The RV industry has rebounded in a big and beautiful way
UXBRIDGE — The kitchen has sparkling granite countertops and there’s a roomy master bathroom with dual vanity sinks and a skylight over the shower, a king-sized bed with memory-foam mattress, a washer and dryer, one 48-inch and two 32-inch LED TVs, recessed lighting, a double-wide refrigerator, and a working fireplace.
It’s a layout that would be the envy of many Boston condo owners. And you can drive it almost anywhere you want.
Motorhomes like these — a $384,870 American Coach Revolution model — are speeding off of lots like this one near the Massachusetts border with Rhode Island, where on weekends these days, buyers outnumber salesmen.
After crashing during the recession, the RV industry has rebounded to double-digit growth. More than 355,000 travel trailers, motorhomes, and folding camping trailers are being sold each year, or a record $15.4 billion worth, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. Some 9 million RVs are on the road in the United States, the highest number ever, the RVIA says.
“It’s the best-kept $15 billion secret in America,” said Bob Zagami, executive director of the New England RV Dealers Association.
Including around here. There are 31 members of the New England RV dealers’ group, most of them family owned. The Boston RV and Camping Expo attracts 13,500 people in two and a half days, and the Springfield RV, Camping and Outdoor Show more than 35,000. The Family Motorcoach Association national convention will be held at Springfield’s Big E in August.
More than 13,000 RV-ers in Massachusetts belong to the international recreational vehicle association the Good Sam Club. Don’t see an RV in the neighbors’ driveway? It may be because they store it somewhere else, or park it at a campground.
Zagami, who speaks at seminars at these shows, reports an influx of stroller-pushing couples, only half of whom he said raise their hands when asked if they’ve ever attended a camping show before.
“We have lawyers, doctors, firefighters, police officers. People from every walk of life do this,” said Joe Cavossa, a landscaper from Mendon and co-director with his wife of the state chapter of the Good Sam Club. “Monday through Friday the guy may be standing in front of a judge, but on the weekends he’s out in his RV drinking a beer and making s’mores.”
This dramatic resurgence of the RV comes as the iconic streamlined aluminum trailer called the Airstream celebrates its 85th anniversary this summer.
What’s propelling it is a nostalgia for the safety of the instant neighborhoods that pop up behind the locked gates of campgrounds — many of them renamed “camping resorts” to appeal to a new generation of white-collar and millennial RVers — where strangers leave their doors unlocked and bond over campfires, away from texts and e-mails, while their children are allowed to spend unsupervised hours running around.
Baby-boomer retirees leave their travel trailers somewhere for the summer and visit them like second homes, or take them south for the winter. Some workers with jobs that are relatively mobile, such as bartending, forgo the rising cost of housing altogether and simply live on the road.
But the biggest percentage growth in RV ownership is among younger owners, aged 35 to 54, the RVIA says.
Parents like the savings they enjoy over other forms of travel with the kids. Lighter than they used to be, and more aerodynamic, RVs have gotten cheaper to run, and with the relatively low price of gas, RV trips can cost as much as 62 percent less for a family of four than a vacation that requires flights, hotels, meals out, and rental cars, a survey by the market-research firm PKF Consulting found.
Not everyone is on board with this. Campers who prefer to lay their sleeping bags on the hard earth under tents or trees deride the idea that 45-foot diesel-powered luxury land yachts have anything at all to do with getting back to nature — especially when that lawyer drinking his beer and cooking up s’mores is doing it in his microwave while watching the Red Sox in surround-sound on the outdoor entertainment center before turning in on a king-sized mattress.
“There are the purists who disdain this. They say, well, that’s not camping,” said Zagami.
But the momentum is so great that other businesses are starting to respond. Volkswagen has brought back its California camper. Walt Disney World is starting on a renovation of its 45-year-old Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, with longer and wider campsites, among other things. Cable networks such as the Great American Country channel air shows such as “Going RV,” which includes an episode about a Seekonk couple visiting the lot at Flagg RV as they consider upgrading from a trailer to a motorhome.
Trying to keep pace with the changing demographics of RVers, campgrounds have not only renamed themselves “resorts,” they’ve become resorts, with golf courses, spas, bars at the pool, and locked gates with passcode entry.
After all, Zagami said, today’s RV users, “for the same reason they want a TV and a fireplace, are not going to stay in a campground with an outhouse.”
It isn’t all about the luxury. Some pop-up trailers cost as little as $5,000, and are light enough to tow behind small cars. Midsized motorhomes on Mercedes Benz chassis are no harder to drive than delivery vans, whether it’s across the country or to the kids’ Saturday soccer game with the coffeemaker and the heat on. (“This will make you the most popular guy in town,” Zagami said, showing one off.) At the high end, a loaded custom motorcoach with slide-out sides can go for $2.5 million.
The gold standard, somewhere in the middle, is the Airstream, whose familiar silhouette embodies the ideal of the freedom of the open road, said Patrick Foster, the Connecticut author of the new book “Airstream: America’s World Traveler.”
“You see things you can’t see from the air or from a train. And if you’re driving along and you see something interesting, you can just stop there, and stay as long as you want. You have that freedom,” Foster said.
And then, he said, “You get up in the morning and you’re in your own bed and you can make your own breakfast without having to get dressed up and go out to a restaurant. You’re free. You’re as free as a person can be.”
That’s the allure for many RV users, they say — not the leather couches, four-season climate control, or central vacuum systems.
Jack Bayley and his wife, who live in Norwood, for example, take their camper south to Florida each winter — spending a month to get there and a month to get back.
“You stop at a campground and everybody’s friendly. Next thing you know you’re all sitting around the fire together,” Bayley said.
“Jump onto an airplane, run to a hotel — you don’t meet anybody,” said Bob Brown of Whitman, who bought his first travel trailer with his wife when they got married 42 years ago; they’ve since worked their way up to a motorhome. “The camaraderie, the friendship. . . . On an average weekend we’re out with anywhere from 25 to 30 families. There’s no way you’re going to be able to meet up with 30 families at some hotel.”
Cavossa is still talking about the maiden voyage he just took in his new 43-foot Wheel High Country Montana trailer. He likes getting off the grid, he said.
“In the last five to seven years, that’s what I’m seeing: The kids don’t have their computers, they don’t have their phones, they don’t have their PlayStations with them,” Cavossa said. “Everyone is back in the outdoors. And families get back to being families.”
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