Saturday, September 30, 2023

MENU

The RV industry scrambles for survival: Are camping’s glory days over?

Heading into the Memorial Day weekend, camping and RV 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.

2023 bound to show a decline, per RV industry leaders

RV 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 recently 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 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.

Travel cost comparisons

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.

Rent rather than own an RV?

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%?

Unimpressed campers in need of special attention

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 joys of camping by a number of “pain points” that the industry must address if it 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.

 PREVIOUSLY FROM ANDY… 

Are campgrounds and subdivisions becoming one and the same?

By Andy Zipser
It’s gotten to the point where the notion of a “campground” is becoming indistinguishable from that of a subdivision. True, the housing units at so-called campgrounds and RV parks are—mostly—smaller than their suburban counterparts. And their settings may be more “rustic,” perhaps with gravel roads instead of asphalt, and with such camping flourishes as outdoor fire pits or communal swimming pools. Continue reading.

Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park, and of Turning Dirt, a step-by-step guide for finding, buying and operating an RV park and campground. Both books are available through bookstores or at Amazon.com.

##RVT1108

Comments

3.8 13 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe to comments
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

22 Comments
Newest
Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dave
3 months ago

Thank you for the honesty and your thinking is correct.

Rick Popely
3 months ago

I’m not an RVer, and nor have I considered buying or renting one, but this article is a great piece of journalism and critical thinking that counters the upbeat BS that the industry is promoting. Good job.

Copper
3 months ago

Simple problem. Too many R.V.s, too few facilities. How many new state and federal parks are opening? Same goes for big boats. Lots of new boats and no new marinas. We sold our airstream due to reservation issues at popular destinations. Was not an issue 8 years ago.

Rvelectric
3 months ago

Rv parks need to turn into a network of charging stations for newer electric rvs. The Rv parks get money selling electricity and Rv sales will rebound with products people want.

Cancelproof
3 months ago
Reply to  Rvelectric

Right….. 20,000 RV parks need to turn into electric charging stations to service the 7 Electric RVs on the road. Got it. That’s a winning business model.

I think people with electric RVs should tow a diesel generator and recharge at rest areas before arriving at the RV parks. Win/win.

Steve
3 months ago
Reply to  Rvelectric

So people will be stopping every 100-200 miles at campgrounds to recharge their pipe-dream electric RV’s. Ya, that will work!

Last edited 3 months ago by Steve
Joe
3 months ago

Being in the industry for 13 years I will have to say the RVIA is a joke. RVIA will only tell you what is a rosy picture. They get money from every unit that is produced by charging the manufacturer for their little sticker that says “RViA certified”. All bullshit. Look at the junk the manufacturers put out. Pure greed in this industry. Lies, lies lies…………..

Hiker39
3 months ago
Reply to  Joe

I bought a new popup that had a tree land on it at the dealer. They totaled it instead of fixing it. I ended up getting it at an auction for 2k . I think it was just about worth that before it got hit.

Jim
3 months ago

Probably the number one problem I have and I have been camping for many years and have now had three units is the amount of that the so-called campgrounds RV parks whatever you want to call them has gone up in price I think it’s really sad and of course getting a spot when you want one it’s not as easy as it used to be and state campgrounds such as ours in South Carolina should take care of our own State citizens priority wise since we do pay taxes for both the facility and the roads they drive on to get to it

Erik
3 months ago
Reply to  Jim

your state parks DO prioritize. FIRST COME, FIRST SERVED *IS* a prioritization.

Crankypaul
3 months ago

There are so many parallels in the RV industry that I can compare to the boating industry that I was a participant in for over 50 years. The cost of the product is a small portion of the experience, and too many get involved for the wrong reasons, or not realizing the true cost of participation, resulting in unhappy owners and often completely ill placed members. The quality issues are secondary as in boating there have always been similar issues. And the ever increasing amenities that are offered or expected makes the daily costs skyrocket. At least with boating, it isn’t a necessity to have a camp/dock to participate on a daily basis except for larger vessels that cannot be trailered home. Camping more or less demands it. I don’t think overnighting in a Home Depot parking lot all the time would have much allure to very many folks.

