Young wanderlust gives new life to RV market

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Credit: Heather Landis

Brooke and Buddy Baum had good jobs, a house near Denver and enough money to pay the bills. It sounds like the American dream. Except they were miserable. He was working up to 80 hours a week as an information technology analyst, with barely time to take a vacation. She was an editorial assistant at a business journal but wanted more time to write. "We felt really stuck where we were," Brooke Baum says. "We just wanted the freedom to figure out what we wanted our life to look like."

They found their answer in a Winnebago. The young couple bought the $109,000, 25-foot RV about a year ago after selling most of their possessions to embrace a permanent life on the road. Their nomadic, minimalist, you-only-live-once attitude—expressed in popular Instagram hashtags like #rvlife and #homeiswhereyoupark—exemplifies a new youthful vibe energizing the RV market, which is enjoying record sales.

Wholesale RV shipments surged 17.2 percent to 504,599 units last year, with forecasters predicting a ninth consecutive year of expansion in 2018, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. RV manufacturing revenue reached $19.7 billion last year after annualized growth of 7.8 percent over the five-year period ending in 2017, according to market research group IBISWorld.

Brooke and Buddy Baum
Brooke and Buddy Baum

Retiring baby boomers remain a sweet spot for RV brands, and couples like the Baums are a niche market. But marketers are reporting new interest from younger buyers, including millennials and Gen Xers who are opting for RV vacations over hotel and airline travel. In 2016, the average age of an RV owner was 45, compared with 48 the year before, according to industry-sponsored Nielsen research recently cited by Thor Industries. With brands such as Airstream, Four Winds and Dutchmen, Indiana-based Thor controls 45 percent of the RV market, according to IBISWorld.

"It used to be people really didn't think about this kind of travel until they retired," says Mollie Hansen, chief marketing officer at Airstream, known for its timeless shiny silver travel trailers. But the new attitude is, "'Why wait?' And that's fueling some of our growth."

Brooke Baum sums it up: "People are just rejecting this idea that you have to wait for retirement to live the kind of life you want, filled with travel and adventure. If you are healthy and able to do it now, why not go ahead and do it?"

RV culture

The surge has led to startups such as Outdoorsy, which has built an Airbnb-like online market connecting RV owners to short-term renters. The San Francisco-based firm handled a half-million bookings last year with 40 percent of its customer base under age 40, says co-founder and chief marketing officer Jennifer Young.

Demand is coming from people looking to take last-minute regional getaways to wineries or other off-the-beaten path locales, Young says: "Millennials trade in a currency of content and social credibility and memories and experiences that they think are worth sharing—and the standard hotel and airfare formula just doesn't cut it."

The Kortmann's
The Kortmann's Credit: Paul Kortmann Family

Even young families are embracing the RV lifestyle, partly because it's a lot easier to work remotely than it used to be. Paul Kortman has been running a digital marketing agency from the road for more than three years. He and wife Becky sold their Michigan home in 2014 and used the proceeds to buy a 37-foot used motor home. The couple, who are now in Mexico, homeschool their four kids, ages 5 to 11. "We just got disillusioned with the American script of get a house, get a mortgage ... get two cars and live that lifestyle," says Kortman, speaking via mobile phone from the mountains of central Mexico.

His firm, Connex Digital Marketing, which specializes in search engine marketing, employs five people who work from all over, including Thailand and the Czech Republic. All he needs is an internet connection—he often uses co-working spaces or pops into a cafe. "Three of my employees I've never met," he says. "[It's] Google Hangouts every day."

Running a business from the road has challenges, he concedes. But the upside is the freedom to work from places like Cabo Pulmo, a seaside town on Mexico's Baja California peninsula. "I could work for a half a day and walk onto the beach with snorkel gear on and swim with the fish for an hour," he says.

Real-world lessons

Back in the U.S., 40-something couple Keith and Tia Sims spend about 150 days a year traveling in their 43-foot motor home, where they homeschool three young boys, ages 6 to 8. That way, they can see stuff up close and not just read it in a book, says Keith Sims, a retired NFL player. "Our kids are science geeks. So they have been to science museums from Fort Lauderdale all the way up to Maine and all the way to South Dakota," he says.

The couple bought the RV in 2014, so they could easily split time between their home in Atlanta and South Florida, where he had a postretirement job with the Miami Dolphins. The Sims, who are black, started a blog called Soulful RV Family, and have done outreach to other minority families on behalf of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.

