Despite the higher price of gasoline, the RV rental business in Alaska remains healthy.
John Marquardt, owner of ABC Motorhome & Car Rentals in Anchorage, figures his revenues so far this year are down just 5% from 2005 when he did a record $3 million in rental business.
Marquardt started his rental agency in 1985 with one Winnebago motorhome. Today, he has a fleet of 200 Class C units produced by Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and Four Winds International along with 25 Lance truck campers. In that same time period, tourist travel to Alaska has grown from 400,000 annually to more than 1.5 million and the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA) projects a 2-3% increase this summer.
Marquardt, whose company is the largest of six RV rental agencies in Anchorage, figures to have 180 units out on the highways during the summer peak period.
He estimated that 89% of his business comes from the other 49 states while Alaskan clientele represent around 5% of rentals. Marquardt also is experiencing a growing foreign market, led by Australia, Germany, England, The Netherlands and France.
“A lot of people want to be independent and this is a way for them to be independent,” said Kerri Schiavi, ABC’s rentals manager, of the rising foreign RV rental market. “They want to have a lot of flexibility and with a motorhome they have it. It’s starting to catch on in a lot of countries. They’re getting the word out on RV rentals and it’s getting more popular.”
Marquardt solicits comments from his customers and says 99% of them are pleased with their experience.
Fly-in traffic and cruise ship passengers account for the big upturn in tourist travel to Alaska, as the number of drive-ins to the state had been stagnant since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, noted Dave Worrell, ATIA’s director of communications.
For example, in 2001, he said, the state’s four border crossing checkpoints recorded 114,000 visitors to the state between May and September. The border crossing count stood at 105,000 last year. The totals represent persons in private vehicles, commercial buses and tour buses who enter the state from Canada.
“A lot of folks will take a one-way cruise and extend their stay and do independent travel at either end of a cruise in a car or RV,” Worrell said. Marquardt doesn’t think fuel prices will make much of a dent in tourist travel. “I think people have made their plans and this is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime trip. They won’t give up their trip over $50 in additional gasoline expense,” he said. “They might not put on as many miles. You don’t have to go very far in Alaska to be in a nice surrounding.”
Tourists who travel the state by RV typically do the “great circle” route, which starts in Anchorage and includes stops at Denali (Mt. McKinley) and Fairbanks and side trips to Whittier, the Kenai Peninsula and Seward, he said. The circle trips average about 1,000 miles and take 10 days at an average RV rental cost of $200 per day.
Many of the 67 RV parks and campgrounds that belong to the Alaska Campground Owners Association (ACOA) are located along this route. ACOA members offer full services and compete well with the state and national parks, which offer only the basics, noted Heidi Boyd, executive director of ACOA.
ACOA is receiving an average of 15 to 20 requests per week off its website for Alaskan maps from Europe, Boyd said. Alaska’s camping season stretches from April to September, though in some parts of south central Alaska, the season is year-round, she noted.
The Alaskan campground and RV rental business has also benefited by some positive media coverage, including the filming for an upcoming movie starring Sean Penn along with several travel documentaries highlighting the region.