The nation’s RV industry – hit hard by the Great Recession a decade ago – has pulled off the berm and is accelerating toward new records, thanks to the popularity of recreational vehicles among millennials.
Across Eastern North Carolina, an increasing number of younger families are embracing the RV-ing lifestyle, and regional dealerships are cashing in.
It’s a far cry from the dark days of 2007 when people feared for their jobs, credit dried up and the price of gas spiked, or as Bill Mirrielees, the general manager of Wilmington’s Howard RV Center on Market Street describes it, “the perfect storm of negativity.”
Now, 10 years later, Howard RV has come off its best year since 2007 after experiencing year-over-year double-digit revenue growth over the past three years.
At Rex & Sons RVs, management is equally optimistic.
“Last year we saw maybe a 20 percent increase,” said Travis Creech, operations manager at the South College Road dealership. “RV-ing is the most popular [that] it’s ever been.”
Buyers aged 25 to 34 now account for 13 percent of sales at Rex & Sons and those aged 35-44, another 22 percent – shattering the traditional image of seniors in sleek metal Airstreams lazily meandering down Route 66.
Nationally, the majority of RVs are owned by individuals aged 35 to 54, according to a University of Michigan study, with the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), a national trade group, reporting a 15.1 percent increase in year-over-year sales at the end of 2016.
Not only are millennials the dominant force behind RV sales, but they’re also steering dealerships into a different mix of what’s on the lot.
Down, but not out, are the larger, higher-end motorhomes that became commonplace in the ’80s; very much in are smaller, less-expensive motorhomes along with conventional travel trailers and other towed vehicles.
“There’s a great contingent of people out there that feel less is more,” said Howard RV’s Mirrielees. “You’re losing size and space, but you’re getting everything that that 40-footer had in it, amenity-wise.”
Mirrielees cites easier maintenance and parking as well as affordable pricing as three key reasons why smaller motorhomes have taken off.
Not only can RV enthusiasts park at shopping centers and hotels more easily, he said, but “you can stay in any campgrounds you want” as opposed to the limited availability of National Park Service sites that accommodate Class-A motorhomes, the largest and roomiest vehicles.
A move from a Class-A to a Class-C motorhome can drop the length of a vehicle by as much as 16 feet, Mirrielees noted.
So-called “towables” are also fueling the industry’s record growth.
“The majority is towables. A good 80 percent is towables,” Creech at Rex & Sons said of his own dealership’s sales.
“The trend is being smaller, more compact,” he said, with younger, first-time buyers able to afford vehicles with an average purchase price in the twenties.
For Gina McCarty, a mother of three and the wife of a Marine who is often deployed, RV-ing is “the greatest thing we ever did for our family,” she believes.
When husband, Tom, is away from Camp Lejeune, mother and kids are on the go, RV-ing with a 32-foot Forest River Surveyor the couple bought at Howard RV. Sometimes, her parents join in on the fun.
And when Tom returned home recently, the couple and their 7-, 3- and 1-year-olds camped at Onslow Beach and at Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park at Daddy Joe’s in Tabor City.
“Since we have bought the RV we have spent more time with our kids than we have in the past seven years,” she said.
RVIA data show that nationally, owners average five road trips a year and travel an average of 3,000 miles, and when they do so, having a vehicle that’s fully loaded with the latest creature comforts is important.
Tankless on-demand water heaters, refrigerators that run on gas, electric or even 12-volt batteries, solar power, lane-drift technology and automatic text notifications that provide maintenance alerts are all standard features or becoming so, said Creech and Mirrielees.
But it is dependable Wi-Fi, they say, that represents a “must” even in the Great Outdoors, with 75 percent of 2,500 owners and prospects surveyed by RVIA telling the trade group they think reliable connection to the internet is important.
In that regard, Gina McCarty may be an outlier.
While electronic devices may keep her kids occupied when it’s raining, she said, she’s not in favor of raising “tablet-indulged children.”
Creech, the father of three daughters, also sees RV-ing as a way to ween kids off electronics, at least temporarily. With handhelds at home, he said, “everyone will be in their own little world.”
Did the recent hurricane-induced spike in gas prices slow sales?
“Folks that enjoy this lifestyle are going to do this lifestyle,” Creech responded.
While RV owners may cut back on long-distance trips during an energy crisis, an increasing number of them have started using their “home away from home” to run daily errands, attend sporting events and engage in other activities in their community, Creech and Mirrielees said.
“Ten years ago, nobody was buying an RV just to go from Point A to Point B,” Mirrielees said.
Then again, 10 years ago, not many people were buying RVs at all.
With the RV lifestyle enjoying a record-breaking surge in popularity, Rex & Sons has doubled its staff since the height of the recession and is now starting to search for two more employees.
At Howard RV, Mirrielees is also upbeat.
The company will close 2017 with even stronger sales than last year “unless a meteor falls on top of our dealership,” he said.