By Tony Barthel
What is the future of RVing? A year ago the RV industry was predicting a significant slowdown and was gearing up to gear down and build fewer units. Then a pandemic hit. Then everybody realized that the safest way to go on vacation was to do it in an RV.
“I do believe that, about mid-2021, there will be a glut of used RVs on the market and that those who can wait may be rewarded with some pretty respectable deals.”
The RV industry is bending over backwards to do everything it can to fulfill the incredible number of orders they have for anything that moves. In virtually every category the manufacturers are burning the midnight oil to get anything out the door of the factory and into the hands of consumers.
At the same time, the pandemic has created disruptions in supply chains and manufacturing issues across the globe. Sure, your American RV manufacturer is cranking away but there is a sea of nearly completed models in a lot somewhere awaiting a few parts to make those units whole. This, combined with just finding enough shippers, and your local dealership might look more like an empty parking lot.
Lastly, dealers are often selling units which were ordered sight-unseen, so the moment a unit shows up at a dealership it’s back out into the hands of a customer.
So what’s the future of the RV industry?
I think the first half of 2021 is going to remain strong for the RV industry. This is still the best way to see the USA. I do believe parts shortages will start to work themselves out as production ramps up overseas and here as well.
But, at some point, you’re going to see a dramatic shift.
Right now people are buying RVs simply because their choices in vacation options are limited. I personally can’t imagine being cooped up with thousands of my fellow passengers in a cruise ship, nor sailing through the air breathing recycled coughs and sneezes as I go to a hotel after watching all those exposé shows demonstrating what you see when the black lights are on. Eww.
But what about all those people who are buying an RV today who just won’t like the experience? I truly feel that RVing is the best way to see this country – but that’s my opinion and not all Americans share that. There will be a good number of people who buy an RV now to take their family places and just hate the whole experience. Towing a trailer or driving a big motorhome or even dumping tanks and dealing with bugs and forest creatures makes me happy – but that’s not true for all people. Okay, maybe not the tank-dumping part.
Once things get back to whatever normal is, many of those RVs are going to hit the market so that the owners can go on a vacation that better suits their own style.
Unfortunately, with so many people adopting this form of seeing this beautiful country, a lot of them haven’t learned the etiquette and some have been truly misbehaving in campgrounds and shared lands. This leaves a strong distaste with a lot of people for the RV lifestyle who have witnessed this bad behavior and would rather vacation where it doesn’t exist.
Others will have to sell their RVs just because of economic realities. Let’s face it: We’re still waiting to see how this all shakes out, and I am not as optimistic as some that all small businesses in particular will ride this thing out. I have a lot of friends in the entertainment, food and event industries and they are not optimistic about the outcome for small business in the U.S.
Also, with so many people having bought RVs sight-unseen, a third wave of folks likely bought the wrong RV and will want to trade in/up/down.
I do believe that, about mid-2021, there will be a glut of used RVs on the market and that those who can wait may be rewarded with some pretty respectable deals. For those who have learned how great this lifestyle is, they may be able to trade up/down and find plenty of choices in barely used RVs, along with a nice number of choices in new rigs as manufacturers catch up on inventory and parts.
However, I also am of the opinion that manufacturers will have caught up with demand and changes in the economy, and that will then combine with significantly reduced demand for new rigs. I’m not so sure now is the time to invest in RV manufacturer stock. Are you reading this, Warren Buffett?
What about availability of sites?
Anybody who has tried to reserve a campground knows that campgrounds are full. Campground owners are not only reporting record numbers of reservations, but are also saying that reservations aren’t slowing down as much as they typically would at this time of year.
The kids may not be returning to the school itself, so Mom and Dad and some form of Internet connection are hitting the road. It’s better to see Mount Rushmore in person than to read about it in a book, after all.
But mobile Internet is still relatively spotty and campgrounds are packed. This is particularly true west of the Mississippi, where things are more built out. Anyone who’s tried to reserve a camp spot has probably figured out that everybody else is doing the same thing.
The relief that may help here are alternatives to traditional campgrounds. For example, residents or businesses that want to capitalize on a bit of land “out back” may start to see RVers as a solution to a number of problems. Recently I spoke with a railroad museum that just created several RV spots and asked me how to advertise those.
They did this for the same reason other businesses I have talked to have done this. It’s additional revenue at a time when traditional travel is down and lots and lots of RVers are looking for interesting places to stay. I’ve also spoken with a few homeowners who are considering allowing mid-term RV stays, and services such as Boondockers Welcome have expanded their technology to allow for some payment for infrastructure such as electricity and water.
Furthermore, additional resources for alternative campgrounds such as Harvest Hosts, Boondockers Welcome, BLM lands and other choices will open up some doors left closed by campgrounds that have seen capacity-level guest counts even outside the normal RVing season.
RVers will need to be creative in their space-hunting skills, but I also see these alternative campsites being more receptive to modern reservation technologies than traditional campgrounds, many of whom frustratingly still rely on their answering machines instead of a digital reservations system. And, if vacationing is all about the experience, these may be different but exceptional alternatives and still offer a positive experience.
Lastly, I also see a number of people who have been forced into alternative work and educational lifestyles who are probably going to remain in that space. I think that traveling while working and also educating one’s children on the road opens up doors that might not have been available in the past.
With companies and schools realizing the potential of distance learning and working, I am predicting that RV companies will start to incorporate this more and more into designs. The biggest challenge for these people will remain the spotty Internet coverage, but with Starlink and the other pending technologies this challenge could go the way of cruise ships and group tours.
The bottom line
If I’ve polished up my crystal ball properly, I see that used RVs are going to be plentiful within the next year. New RVs will be, too, but demand for those will be way down. Campgrounds will remain very full, but I see alternatives to the rescue and more people will be calling in via those Zoom meetings from wherever they park their RV and find that some form of mobile Internet is just enough for them to get in on the call.
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Tony Barthel is a former RV industry insider having handled sales and warranties at an RV dealership. He now publishes the StressLess Camping podcast and website with his wife, Peggy. He also works directly with campgrounds on their digital presence.