Recreational vehicles had a banner year in 2021 as cooped-up Americans looked to the great outdoors as an escape from COVID cabin blues.
RVs fit the bill nicely, industry leaders said, and sales soared.
One year later, as life for most is beginning its trek back to normal and gas prices surpassed $5 a gallon, RVsare holding their own, with sales dropping only slightly and not all due to a decrease in customer demand.
Some RVs with tanks that hold 100 to 150 gallons of fuel cost between $500 and $750 to fill up and get between 7 and 9 mpg.
Yet after a record year in 2021, with more than 600,000 vehicles ordered, 2022 has been relatively strong. Orders show that US dealers are on pace to sell about 550,000 RVs, said Monika Geraci, a spokesperson for the RV Industry Association of Virginia.
Supply chain issues have contributed to slowing down the RV market. Some RVs ordered this year won’t be delivered to customers until 2023.
The trend is surprising to some, but not to those who follow the industry.
The popularity of recreational vehicles has been on a 40-year upswing. The vast majority of vehicles sold are towable RVs. Depending on the size, towable or trailer RVs that hook to most trucks and SUVs use less fuel than motor homes and camper vans.
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Powerboats also grew in popularity during the pandemic lockdowns. Dirty soared as people crave getaways. However, with many getting worse gas mileage than RVs and relying on dockside pumps that charge even more per gallon, powerboats are losing momentum.
Powerboat sales have slowed more than RVs, after their historic growth in 2020 and 2021, due to the return of sporting events and concerts combined with inflationary pressures, according to National Marine Manufacturers Association records. Boat sales in the first quarter of 2022 were down 20% year-over-year.
“Not surprisingly, we’re seeing sales begin to stabilize following extraordinary growth in 2020 and 2021 as competition returns for consumer spending,” said Ellen Bradley, the association’s senior vice president.
Still, current demand remains strong, said Ron Sorensen, owner of Lake Hopatcong Marine. Sorensen’s showroom at the edge of the lake’s Great Cove has just one boat that isn’t already sold.
“We have four different boat manufacturers, and all of them have literally cut our supply chain in half,” he said. “They can’t get us boats.”
At Lake Hopatcong Marine, a new crop of prospective owners continues to seek out and eat up inventory, Sorensen said. Yet demand for weekend rentals has dropped to pre-pandemic levels. By mid-June in 2020 and 2021, Sorensen said, his rental boats had been booked for each summer weekend.
“Rentals have softened up,” he said. “Through the years of the pandemic, we were already sold out. Those were unusual years. Those were not normal years.”
RV sales slow — just a little
At Alpin Haus, an RV dealer in New York and West Milford, 2022 has represented more of a challenge than in years past.
Customers are expressing concerns about gas prices, Wall Street’s fall into a bear market and inflation at a 40-year high. These issues have slowed sales of RVs, said Andy Heck, owner of Alpin Haus.
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Many customers are choosing to sit on the sidelines, Heck said.
“Impulse buying has stopped,” he said, adding that customers “are giving it more consideration.”
RV and boat sales were easier to make in 2020 and 2021 when the threat of COVID-19 made the prospect of air travel daunting, industry leaders said. During COVID, lots of people were looking to vacation safely and escape their homes, Heck said. Sales skyrocketed to new heights as a result.
“There was a nice uptick,” Heck said.
RV publications like GoRVing.com reported poll results that showed most considered air travel and cruises to be too risky. It was not just fear of contracting COVID-19; they feared being stranded, quarantined and unable to get home, according to the polls.
Many of those fears still hold.
Justin Christ, sales manager at Alpin Haus’ West Milford location, said his customers have so far indicated they are not deterred from purchasing a new unit, especially those who tow their RVs.
Still cheaper to RV?
The over $5-per-gallon gas price has caused RV owners to take shorter trips and stay closer to home.
“I am not hearing people say they are going to the Grand Canyon,” Heck said. “They are staying local.”
Geraci, of the RV Industry Association of Virginia, said other than staying closer to home, RV owners are remaining in one location for a longer period of time to cut back on gas use.
“When it comes to RVs, people adjust,” she said.
Jean Huber of Pequannock traveled in her RV three out of four weekends in May. She went once to Cape May and twice to Pennsylvania, and a trip to Maine awaits.
“Gas is a concern but hasn’t stopped us from traveling,” she said.
Despite rising gas prices, RV travel is still a cheaper way to vacation. Studies show that the typical RV vacation is 30% less expensive than driving and staying in a hotel and about 60% less expensive than flying and staying in a hotel.
The consumer price index for airline tickets from May 2021 to May 2022 rose more than 38%, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. As a result, a May 2022 Bank of America Institute survey found that spending at airlines and travel agencies was up 60% year-over-year.
Recreational vehicle campsites are invariably cheaper than hotels, and those who boondock (ie camp remotely) can save even more.
Many businesses began to cater to campers during the pandemic. More turned to the Harvest Hosts club, which allows campers to spend the night at places such as wineries, breweries and farms. There are thousands of these sites across the country, resulting in secondary businesses. There are businesses that add solar panels to power RVs and satellite dishes to connect them to entertainment and Wi-Fi.
Some people have made RVs their homes. An estimated million Americans are living full time in their RVs to avoid rising rent and home acquisition costs, according to the RV Industry Association. The trend spurred the film “Nomadland” last year.
Matt Fagan is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.