RV revival prospects running hotter on cheaper gas

Melissa Preddy
Car Culture

Commuters in four-wheelers aren’t the only people excited about the recent reprieve in fuel costs.

The recreational vehicle industry and devotees of the RV lifestyle also are licking their chops over those lower numbers at the pump. When your rig gets single-digit mpg, as do many truck-trailer combos and motor homes, saving a buck or more for every 10 miles the odometer clocks can add up pretty quickly over the course of even a short jaunt.

The big dip in fueling costs is the icing on the cake of an industry rebound that has dealers and manufacturers revving up for what they hope will be a pretty good 2015.

Signs of the upbeat industry mood abound. According to a forecast published by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, a Chicago-based trade group, 2014 sales were up nearly 9 percent and that new units shipped are expected to total 349,000 once the final tally is in.

That’s double the dismal figures from the post-recession low in 2009, the RVIA said in a press release — and total sales in 2015 are forecast to reach pre-recession levels.

Airstream, the Ohio-based maker of the shiny retro trailers, has announced a factory expansion that will increase its manufacturing capacity 50 percent. And at the retail level, the Michigan-based dealer General RV has just moved into its new 83,000-square-foot showroom and service facility on the grounds of the former Ford Motor Co. plant in Wixom.

“We just finished our first group of shows in Grand Rapids, Tampa and Cleveland — the crowds were tremendous,” said Dennis Anderson, vice president of marketing at General RV. “Motor homes in particular are posting a very strong uptick.”

If you’re getting the fever, touring these warmer-weather getaway vehicles is a good antidote to the snowy, slushy vistas on the other side of your windshield. You can daydream through more than 275 models ranging from about $7,000 to more than $400,000 week after next at the 49th Annual Detroit Camper and RV show, which runs Feb. 4-8 at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi.

Bill Sheffer, director of the Michigan Association of Recreational Vehicles and Campgrounds , the trade group and RV expo promoter, said all indications point to a robust year for Michigan dealers.

“We sold out the (upcoming) show in a matter of days,” he said. “In fact we actually have a waiting list for prospective booth exhibitors — we simply don’t have room for all of them. That is very unusual — usually we’re tight but do have a few vacancies right up to showtime.”

From his perspective, low fuel prices are a boon not only for the RV drivers fueling those 150-gallon motor home tanks, they’re great for the state’s RV parks and campgrounds.

“When fuel is less expensive, people will look at taking more trips, and going further across the state,” Sheffer said. “It encourages people to take those vacations they’ve been putting off.”

Till then, you can dream for the price of a $10 ticket to the show (go to MARVAC.org for a $1-off coupon). I always get a kick out of the formal decor in so many trailers and motor homes; you’d expect a cabin vibe but instead many feature high-end upholstery fabric, solid-surface countertops, crystal sconces and wine-glass racks. Fireplaces, washer-dryer combos and other home comforts are ingeniously tucked into small spaces, while the driver command centers in the giant coaches resemble aircraft cockpits and their 400-plus-horsepower engines could put a few small planes to shame.

And on the other end of the spectrum will be the new entry this year at the RV show — the Cricket, an all-aluminum, 1,400-pound travel trailer that “is a step up from a tent with a lot of little conveniences designed into it,” said Dave Rochette, owner of Westland Camping Center and the only dealer in Michigan authorized to sell the compact little caravans. They’re billed as towable behind a 4-cylinder vehicle but offer hot water, a portable toilet and a four-day battery capacity that fabric tents can’t match.

“These are for the adventure camper who wants to really get out there,” said Rochette. “We’ve already had people driving up from places like Cincinnati to see them.”

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com.