After catering to cash-rich customers in the 1980s, the makers of Winnebagos, Airstreams and other recreational vehicles must now deal with budget-minded shoppers like Mario Bernabe.
The 40-year-old bus mechanic from Orange has spent two summers shopping for a roomy and, more important, low-priced RV for his family.
"You want to be comfortable," Bernabe said as he inspected the powder-blue interior of a 22-foot-long motor home earlier this month. "The only problem is they cost too much."
Faced with a new breed of younger and price-conscious customers like Bernabe, the nation's recreational vehicle industry has retooled itself. Among other things, RV makers and sellers are cutting manufacturing costs, introducing simpler and cheaper models and trying to boost the RV's lowbrow image.
The results of these efforts and a resurgent national economy have been impressive. Total factory shipments last year rose 9.8% to 420,200 on top of a 30.3% jump in 1992, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Assn. The largest gains have been among low-frills, low-priced pop-up trailers.
"Ten years ago, it was like a contest to see how many gadgets you could get into a vehicle," association president David Humphreys said of the built-in bathroom scales and chandeliers that were squeezed into motor homes. "Now all the companies are competing on producing low-cost vehicles and still turning a profit."
Americans' fondness for the open road and the great outdoors has bred a giant recreational vehicle industry, which saw more than $9.5 billion in sales last year. The "RV lifestyle," as industry officials refer to it, attracts wealthy retirees who roam the highways in $200,000 motor homes equipped with dishwashers, as well as young families who camp out in $3,000 trailers with pop-up tents.
"Anytime the world starts to bug you, you just fill it up and you're gone," said David Hill, gazing at the used Winnebago he purchased this month for $30,000.
The current RV boom comes after a deep slump in the late 1980s and early '90s when the recession and tight credit forced countless dealers to shut down and manufacturers to fold.
The industry began a dramatic turnaround in 1992 as the recession eased in many parts of the nation. However, RV makers, like most other American businesses, faced a much more sober consumer this time around.
"People are more conscious of price and payments than they ever have been before," said George Kirk, vice president and general manager of Freeway RV in Irvine. "They never buy the motor home they want" and instead settle for a lower-priced model.
Growing numbers of baby boomers have also begun visiting dealer lots as their generation moves into the prime RV-buying years (35 to 55). In preparation for the boomers' arrival, the industry began promoting RVs as an affordable vacation alternative that complements activities ranging from bird watching to antique collecting.
For example, the industry-sponsored cable TV show "Going Our Way" shows RV trips to destinations ranging from Nashville to Big Bear Lake.
But the boomers have proved a tougher sell than previous RV buyers, some dealers say.
"There wasn't as much shopping around or as much comparisons," Bob Crawley, general manager of Giant Inland Empire RV in Colton, said of past customers. "We are hitting some of the baby boomers, who are a little bit more better-educated. They shop a lot more."
Many RV makers were caught off guard by the shift in customer attitudes. The popularity of the low-cost trailers produced by Dutchmen Manufacturing--acquired by Jackson Center, Ohio-based Thor Industries--forced the nation's 100 or so RV makers to follow suit.
Manufacturers "looked around and stripped down their models," said Guy Nielsen, who follows the industry as an analyst for SBS Financial Group, an investment research firm based in Westport, Conn. "They have worked hard to engineer the costs out of these products."
Last year, for example, Riverside-based Fleetwood Enterprises--the nation's largest RV maker--introduced the Mallard, a pop-up trailer that sleeps up to eight people and includes a stove, refrigerator and sink. The base model, which sells for between $10,500 and $13,500, has become one of the company's most successful new products, marketing director Bill Toy said.
Despite a rebounding economy, lower-priced RVs will continue to be popular, he said. "I don't see them going away."
The Comeback Road
After a slump in the late 1980s and early 1990s, factory shipments of recreational vehicles have bounced back as the industry introduced lower-priced trailers and motor homes.
Source: Recreation Vehicle Industry Association