Boomer wanderlust, airline concerns push RV growth

Posted: Friday, June 14, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- For years, Lou Holtmann meant to take a vacation with his children and grandchildren, but the scheduling ''never worked out.'' After Sept. 11, he decided it was time, and so he bought five recreational vehicles for road trips this summer.

''We just wanted to stay closer as a family,'' said Holtmann, 56, of St. Louis. ''There's 20 of us all together, so to fly to a particular spot, stay at a hotel and rent cars would cost significantly higher. And certainly, there were major airline delays that we wanted avoid.''

Companies report a surge in RV sales and rentals this year, boosted mostly by adventure-seeking baby boomers unwilling to deal with airline hassles and still skittish about traveling abroad.

In big demand: high-end RVs loaded up with satellite dishes, washer-dryers, movable walls called slideouts and home offices with Internet access, allowing boomers to travel at will without losing the comforts of home.

''Boomers have consistently shown they like to do things on their own terms. It's about control,'' said Ron Geraci, features editor for My Generation, AARP's magazine for baby boomers. ''And frankly, post 9/11, you have less control over your travel than you did before.

''Boomers understand that having an RV allows them to travel and really retain an element of control to a greater degree,'' he said.

For the first five months of 2002, RV sales have jumped more than 20 percent compared to the same period last year, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. The group attributed the rise to lower interest rates and greater interest in domestic road travel after Sept. 11, particularly in the Northeast.

Most RV sales nationwide are to boomers, who represent the fastest growing segment of the RV market. Currently, 6.9 million -- or about one in 12 -- vehicle-owning households has an RV, with the median age of owners at 49, according to RVIA.

That's quite a shift from 15 to 20 years ago, when seniors over age 60 dominated the RV landscape in cramped campers with makeshift furnishings.

Now, RVs run the gamut from folding camping trailers priced at $3,500 to fully loaded RVs about 40 feet long -- complete with master bedrooms and bath, closed circuit TVs, slideouts for additional space and other gadgetry -- costing $1 million.

''Boomers are very big on nostalgia,'' said John Ables, spokesman for Fleetwood Enterprises, one of the nation's largest RV manufacturers. ''They can remember the earlier days when growing up and camping. ... But baby boomers expect the RV to be of better quality and have amenities and appliances they have at home.''

Winnebago Industries Inc., a leader in the mid-range RV market, plans to expand manufacturing capacity by 30 percent this year after record sales of $179 million in the first quarter, up from $164 million a year earlier.

Fleetwood saw wholesale shipments increase 25 percent among its high-end vehicles in the first quarter, while Coburg, Ore.-based Monaco Coach Co. reported a 17 percent jump.

RV rentals, meanwhile, have jumped 30 percent this year, helped by strong business during the Memorial Day weekend, said Bob Caldarone, spokesman for Mesa, Ariz.-based Cruise America, the nation's largest RV rental company.

''Our bread-and-butter renters are the 45-to-54 year-old boomer types,'' he said. ''A lot of folks just aren't taking the long flying vacations to never-never land or down under.''

The converts include George Meireles, 44, a Millington, N.J., luxury-home builder. He initially resisted getting an RV, worried that it might be too confining and spartan for his taste. Finally relenting after Sept. 11, Meireles purchased an RV with leather interior, satellite dish, microwave and a washer-dryer.

His family of five recently returned from a trip to Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Canada, and hopes to visit Florida and the Western states sometime soon.

''He's enjoying it more than I am,'' said his wife, Chrissy, 34, who grew up camping in tents and relished the idea of showing her young children the great outdoors. ''We feel like we've bought a condo on wheels.''


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