Social Distant Travel

Coronavirus fears pull RV interest to all-time highs

BY Fritts Causby


Even with the surge of the coronavirus, people still want to venture outdoors. To make that happen, vacationers are flocking to recreational vehicles (RVs) in record numbers.

Staying in an RV is a safer way to navigate the pandemic than flying somewhere and using a hotel.

“Camping is a perfect vacation during COVID-19. It’s outdoors and physically distanced and you are sleeping in your own RV or tent,” says Joel Tomaselli, owner of Wilmington KOA campground.

Short-term rental bans enacted in many North Carolina counties during the initial pandemic response kept even RVers at home in the spring, but now campgrounds are frequently at or near capacity.

“April and May were very quiet because of the short-term rental ban but as soon as that was lifted we filled up again,” Tomaselli says.

For the uninitiated, the term RV refers to a large variety of vehicles, from pop-up campers with canvas walls and toy haulers to fifth-wheel campers and bus-size motor coaches that often have pop-out walls that expand with the touch of a button – high-end technology with all the luxuries of home.

Whether the end of the short-term rental ban or the idea that recreational vehicles can offer a way to minimize the risk of pandemic exposure while traveling, RV dealers have seen a sharp uptick in business.

“From about the middle to the end of May, things went from zero to 140 miles an hour with our hair on fire, and it has been like that ever since,” says Bill Mirrielees, general manager of Howard RV Center in Wilmington.

Even on a day with torrential rain, sales associates were outside helping multiple customers all morning long.

Having large groups of customers sounds like a great problem to have, but there is a downside. The rise in demand has fueled a lack of inventory the likes of which the industry has never seen.

“We’re running out of inventory,” Mirrielees says. “When all the plants shut down at the end of March, they already had a big backlog. The supply chain of vendor-related items was still in tatters. We’re seeing a lot of very high demand parts and accessories starting to get very scarce.”

These factors have resulted in RV-related stocks experiencing rapid growth and sky-high share prices.

Shares of Camping World, which offers services, products and resources for RV owners, have increased by more than 338 percent since April. Likewise, shares of Winnebago Industries climbed by more than 80 percent between April and July. Thor Industries, an RV maker that owns many of the most well-known brands, saw a 117 percent increase in share price over the same period.

It may not be a great time to purchase RV-related stocks, however.

“I fully expect the popularity of RVs to continue until the pandemic is mostly behind us but then I expect demand will return to more traditional levels,” says Adam Jones, chair of the Economics and Finance Department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “Prices may actually dip after the pandemic as many will buy RVs this summer and then sell them next summer when the world is more open. However, many will find RV travel enjoyable and keep them, thus demand for RV sites at campgrounds is likely to spike this summer and be lower next year but still remain elevated compared to pre-pandemic levels for a few years.”   

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