Ed Bridgman was in full sales pitch mode for his Homestead RV Community in south Mobile County as a reality TV camera crew filmed his every movement Thursday.
“Very few (RV parks) have been built in the last 20 years (in Alabama),” said Bridgman, wearing a cowboy hat and taking questions before a small crowd of local RV dealers and county and tourism officials. The film footage, he said, would be used for a program broadcast on HGTV or another network
“The average (RV) site is 20-foot, by 50-foot,” he added. “You cannot park your truck on either side of that. But you will have plenty of room (here) for a therapeutic-jetted hot tub.”
The crowd chuckled as Bridgman emphasized the hot tub rentals, “Have I said that enough time? I’m working on it.”
Indeed, Bridgman’s RV complex, which opens in October with 59 large campsites, is aimed at attracting a younger working-class traveler that is fueling a surge in RV sales in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic. Equipped with high-speed Internet and amenities like a stocked pond for fishing and jacuzzi rentals, Bridgman is banking on an uptick of RV users seeking an experimental leisure experience they cannot get from an older RV park.
“Millennials are driving this market,” said Bridgman, referring to the age group that is between 26 and 40 years old. “This is about the young professionals. They need to be able to work where they want to live, and they need to live wherever they want to vacation. That is important to the young professionals.”
He added, “They want to have experiences with their children. Instead of sitting around with an iPad and a phone and doing calculations, they want to get outside and do hiking and kayaking experiences.”
The timing of Bridgman’s development comes during an abrupt turnaround in the RV industry at a time when Americans are forgoing airline and train travel in favor of driving along the open road in an RV.
The industry’s largest manufacturers — Winnebago and Thor Industries — have seen their stock prices surge more than 200% since hitting low prices in late March and early April. Camping World, a popular RV seller, has seen its stock price rise 776% from March’s low.
RV camper lots, such as B&R Camper Sales in Mobile, are emptying. Typically, the family-owned dealer carries 100 or so campers on its property. But last month, the sales lot had no more than a dozen campers on it, according to Shawn Nelson, sales manager with the 50-year-old retailer.
“The manufacturers were shut down for 1-1/2 to 2 months, and then sales boomed nationwide,” said Nelson. “Everything is made in Elkhart, Indiana, and it takes a while for our stuff to get in. At the same time, it takes time to build the inventory back up. I have over 100 units on order that we’re trying to get in.”
The soaring sales comes after a period of growth in the $114 billion industry that saw its best year occur in 2017, when 504,000 new RVs were sold. Sales slumped off somewhat in 2018 and 2019, but they are expected to continue to rise as Americans emerge from their spring quarantines in search of safe leisure travel.
According to data from the Reston, Va.-based RV Industry Association, the month of June represented the industry’s strongest month since October 2018, as over 40,000 units were shipped from manufacturers to retailers. That represented an 11% increase from a year ago.
“The demand is crazy right now,” said Bridgman. He said there were supposed to be representatives from other local camper retailers at Thursday’s event, but they had to cancel due to a lack of inventory.
RV travel and camping is viewed largely as a safe activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among prospective campers surveyed by Kampgrounds of America, 37% say it is easier to practice social distancing via a camper than other types of travel. Nearly half of leisure travelers are saying they plan to replace one of their cancelled or postponed trips this year with a camping trip, the survey results show.
“You control everything about this trip,” said Steve Polunsky, director of the Alabama Transportation Policy Research Center at the University of Alabama. “You control the food you eat, the supplies you use. You don’t go through TSA or through buses and trains. You can avoid hotels if you want to. You have a choice, really, in the selection of where you go.”
Monika Geraci, spokeswoman with the RV Industry Association, said a flood of new RVs have been added into the market in the past four years as first-time buyers seek affordable vehicles. Notable increases are occurring in sales for smaller-sized units like camper vans (up 40% for the past year), and towable travel trailers which are “flying off the lots as young, first-time buyers are coming in and purchasing” campers, said Geraci. The prices for travel trailers that can be hitched to the back of a pickup truck are affordable for first-time buyers as they often range in price from $20,000 to $35,000, she said.
“We know the pre-pandemic sales, there was an increase in younger buyers,” said Geraci. “The average age of ownership has been dropping for years.”
The average cost of a RV unit runs around $109,000, according to Bridgman. He said that is still a good value relative to a purchasing a $200,000 brick-and-mortar home, which can take several years of interest payments before equity is built into the investment.
“People are downsizing because they want their equity to be on wheels,” said Bridgman.
The increase in new RVs and campers on the roadways has led to a higher demand for more RV campsites, such as the one Bridgman is developing. He is also working on three other projects in Alabama – one near Prattville, and two in Baldwin County.
His Homestead RV Community in south Mobile County is only in its first of three phases of development. The project, once fully developed in about five or six years, will feature 250 total camp sites that will be large enough to accommodate a RV, a pick-up truck and a jacuzzi.
He said that amenities like a hot tub rental can take place on Homestead’s app, and without requiring an in-person visit to a front office.
The U.S. has an estimated 1.23 million individual trailer campsites, according to the estimates from the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds. Bridgman said about 20,000 new campsites are expected to be added in the country during 2020, which he called a “drop in the bucket compared to the number required.”
Alabama’s state parks account for approximately 2,300 campsites, some which are pre-booked for months. At Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, 496 campsites are booked “five to six months in advance” during the summer months, according to Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Snowbirds, who travel from colder Northern states via RVs during the winter months, will book a year in advance, he said.
Blankenship said that DeSoto State Park in Fort Payne is also another high-demand location where the approximately 100 campsites are often booked. He said that Meaher State Park along the Spanish Fort Causeway, is also often booked up.
“Overall, I would say especially during the COVID time when people are not comfortable going to big cities and Disney World and places like that, we are seeing a good demand for campsites,” said Blankenship.
The state, however, has no immediate plans to expand the properties at its parks aside from $3.5 million addition at Meaher State Park that is being financed through the state’s settlement from the 2010 BP oil spill. The state is, instead, spending public money on addressing maintenance upgrades at its older parks that includes, among other things, installing improved electrical systems that can accommodate larger RV units.
On the federal level, the Great American Outdoors Act approved by Congress last week is expected to add slightly under $10 billion to address maintenance backlogs at federal parks throughout the country over the next five years. That includes making much-needed improvements and upgrades at campgrounds, said Geraci.
She said that private developments that cater to experimental leisure travelers will continue to be important ahead of next year as industries continue to encourage people to work from home, and as schools cancel in-person education.
“You have this interesting environment where parents and kids could be home this fall and able to work and learn from anywhere,” she said. “It’s a unique opportunity for people, with or without kids, to get into a travel trailer and see America and work from anywhere.”
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