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The last installment in a three-part series by the New York Times examining the growth of the recreational vehicle industry ran today (May 13), generated by information gathered during last year’s National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky.
Barton Gilanelli and Associates, the Philadelphia-based public relations firm contracted by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), invited Times reporters to attend the event.
“This is another example of our proactive PR program, garnering positive coverage for the industry in the national media,” said Ken Sommer, director of media relations for RVIA.
The latest article, authored by Denny Lee and bearing the headline “The New Word in RVs: Residential,” profiles the high-end motorhome sector.
The following is the complete story that ran in the Times:
When a motorhome costs upward of $500,000, it’s no longer a recreational vehicle, it’s a rolling chunk of real estate. Which is precisely how Danny Adams furnished his U320, a 40-foot-long motorhome built by Foretravel in Nacogdoches, Tex. It has a stainless-steel refrigerator and microwave, polished brass faucets, walnut cabinets, three surround-sound systems and five flat-panel televisions.
“It’s like being in my house, just a little bit smaller,” said Mr. Adams, 50, an engineering consultant from Tyler, Tex., who recently took delivery of the U320, a diesel behemoth. “It has all the comforts of home.”
But since when does a home brandish expandable walls, air-operated doors and a satellite dish that aligns itself with every turn of the steering wheel? Not to mention a 37-inch plasma-screen TV that swings out for tailgate parties?
“It’s a condo on wheels,” said Jimmie Bergman, a Foretravel salesman, as he showed off Adams’s motorhome. “Nobody wants a utilitarian camper anymore.”
Indeed, what RV shoppers seem to crave these days is not so much an RV as a portable version of their dream home, a roving castle as roomy as a rock star’s trailer and as plush as a five-star hotel. And manufacturers are tripping over one another to comply. Spurred on by space-enlarging advances, they are slapping the term “residential style” on any feature that can be supersized.
Ceilings that were once a head-bumping 78 inches have been raised to seven feet and higher. Kitchens that were once limited to hotplates and dorm-style refrigerators have blossomed with four-burner gas ranges, wine coolers and granite-topped islands. Bathrooms that were once closet-size now have walk-in closets of their own. And the electronics onboard, from wireless Internet access to audiophile theaters, rival those of a Silicon Valley bachelor pad.
“Residential is the latest wave,” said Sherman Goldenberg, the publisher of RV Business, a trade publication based in Ventura, Calif. “Before, RVs had rather classless-looking interiors. Now we’re seeing upscale coaches with residential-style interiors done gracefully.”
But just because they look homey doesn’t mean that people actually live in them. Unlike the classic Winnebago and its legion of road-trekking retirees, these souped-up RVs are not necessarily being used as primary residences or even as second homes. Instead, the driving force behind the new RVs are Baby Boomers looking for quick weekend thrills.
Just ask Adams, who is now on his third luxury motorhome, each one nicer than the last. “We take it down to College Station for Texas A&M football games,” said Adams, who is accompanied on such jaunts by his wife, Sandy, and their 17-year-old son. “I haven’t missed a football game since the 1972 season.”
Like a giant bumper sticker, the entire RV is painted in Texas A&M’s colors, maroon and white, and emblazoned with painted-on varsity letters. “You’re not tailgating from the back of a pickup truck,” he said. “You’re tailgating from a half-million-dollar motorhome with satellite reception, in front of a 37-inch plasma TV, under a shaded canopy. This is tailgating in its finest form.”
Lavish setups like this come in handy for NASCAR races, outdoor concerts, rodeos, hunting trips and even as a guest suite for visiting relatives. Mary Greenwell, 44, of Hilton Head, S.C., uses her $600,000 RV when she travels to horse shows. “We use it about half a dozen times a year,” said Greenwell, who has a 45-foot Affinity made by Country Coach in Junction City, Ore. She spent two months selecting fabrics and tiles.
“We’re kind of spoiled,” she said. “Sometimes we park it in a campground and check into a hotel.”
That’s assuming she can find a campground that welcomes monster motorhomes. The majority of the RV parks are not equipped to handle vehicles longer than 40 feet and also have trouble meeting the electricity demands of the largest RVs. “We need 50 amps,” Greenwell said. “That would blow their circuitry.”
The metamorphosis from basic RVs to motorized McMansions began in earnest in 1995, when an RV company named Holiday Rambler introduced the first mechanized slideout. With a push of a button, the motorhome sprouted a wing, adding precious width to the cramped, 8-foot-wide interior.
“Before slideouts, you almost had a subway effect,” said Patrick Carroll, the vice president for product development at Monaco Coach Corp. in Coburg, Ore., which bought Holiday Rambler in 1996. The slideouts, which pop out when the vehicle is parked and move the walls of some areas – as well as couches, beds and even kitchen cabinets – farther apart, can nearly double the usable floor space.
RV makers promptly started their version of the arms race, jockeying to see who could add the deepest, widest, tallest and most slideouts. Now there are motor homes with a slideout in the kitchen, one in the living area and a third in the bedroom. Some even have two in the bedroom to fit a king-size bed and still leave space to walk around it.
“Customers love it,” said Adam Gudger, a Monaco salesman, during a tour of the company’s 45-foot-long Executive motorhome at the industry’s annual trade show in Louisville, Ky. With its four slideouts extended, the interior grows from 340 square feet to almost 430 square feet. “Quad slides hit the marketplace last year,” Gudger said. “Now they’re becoming standard.”
Not to be outdone, Fleetwood RV of Riverside, Calif., unveiled a motorhome with a massive slideout that extends from the driver’s seat to the rear of the 36-foot-long cabin. “We are the first company to come out with a full-wall slide,” said Amy Coleman, a company spokeswoman.
All that extra space means that owners can now have double-door refrigerators, ottomans, overstuffed sofas, washer and dryers, coffee tables and other comforts of home. There seems to be no limit.
Designers are scouring their homes to see what else to add. “Fireplaces are becoming very popular,” said Rodney Lung, a salesman for Travel Supreme, a high-end manufacturer in Wakarusa, Ind.
All this does add a certain burden. So-called Class A motorhomes, the largest of their kind, were once built to carry up to 17,000 pounds. Today’s motorhomes, loaded down by generators, slideouts, marble tiles, granite countertops and air-conditioners, can weigh 50,000 pounds and more.
To carry all this stuff, motorhomes have been retooled from the engine up. “The real strength is in diesel-based motorhomes,” said Goldenberg. As a sign of the sector’s expanding waistline, nearly half the Class A motorhomes shipped today are diesel-powered, compared with just 13% in 1996.
As weight has risen, fuel efficiency, not surprisingly, has plummeted. Motorhome owners are lucky if they can squeeze out six miles a gallon. But despite stubbornly high fuel prices, high-end motorhomes are selling better than ever. In 2003, 14,000 motorhomes costing more than $200,000 were sold, a 20% increase over the year before. In 1992, fewer than 100 such vehicles lumbered off the showroom floor.
With RVs this big and plush, why stop at larger living areas and bigger bedrooms? “Having a second bathroom is just so handy,” said Rex Browning, 65, a hair salon owner from Ottawa, Kan., who has a 42-foot-long Monaco Windsor kitted out to the hilt.
The second bathroom is usually reserved for guests, and, he said, “We wouldn’t have a motorhome without it.”