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Gen-Xers Haul RVs Out of the Slow Lane

THE NATION

The vehicles are losing their retiree aura as a new breed of buyers hits the road with kids and motorized `toys.'

August 13, 2006|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

This is not your grandparents' RV -- unless their trailer was outfitted with disco ball lights, Tiki fabrics and a flat-screen TV.

Or hauled Harleys, slept a crowd and blasted tunes through iPod-ready outdoor speakers.

Generation Xers, who grew up on Star Wars, Ataris and Cabbage Patch Kids, have become the fastest-growing group of RV buyers, a trend that is forcing the $14-billion industry to rethink how it designs and markets the ultimate toys for grown-ups.

"We started getting younger buyers in their 20s, and we were scratching our heads," said Luc van Herle, product marketing manager for Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. in Riverside. "They would walk in and say, 'Barf, this looks like Grandma's living room.' These customers dragged us into the 21st century."

They are people like 37-year-old Brian McCollum of Litchfield Park, Ariz., who on a recent day rolled his Bourget custom chopper out of his trailer at Bolsa Chica State Beach in Orange County.

McCollum's Fleetwood "toy hauler" is tricked out with brushed aluminum cabinets and retro red and black fabrics. When he's not using it at the beach or to cart his motocross bikes to sand dunes, he finds other uses. Once, after a long night of partying, he parked it in the lot of a Phoenix bar where he and nine buddies slept off their hangovers.

RV manufacturers in the Southland, the world's largest RV market, say people like McCollum represent the new breed of buyers: younger families with money to spend; all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles and bicycles to haul; and a big truck in the driveway capable of towing a trailer.

Sales of RVs, which include motor homes, trailers and van campers, have been on a steady upward march since 9/11, when many Americans began staying closer to home and spending more time with their families. Manufacturers shipped a record 384,400 RVs in 2005, a 27-year high. Since 2003, the number of toy haulers sold has nearly tripled -- with manufacturers launching new products every year to challenge industry leader Weekend Warrior Inc.

Baby boomers continue to be the industry's bread and butter, making up half of all RV owners, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Assn. But the number of young buyers is growing. In 1984, just 2% of all RV owners were younger than 35. That number has jumped to 15% today.

Although towing a trailer decreases gasoline mileage by as much as 8 miles per gallon, rising gas prices haven't crimped many owners' lifestyles. Only 11% said they planned to use their RVs less, though most planned to take shorter trips, according to a recent survey by the RV trade association.

Many owners finance RVs with a 15-year loan and can deduct the interest for tax purposes, as if it were a second-home mortgage.

Unlike boomers, most young buyers are bypassing the more-expensive motor homes for the toy haulers, which start as low as $8,000, but average $25,000 to $40,000. Flipping a few switches converts these trailers from mobile garages into living rooms on wheels. They feature ramps for easy boarding of Jet Skis, golf carts, motorcycles and four-wheel all-terrain vehicles popular with off-roaders.

Carpets roll up to uncover grease and oil resistant flooring. Electric bunks lift flat against the ceiling to make room for storage. Most vehicles are equipped with high-definition TVs, stoves, showers and toilets. They have outdoor speakers and radio remotes for partying. And they can sleep a crowd with floor space for more.

The old formula involved sleeping two and entertaining six, Van Herle said. Now, it's more along the lines of sleeping 10 and entertaining 40 -- with a water supply to last nearly a week.

"When I was 20 years old, I wanted something like this and they didn't have it," said McCollum, a builder of custom homes who swapped a VW bug and cash for his Fleetwood Gearbox toy hauler, which retails for $40,000.

McCollum personalized it with flashing lights and a disco ball attached to the retractable awning.

Some toy haulers have checkered racing flags and hot-rod-style graphics -- a far cry from the migrating ducks and muted stripes on older RVs.

"There was a day when you thought of RVers as a bunch" of geezers, said 56-year-old Frank DeGelas, president of Southern California chain Mike Thompson RV, one of the largest dealerships in the nation. "For the first time in my career, it's been cool to be an RV dealer," said DeGelas, who has been in the business for more than 30 years.

Dealers now hire younger salespeople and buy time on radio stations that target younger audiences. Manufacturers are setting up booths at motocross events and trade shows catering to off-roaders. Ads featuring relaxing grandparents have given way to more edgy marketing.

"Five years ago, if you would have told Fleetwood's powers-that-be that they were going to have an ad with a big guy covered in tattoos and an RV called 'Nitrous,' they would have giggled all the way home," said Patrick Brady, publisher of the 3-year-old ToyHauler Magazine in Phoenix.

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