While the coronavirus has gutted flights and left hotels and global tourist hot spots deserted, one industry is doing surprisingly well during the pandemic: RV rentals and sales, with some companies reporting massive increases in business and interest during the lockdown.
Ahead of Memorial Day, the “unofficial start of summer,” and National RV Day on June 7, motor home and travel trailer rental site RVshare reported a 1,000 percent increase in nationwide bookings since April 1.
The website — which follows the Airbnb model by connecting owners with travelers looking to rent an RV for vacations or longer-term stays — saw more modest increases in the New England market, notching a 159 percent increase in bookings since early April and a 22 percent increase in the second week of May, year over year.
RVshare chief executive officer Jon Gray attributed this difference to the fact that many New England states have been slower to reopen their parks and campgrounds, noting travelers in states like Texas and Georgia, which are reopening faster, have driven this surge in interest.
“We saw, in the week following the announcement of reopening, a quadrupling of bookings in Texas, a tripling in Georgia, and doubling in all the other markets that were reopening,” Gray said. “When the restrictions loosen and things like parks and beaches open up, we’re seeing a lot of RV bookings.”
As for New England, states that largely avoided the brunt of infections — Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont — all saw spikes in demand compared to last year, while hard-hit Massachusetts and neighboring New Hampshire have yet to see a surge in bookings with RVshare.
Meanwhile, New England RV dealers and industry experts have also seen interest rise at surprising rates, reporting sales at or above pre-pandemic levels.
Compare this with plummeting numbers across the automobile industry, with major manufacturers like Honda and Toyota seeing purchases drop by over 50 percent in April.
Pete’s RV Center marketing director Phil LeClair, whose company has three locations in New England and two in other states, said while traffic largely halted when lockdown first began, business has since exceeded all expectations.
“Now we're probably 40 percent over our normal traffic at this time of year, historically,” LeClair said. “We actually look like we will probably match our sales from last May, which is pretty incredible.
“At least to break even, as far as unit sales go, that’s pretty amazing.”
Even more amazing is that these levels are maintained despite showrooms closing and interactions being relegated to appointment and over the phone, said Bob Zagami, executive director of the New England RV Dealers Association.
“I had a dealer sell 13 RVs totaling $750,000 by appointment only, with some entirely over the phone,” Zagami said. “Most of my dealers are equal to or ahead of their sales for last year, despite the six weeks in hell.”
So why are customers turning toward RVs during the pandemic? This answer has evolved as quarantine wore on.
When lockdowns first began, both RVshare and Pete’s RV saw an influx of requests from medical staff and other front-line workers looking for temporary housing to protect the rest of their family from contamination.
“Then in the middle of April, when we started seeing restrictions loosen in some markets, we started to see a pretty immediate increase in more traditional vacation bookings,” said Gray from RVshare. “They've been cooped up for two months. So they want to get outside.”
This comes as the coronavirus is changing travel habits across the nation, with travelers shunning cramped airplanes in favor of more socially-distant options.
In a recent survey commissioned by the US Travel Association, 47 percent of respondents said they were more likely to travel by car after the pandemic subsides, and 42 percent would likely choose destinations closer to home, both of which bode well for the humble motor home.
Ultimately, LeClair expects that, in the long term, this pandemic will place RV travel on the table as a viable option for families looking to get away.
“[Social distancing] will continue to drive interest for quite a while,” LeClair said, “but it’s going to allow more people to experience RVing for the first time and realize, ‘Hey, this is a great activity for family, for even older couples.’ ”
And as states slowly begin to reopen their economies, some more good news: In the past, economists have used RV sales to predict the state of the economy, an unofficial RV index of sorts.
Because motor homes and travel trailers are largely recreational purchases, their sales suggest financial security and cash flow. So when purchases increase, the economy will largely follow.
For Zagami, this is cause for hope.
“If there was an underlying tremor of long-term economic damage, we would not be seeing the results that we’re seeing right now,” Zagami said. “Yes, we’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetime. But buyers are saying, ‘I’ve got confidence that this country can do it again, back to seeing my 401(k) go up and living in good times again.’”