Evelyn and Leo Carey never dreamed of buying an RV when they were raising kids and fully ensconced in the working world. But about five years ago, Evelyn spied a small teardrop camper trailer in the side yard of an art gallery in Wisconsin, and an idea was born.
“I fell in love with the shape of it,” she said. “It was so artsy and so cute.”
By then, the couple had sold their home near Lake Calhoun in south Minneapolis and downsized to an empty-nester condo in downtown St. Paul.
About a year later, they ponied up for a 17-foot Casita travel trailer, which they have pulled across America’s roadways for months at a time, exploring state parks, historic trails and prime bird-watching spots.
“It has everything you could possibly need,” said Evelyn. “When we travel, we follow our nose — and follow our bliss.”
Baby boomers and adventuresome seniors such as the Careys are driving the biggest resurgence in RV sales since the early 1990s. The industry has seen double-digit sales growth during the past three years, and this year, shipments of tow-behind travel trailers are expected to reach their highest levels.
The skyrocketing sales are fueled by the 10,000 or so baby boomers who are turning 65 every day, plus a large band of fifty-somethings who are planning for an active or early retirement.
“People are retiring and living more for today than the future,” said Jeff Nobbe, general manager at Shorewood RV Center in Anoka, where overall sales are up 40 percent since the depths of the recession. “They weren’t doing that before. They were buying lake places before.”
These active Americans feel the lure of nature and romance of the road — but sleeping on the ground isn’t part of the equation.
Unlike previous generations of frugal seniors, many baby boomers are flush with disposable income, and they’re not afraid to spend it. RV manufacturers are taking note.
But there’s more involved than just a “bigger is better” attitude. While rigs roomy enough to hold a hot tub and surround-sound stereo TV can be found on many RV sales lots, there’s a new emphasis on lighter weight towable vehicles and more fuel-efficient motor homes.
Manufacturers have ramped up on style and craftsmanship and added green technologies, such as solar panels and LED lighting. Many models are wired for Bluetooth and other necessities of our techno-centric world.
“There are more options on travel trailers these days than there’s ever been,” said Mike Pearo, a third-generation owner of Hilltop Trailer Sales in Fridley. “And we’re definitely seeing people that want luxury.”
Sales of fifth-wheel trailers, those large bi-level units with a raised forward section, are at an all-time high at Hilltop, Pearo said, and updated enhancements are sealing the deal.
Auto-leveling features allow boomers with bad backs and knees to level the trailer with the click of a remote control instead of laboring over a hand crank. Residential-size refrigerators can be powered with banks of batteries that get charged while driving.
“You can go as rugged as you want or as luxurious as you want,” Pearo said.
All systems are go
This surge in sales comes as the economy gains steam, gas prices remain low and lenders are less shy about opening up credit lines — a necessity even for well-heeled RV buyers.
The average price of a basic tent trailer is less than $10,000. Travel trailers start at about $12,000 and can cost upward of $100,000 for a fifth-wheel. Camper vans, which are smaller versions of the enclosed motor home, start at $40,000 to $60,000 and easily run into six figures.
When it comes to luxe, no brand can touch the cachet of the Airstream, which Nobbe said often becomes akin to a “family heirloom.” Models range from $45,000 to $150,000 and come with such optional upgrades as Corian countertops, leather seats and hickory hardwood cabinets.
In a hot market for travel trailers, Airstream is even hotter. Last year, sales rose 35 percent from the previous year, far outpacing the industry’s 13 percent rise. And the majority of new Airstream owners are first-time RVers in the 50-to-69 age range, the company said.
“I’m not going to do what my father did in retirement — which was to stay home and putter around the basement all the time,” said Rod Fierek of May Township near Stillwater. He bought his first Airstream in March 2013 and in January bought a larger 25-footer that his wife, Beth, refers to as their apartment.
“I’m not just going to stay home,” said Rod, a 64-year-old retired Navy captain, nurse and health care administrator. “It’s a big country and I want to see all of it.”
He intended to trade in his smaller 19-footer but, like many Airstream owners, had trouble parting with it.
“It’s so cute and cuddly,” Fierek said. “It just kind of wraps around you, and is great to go camping in because you can fit into little places.”
Meanwhile, closer to home
Minnesota-made Vistabule, a sleek 14-foot teardrop trailer whose design was inspired by the Airstream, is seeing a surge as well. Owner Bert Taylor moved his manufacturing operations into a bigger warehouse space in St. Paul this spring, and he outpaced last year’s sales in the first six months of the year.
The diminutive but well-appointed Vistabule (whose name is a play on a home’s vestibule entryway and the stargazing vistas from the RV’s large front window) may be cozy, but it is rich in artisan design. Prices range from $16,000 to $22,000.
“For some people, this is their idea of a five-star hotel,” said Taylor, a former furniture maker. “Baby boomers are the ones who can afford these things and who have the flexibility to get up and go — maybe check something off their bucket list.”
Julie Ginader of Bloomington snapped up a Vistabule on impulse after seeing one nestled among a cluster of hulking motor homes at a recent RV show.
“I couldn’t get it out of my head,” said Ginader, 55, a teacher whose husband is about a year and a half from retirement. The couple have taken their camper on just a handful of weekend adventures so far, but they plan to hit the road for months at a time to explore Alaska and other far-flung regions.
“I can’t wait to see parts of the U.S.,” she said, “and this is an affordable way to do it.”
For other RVers, affordability is less important than comfort.
Joe Warren, a retired attorney based in Memphis, gases up his van-style Winnebago and cruises up to the Twin Cities with his wife, Barbara Thompson, and their small dog every six weeks or so to see his daughter and grandchildren.
“I’m spending my kids’ inheritance,” Warren, 60, said of his roomy RV and other retirement plans, which include trips to Peru, Paris and Africa next spring.
The couple spent many years in sleeping bags and tents, but gave that up in 2001 and bought their first RV.
Now, when there’s a storm and they are tucked inside their luxury ride, Warren shakes his head and says without apology, “Those poor tent people.”