BY Marshall V. King
ELKHART — A generation ago, a lot of the customers coming through a recreational vehicle dealership had gray hair.
Now many of them are pushing baby strollers, according to Kevin Broom, director of media relations for the RV Industry Association.
Millennials, those born from the early 1980s until the mid-1990s to early 2000s, are buying RVs. What this group of customers wants is a bit different than previous generations and the modern RV is different than those that preceded it as well. The two are coming together to fuel sales.
That’s good news for northern Indiana where most of the country’s RVs are made. Last year was the first time the industry shipped more than half a million units and this year the total could be 520,000, which would make it the ninth consecutive year of growth, said Broom.
Demographic breakdowns of purchases won’t be available until a study is completed later this year, but Broom knows that a new generation is taking an interest in RVs as its members get families and careers established.
Many families take advantage of favorable financing to buy a small camper that can be towed behind a sport utility vehicle, and now have pickup trucks as daily vehicles because they’re comfortable and easier to drive than those in the past. “They’ve already got the truck. It’s pretty cheap to get a hitch put in it. They can buy the RV and find a place to store it,” he said of the progression many people make.
The person with an active lifestyle who seeks experience and adventure can take the RV to the beach one weekend, the hills of southern Indiana the next, and also use it for tailgating, music festivals and soccer tournaments, Broom said. The money you save on accommodations as you travel can add up to make an RV a prudent purchase.
Advances in technology have made it easier for RV manufactures to provide what customers want when they leave home. Televisions are inexpensive and hang on a wall. Microwaves, convection ovens and massage chairs are easy to include. Slideouts expand the living space, and generators are lighter and more efficient.
Making an RV a wifi hotspot isn’t difficult. Camping is an opportunity to get away and maybe you’re not on your phone 24 hours a day, but sometime during the day you want to plug in, said Jon Krider, vice president of product development and marketing at Thor Motor Coach. “That’s just societally driven. People are used to having this computer in their pocket,” he said.
What this generation of travelers also wants to take with them fits into the RV lifestyle, said Andy Wesdorp, general manager of the Road Warrior and Fuel brands of Heartland RVs. While bikes, kayaks and paddleboards fit into many RVs, the “toy haulers” let a family park an All-Terrain Vehicle or dune buggy in the garage of a fifth-wheel trailer and hit the road with the family.
A big part of this is Millennials tend to be a pretty social band,” said Wesdorp. Clubs or groups who share an interest in a type of outdoor recreation will circle up the toy haulers at a campground. As the toys get used on dunes or trails, the garages become “party patios,” he said.
Just as a growing number of Millenials are buying the toy haulers, more are taking an interest in motorhomes, said Krider.
“We’re not seeing a ton of Millennials business quite yet,” he said, but they are seeing those in that age group ask questions and request features. “In the next five years or so, you’ll really start to see an influx of Millennial-age consumers looking at this market and seeing if it’s the right thing for them,” he said.
He knows that they want solar power and sleek lines, not something that looks or functions like their grandfather’s motorhome. These units may be smaller, packed with electronics, approved for national parks, and less expensive. His team includes designers who are age 28 to 45 who are seeking to serve both current customers and those to come.
Younger buyers kicking the tires is good news for an industry that’s booming at the moment. “I think given the enthusiasm that Millennials have for RVing, it bodes pretty well,” said Broom.