RV industry revs back up after recession [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]By Rick Barrett, Milwaukee Journal SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Nov. 24--Joseph Jackson says he is a "winter Texan" rather than a snowbird.
After Christmas, the retired Wisconsin State Journal photographer will hook up his 37-foot travel trailer to his Chevy Silverado pickup truck and head to south Texas for a couple of months, taking about a month to get there and a month to drive back to Madison.
"I just love it to death," he said of the winter getaway, adding that he enjoys the leisurely journey as well as the destination.
His trailer has four slide-out rooms for additional space, and a propane fireplace that takes the chill out of the cool winter mornings.
He and his wife, Linda, have been making treks south since 2008 and -- judging from the recent rebound in recreational vehicle sales -- they're in good company.
The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association expects overall shipments of RVs, including travel trailers, campers and motor homes, to be up about 68% this year from three years ago when the industry was mired in the recession.
"It's not like the good old days, back in 2005, but it's still an improvement," said Kim DeHaan, owner of DeHaan RV Center in Elkhorn.
Experienced RV enthusiasts, many of them retirees, were among the first to return to the equipment marketplace -- if they left at all.
They've been followed by first-time RV users, many of them under age 40, with children at home, who are now a little more comfortable with their spending since the recession ended.
Banks have loosened up their lending standards, too, although the days of someone financing a $100,000 motor home with easy credit are largely over.
Now, travel trailers priced from $18,000 to $25,000 are the best sellers, according to DeHaan.
She didn't order any new motor homes this year because they're expensive to keep in inventory and too much of a financial risk for the dealership if they don't sell.
Likewise, the most expensive travel trailers aren't selling as well as they did before the recession.
"I think younger people, especially, are still gun-shy about taking on that kind of investment," DeHaan said.
Smaller, lighter trailers
Some of the biggest makers of recreational vehicles, such as Thor Industries and Winnebago Industries, have seen a recent increase in sales and earnings as they've healed from the beating they took in the recession.
The product mix has changed, too, with more emphasis on smaller, lighter trailers that can be towed behind sport utility vehicles, minivans and even small cars.
"A decade ago, people were looking for bigger rigs with more amenities. Now they're willing to trade off a few amenities in exchange for a lower price and more square footage of living space," said Kevin Broom, spokesman for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association in Reston, Va.
The living space has improved, thanks to smaller, more streamlined appliances such as combined microwave ovens and convection ovens.
"The flat-screen TV has been perfect for the RV," Broom said.
This summer's extreme heat wilted some of the enthusiasm for recreational vehicles, since not as many people wanted to be outdoors. Also, landscapers who buy "toy hauler" trailers to carry their equipment had less work because of the drought.
"We have had a good year, but it should have been better," said Ron Peterson, owner of Scenic Traveler RV in Slinger and Baraboo.
Peterson said his dealership quit selling motor homes this year.
He has seen more people park their big travel trailers permanently at a campground where they stay for a few months at a time in the summer or winter.
Some of those units, called "park models," are nearly as big as a small home and have upstairs lofts.
"A lot of the older retirees will have one at the Dells and another one somewhere in the south," Peterson said. "The first time they hear the geese headed south, that's where they go, too."
RV rentals have been strong this year, according to rental agencies, with some people booking trips for weeks at a time.
They're renting small motor homes, including models that get much better gas mileage.
"I don't think gas prices are scaring people away," said Mike Prosser, owner of Prosser RV and Cruise America Motor Home Rental & Sales in Milwaukee.
Sales of recreational vehicles generate millions of dollars in Wisconsin. People drive up from the Chicago suburbs to shop for motor homes and travel trailers partly because of large nearby dealerships, such as Burlington RV Superstore in Racine County.
Another sign that winter's coming: Hanna Trailer Supply in Oak Creek is busy installing satellite dishes in RVs for customers headed to warmer climates.
"They generally start right after deer hunting season," said dealership owner Paul Downs.
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