RV sales have dropped 28% from last year. Fuel prices are climbing. And some manufacturers and dealers have pulled the plug. Yet for folks who believe heaven on earth is a 40-foot motorhome with twin slide-outs, two bathrooms and crystal chandeliers, the RV oasis continues to shimmer in a desert of pallid economic numbers, according to the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.
“High fuel prices will never kill RVing,” said Joann Hadwick, one of the Red Mountaineers RV club members relaxing the other morning outside the group’s collection of giant rigs at Smithwoods RV Park near Felton, Calif.
“We’re all just taking shorter trips instead of going to Yellowstone or Yosemite. This is still cheaper than flying and staying in hotels. And you can’t beat the lifestyle.”
It may seem counterintuitive that vehicles which get 7 miles per gallon and can take a half-hour to refuel aren’t being traded in for something smaller – or simply taken out back and parked. But many RVers say they’re not going to let a little annoyance like a $500 fill-up stop them from hitting the road.
“You have to be strong-hearted to fork over that kind of money at the pump,” said Brian Horner, owner of Milpitas RV & Self Storage. “But sold-out RV parks tell you that cooler heads are prevailing. If the average motor-home owner drives around 6,000 miles a year, that’s about $1,000 more in diesel fuel. For some owners, that just means spending $1,000 less a year on cocktails.”
A study commissioned this month for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) found typical RV vacations cost up to 61% less than other types of vacations, even factoring in fuel costs. The study’s authors say a family of four traveling by motorhome from Phoenix, Ariz., to Napa, Calif., and paying $33 a night to park in campgrounds would save $1,700 over the same trip taken by car, eating in restaurants and staying in hotels averaging $122 a night.
Still, diesel fuel, which many of the larger motorhomes slurp up, has risen about a buck – or 35% – since this time last year. And while the RV community adapts by targeting parks closer to home, the folks who build and sell the rigs are feeling the pinch of the wider economic malaise.
“The down market is winnowing out some of the manufacturers and dealers on the fringe,” said Tom Walworth of Statistical Surveys Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich. His firm tracks sales in an industry with about 600,000 recreational vehicles on the roads nationwide – from pull-behind trailers up to Class A motorhomes.
“The Fleetwoods and Winnebagos are also feeling the pain, but they’ll hang in there,” Walworth added. “People love the RV lifestyle, and they’re very loyal.”
It’s a seductive lifestyle, where coffee-klatch camaraderie and needlepoint under the redwoods are as much as part of the allure as the freedom of the open road. The subculture feeds on websites, bulletin boards and clubs like the Red Mountaineers that are several generations old.
The Mercury News reported that some in the industry predict a turnaround in the RV market by mid-2009, thanks, says Walworth, to “a lot of pent-up demand. And as the Baby Boomers retire, they’re not going to want to sit at home.”
But for now, “buyers are sitting on their hands – they just don’t want to venture out there right now.”
Walworth says RV sales have historically served as a leading economic indicator. “Once the economy picks up, RV sales will lead the charge. They’re the first to go down in bad times and the first to go up when things get better.”
To help goose things, manufacturers have already begun to churn out more fuel-efficient models, like the Winnebago View, which reportedly can get up to 20 mpg. Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. has also seen an uptick in higher mileage motorhomes.
“Our sales started softening at the end of last year, and our diesel products are now starting to feel the effects of higher fuel costs,” said Heather Everett of Fleetwood Enterprises, maker of the popular Bounder gasoline model ($107,660) and diesel Discovery ($200,760). “But we’re seeing growing demand for our fuel-efficient brands.”
To be sure, there will be losers amid the fallout, especially those folks who bought rigs using equity lines on homes now worth considerably less than they were a few years ago.
But for most motorhome lovers, the RVing goes on, just not as far. Red Mountaineer Karen Redwine, 61, said the 14 members of her group started planning last year to caravan this summer to San Diego. “But after getting the calculator out, we realized fuel would cost us as much as $1,200 each, so we decided to come here instead.”
What about next year?
“We’ll be back,” vowed co-clubber Linda Mikels, 56, even though she can no longer afford to repeat the 14,000-mile cross-country trip she took with her husband in 2007. “And if gas prices double, we’ll all just be bunking together.”