Forking through his lunchtime salad at a restaurant across the street from the Colorado RV and Travel show, when Bob Livingston talks RV, you want to listen. For that matter the whole industry wants to listen. Livingston is the Senior Vice-President and Group Publisher of Camping World’s popular Trailer Life and MotorHome magazines. In his four decades at the publications he’s worked under three owners and has seen spectacular rises and epic flameouts of all sorts of RV companies.
Though he’s a keen observer of the industry, Livingston’s own personal passion is evident in sharing first hand tips and opinions on life lived on wheels, though his publishing job keeps him in the air for 80,000+ miles a year.
His birth certificate says New York, but his six decades of living in California, since he started elementary school, makes him a genuine coastal westerner. At first Livingston tuned his career radar to meteorology, but the science of prognostication had a rival in the lure of photography. Livingston wanted to take a photography class, but was told that, as a pre-requisite, he needed to take a journalism class first. And then, in no uncertain terms, his school advisor said firmly, “you need to be a journalist.” And that was that. Combining both writing and photography, Livingston set out to cover sports with a hulking Speed Graphic camera and a pocketful of flashbulbs standing court side waiting for the one perfect instant to press the shutter.
It was in 1970 when the newly married Livingston appeared on the driveway with a van that, given his very handy abilities, he fully converted into a camper van, including cutting out the sheet metal sides for windows. It was the beginning of a passion that, on a whim, compelled him to visit the office of Trailer Life and, after an hour’s conversation with owner Art Rouse, he walked out with a career that’s lasted forty three years.
It’s been said that “Those who can, do. And those who can’t, teach.” In Livingston’s case he’s the rare individual who does both. For in raising their two boys as RV campers (who as adults still love camping and travel) Livingston has written from the knowing place of firsthand experience.
Over the years, with hundreds of stories and columns behind him, Livingston still looks forward to road testing the latest towable and motorized RV products. His September 2014 review of the new Winnebago Brave is a perfect example of his experience, sense of discovery, and journalist’s storytelling skills at work. However, when a test vehicle is delivered to his doorstep, it arrives just as one would pick it up from the dealer: no linens, pots, plates, pliers, etc. Before Livingston and his wife, Lynne, pull out for a few days of road testing, a special set of bins of daily living accessories are unloaded and stored for the trip. One perk of Livingston’s executive status is that the packing and unpacking is now done by an assistant. But beyond that, it’s Livingston behind the wheel, doing the hook-ups, and cleaning the rig before it’s returned.
And like a chef coming home to cook, what’s Livingston’s current personal choice when he and his wife roll out onto the highway? A fifth-wheeler. “I really like the floorplan and space,” he explains. “But,” he smiles, “it’s a one of a kind as I’ve done a lot of modifications to it.” It’s tempting for a fellow RVer to stay here in this conversation for the rest of the afternoon, but there are bigger questions yet to be asked.
Quality is the first big question. How is it that cars have become so dependable that we give little thought to them, but every RV buyer seems to accept that there are going to be problems? Livingston’s answer is simple — the buyer’s desire for the RV experience and lifestyle is so compelling that they’re willing to deal with imperfections and visits to dealers’ service centers.
The quality theme extends past RVs themselves, from the variability of dealers, to the wide range of campground experiences, Livingston sees an industry that, in many ways, is still catching up to the auto industry. But, that doesn’t mean that Livingston hasn’t seen an improvements in quality. He has. And he expects that it will continue at every level.
And from his observation platform what else can he see over the horizon? First, Livingston doesn’t think that the age of RV buyers will change much with the majority of motorhome buyers being in the 50 to 70 range. He makes a compelling case in that two key ingredients to RV travel are being in the stage of life when it’s financially feasible and there’s enough free time to get on the road. The most active group of motorhome buyers are the pre and early retirees who are seeking an adventurous and fun life experience.
And while he sees the age range of buyers remaining fairly constant, he does see a change in who they are. They are better researched and better connected. Some will choose large Class A motorhomes which Livingston believes will become more sophisticated with heavy emphasis on all-electric plans, which will place more demands on RV Parks. But, buyers will also be looking at smaller C and B class products that are easier to handle and less expensive, and don’t scrimp on features and luxuries.
Along those same lines, Livingston sees a greater influence of European engineering with highly evolved products such as hydronic heating systems and instantaneous water heaters, which are not only efficient, but noiseless. He also believes that the European’s higher sense of interior style and fashion—and floorplan versatility–will also be increasingly sought after by American buyers.
He walks back across the street into the Colorado Convention Center and onto the floor of the RV show where the aisles are full and visitors are queuing up to enter show units. There’s a high level of excitement and noise and it’s pretty clear that even though Bob Livingston never became a meteorologist, his lunchtime forecasting skills all point to sunny days ahead for the RV world.