Jim Bayer, 65, is planning to retire this year, and he isn’t going to let record-high gas prices slow him down because, “if I wait 10 years to travel, I might not be healthy enough to go anywhere. People that want to travel are going to put up with the gas prices.”
Bayer, however, seems to be the exception. According to a report in Florida Today, fewer recreation vehicle buyers are willing to put up with gas prices that are averaging $2.614 nationally for regular unleaded, up 73.3 cents from a year ago. Diesel, used by many of the big Class A motorhomes, has shot to $2.649, up 76.8 cents from a year ago.
Sales in the second quarter – historically the busiest time for RV dealerships – were flat or down at Florida-based and national firms.
That would reverse a trend of increasing business for RV sellers, which hit a record $14.7 billion last year, with more Baby Boomers reaching retirement age and wanting to hit the open road and more vacations in general preferring to drive to their destinations after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
Any drop in the RV industry will be felt acutely in Florida, which ranks second behind California in receiving the most new RV shipments last year – 50,200, according to the Reston, Va.-based Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.
Experts can’t predict which trend – higher gas prices versus strong Baby Boomer demand – will win out.
But, for perspective, they say that, on a 1,000-mile trip, RV drivers are paying $100 to $150 more than in recent years with vehicles that typically get between 6 and 12 miles per gallon.
Still, taking a trip in a motorhome can be as much as 70% cheaper than flying or other package trips, according to a study by research firm PKF Consulting.
In an RV, a vacationer doesn’t have to spend as much on a hotel – $70 or more a night – when they can stay a campground for $30 a night. Food bills also potentially are reduced because food can be bought at a local grocery store and kept in a mini-fridge, rather than eating out every meal.
Companies in the RV sector are hoping potential buyers are focusing on those benefits, rather than rising pump prices.
But the major RV manufacturers are seeing a drop in demand this year. Similarly, Florida dealerships are noticing interest flagging for some of the larger, more gas-hungry motorhomes.
Sales for the bus-size, class A motorhomes have “slowed down tremendously,” said Lee Thompson, general manager and store team leader for Giant Recreation World in Melbourne. “The gas is a scare to a lot of people. But will I cancel a trip because it costs me an extra $200 from two years ago? No, I will not.”
He said, while sales in that segment of the market are down, he still should equal last year’s sales, with demand for other vehicles he sells steady or increasing.
It helps that the average age of customers is getting younger, Thompson said. In the late 1980s, prime RV customers were 58 to 65. But, now, they are between 35 and 55.
So more are “taking their families camping, and going out to the woods and parks, instead of spending all their money at theme parks,” Thompson said. “It’s still possible to save a lot of money in an RV.”
In the last month, fewer buyers have prescribed to that mantra of saving by buying a motorhome, said Nigel Watson, sales manager at Coastal RV in Cocoa.
“No one is even wanting to look at” the class A motorhomes. “There is a definite slowdown. I don’t know if it’s the gas prices, this time of year or the fact that it’s so hot.”
Watson said those considering buying a new or used RV “won’t put off trips for a few hundred dollars. An average campground costs $25 or $30 a night. You can’t get a hotel for anywhere near that price. You can buy food, and hold it for three or four days. McDonald’s might be fast food, but it’s not cheap food.”
He added that, if a person is willing to spend $400,000 on a top-of-the-line RV, the buyer “couldn’t care less about gas prices, anyway. They want luxury, they can afford it, and they are going to get it.”