The Sims family
The Sims family Credit: Soulful RV Family

The couple also contributes to the association's blog, called The Scenic Route, which is filled with personal stories of hard-core RVers. In one post, they shared pictures from a trip last summer to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where they attended a rally hosted by the National African-American RVers Association. The family stopped at a historic plantation site, prompting this blog entry: "We couldn't help but wonder what the lives of our ancestors had been like. ... It was again one of those moments where RVing gave us a chance to educate our boys on a piece of not so great American history."

The Baums also tout the RV lifestyle on behalf of the industry. Brooke Baum, 28, writes content for Outdoorsy and Winnebago, and her husband, 35, chips in with photography. The work helps pay the bills, which include gas, food and parking fees at campgrounds and state parks. (In a practice known as "boondocking," some full-time RVers park for free in remote undeveloped areas.) In a post last year for Winnebago's lifestyle blog, Brooke Baum documented how they became full-time RVers. "As I got rid of favorite decor pieces, clothing, and special mementos, I imagined the freedom of the open road," she wrote.

"Neither of us wanted to go back to working 40 hours a week again," she says in a phone interview from Fredericksburg, Texas, where the couple had just attended the RV Entrepreneur Summit, geared to people who want to build a life on the road (see sidebar). The Baums have logged about 25,000 miles so far, she estimates, dedicating most of their time to soaking in the scenery, like their fall trip through the colorful foliage of Vermont.

But wanderlust-fueled RV purchases from young couples, while attention-grabbing, won't be enough to sustain long-term growth in the industry, says Foster Finley, who co-leads the transportation and infrastructure practice for global consultancy AlixPartners. Older buyers, like snowbird retirees taking annual trips south for the winter, are still where the money is, he says, versus the "modern hipsters that are trying this out for a spell."

Thor Industries gets less than 10 percent of new purchases from millennials, estimates CEO Bob Martin. But "we are trying to communicate with the younger generation, the millennial, because we see it as such a big opportunity," he says. Thor, which reported record sales of $2.23 billion in the first quarter, has pointed to favorable demographic trends in recent presentations to Wall Street analysts, including that Gen Xers and millennials accounted for 72 percent of campers in 2016.

Go RVing, the marketing arm of the RV Industry Association, is filling its ads with young faces—and dogs and cats because the group sees the rise in pet ownership as a major plus. "A lot of people don't like to leave their pets behind, so an RV is a great way to bring their pets with them," says Karen A. Redfern, VP of brand marketing and communications for Go RVing, whose agency is Richards Group. One spot shows a young couple sipping wine by a campfire, dogs in their laps and their RV in the background.

The booming RV market is fueling the group's ad budget, which rose to $18 million this year, because money comes from RV-makers that pay an assessment on each sale. Some of the money is used for experiential marketing at music festivals, a fertile market for potential young buyers. The group will park a couple of RVs and give tours in hopes of sparking interest from festivalgoers. "They often see that white box that passes them on the highway but they have no idea what the inside of an RV looks like. It kind of gets the wheels churning," Redfern says.

Airstream is also reaching new audiences via a host of brand partnerships and licensing deals. The maker of pricey American Girl dolls is selling a toy Airstream Travel Trailer meant to be paired with a 1950s-themed doll called Maryellen. The tiny trailer retails for $350 and comes with a pretend refrigerator and oven, working lights, a retractable awning and a button that plays nine different campsite sounds.

The endless caravan

Last year, Pacifico beer outfitted a customized fleet of real Airstreams with yellow branding and brought them to festivals and other events. The brew also gave away an Airstream rental. For buyers willing to part with $76,900, Airstream is selling a special-edition Tommy Bahama-branded Travel Trailer that includes Caribbean-style matte-finish cabinetry and polished wood plantation shutters and blinds.

Airstream's marketing includes its Endless Caravan program, through which participants receive the use of an Airstream in return for spreading eye-popping content on Instagram and elsewhere. Last year, Airstream struck a deal with celebrity chef Hugh Acheson. He took a trailer on a 25-city book tour, which included stops at Whole Foods parking lots, where he demonstrated how to slow-cook pork shoulder.

For the Baums, Whole Foods might be a little spendy. Every dollar counts when you are rumbling down the highway into parts unknown.

"We try to just make sandwiches or do inexpensive things in the RV," says Brooke Baum. "We try to not go out to eat too often, just to limit our costs, because usually we'd rather spend that on a cool activity we find in a place we are visiting."

"We find ourselves talking with strangers at campfires when we are at parks and talking to people on hikes," she adds. "Those are some of our favorite moments. It's just something we hadn't really thought about until we got out on the road."

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