After experiencing an empty sales floor in March, Bend RV salesman Ken Wise worried that his business would be a bust for 2020. Then came May and customers returned in surprising numbers. The RV business suddenly appeared resilient in the face of a pandemic.
Wise said sales and rentals at All Season RV & Marine, where he is a partner, were up 18% to 20% in May compared to the same period a year ago, allowing the company to make up for heavy losses earlier in the year when the pandemic stopped all travel.
The sudden interest in trailers and RVs comes as Americans are seeking ways to social distance while traveling. Mobile homes allow users to avoid hotels, airports, planes, and even restaurants.
“People feel that they are protected if they are in their own travel trailer or mobile home,” said Wise. “They don’t have to worry about going through the airport or being on a plane and breathing that recirculated air, let alone the hassles nowadays with all the preventive measures. So our sales have been really picking up.”
Another RV lot in Bend, Beaver Coach Sales & Service, is also up 15% to 20% compared to a year ago, said the company’s Sales Manager Dave McAndrews.
“Even under these conditions, we are seeing a lot of first-timers of all ages coming in. Others that used RVs in the past are choosing to buy one again,” said McAndrews. Worries that hotels and airlines may not be safe during a pandemic is driving the interest.
“They want to get away, and they are choosing to go by RV. They can get out and maintain social distancing, while also knowing their environment and feeling safe,” said McAndrews.
Campgrounds are doing well, too. Lucas Nelson, a partner at The Camp, an RV campground in Bend, said he expects July and August to be fully booked.
“In March the booking calendar was cleared off because of cancellations, but people have rebooked, and we have surpassed where we left off,” said Nelson.
There are two main factors driving the sudden demand in RV travel, said Nelson. One is having more personal space and the second is staying local in the Pacific Northwest. Guests who are booked to arrive at The Camp this summer hail primarily from the Willamette Valley, Portland and Seattle, said Nelson.
Low gas prices are also making RV travel more attractive this year. The average price for a gallon of gas this week was $1.97 a gallon, a big drop compared to a year ago when gas prices averaged $2.67 a gallon, according to the website GasBuddy. In Oregon, the lowest price for a gallon of gas was $1.85 in Klamath Falls.
Wise, the partner at All Season RV & Marine, said the growing interest in RV camping is tightening up space at RV sites in Oregon, especially on the Oregon Coast. Many Central Oregonians also enjoy local campgrounds in the national forests found in the Cascades and the High Desert, he said.
“Some like to park their trailer and get close with their family, have one on one time, go fishing, hike or bike; there are so many great options,” said Wise.
Olivia Hilt, manager of the Premier RV Resort in Lincoln City, said her campground is already booked out for the Fourth of July weekend and she is expecting a busy summer. But she adds that there have been cancellations, too.
“It’s a mixed bag,” said Hilt. “Some want to travel and others don’t because they are concerned about leaving home.”
One problem, said Hilt, is the status of the Canadian border, which is temporarily closed due to COVID-19. The border may open again June 22, according to the Department of Homeland Security website, but the reopening date has already been pushed back several times. Hilt hopes that more Oregonians will make up for the lack of Canadians this summer.
“They come down from Vancouver and British Columbia all the time, but not anymore. Maybe Oregonians could make up the difference,” she said.
RV sales floors and campgrounds may benefit the most from the new interest in RV camping, but there are drawbacks for municipalities. Camping results in less revenue for a city’s general fund compared to hotel stays, due to the lower nightly rate being charged. That means fewer dollars for local agencies, including fire and police departments. For the month of April, revenue from transient room tax was down a staggering 84% in Bend.
Kevney Dugan, president and CEO of Visit Bend, said RV campers can still help the economy by eating at local restaurants and shopping at local retailers.
“I think we all recognize that we are going to need to take baby steps to recover from this, and if what people find comfortable is traveling in their camper or RV, we should be thankful for it,” said Dugan.
“We love this place and trust they do, too,” Dugan added. “We will all find comfort in different ways, and now is not the time to dictate or ask people to travel in ways that don’t make sense to them.”