I have found it fascinating to observe that the RV industry remains in serene isolation to the hurly burly solar system of technology and fashion. Neither fish nor fowl, the RV planet exists in a corner of the solar system that isn’t quite homebuilding and not quite automotive.
Purchasing a motorhome requires divided attention to both vehicle mechanics and floorplans. It also requires elevated knowledge of unique systems. For example, when you buy a home you take it for granted that sinks and toilets drain into a sewer and electricity is nothing more than a function of paying the utility bill. RV owners, on the other hand, have a very direct relationship with sewage and are acutely aware of sources of electricity from solar to gas generation. In no other marketplace will you find conversations that can include mentions of a residential refrigerator and gross vehicle weight in one sentence.
Over a lunch table about a year ago Bob Livingston, the publisher and editor of the industry’s top consumer magazines (Trailer Life and Motorhome) said something that I continue to think about. Livingston said that he believed the sweet spot of the RV market was constant. That it was made up of soon-to-be retirees. It’s hard to argue with the logic behind that statement. Two general requirements for RV ownership are time (to enjoy) and money (to purchase). And yes, those two things generally intersect at age 50 plus. Right now it’s boomers, but after them will be the Xers, and then the millennials.
I generally accept Livingston’s assessment. And while that age range of buyers may remain steady it’s quite likely that their interest in what they buy may be very different. I’m a boomer and my parents were part of the the Greatest Generation. By the time I started college in the early 70’s my first new car was a Toyota. Typical of post-war families we had sorted ourselves out and declared our allegiance to the “GM camp” while looking askew at Ford owners. It was almost heretical that I chose to buy a car much smaller, and imported to boot, which was much more exotic than something made by Oldsmobile.
After watching me smiling down the road in a Polynesian Blue Toyota Corona Mark II, it wasn’t but a few years later that my folks jettisoned the Olds 98 Regency and starting tooling around in a very nice Datsun (translation for those under 40: it’s Nissan now). When you consider it, the same kind of thinking is at play today when the older generation looks backward to see the future through the eyes of the up and coming ones.
Millennials and Gen-Xers still remain a statistically smaller group of RV buyers, but their cultural values are permeating upwards and effecting boomer purchase decisions. Concepts such as fuel efficiency, environmental friendliness, and technology enablement have rolled like a solar storm through the automotive world and are lightly filtering through the atmosphere of planet RV.
So what does this mean for current and future RV buyers? We’re just starting to see the outlines of what change may look like. It’s most evident in the lively B-van and Class C segment. Interior design is starting to look less purely residential and more mobile modern. Tech integration is deepening from built-in USB power ports, to smartphone device control apps. And chassis are being built on far more fuel efficient engines and transmissions.
Inside the coaches the house components are starting to change too. The venerable water heater that’s been in RVs for over 40 years is starting to give way to more efficient, quick heating designs. Pre-wiring for solar panels is becoming more of a standard built-in along with lighter, yet more powerful lithium-ion house batteries.
The RV destination experience is starting to change too. RVs are increasingly seen as mobile living platforms, not just something you camp in. Tow vehicles are far more common as RV owners look to access cities and adventure locations. And again, the smaller more nimble self-contained B & C platforms are showing up at trailheads, vineyards, art fairs, and bike races.
Over the decades the RV experience has always had a following, but for a long time has seemingly sat on the outer ring of public awareness when it comes to travel and recreation options. But, judging from the notable uptick in media coverage from network television news, and national newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, there is no doubt that the interest in RVing is broadening it’s appeal. Why? What’s different?
The Internet, of course. Beyond making product information more readily available to consumers, it’s the stories of the “RV experience” that are being told in blogs, tweets, and videos. These stories are providing motivation and inspiration to many who never would have considered RVing as an adventure option. And while boomers are actively sharing their experiences, the real drivers of the trend are the world’s first fully digital generation — the millennials, who are pushing out fresh content and shaping the narrative. Their wide-eyed sense of discovery reminds the generations ahead of them of their own youthful enthusiasm, days of un-air-conditioned road trips with crank down windows, and VW van or under the pickup shell camping.
The trend of thinking young, being young, and staying young is one I wholeheartedly embrace and I’m glad that our RV planet seems to be spinning in that direction.