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Pandemic pushes travelers to take to the road in RVs

During the economic recovery that followed the financial crisis of 2008, sales of recreational vehicles like motor homes boomed for several years. 

The coronavirus pandemic appears to be sparking another boom in the industry as travelers concerned about the risks of flying are packing their families into RVs and seeking out campgrounds around the country. 

Dealers and RV manufacturers, such as Thor Industries, Winnebago and Forest River, have reported spikes in demand during the spring and summer of 2020, and industry analysts say several good months could be ahead. 

A lot of these buyers are first-timers and many are purchasing lower-cost units, which are often favored by younger consumers.

“All dealers are reporting a high mix of first-time buyers as evident by lack of trade-in units,” said Wells Fargo analyst Tim Conder in a July 15 note. “Dealers are saying as high as 80% of customers are first-time buyers … vs. the typical 25% mix. The pandemic is driving the purchase decision for new-entrants.”

Todd and Erin Heintz are among the new buyers hitting the road. They decided to purchase a towable pop-up camper for themselves and their two kids. The family lives in Aspen, Colorado, where there are plenty of places to take the RV for a short weekend trip. The pop-up, which is a bit like a well-appointed tent on wheels, appealed to their affinity for tent camping. 

“We have camped and backpacked all our lives,” Todd said. “Part of the reason we bought a camper, is that we are at the age where we have stable careers, we have a little bit more income to allow us to do this.”

There have been some hitches along the way. The Heintzes are among the countless RV buyers who have found the road comes with unexpected challenges. 

First, finding the unit they wanted was tough — they had to seek out several dealerships, and inventory seemed to be disappearing quickly.  

Then, they found that as RVs have become more popular, finding a spot at a campground can be tricky. 

And finally, there were some early problems with the vehicle itself. A water hose affixed to it was not spraying properly, and some factory residue on the RV’s heater burned off, triggering the smoke alarm.

But overall, they are happy with the choice they have made. They say other RVers have been extremely warm and helpful on the road.

The Heintzes said they made the decision to buy the roughly $16,000 camper because it is another way to pass on to their kids their own memories of sitting around the campfire and the teamwork that comes from planning family meals and setting up campsites. 

“All that stuff that is at the core of the values we want our family to have,” Erin said.

She added that is also a way for the family to get out of the house where they are spending all of the rest of their time together. “We saw a moment where we could create a bright spot out of this difficult time. We will still hang out and social distance and all that. We just need to do it somewhere else sometimes.”

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