With gas prices falling below $1.50 a gallon in some parts of the metro, dealers at the 48th Minneapolis/St. Paul RV, Vacation and Camping Show smiled Thursday when doors to the Minneapolis Convention Center opened up to welcome vacation-hungry gawkers, tire kickers and buyers.
The stock market has swooned of late. But employment is up and the overall economy has recovered sufficiently to further fuel an RV-buying binge now 10 years in the making.
RV ownership in the U.S. rose almost 13 percent from 2005 to last year, with about 9 percent of households now owning a wheel-based camper of some kind.
In fact, more RVs were dispatched from manufacturers to dealers in November than in any month during the past 10 years. Another 375,100 units are expected to be shipped this year.
Retired couples still make up a large segment of RV owners. But buyers are trending younger. People ages 35 to 64 are purchasing RVs faster than any other group, with the average age of an owner being 48.
Interest in RVs is high for many reasons, including:
• State parks — Minnesota being a prime example — offer great locations with relatively inexpensive camping fees and, of late, more of the amenities campers want, including electrical hookups and in some cases Wi-Fi.
• Campers, travel trailers and motor homes manufactured today (the industry is located virtually entirely within the U.S.) are far more dependable than earlier models, also more comfortable and they weigh far less.
“Weight of a travel trailer or fifth-wheel trailer is very important,” said Mike Pearo, sales manager at Hilltop Trailer Sales in Fridley (hilltoptrailers.com). Among reasons: Many late-model pickups and other towing vehicles are powered by V6 engines, not V8s.
“A Ford Explorer today can pull 4,500 pounds, whereas some of the older models could pull 6,000 pounds,” Pearo said.
For this reason, and because fuel costs are a primary consideration of RV buyers, manufacturers use materials with much improved strength-to-weight ratios.
RV engineers also offer innovative designs unseen on the market even a few years back. In addition to minimizing weight, the intent is to lower the cost to attract entry-level consumers.
Example: A “hybrid’’ travel trailer (a travel trailer is an RV that is pulled with a bumper hitch) that Pearo has at the show weighs only 2,800 pounds. Yet it has stand-up headroom, a microwave, air conditioner and a refrigerator. Plus, it can sleep six.
Another type of RV trailer — the fifth-wheel — in many cases offers more room and more amenities than travel trailers do (some fifth-wheels at the show featured four slide-outs and two bathrooms).
Still, considerably more travel trailers are sold today than fifth-wheels or any other type of RV.
One reason, said Brian Rignell of North Country RV in Ham Lake (northcountryrv.com), is that in many instances, only half-ton pickups are required to pull travel trailers, whereas many fifth-wheels require a 1-ton truck, or at least a three-quarter-ton rig.
North Country handles Durango by KZ and Open Range RVs, among other brands, including Lance travel trailers. Long known for its quality pickup campers, Lance now also builds travel trailers starting in the $20,000 range, with 20-footers weighing only about 4,000 pounds.
Also at the show are motor homes (think Winnebago, among many other brands), which still represent a key segment of the RV market. Some units on display can top $300,000.
Long before Robert White of PleasureLand RV Center in Ramsey (pleasurelandrv.com) sold RVs for a living, he was a motor home devotee.
“I bought my first motor home, a 29-foot ‘Class C,’ when my youngest child was 2 years old,” White said Thursday. “That was 17 years ago.”
Since then, White, his wife and their four children have traveled to each of the Lower 48 states and throughout Canada. “We stay mainly in national parks and state parks,” he said.
White has since graduated to a 31-foot motor home — not huge by industry standards — and his “kids,” now ages 19 to 24, still want to hit the road with their parents.
“They grew up traveling with us on vacation, and they still love to do it,” he said. “We all do.”
Interested in RVs, but unsure about owning one? Try renting, first.
Many dealers at the show offer rental units ranging from tent trailers ($315 for Thursday-Monday rentals from North Country RV; $450 for a week) to hybrid travel trailers that can be pulled with half-ton pickups or similar vehicles ($450 and $650 for the same periods).
For buyers, RV financing is available at the show, at rates as low as 3.9 percent, depending on buyers’ credit ratings, dealers say. Lenders typically prefer at least 10 percent down.
Show hours Friday are 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Hours Saturday are 9 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Adult admission is $10, with youngsters ages 6-12, $4. Kids 5 and under get in free.