Steve S
3 months ago

The industry should have made it easier rather than harder to have a quality experience. Substandard assembly, dismal service, and lack of instruction for new owners have all served to sour many first timers on the RV and trailer experience.

Spike
3 months ago

Great article, Andy.

As I have seen many of the “desperation statements” several of the RV industry big names have put out, I’ve asked the same challenge questions. Especially the Winnebago “considered” and “outdoor activities” statements…though do not forget they own ChrisCraft, a boat company, so including boating is legit in their case.

Your statement that 2023 will be the worst in a decade is good info. We need to stop comparing to the pandemic years and look at 2019 as a base to get the highly abnormal bubble years out of the long term view…at least as one reference point.

Cancelproof
3 months ago

Excellent reads Andy. If camping or RVing wasn’t in your DNA pre-covid, it isn’t going to be in your DNA post-covid. Camping for many during Covid was simply part of the Covid-Inconvenience, not an alternative to the Covid-Inconvenience. and was a choice between staying home for vacation or being Inconvenienced with an arduous and almost unwelcome camping trip.

On business model sustainability for dealers, Camping World is swooping in like a hawk on lame rabbits. Soft dealer market and overextended inventories are creating an even larger behemoth in CW but debt service for CW will be tough the next few years. Ma and Pa dealers will become almost extinct. CW’s current debt is triple its market cap. To big to fail, maybe? Dealers with no inventory and hundreds of units on backorder is reversed in 2023. None on backorder and hundreds on the lot. Survival of the fittest cash flow.

Last edited 3 months ago by Cancelproof
Jeffery H.
3 months ago

The RV industry has always been one of feast or famine, nothing’s changed, it’s history repeating itself.

Neal Davis
3 months ago

Thank you, Andy! Yes, “camping” is certainly not for everyone. I did that once and was miserable — spur of the moment, with friends, had a tent, they had sleeping bags, I had a very small blanket, etc.,. Swore I’d never do that (as in “camp”) again and didn’t. DW, totally different deal; did it prepared and enjoyed it. Fast-forward 40 years and we “travel” in a DP with ALL the comforts of home. Now, I, too, am prepared and I now enjoy it. 🙂 😎

Last edited 3 months ago by Neal Davis
Rich K.
3 months ago

My wife and I want to get a 25 foot or so Class C once my kids are graduated from HS (about 3 years from now). We want an older one in decent shape, though – 1990’s or earlier – because in Michigan, the cost of plates is based on the original sale price of the vehicle. I’d rather pay for plates of a motorhome that originally cost $50k or less than on one that cost over $100K!

Vince Sheridan
3 months ago

RV’ing is NOT for everyone. Name a person who takes pride in not having a poop pyramid in their black tank and I’ll bet you can name 50 who have no clue what that is or an inclination to deal with it.

Me personally, I hope the heyday is passing. Many campsites are overloaded, RV Parks are charging more to park on their unlevel gravel than a Motel 6 for a room and service bays have a 2 month backlog. If the market were to continue to grow, the infrastructure that makes it appealing will implode faster than it already is.

Craig Seitz
3 months ago

I’ve never considered Rving cheaper. We like having our own space, even when the campgrounds are crowded. We like knowing the bed/bathroom/ couch/dining table has been used by only us.

jcpain
3 months ago
Reply to  Craig Seitz

I agree 100% that the huge benefit of traveling in our 5th wheel anywhere is having our own space. Even when just visiting our kids (that have large houses with plenty of guest space) we prefer staying in our RV.

Debra
3 months ago

Two excellent articles by Andy Zipser.
It makes me laugh when I see a tiny square box advertised as GLAMPING!
What make it “glamorous”?
What makes it “camping”?
Will people spend their money on ANYTHING now?

Jesse Crouse
3 months ago

If it was for everyone then everyone would be doing it. Hopefully everyone won’t being doing it as some of the someone’s who are doing it are just “jerks”.

Sign up for the

RVtravel Newsletter

Sign up and receive 3 FREE RV Checklists: Set-Up, Take-Down and Packing List.

FREE