The return of the RV vacation
Vans, big rigs, overland trailers and other tow-behinds are the new “it” way to escape, whisking away couples and families who couldn’t spend a minute longer sheltering at home.
Jeremy Ebner enjoys camping. His wife, Simona Ebner? Not so much.
“I prefer to sleep in a bed and have flush toilets and running water,” Simona Ebner says. When the couple — who both grew up in La Crosse County but met while attending the University of Wisconsin–Madison — moved from Milwaukee in 2019 to buy and renovate a decommissioned Girl Scouts camping site in East Troy, the goal was to create a campground experience that would suit all kinds of campers, from outdoorsy types to modern-luxury lovers.
The answer was RVs. In addition to designating a group campsite with five platform tents (two for sleeping, one for group seating), the Ebners restored three RVs, or recreational vehicles, to place throughout the 80-acre property surrounded by old-growth forest and wetlands.
You can book a stay at one of the setups, which include a 1977 Airstream, a 1957 Holly camper and a 1957 canned ham-style RV. Simona and Jeremy Ebner also renovated the former Girl Scouts lodge on the property, which is where they live. The two nervously opened their private business, Camp Kettlewood, in June 2020 not knowing if anyone would rent sites at first. “But we booked up every single slot that was available,” Jeremy Ebner says. “We were just blown away by the response.” As of early April, summer 2021 is nearly booked solid.
Stationary or mobile, posh or plain, rented or purchased, RVs of all kinds have gone from “retiree toy” to “all the rage.” The RV industry is experiencing increased popularity with a widening audience during COVID-19, most recently becoming a go-to provider of travel and leisure opportunities due to the built-in physical distancing benefits it affords.
Nationwide statistics show that the number of wholesale shipments of RVs has steadily grown after a sharp dip during the 2008-2009 recession, hitting a record high of 504,600 units shipped in 2017. There was a slight decline in 2019, but 2020 is expected to see sales in excess of 400,000 units, and 2021 is projected to set a new record high of 507,200.
But there’s been one big snag since the start of the pandemic, says Christine Eagan, owner and president of Wisconsin RV World, a Madison-area seller and renter of new and used RVs since 1945. “We have a lot of new, first-time buyers, but the manufacturers can’t build them fast enough,” she says.
COVID-19 has caused massive manufacturing and shipping delays. Eagan says she’s down probably 25%-30% of her normal inventory for the spring. The orders she placed in July 2020 arrived in March 2021, but RVs are selling before they even hit her 9-acre lot. Most people are willing to wait, she says. “To a certain extent, they have to. Most of the dealers are kind of in the same position.”
Another local dealer, Camperland RV, says they’ve been so busy that they didn’t have time for an interview.
Dave Engbring, co-owner of Jerry’s Camping Center in Madison, says the business has experienced a significant sales increase for at least the last five years. “Our sales growth has been astronomical,” he says. But he’s dealing with delays and demand right now, too. “There are some people who have bought [RVs] because they’re going crazy with COVID and they’ve got to get out of the house,” Engbring says. “And they’ll buy whatever model, whatever color I got.”
It seems those not ready to buy an RV are flocking to places like Camp Kettlewood or browsing Airbnb for interesting “glamping” (glamorous camping) experiences.
The demand for and interest in RVs is quickly transforming the industry. A few key changes include:
COVID-19 has sparked RV buying. Engbring — who co-owns Jerry’s with brother and sister Dan and Dawn Engbring — says customers who might have been looking to buy down the road are pulling the trigger sooner. “They’ve just sped up the purchase and are buying the unit now rather than waiting five more years when they retire,” he says. A more somber reason for some of the sales at the start of the pandemic was health care workers’ fear of bringing COVID-19 into their homes, Dave Engbring says.
It’s quickly become the safest physically distanced travel option. All of Camp Kettlewood’s sites (each of which has its own private bathroom and shower) have at least once acre of land between them. That remains a selling point for guests wanting peace and quiet without having to worry about getting too close to others.
