse said he hoped to sell 10 out of the show. Much of the interest came from owners of collector cars, some of whom are restoring original Shastas, who could see a Shasta behind their old vehicle. The trailer’s light weight (2,400 pounds) for the 12-foot model and 3,100 pounds for the 16-foot is an attractive feature for tow vehicles old and new.
There’s a market for people with smaller vehicles such as minivans or compact sport utilities, Trowsse said. However, old car guys are the biggest part of it. He intends to show off the Shasta at collector car shows this summer.
Other retro-look trailers at the show were the R-Pod and the T@b. The T@b lineup started with a teardrop trailer, but has grown to include the T@da — which is longer with rounded ends and a flat roof. The T@da has a regular price of $24,900.
From Class A motorhomes with a veranda to Class C’s on steroids to a bumper-pull toy hauler with an airbrushed purple and black paint scheme, there were RVs for nearly every taste and pocketbook at the Edmonton show.
The best prices tended to be on units that dealers had bought before the loonie dropped to its current level of 80 cents against the U.S. dollar. The slumping Canadian dollar has seen increases of thousands of dollars on recently ordered RVs.
Walter Dubecki, sales manager at Western RV Country in Leduc, Alberta, said buyers can save thousands of dollars by purchasing a unit out of a dealer’s stock rather than ordering a unit.
Two travel trailers built by Coachmen stood out as good values — the Aristocrat sold by Carefree RV for $15,995 and the Dutchmen Sport priced at $16,365 by Northern Lights RV. Show visitors lined up to check out the R-Pod, manufactured by Forest River Inc., during the show’s opening night. Hill said his staff sold one R-Pod on opening night.
Hill first saw the R-Pod during a show in Indiana for Forest River dealers in late October. Production is ramping up on the trailers, but all floor plans are not yet available. Those additional floor plans will become available in the coming months.
The R-Pod designer aimed to build a light, strong trailer that could be pulled by vehicles with 3,500-pound towing capacity such as minivans, crossovers and SUVs.
“We’ve had a lot of people in their mid-20s who normally would not look at travel trailers who see it and say, ‘I’d own one of those,'” Hill said.
For decades, Class C motorhomes were built on cutaway van chassis. The van front and chassis was combined with a motorhome body that included a portion that overhangs the cab. However, in recent years a new style of Class C has appeared that uses a conventional truck chassis. Several examples were on display at the show, including models built on Chevrolet Kodiak, International and Freightliner chassis. Factory and dealer representatives refer to these units as “Class C’s on steroids.”
For some buyers, an attractive feature with these motorhomes is the towing capacity that can exceed 15,000 pounds. Race car owners, for example, could tow their competition vehicle behind the motorhome.
But Larry Luther, Class C regional sales manager for Gulf Stream Coach, explained that there’s another way SuperNova motorhomes, built on an International truck chassis, could make it to the races. The roof is strong enough that it can be used as an observation deck for watching, for example, a NASCAR race or a fireworks display.
The SuperNova, with tow capacities up to 15,000 lb., has “sold great for us,” Luther said, explaining sales have totalled about 600 units a year in its first two years on the market.
The Canadian price starts at $210,000 for the SuperNova, which is equipped with a 6.0-litre V8 diesel engine — the same engine International supplied to Ford as the Powerstroke diesel — an Allison automatic transmission, twin 70 U.S. gallon fuel tanks and a built-in Onan diesel generator.
The Jayco Embark comes equipped with a 20,000-lb. hitch. It is equipped with a 330 Cummins engine and Allison automatic.
Al Schafer, an RV City sales consultant, said the Embark, which has just begun rolling off the production line, is new for 2009.
The Embark is equipped with an 8,000-watt diesel generator and a 1,800-watt inverter so that occupants will always have power even if hookups aren’t available.
RV City offered the Embark and a new Honda CR-V sport utility at the show special price of $281,783.
Schafer said the Embark will be available with a radar system that will scan the road ahead for obstacles. This could be handy when weather or light conditions limit the driver’s ability to see.
The Bigfoot Class C, built on a Chev Kodiak chassis at the company’s factory in Armstrong, B.C., uses lightweight construction. This motorhome, also equipped with an Allison automatic, offers the Duramax diesel engine as an option, giving it the pulling power to tow, for example, a horse trailer. List price equipped with the Duramax is $220,700.
The Coachmen Leprechaun is a Class C with a more conventional appearance since it’s built on a Ford van chassis, but it has interior finishing that Western RV’s Dubecki says moves it into the class of a yacht or a penthouse. The interior features fine cabinetry and other features that set it apart.
For example, instead of the standard dinette booth, the Leprechaun has a couch and table.
Dubecki said the Leprechaun would be a good choice for a couple who might want to use it to tour Canada or the U.S. The Leprechaun, equipped with 6.8-litre V10 gasoline engine, is priced at $89,900.
Dubecki said most people would never own a motorhome long enough or drive far enough to make up the thousands of dollars in additional cost of a diesel engine.
The MXT toy hauler, built by KZ RV LP, caught the eye of visitors to the Trailblazer RV display. The optional airbrushed purple and black paint scheme made the MXT a trailer to remember. Trailblazer sales manager Bill Burnett said the lightweight trailer was being called “the purple people pleaser.”