An avid traveler who’s flown all over the world, Pam Katz admits she was a rookie when it came to RVs.
Before COVID-19, the Deerfield mom never gave much thought to recreational vehicles, a broad category that includes everything from towable pop-up campers to luxe motor homes tricked out with heated floors, fancy entertainment centers and walls that expand with the push of a button.
“An RV trip was never on my bucket list,” said Katz, who nonetheless found herself at 83RV in Long Grove in late April, paying a little over $2,000 to rent a Coachmen Freelander.
Katz and her husband, an ophthalmologist, needed to get their college senior daughter back to campus in North Carolina. They also wanted to pick up Katz’s parents in Florida so the octogenarian snowbirds didn’t have to fly back to the Midwest in the midst of a pandemic.
“It was my daughter’s idea to rent an RV so we wouldn’t have to stay in hotels,” Katz said.
The Katzes drove 3,200-plus miles in a little over a week, spending nights parked in various friends’ driveways and “boondocking” — camping with no water, electric or sewer hookup — at a Walmart lot in Nashville, Tennessee.
“It ended up being a really fun vacation,” Katz said. “We were totally self-sufficient. We only used our bathroom. We got pizza once. We never went to a store.
“I can see so many people doing it this summer. Everyone is sick of being at home, and I don’t think anyone is rushing to get on an airplane.”
The travel industry has taken it on the chin during the coronavirus crisis, but the RV market is showing signs of resiliency despite a beleaguered economy and sky-high unemployment rates. Production began ramping up again this month at major RV manufacturers like Thor and Winnebago Industries, which suspended operations for several weeks during the pandemic. Dealers report strong demand for RV rentals and sales as would-be travelers look for options that minimize the risk of catching the virus.
“They see an RV as a way of getting outside in a safe and secure environment that they can control,” said economist Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan’s monthly surveys of consumer sentiment. “I think the industry is in a really good place.”
The online peer-to-peer rental service RVshare — the recreational vehicle version of Airbnb — said business is booming among its 100,000 listings across the country. In the Midwest, bookings for RV rentals were up 30% the second week in May compared with the same period last year, said spokeswoman Maddi Bourgerie. Reservations have climbed 331% since early April, she said.
Shares of Lincolnshire-based Camping World Holdings, which hit a record low of $3.87 a share in mid-March, made a healthy jump to $14 on May 8, shortly after the major retailer of RVs, outdoor supplies and services reported better-than-expected first-quarter results.
“In mid-March, we did start to feel the effects of the pandemic and saw a slowdown that lasted into mid-April,” CEO Marcus Lemonis said on the May 7 earnings call. “I’m proud to tell you that last weekend, our Friday, Saturday and Sunday in May was the biggest weekend in our company’s history, period, end of story, in all aspects, every part of our business. And so we feel good about where those trends are going.
“If I could pick any business in the world to be in right now, as I sit here, the RV business is the one that I want,” said Lemonis, star of CNBC’s “The Profit.”
Travel of any type continues to be way down as many parts of the country remain shuttered and shelter-in-place orders are in effect. AAA anticipates this year’s Memorial Day holiday will set a record low for travel volume, despite dirt-cheap gas prices.
Motor homes, especially larger ones, are notorious gas guzzlers, usually getting fewer than 15 miles to the gallon and in some cases, much less, according to RVshare. But as more places reopen — the Grand Canyon began welcoming visitors to some areas of the national park last weekend — and a hunkered down populace starts to venture out again, RVs could be all the more appealing in the new normal.
A recent survey by MMGY Global for the U.S. Travel Association found that 68% of people feel safe traveling in a personal vehicle. Only 18% say the same about taking a domestic flight, and even fewer — 11% — feel safe flying internationally. Parks topped the list of places most survey respondents are comfortable going, and the great outdoors have always been a good fit for RV travel.
Tony Mucerino, owner of Hometown RV in Carol Stream, has been in the business since 1989. His company sells, rents and services RVs. Mucerino has seen the market go through a lot of ups and downs over the years, with the nadir being in 2008 and 2009 during the Great Recession. That’s when the number of RV shipments in the U.S. fell by 33% to 237,000 in 2008, according to RV Industry Association data. Manufacturers’ shipments dropped another 30% in 2009, to just below 166,000 vehicles.
“It was pretty much dead — a very dark time for the RV industry,” Mucerino said. “It doesn’t feel that way now. Certainly there’s been damage to the economy, and we have a discretionary income product. Rentals were flat when people heard national parks and campgrounds were closing. People were holding back to see what would happen. But as they’ve had a stronger dose of cabin fever and parts of the country are opening up again, we’re seeing a significant increase.”
Roughly 11 million U.S. households own an RV. The industry association says list prices for new RVs typically start at $6,000 for folding camping trailers and truck campers that rest in the bed of a pickup. Class C motor homes, like the Coachmen Freelander the Katzes rented, often start around $60,000.
The pandemic has had — and will have — some interesting repercussions for the RV business, Mucerino said. Some of his customers are using RVs not to travel, but to isolate and quarantine during the health crisis. Those who are traveling are making more last-minute rentals, which should help offset some of the business he’ll lose on reservations booked long ago for now-canceled RV-friendly events this summer, like EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Wisconsin and Iowa’s RAGBRAI bike ride.
And with COVID-19 causing many to work from home, he expects that trend to stick. More people might be inclined to occasionally take their work on the road, with an RV serving as a mobile office.
“There’s a momentum building, especially toward sales,” Mucerino said. “The RV industry is often thought of as the canary in the coal mine. If that’s true, the good news for the rest of the business world is that the canary is doing well and thriving in the current situation.”
Michael Hicks studies the industry as an economist at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, about 130 miles south of Elkhart, the self-proclaimed “RV Capital of the World.” Most of the country’s recreational vehicles are manufactured in northern Indiana.
Hicks said RV shipments, which are a good indicator of RV sales, started to rebound in the previous decade. They hit a high point in 2017, surpassing the half-million mark. Sales started to slide in the latter part of 2018 and continued to drop in 2019, when manufacturers shipped 406,000 RVs — a downturn Hicks attributes to the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, two commodities needed to build campers and motor homes.
“The tariffs remain a drag on the industry,” Hicks said in an email. That, along with high unemployment rates, means 2020 isn’t shaping up to be a banner year for RV sales. But Hicks doesn’t see a return to the dark days of 2007-2009, either. “Typically, a major recession, which we are in, will hurt RV sales, but this will be different,” he said, noting that the current low interest rates could help move more product off showroom floors.
“Millions of American families have had their vacation plans crushed by COVID,” he said. “Many continue to work and have fairly low risk of job losses. So, it would seem very likely that families will want to rent or buy RVs to replace the vacation they cannot have because of social distancing or closures of Disney, etc. I can imagine a period of time where an RV would offer a pretty attractive substitute for other vacation plans, both in 2020 and potentially 2021.”
Pam Katz, who’s already had several trips torpedoed by the pandemic, said her recent RV experience probably won’t be her last.
“If there’s no vaccine and I’m stuck at home and the national parks are open ... I haven’t done Glacier or Acadia. Maybe we’d do that in an RV,” Katz said. “It wouldn’t have been high on my list prior to this. But now? I’d do it again.”