Eagan says being in an RV is a little more freeing right now. “You don’t have to worry about flying or hotels,” she says. “You can keep it as clean and sanitary as you want. You don’t have to let anyone else into your environment.” While RV-ing, you can cook all your meals in the camper. You don’t have to worry about rental cars. You don’t even need to go inside gas stations if you can hop in the RV for a bathroom break.
“Plus, it brings your family closer together,” she says.
Demographics are shifting.
Eagan — the fourth-generation owner of the business her great-uncle founded — is excited to see the changing audience for RVs. “It’s getting to be younger and younger,” she says. Eagan had a third-party agency do a study last year, which polled 7,000 to 8,000 people in the Madison area. When asked if they planned to purchase an RV in the next year, 31% of respondents ages 25-34 said yes, as did 27% of those ages 45-54. While the average age of customers who bought from her in 2020 was 53, Eagan is seeing more young buyers than ever. “And there’s more diversity in our customers.” she says. The historically white clientele is changing, says Eagan, who notes that she’s of mixed race. “That’s what we like to see.”
While Engbring has also noticed some younger customers, the majority are still older buyers looking for a smooth ride into retirement. But many in the younger category are, to Engbring’s surprise, going into very nice trailers. “A lot of times the younger kids would be camping in tents,” he says. But he sold a $40,000 camper to a young couple the morning of our interview. Nationally, about 38% of the country’s 40 million campers are millennials, even though they account for 31% of the general population.
Small is in. Both Eagan and Engbring say their buyers (young and old) are leaning toward smaller trailers. “They hadn’t planned on buying and they have a lot smaller tow vehicles,” Eagan says.
Jerry’s has always specialized in smaller camper sales — but smaller doesn’t necessarily mean cheaper, Engbring notes. “The smaller ones are getting much more equipment and getting much more luxurious,” he says. Some 14-foot teardrops come equipped with a shower, toilet, TV, stereo system and solid birch wood cabinetry.
Another element that buyers are considering is where they’ll store their campers, and a 40-foot trailer might require specific storage. “It has to be in your garage — you can’t have it sitting in your driveway in any of these new subdivisions,” Engbring says.
RVs are going high tech. The details keep upgrading — they’re getting bigger air conditioners, different refrigerator options and other amenities that make RV-ing easier and more enjoyable for everyone, Eagan says. Engbring notes that some come with solar packages installed so you can go “off the grid” — aka disconnecting from the national energy grid — and still stay powered. For those who want to get lost in nature but need to stay connected for remote work, Jerry’s sells a cellphone booster that sends an antenna 20 feet in the air to find the strongest signal. “Those people aren’t going off the grid, they’re just working remote,” Engbring says. “They’re not going to work from their house. They’re going to be on the road for six months, taking advantage of being able to work remotely until this ends.”
But some swap high tech for vintage rentals, craving a return to simpler times. Simona Ebner says they get a lot of guests who remember visiting the campground when it was still a Girl Scouts camp. The Ebners decided to amp up the nostalgia by incorporating some vintage Girl Scouts’ pieces into the RVs’ interiors. “We’re avid antiquers, so we’ve always liked antiques and appreciated that older charm,” Simona Ebner says.
The Airstream is the envy of all, she says. “We’ve seen a lot of people who are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve always wanted an Airstream!’” They’ve witnessed some guests browsing the internet while camping to try to snag their own. Airstream dealerships saw a 22% jump in sales in 2020.
RV-ing has slowly been shedding its reputation as a retiree activity over the years, but stir-crazy quarantiners have caused a surge that has a new generation embracing a classic American pastime. There are new RV owners every day — including a few locals featured later in this story — who are young, new to camping and itching to hit the road.
What Kind of RV-er Are You: We tracked down a few local adventurers who’ve recently entered the world of RVs. Which one best fits your RV-ing style?
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