With most of the travel industry smarting from the disruption of COVID-19, Recreational Vehicle (RV) travel emerged this past summer as an alternative way to enjoy the outdoors and take domestic vacations.
The self-contained homes on wheels allowed people to travel while maintaining social distancing. For the uninitiated, an RV can be a drivable motorhome, a towable trailer/camper or a travel camper that attaches to a truck bed (commonly referred to as a “fifth wheel”).
In 2019, the RV Industry Association (RVIA), a national trade organization, reported the industry had an economic impact of $114 billion, with $6.9 billion of that in Texas. And it looks like 2020 may stay on par with that figure, if not top it — a notable feat given widespread travel industry shutdowns in March and April.
Bobby Lee, who co-owns the five-year-old Big Texan RV Ranch in Amarillo, is optimistic about the surge in RV travel. “We’re seeing a lot of people new to driving an RV pulling up and staying a night on their way to Colorado or Wyoming,” Lee said. “And it’s your 23- to 35-year-olds renting or owning an RV for the first time. Not just retired couples.”
Lee’s park is part of a well-known panhandle franchise that includes the Big Texan Steak Ranch and the Big Texan Motel, both established in 1960. The park can accommodate 130 RVs.
“When people get in after 10 p.m. and we’re full, we’ve been using the restaurant’s parking next door as an overflow lot where RVs can dry camp for the night using their generators,” said Lee. “We’ve never done that before, but we’ve had such demand.”
Gas prices have encouraged sales and rentals for RVs, which typically get six to 12 miles per gallon. “With the gas prices being down and people not wanting to fly,” Lee said, “it’s the perfect situation for RV travel and a pass-through market like Amarillo.”
Kurt West, the owner and operations manager for the Austin location of American Dream Vacations , echoed this sentiment. “From about mid-May to now, because of COVID, we’re at a five-year high,” West said. “In March and April we saw about a 600 percent decrease in business because everything was shut down, but since then we’ve been booked solid on rentals that range from $900 to $1,500 weekly.”
American Dream Vacations rents and sells RVs and has 11 U.S. locations with four in Texas. “During an economic downturn, people take more domestic vacations and rent RVs,” West said, “but unique to these times, we’re seeing people rent RVs for three weeks to drive their grandparents back to Indiana, where the RV will then just be parked for two weeks, basically as an alternative to flying. Some higher earners who also would normally hop on a plane are choosing RV travel, too.”
The staff at American Dream Vacations sanitizes units using an antibacterial aerosol similar to a bug bomb. Housekeepers follow up the aerosol treatment with cleaning. “If I had to put a number on it,” said West, “I’d say we’ve been through this protocol 400 or 500 times this past summer. We’re tired but grateful.”
With more than 36,000 jobs provided by the RV industry in Texas pre-COVID-19, many may be feeling grateful that RV sales and rentals have rolled into the spotlight. As one of the largest RV markets in the country, the RV industry in Texas added $722.6 million to state coffers in 2019.
Monika Geraci, spokesperson for RVIA, said that while June and July showed big increases in RV shipments to new sales dealers compared to last year, the industry was still down about 10 percent year to date in shipments because of lost production during the March to early May shutdowns. A new RVIA forecast released in September, however, predicts strong consumer interest will buoy 2020 RV shipments to surpass those in 2019 by 4.5 percent.
“What we have been seeing over the past few months in terms of sales and interest in RVs is just the first wave,” she said, “fueled by people who saw RVs as a way to experience freedom, control and fun this summer.”
A second wave of RV interest is happening now, Geraci said, driven by people who want to use RVs as mobile offices. She sees this interest continuing beyond the pandemic, as working from home becomes more commonplace. “An RV can be set up as a professional office and taken on the road. People can Zoom in from a national park or any number of campgrounds across the country.”
First-time RV renter Stefani Zellmer and her Austin-based family bear out the trends Lee, West and Geraci are seeing. Zellmer and her husband researched rentals through several online services that pair RV owners with potential RV renters. They decided on a Thor Four Winds RV — a 30-foot, Class C motorhome they could drive, which allowed the kids to sleep and stretch out during travel.
“We were overdue for a vacation and needed to get our son and daughter, 12 and 14, out of the house,” Zellmer said, “and I’m on Zoom calls a lot for work and figured I could do that anywhere.”
Zellmer and her family explored Colorado, Wyoming and Utah in their RV for several weeks during July and August. She said there was a learning curve to understanding the operation of all the power sources, which included a generator, electricity, propane gas and batteries, but they eventually got the hang of it.
When asked if she and her family would rent an RV again, Zellmer said, “The first few days, I thought, ‘This was a terrible idea,’ but then by the first weekend, I thought, ‘We need to do this every summer.’”
Instead of a Class B or C motorhome, she thinks her family’s next rental may be a travel trailer. She likes the idea of being able to unhitch the truck and explore places after parking the RV. She already has her eye on some Airstream models. FN