RV enthusiasm overrides gas costs

Getting low gas mileage in a camper doesn't bother Susan Ferris of Concord, who's looking on the bright side of taking vacations even with the costly fill-up.

Room for her three sons. Clean bathrooms. And plenty of fresh air at campgrounds.

“You have to pay for gas anywhere you go or travel,” said Ferris, 44. “At least you don't need a hotel.”

Local RV and camper sales remain high, despite high gas prices, local dealers say.

A family vacation in an RV can be a quarter to two-thirds cheaper than other vacations, when you factor in hotel stays, eating out at restaurants and travel costs, a recent study by PKF Consulting found.

There are nearly 8.2 million RVs – including motor homes, pop-up campers and travel trailers – on the nation's roads, up more than 15 percent since 2001, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. The number of RV owners – which are, on average, 49-year-olds – is expected to grow steadily over the next decade as baby boomers age and retire.

In its second year, the Charlotte RV & Camper Super Show saw the number of dealers at the show almost double – from five last year to nine this year, organizers said. The show is being held through Sunday at the former Charlotte Merchandise Mart.

Ferris, who was at the show with her family when doors opened Friday, was already planning vacations in a towable camper she saw at the show: Myrtle Beach, the Lexington Barbecue Festival, Hershey, Pa. Ferris liked the large bathroom and separate bunks for the kids on the 31-foot Hornet trailer made by manufacturer Keystone. Even with the camper listed at $23,000, she said vacations would be more affordable.

People are looking to make travel and vacations more of an investment, said Eric Rector, owner of Mountain Top RV in Monroe, where he says sales have remained strong across the board.

“What do you have left other than a picture when you stay in a hotel?” he said. “(Customers) are just spending smarter.”

Jeff Zimmerman, owner of Country Roads RV Center in Lexington, said customers are still going on trips and camping. They are just adjusting how they do it.

“People are staying longer at the campgrounds, rather than frequent short stays,” he said. He has heard that campgrounds have been fuller than usual.

Gerald and Barbara Quay of Harrisburg were at the show on Friday looking for a towable camper to leave at Myrtle Beach each summer. With Gerald, 52, looking to retire, the couple plans to go to the beach more than the four times a year they go now.

“I doubt we'll go much further than Myrtle Beach,” said Gerald. “Maybe we'll go to the mountains.”

While sales have remained strong, RV dealers say the type of campers that consumers are looking at has changed some. Mid-priced RVs – those between $180,000 and $300,000 – are in less demand, as consumers look to offset high gas prices with less pricey models, said Tim Karr, a sales manager at Todd's RV & Marine in Hendersonville.

The market for the higher-end models has remained strong, Karr said.

Ray and Donna Pinion were still not sure what type of RV they wanted after browsing at the show. High gas prices have not made the couple think twice about their plan to sell their house in Troutman – a 40-minute drive from Charlotte – and travel the country in an RV.

It's something they've been planning for their whole lives, said Donna, 58, who retired from her job at AT&T in 2005.

“We had other things to do first,” she said. “You know – raise kids, have jobs.” Ray, who's 59, retired from the Statesville Fire Department in 1997.

Once their house sells, they plan to buy an RV, pack up their stuff, and hit the road.

“People ask me where my home will be,” Donna said. “I'll just be like a turtle; it will be on my back and travel with me.”