"Four hundred ... sixty-nine dollars ... and seventy-two cents."
Slowly, with equal parts pump shock and Texas drawl, Mary Walker recounted the cost of filling up her recreational vehicle's gas tank. "And it wasn't even that close to empty."
Walker grinned gamely as she and two fellow Texans on lawn chairs chatted about RV-ing at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, where this week's Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA) convention has brought vehicles of every shape and size to town. The 80th rendition of the semiannual event, which ends today, finds RVers chatting, chowing down and checking out 300 booths featuring supplies, campground info and equipment for their beloved outsized vehicles.
Throughout the fairgrounds, there were no signs that the soaring cost of gasoline was dampening the enthusiasm of the 10,000-plus attendees. But there's little question that the industry itself is suffering a downturn in this sputtering economy.
Last summer's FMCA convention in Redmond, Ore., drew 3,474 RVs, about 1,000 more than are expected this year, and FMCA membership is "down a bit," said communications director Pamela Kay.
After five years of record growth, RV shipments declined 9.5 percent in 2007 amid rising unemployment and interest rates, more restrictive loan underwriting and a faltering stock market.
Then, with gas prices rolling steadily upward, purchases fell 26 percent nationally in the first four months of this year, according to Statistical Surveys Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich.
Crossing the border on fumes
But the holdovers are pluckily carrying on.
"Once you start owning these things, you can't be obsessively counting the gasoline costs," said Lynn Davie of Burlington, Ontario. "We're scaling back a little, maybe one less trip this year. And with the prices in Canada [about $5.50 a gallon], we tend to roll it toward the border."
Davie and his wife, Sonja, have a RoadTrek RV, which is considerably smaller than most of the ginormous models at the FMCA fest. It fits in a standard parking space, but is spacious inside -- "my son-in-law said 'this is the only vehicle that's larger on the inside than it is on the outside,'" Sonja Davie said -- and gets about 17 miles per gallon on the highway.
That's about twice as much as Norma and Chuck Penn can muster in their 40-foot, beautifully appointed Newmar Kountry Star.
"I'd say 7 1/2 to 8 miles per gallon, depending on headwind or tailwind, uphill or downhill," said Norma Penn, chuckling. "But this is our home year-round.
"It's a little more of a shock when we pull into a gas station now. But I sure don't miss mowing the lawn or shoveling the snow."
The Penns are retired -- Norma was a longtime IT Department manager at 3M -- and they spend their summers in Forest Lake, near their son's home in Vadnais Heights, and their winters in the hill country near San Antonio.
"Someone asked me, 'How do you winterize?'" she said. "I told 'em you just point it south and go until you get to someplace warm."
Along with their dog Scooter, a pug-beagle hybrid, the Penns travel everywhere with an equally adorable Chrysler Touring Edition convertible. Also parked near their campsite were a Mini-Cooper and a Smart Car. But the vast majority of "second vehicles" at the fest were SUVs, another mode of transportation experiencing a downturn. Walker and her Texas brigade brought along a large pickup truck holding three motorcycles for their husbands.
"The men enjoy the mechanical stuff," said Lanie Wright of Mineral Wells, Texas. "Us girls sit around and talk, and at night we play Aggravation, a Milton Bradley game for kids, and get in big fights and call each other awful names."
"But we also socialize with folks at these events," said Walker. "You immediately find something in common at these gatherings, a lot to talk about."
But nowhere are social skills more important than on the long drives. No matter how spacious the RV might be, "You really have to like your spouse," said Vicki Pickens, who, like her two friends, is a member of an RV club in Texas.
Thinking smaller, shorter
The Walkers and Pickenses had caravaned to the convention, while the Wrights came up early for a Newmar rally in St. Cloud. The Davies, whose daughter lives in Bloomington, stayed at a campground in Jordan before embarking to Falcon Heights. There are more than 16,000 RV-ready campgrounds nationally, homes to decidedly different types of gatherings.
"The RV culture varies a lot," said Lynn Davie, a retired University of Toronto professor. "A place like this with all the large motor homes, you're looking at a lot of retired people who probably got the money to buy them by selling their houses. If you go to a campground like the one in Jordan, you're looking at young families with a small camper rather than us old crocks [Canadian slang for an old, broken-down person]."
The smaller vehicles and pickup-truck covers might be the wave of the RV future; manufacturers already are introducing smaller, fuel-efficient motor homes. But for now, most owners say they're altering their itineraries rather than downsizing their vehicles.
In an April survey of RV owners by Zarca Interactive, a leading provider of online surveys and research technology, 58 percent said they would travel to destinations closer to home, 35 percent said they would travel fewer miles overall and 34 percent said they would stay longer at one destination.
The biggest number in the survey: 82 percent said RV vacations cost less than other forms of travel, where ballooning airfares and higher costs for lodging and restaurant dining are certainly a major factor.
All of which helps RV aficionados put a brave game face on $4-per-gallon -- and perhaps rising -- fuel costs.
"That's just part of the deal. It's not a concern," Walker said. "Well, it might be when we get home and the credit-card bill arrives."
Staff writer Rodrigo Zamith contributed to this report.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643