For RV manufacturers, the bumpy ride from the Great Recession has vanished from the rearview mirror as the industry projects shipments to dealers will top 500,000 units this year.
Manufacturers and dealers meeting this week at an industry trade show in Louisville, Kentucky, are pointing to solid fundamentals including favorable fuel prices, strong consumer demand and available credit as key factors behind the unprecedented growth.
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They're also starting to see more adults in their late 20s and 30s browsing showrooms and dealer lots alongside more traditional customers — older couples looking ahead to retirement.
"Now the aisles are full of baby strollers," said Dan Pearson, an RV dealer in Minnesota.
In 2009, recreational vehicle shipments from manufacturers to dealers — a key measure of consumer demand — sank to 165,700 — the lowest level in nearly two decades. Shipments have steadily risen since then and are projected to reach 505,600 units in 2017, up 17.4 percent from a year ago, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association said. It would be the first time shipments surpassed the half-million mark since the group started recording shipments in 1981, RVIA spokesman Kevin Broom said Wednesday.
The industry is projecting overall shipments will reach 520,700 units in 2018.
Indiana remains the clear manufacturing leader, accounting for 80 percent of RV production in 2016, followed by Idaho, California, Oregon and Iowa, according to RVIA.
The upbeat forecasts come as RV manufacturers used this week's event to show off their newest models to dealers looking to place orders for the coming year.
"Barring an unforeseen event, all key indicators point to an open road ahead," RVIA President Frank Hugelmeyer said.
Shipments are rising for towables — attached to pickups or hitched to the back of another vehicle — as well as for stand-alone motor homes. Towables, which make up the bulk of the sales, cost between $8,000 and $100,000, with an average retail price of about $28,500 in 2016, RVIA said. Stand-alone motor homes range from $75,000 to $1.5 million for the most luxurious vehicles. The average price was about $127,600 for the amenity-filled moving homes.
To keep up with demand, industry giant Thor Industries Inc. has announced a series of expansions at its production facilities that will add hundreds of jobs.
"We see a great long-term future for the industry," said Thor CEO Bob Martin.
To keep this "new golden era" going, Hugelmeyer said, the industry needs to build on its appeal to younger buyers. Another focus is on the travel experiences for RV owners.
"A record number of RVs are being sold, but the number of campground sites is stagnant at best," he said. "Simply put, new RVers need an abundance of high-quality places to camp, play and visit. This is a basic issue of supply and demand."
Chris Andro, an RV dealer in Connecticut, said it's those 30-somethings who are helping drive surging sales at his business.
"This will be a record year for us," he said. "Last year was a record year and we'll have exceeded that by 22 percent."
Pearson said his business in Minnesota has endured downturns through the years caused by spikes in gas prices and interest rates before weathering the Great Recession. Now, every segment of his business is showing "incredible growth," and he's not seeing anything to slow it down.
"You always look for a storm cloud," he said. "That's what you're supposed to do when you run a business. And I can't find a storm cloud anywhere right now."