Heading into the Memorial Day weekend, camping industry cheerleaders were cranking out comparisons and forecasts to support their contention that the industry’s best days still lie ahead. But coming on the heels of some truly astonishing declines in factory shipments of new RVs, the chorus had a distinctly plaintive tone.
RV shipments for the first four months of the year were notably grim, down 52.1% compared to the same period last year—and down even more sharply for towables (which include travel trailers, fifth-wheels, pop-ups and truck campers), down 55.8%. Motorhomes (types A, B and C), meanwhile, were down a mere 14.9%, but the motorhome segment is less than one-fifth that of towables. Forecasts for the rest of the year have been revised steadily downward each month, with expectations now that 2023 will be the worst year for RV production in more than a decade.
Industry leaders have attempted to brush away this news with the assertion that 2023 was bound to show a decline after the pandemic-driven bumper-crop years of 2021 and 2022, and there’s certainly some truth to that. It’s the magnitude of the plunge that accounts for the barely concealed jitters, however—how many businesses can withstand half of their business evaporating in a year?—with no reasonable way to discern whether we’re in the throes of a minor correction or whether this is a deeper secular trend. But industry attempts at reassuring investors and customers have produced some near-comical contortions.
For example, Winnebago Industries, one of the biggest RV manufacturers, issued a cheery consumer survey this week that was long on insinuation but short on details to make a tenuous case that RV interest remains healthy. “Winnebago Survey Shows Growing Outdoor Activity,” its press release proclaimed, fudging the distinction between RVing and “outdoor activities,” such as hiking, cycling and boating. By the time the release got around to its ostensible subject, in a section subtitled “The Summer of RV Travel,” it was to present such carefully worded observations as “almost two-thirds of respondents have considered [emphasis added] using an RV for a vacation rather than traveling by plane,” and “over two-thirds of respondents have considered [emphasis added] using an RV for travel instead of a flight, hotel and rental car.”
Well, that’s reassuring—but what did those respondents actually do? Your guess is as good as any, but it’s clear that the airlines are not feeling any heat from RVs or other modes of transportation. As just reported by the Transportation Security Administration, its agents nationally screened 9.8 million passengers over the Memorial Day weekend, or 300,000 more than in the pre-pandemic year of 2019.
The idea that RVing is a cheap alternative to flying or driving on vacation nevertheless has captivated the industry, resulting in some highly questionable cost comparisons. The RV Industry Association, for example, reported May 18 that “an outside, independent firm has found that RV vacations cost much less than other types of vacation travel, even when factoring in fuel prices and the cost of RV ownership.” Aside from the problematic issues that come with any apples-to-oranges comparisons (what kind of RV compared to what kind of air fare or car rental plus what types of hotel accommodations? etc.), the lack of a publicly defined “cost of RV ownership” makes the analysis meaningless. For instance, is that the cost of an RV purchased outright, or one with a 10- or 15-year loan? With how much down and at what interest rate?
(One detailed example, from the several that were included in the RVIA-backed study: the costs for a family of four traveling from Dallas, TX to the Grand Canyon for a 14-day vacation would be $8,801 if the family took a plane, rented a car and stayed in hotels, according to the study, contrasted with an equivalent Class C motorhome vacation expense of just $5,627. But Go RV Rentals apparently occupies a different reality. Its unrelated press release this month (touting the economics of RV rentals) calculated that using a Class C motorhome for 20 days costs $911 per day “when you factor in the total cost of ownership”—or $12,754 for 14 days, more than double RVIA’s rosier assessment. As with the RVIA study, no explanation here of what comprises the costs of RV ownership.
(Meanwhile, want to rent rather than own? Go RV Rentals says that same Class C goes for an average base rate of $217 per day, plus as much as an additional 50% for insurance, service charges, optional equipment and sales tax. That’s $4,557 for the Dallas-Grand Canyon trip—before gas, any excess mileage charges and campground fees. Throw those in and you’ll certainly exceed the RVIA’s estimated $5,627.)
The argument that RVing is an economical way to vacation works only if such a vehicle gets deposited in your driveway for free and it never suffers any mechanical issues. And with the pandemic essentially a non-issue for most Americans, the ability to travel and cocoon in a personal bubble is no longer the enticement it was the past three years. Add to that the shrinking number of American workers who remain able to work remotely, and all of a sudden the main reason to go RVing reverts to what it was before all the craziness started: to go camping!
But is that enough?
Interestingly enough, that very question—with a perhaps predictable answer, after an initial tease— was posed by Toby O’Rourke, president and CEO of KOA, at the 2023 RV Industry Power Breakfast in Elkhart on May 11. “For the past couple of years, when I’ve been asked about all these new people camping, I have always said there is going to be a natural drop-off,” she told an industry audience of more than a thousand. “Camping is not going to be for everybody.” Indeed, she noted, 32% of people who went on an RV trip for the first time said the experience was good or great—raising the question, what was less than okay for the other 68%?
But while O’Rourke used to think that camping isn’t for everyone, now “I really don’t accept that anymore and I don’t think you should, either.” Although she didn’t explain what led her to change her mind, O’Rourke said she now believes those unimpressed campers are simply in need of special attention. They’re a marketing and education challenge, blocked from a full-throated embrace of the joy of camping by a number of “pain points” that the industry must address if its wants to keep growing. “Here’s the problem as I see it: the reality is that camping is an easy choice, but it’s not always easy,” O’Rourke told her audience. “If we don’t smooth over these pain points, we are at risk of losing those 70% of people that are lukewarm about continuing to camp.”
Or maybe O’Rourke had it right the first time: camping isn’t for everyone, not because of “pain points” but because nothing is for everyone. That’s not what the industry wants to hear, of course. Much better to believe that it’s just a matter of better messaging, of becoming more customer obsessed. Desperate times call for desperation.
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