Millennials Hit the Road in a Sleek New Generation of RVs
This fall, one of the hottest things in outdoor gear wasn’t a new drone or motorized skateboard. The tech tastemakers—from Outside Magazine to Gear Patrol—collectively drooled over a recreational vehicle. That’s right, an “RV” —specifically the Airstream Basecamp, a $35,000 teardrop of aluminum that can be towed behind a Subaru.
The aerodynamic, riveted pod comes with one massive panoramic window, solar power, Italian cabinetry, and a Bose Bluetooth speaker system. It’s an RV made for Instagram, not cousin Eddie, and it’s been in high demand since hitting dealerships in September.
“It’s really kind of an online phenomenon,” said Bob Martin, chief executive of Airstream parent Thor Industries. “Our social media hits have been incredible.”
The Basecamp and a crowd of models like it have pushed an already brisk business to historic highs. Americans are expected to buy about 420,000 homes-on-wheels by the end of the year, more than since Gerald Ford was president (That was the mid-1970s, millennials). The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association expects sales to increase by another 4.4 percent next year. In short, the mood was giddy last week when the country’s RV dealers gathered for their annual trade show in Louisville, Ky., to check out the newest models and place orders for the spring.
“We thought it would be a good year,” said RVIA spokesman Kevin Broom. “We just didn’t expect it to be this good.”
To be sure, the buying boom is not entirely a surprise. An RV is a rolling, bear-proof embodiment of consumer confidence, and as such the industry accelerates or brakes in step with broader economy. In 2016, the road has been wide-open: the unemployment rate has drifted to record lows, gas prices are languishing, and the stock market has surged to unforeseen heights. Even a contentious, nerve-wracking presidential election and its unprecedented aftermath did little to keep people out of dealerships.
RV-makers, perhaps emboldened by their brisk business, pushed their advantage with a flurry of new rigs, generally smaller and lighter than the monster coaches they used to build. The idea was to draw new customers rather than coasting on Baby Boomers. “There’s kind of been a shift and we’re noticing younger buyers,” said Martin. “We’re starting to get the front-end of millennials and we’re strong now with Gen Xers. These people don’t want a huge unit.”
The RV boom, however, isn’t all product related. There’s some marketing in the mix as well. Thor has a new online campaign full of kids and dirtbikes and climbing gear. The company has also dubbed a class of its vehicles “RUV,” which stands for “Recreational Utility Vehicle.” There’s not much “utility” to the machines: they can’t drive offroad, for example. But the naming gimmick has struck a chord with dealers and younger customers. “These small products are the next evolution for tent campers,” Martin said. “We call it soft rugged.”
Winnebago Industries, meanwhile, has focused its marketing on tail-gating fans and soccer moms. CEO Michael Happe said the strategy is paying off. The average age of an RV owner in the U.S. is now 45, down from 48 just five years ago, according to the RV trade group. In the same period, the share of RV owners with children living at home surged from 39 percent to 48 percent.
“The industry, at large, is trying to make these products more versatile,” Happe explained. “If you go to an SEC football game, you’re going to see a tremendous amount of RVs.”
Not only are these companies making smaller RVs, but they’re making them lighter, swapping out wood frames for stronger, slimmer plastic composites and replacing old appliance lines with more efficient units. “Even vehicles that are the same size live bigger now,” said Broom. “Think about a big-screen TV—you no longer need room for the tube these days.”
The trimming down has coincided with an overall surge in sales for trucks and SUVs. Almost 90 percent of U.S. RVs are “towable,” which is to say they don’t have an engine or steering wheel. A decade ago, those rigs would require pickup-type power. Today, a small SUV will haul many of them, which is precisely what millions of Americans happen to be driving.