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All the Comforts of Home

Demand for luxury recreational vehicles has soared, spawning a market for really nice places to park.

August 18, 2004|Rukmini Callimachi | Associated Press

Back when they owned a basic camper, Mike and Marina Wolfgram parked it on riverbanks, in rustic campgrounds and on the sides of highways.

That all changed when they bought their first luxury motor home -- a 45-foot coach the size of a yacht and at $1 million just as expensive. They chucked their California home for a new life.

But driving in luxury created an unexpected problem for the couple -- parking. So, after buying their coach and outfitting it with a state-of-the-art navigation system, a queen-size bed, two phone lines and three TVs, the couple went on to invest in three lots at three different luxury RV resorts.

"If you own a Porsche, you don't want to park it in a dump," said independent equity analyst Ruthanne Williams.

The Wolfgrams paid $150,000 for a lot ringed with flowering shrubs, facing Oregon's crashing coast. In Surprise, Ariz., their lot backs up to an 18-hole championship golf course, and their third property, in Indio, has a private waterfall.

"You get to this age in life and you want a certain level of comfort," said Mike Wolfgram, 62. He and his wife sold their house in Yuba City, Calif., to finance their new life.

For the last five years, the fastest-growing segment of the recreational-vehicle industry has been the sale of luxury rigs -- a market that has grown 120-fold since 1991. That year, only 100 RVs costing $200,000 or more were sold. Last year the number soared past 12,000.

The demand for luxury RVs like the Wolfgrams' has given birth to a secondary industry: posh RV parks, outfitted with swimming pools, clubhouses, golf courses and private lagoons.

"It's the Ritz-Carlton of RV accommodations," said Ron Petty, president of Outdoor Resorts of America Inc. in Bermuda Dunes, which operates 12 luxury motor-coach resorts in the U.S., including the Pacific Shores Motorcoach Resort in Newport, Ore.

To the Wolfgrams, comfort is found first on the inside -- with its opulent interior, the coach is a mansion on wheels. But it's also on the outside, in the gated community they share with other owners of luxury rigs.

"It's the difference between a Motel 6 and the Sheraton," said Anne Carlson, 69, of Palm Desert, a former United Airlines flight attendant who parks her Marathon Coach on lots she and her husband own at the Newport resort.

"It's like being at the Marriott but getting to wake up in my own bed," Carlson added.

Recreational vehicles have been a part of America's fabric since 1914, when the first commercial motor home was created by erecting a canvas tent on a trailer bed.

But for decades the image of RV parks has been one of a seedy retreat.

"People think 'trailer trash.' They don't realize how much the technology has changed," said Linda Profaizer, president and chief executive of the National Assn. of RV Parks and Campgrounds in Falls Church, Va.

The modern motor-coach resort is the brainchild of the founding fathers of today's luxury rig, who realized that their customers needed a destination for their rolling retreats.

"We needed a place to park our toys," said Bob Lee, founder of Country Coach Inc. in Junction City, Ore., and developer of the Desert Shores Motorcoach Resort in Indio.

In 1998, only 11% of high-end motor homes were in excess of 26,000 pounds. By 2001 it was 32.7%.

When the coaches began to get longer and wider, Lee said, finding the proper electrical hookups became a problem -- as did a space that was wide enough to fit the rig.

Lee's Indio resort, which is nearly sold out, features a complex network of waterways. "It's almost like being on your own private lake," he said.

Bob Schoellhorn, chairman and CEO of Marathon Coach Inc. in Coburg, Ore., is also majority owner of Outdoor Resorts of America, which plans to add eight more properties to its existing 12 within the next five years.

Monaco Coach Corp., the second-largest maker of motor homes in the U.S. and also based in Coburg, is building two resorts, including one in Las Vegas.

Of the 8,500 privately owned RV parks in the U.S., Profaizer says, as many as 150 offer a resort-like experience. The most luxurious among them have amenities that rival those of the best hotels and admission rules that are stricter than those of many country clubs.

"We don't allow trailers. No fifth wheels. No pop-ups. No campers," said Mike Parks, manager of the Pacific Shores resort. "And nothing less than 25 feet. We'll get out and measure it if we have to. It's opulence to the nth degree."

The market for luxury resorts can only grow, said Schoellhorn at Marathon Coach, given the age and tastes of baby boomers and the reluctance of many to travel overseas.

Overall, the $12-billion-a-year RV industry is booming. In June, even as oil prices reached a 13-year high, wholesale RV shipments rose 17.8% over June 2003. Richard Curtin, director of consumer surveys at the University of Michigan, said wholesale shipments in 2004 were on track to set a quarter-century record.

Meanwhile, every day 11,000 Americans turn 50 -- and their tastes are becoming more expensive, said analyst Craig Kennison of Robert Baird & Co. in Milwaukee.

"These are couples who have often spent 30 years paying off a mortgage and can now turn that equity into a lifestyle," he said.

At Monaco Coach, shipments of high-end RVs are up 21.7% over last year. At Marathon Coach -- which makes the most exclusive motor homes, with prices ranging from $1 million to $1.7 million -- production has doubled since 1995. The coaches they make today include such features as Jacuzzis and electric fireplaces.

For Mike and Marina Wolfgram, sipping gin on the veranda of their lot facing the Pacific Ocean at one of the most luxurious resorts in the country is the end of an evolution.

"We did campers. We did trailers. We slept in the dirt. We paid our dues," she said.

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