RV sales spike as many look to travel while distancing

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 7/6/2020 3:13:55 PM

When recreational vehicle manufacturers closed plants in March and April because of the coronavirus, it appeared the industry was headed for one of its worst years on record.

But a month later, plants began operating and to the surprise of everyone, consumer demand went through the roof.

“They (sales) are off the chart, to put it mildly,” said Robert Zagami, executive director of the New England RV Dealers Association, which represents about 35 dealers in the region. “No one forecasted it, no one predicted it.”

The dramatic increase in demand appears to be a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Orders requiring social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus and the closure of many favorite vacations areas forced people to search for alternatives. As the number of coronavirus cases increase, many people simply do not want to risk a cruise, plane ride or trip to an amusement park, Zagami said.

“They don’t want to be in that environment.”

Now with the case numbers increasing again in Florida, California, Arizona and other states, RV demand continues to be strong.

Recreational vehicles, Zagami said, provide the ideal vacation setting where travel is safe, the outdoors are accessible and social distancing in campgrounds or RV parks is a given with sites 20 feet or more apart.

What is surprising to those who study trends in the recreational vehicle market are the number of new buyers.

Zagami said his association represents 35 RV dealers in New England and they report half of their new sales are first-time buyers – people who have never gone camping before.

“For some dealers, the number of first-time buyers is 80% to 90%,” Zagami said.

Ray Panzino, general sales manager of Cold Springs RV in Weare, said his sales data backs up what Zagami said.

“In the last three months, we have sold to more first-time buyers than we did in the last five years combined,” Panzino said.

There has also been a change in the type of buyers. Years ago, a young couple might buy an inexpensive pop-up trailer and as their family grew, would gradually trade up to something bigger until retirement when they could buy a motorhome.

“Those rules are off the table now,” Zagami said. “I have seen first-timers spend $400,000 on a motorhome and a retired couple buy a small trailer.”

At Airstream of Nashua, sales consultant and store manager John Terescik said their inventory has been cleaned out. March was somewhat normal as people got ready for the season but come mid-April the “floodgates opened.” he said.

“People were buying from us around the country, wire transferring money. We sold more in six weeks than what we usually sell in three months,” Terescik said, adding that nationwide Airstream had it biggest month (May) in sales since the company started in 1931.

The impact of COVID-19 can be seen in the number of recreational vehicles shipped this year. January and February figures were comparable to 2019 but March, when the spread of the virus became a serious concern, saw a decrease from 38,000 to 30,000 and in April shipments were down to 5,000 compared to 40,000 year last year. In May, the numbers recovered to 28,000, which is off about 12,000 fewer than last May.

“While numbers compared to last May show a 30% decrease, the reality is the RV industry is very strong right now,” RV Industry Association President Craig Kirby said in a statement.

Kirby noted the many RV dealers around the U.S. reported record sales when their showrooms reopened.

At Cold Springs RV, Panzino said they nearly doubled their sales from May and June last year.

“It has been off the wall crazy,” Panzino said. “We are running out of inventory. Last May we sold 50 and in June, 60. This year we sold 100 in each month.”

The cost of what is described as an RV ranges from as little as $6,000 for a popup trailer to $500,000 or more for a motorhome. Most sales, 70 to 80 percent are “towables,” including travel trailers and fifth wheels.

Zagami said a lot of people are paying cash and some are buying online, “sight, unseen,” so they don’t miss out.

A retired couple who bought an Airstream was typical of the new type of buyer.

“Every year they went on a river cruise in Europe but this year (because of COVID-19) invested $12,000 in an Airstream,” Terescik said.

With a strong economy, the year for RV sales started on a positive note Zagami said and dealers stocked up on inventory following the annual RV show in January in Boston. That helped them weather the plant shutdowns and meet demand. But dealers are having trouble replacing stock.

“The plants are running three shifts,” Zagami said.

With so many more RVs on the road, finding a place to stay if you have not made a reservation could be a challenge.

“We are being stretched. Reservations are encouraged,” Zagami said.

Some places, including Walmart, let recreational vehicles stay overnight in the parking lot. Another option is a Harvest Host membership, which provides free RV camping at over 1,000 wineries, breweries, distilleries, farms, museums, and other unique locations around the country.

The pandemic caused the demand for RVs to skyrocket, but Zagami does not believe sales will slide when the threat of the virus ends.

“We expect the trend to continue,” he said. “With that many more RV owners, they will tell their friends and others.”

(These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.)
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