All Revved Up; Recreational Vehicles Are More Popular Than Ever, with New Features and Comforts Constantly Emerging

Article excerpt

Byline: Roger Bull, The Times-Union

They are homes on wheels. And it only makes sense that when we go on the road to get out of the house, we take our homes with us. Homes on the road, complete with every comfort of home.

More people are buying recreational vehicles every year. Industry officials are expecting Americans to buy about 320,000 of them this year, from small pop-up campers to full, luxurious motor homes.

New RV models come out in December, and every year about this time, big RV shows are held around the country to introduce them. Jacksonville's annual show begins Thursday at Alltel Stadium.

Ken Sommer, spokesman for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, said sales have been on a steady climb for quite a while now. But they increased particularly in 2002, up 21 percent over 2001.

"It was attributed to a couple of factors," he said. "Interest rates are at a record low. More importantly, there's a shift in the way Americans are taking vacations. Since 9/11, the hot travel trend has been domestic road trips. They're avoiding air travel and kind of getting back to basics."

And there is a shift in who is buying them.

"It's less blue collar and more affluent now," Sommer said. "It's families with children. Baby boomers are the largest and fastest growing segment," he said. "You have older boomers who are empty nesters and nearing retirement. You have younger boomers with children."

Allen Meader, sales manager at Rivers Bus and RV Sales, said he's seen a change, too, in his 10 years there.

"We're probably seeing a little younger crowd, from the mid-30s on up," he said. "It used to be more retired people."

Still, there are plenty of retirees in their RVs.

Frank and Edna Weale were wandering around Dick Gore's RV World last week, looking at the possibilities. She's 75; he's 74 and a retired PGA club pro. They're from Colorado and came into town in their 24-foot Class C motor home. They've owned it since 1997 and once spent 18 months in it, driving from coast to coast. They aren't really in the market to change, but you never know.

"We might go with a fifth wheel," Frank Weale said. "It just offers so much more space for not a lot more money. I think it's the bargain on the roads. With a Class C, the first 8 feet are taken up by the cab. So you really only have a 16-footer. But if you're intelligent, you can do it."

The high-end market has really exploded, he said. The full-size motor home can top out at more than $1 million.

It's not uncommon to see motor homes with granite countertops and heated tile floors. There's even the occasional Jacuzzi. And, of course, all kinds of high tech stuff is available, from satellite Internet hookups to geographic positioning systems.

But towables (trailers and truck campers) still outnumber motor homes about three-to-one, and the ratio hasn't changed for the past 10 to 15 years.

"They're affordable," Meader said. "For 15 grand you get a nice trailer. You don't have a lot of money just sitting in your yard when you aren't using it."

Still, new types of travel trailers are emerging. Some, Sommer calls them "toy haulers," have space for motorcycles are ATVs.

The Thor Wanderer Pak Rat, for example, is 15 feet long. An open trailer makes up the back 8 feet. The front half is a small enclosed space with kitchen and bathroom. The bed folds out of the front like a pop-up camper.

You're also seeing more slideouts this year. They first showed up in RVs about 10 years ago. One section of the wall slides 2 or 3 feet out, making the room larger. Now, two or three slideouts are becoming pretty common on motor homes and fifth wheels. Some of the larger motor homes may have up to five.

roger.bull@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4296

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