RVers adopt a wait-and-see attitude

It is a given that industry representatives will insist the sun is shining even as thunderheads pile up on the horizon—and really, who can blame them? But for everyone else, being lulled by rosy forecasts that ignore storm clouds can result in a good soaking. Or worse.

Having declared a month ago that the 2023 camping season was off to a strong start, which is demonstrably true, KOA went out on a limb by assuring the public that campers “are also starting to make solid plans for the rest of the year.” But “solid” requires some context. As previously reported, a year-over-year comparison of KOA’s surveys actually showed a remarkable softening: fewer than half as many campers had made reservations by February for this season as had in 2022 for that year.

The hesitation continues. KOA today released its March monthly report, flagged with the optimistic headline “Rise in camping continues” and citing strong camping turnout at the start of the year. But again it went a step too far, with senior vice president Whitney Scott announcing in a press release that “we’re seeing more bookings made earlier”—yet KOA’s own figures show that 27% of their survey respondents have booked some or all of their 2023 camping trip thus far this year, compared to 50% at this time last year.

There is, undeniably, strong interest in the idea of camping. KOA’s surveys show that, and certainly this year’s near-record turnout at the big RV shows underscores the point. People are looking and day-dreaming, pressing their noses against the display windows of their imaginations as they conjure visions of sweeping vistas and crackling wood fires—they’re just not committing. They’re keeping their powder dry, whether it’s by deferring RV purchases—dealers have been complaining that RV show interest is not translating into sales—or by merely bookmarking campgrounds and RV parks on their computers for a later decision.

The downturn in RV sales, despite industry efforts to characterize it as a return to pre-pandemic norms, is notably larger than expected. Market-leading Thor Industries—whose flagship labels include Jayco and Airstream—earlier this month posted steeper than predicted declines in sales and profits for its second quarter, contending that the sharp slowdown “is proof that our consumer is being impacted by elevated prices, higher interest rates and inflation.” Meanwhile, Winnebago Industries today reported second-quarter results that actually cheered Wall Street because the hole it’s in is not as deep as they’d expected: sales declined from $1.2 billion a year ago to just $866.7 million, or almost $60 million more than the consensus forecast. But helping plug the hole was Winnebago’s 16.1% increase in boat sales, to $112.9 million—apparently a segment that is not taking on water.

A similar pull-back was reported last month by Camping World Holdings, which posted a double-digit decline in same-store new vehicle sales for its fourth quarter—and which cut nearly 1,000 jobs. That mirrors trends in Elkhart, Indiana, where the great majority of U.S. RVs are manufactured and where the unemployment rate in January jumped to just a hair under 5%, more than doubling over the past year.

All this is more suggestive than definitive, as KOA and other industry leaders will be quick to aver. Americans have bought a lot of RVs in the past couple of years, and they’re going to want to use them. An RVing trip is still one of the cheapest ways for a family to go on vacation. Working away from an office is still a thing, and especially among a younger generation of technologically savvy nomads who have been the single biggest demographic of new RV buyers.

All true. But so are the statistics that show millennials are piling on debt to unsustainable levels, while Americans overall increased their credit card debt in 2022 by a record $180.3 billion—and today’s Fed decision, pushing interest rates to a range of 4.75% to 5%, means additional billions in costs in the months ahead. Moreover, millennials and others with college debt can expect an end to the government moratorium on their payments in a few months, further undercutting their ability to afford even relatively cheap vacations—and those, too, are becoming more illusory. RV parks have done themselves no favors by relentlessly increasing their prices the past couple of years.

Recent events have demonstrated just how quickly an apparently stable financial system can get shaken up. Alert RVers are paying attention to the gathering storm clouds, and park owners would be smart to do likewise, regardless of how many rosy forecasts they hear .

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Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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