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Scared Americans Desperate to Travel Are Buying Up ‘Covid Campers’

Recreational vehicle dealers report a tide of customers desperate to get away, but wary of cities, crowds and the coronavirus.

Floor traffic at Mike Regan’s two RV dealerships outside Austin, Texas, is up 30% compared with last May. And the reason is fear.

Cooped-up Americans desperate to get out after months of lockdowns are dreaming of doing something—anything—that resembles a vacation. But a majority of them worry a second wave of the coronavirus is coming, and think politicians have pushed too fast to reopen. Unsurprisingly, when it comes to getting out of Dodge, the close-quarters of an airline cabin are a no-go.

That’s where the “Covid camper” comes in.

After a six-week hiatus, Regan said business has been so brisk that he may not have enough trailers and motor homes to meet demand. “The minute the campgrounds opened on May 1 and the governor turned everyone loose, our business went through the roof,” said Regan, whose sales at his Crestview dealerships were down about 50% just last month. 

For decades, sales of motor homes and travel trailers you hitch to your car were a reliable indicator of the beginning—and end—of a recession. Sales would dip as a downturn approached, and rise right before a recovery. But this time, it’s different: sales are rising as America enters its worst contraction since the Great Depression. While more than one in five workers has filed for unemployment, some people are shelling out upwards of $100,000 so they can hit the road while staying away from everyone else.

Social distancing is apparently a lot easier when you can bring along your own kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.

“It definitely shows that consumers have not sworn off all consumption,” said Richard Curtin, a professor at the University of Michigan who prepares an annual RV industry forecast. “This is a coronavirus recession,” he said. “Once there’s a vaccine, consumers think the causes will resolve relatively quickly, unlike the economic problems of the Great Recession.”

Some economists, however, are predicting any recovery could take until the end of 2021.

The customers coming to Crestview fall into three groups, Regan said: Those who wanted to come during the shutdown and couldn’t; the annual spring customer enticed by the promise of summer; and a new group—people considering an RV for the first time because of the pandemic.

Those customers are probably most responsible for the jump in business, he said.

Mike Rhoades is one of them. The 73-year-old resident of Kyle, Texas, said he and his wife Carol cancelled scheduled trips to Germany, South America, New Zealand and Australia. Instead, the former transportation industry executive bought a 30-foot travel trailer—and a used Toyota pickup to pull it.

Vacation travel for them usually meant air travel or maybe a cruise ship. The last time they went camping was around the turn of the century—with their kids.

Now, with a gleaming new camper, they’re staying on the ground. The couple first did a three-day test at a nearby campground just to familiarize themselves with the RV lifestyle. Then this past weekend, they took off on a two week trip along the Texas Gulf coast. Rhoades said it’s the first of many trips this summer. 

Their $30,000 trailer, made by Grand Design RV in Middlebury, Indiana, has a “big shower and big bathroom, and a queen-sized bed with a good mattress,” he said, But it may not be long before Rhoades trades it in for a fancier model. “We thought we’d start with this,” he said. “If it [ … ]

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