Barb Watne didn’t take to camping right away when her husband, Toby, first suggested the idea back in 1967. But she tagged along, and over time, couldn’t wait to hop into a recreational vehicle and hit the open road. Nearly 46 years later, the Hinckley, Ill., residents still love a good adventure; they’ve camped in 47 different states.
Over the years, they’ve owned pop-ups and trailers. In 2000, they purchased a Winnebago Adventurer from Winnebago Motor Homes, 6841 Auburn St., Rockford, and two years ago, upgraded to a newer, state-of-the-art, 35-foot version that includes a spacious kitchen, living room, bedroom, shower, ample storage and two satellite TVs. The features come in handy: The Watnes travel to Texas every January, where they spend three months before returning home. For the remainder of the year, they take shorter trips in their RV each month.
“I like sleeping in my own bed,” says Barb, a retired teacher. “When we go away for a weekend, we pack our food and our clothes and we’re ready to go. It’s a lifestyle. It’s the freedom of doing what we want to do, and going where we want to go. Some days, we might go sightseeing, and some nights, we might build a campfire. We couldn’t have enjoyed all the vacations we have with three kids if it weren’t for camping. We’ve had a ball.”
As the leaves begin to turn and the temperatures begin to cool, one of the best ways to enjoy the beautiful fall scenery is from behind the wheel of an RV.
These behemoths are popular for two reasons: They give owners a chance to experience nature and the outdoors, and they provide quality time with loved ones, which isn’t always possible these days, given the frantic lifestyle that most of us lead.
According to studies sponsored by the National Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, the RV business is thriving after some lean years. The number of RV-owning households across the country has grown to 8.9 million – up from 7.9 million in 2005 – and there’s a surplus of RVs to choose from. In 2012, RV manufacturers shipped 285,749 units, compared to 307,300 projected units this year – a 7.5 percent increase.
“Time in a motor home, fifth wheel or trailer are some of the most enjoyable times you can have with your family,” says Terry Franklin, owner of Winnebago Motor Homes.
RVs for Everyone
There are several options available: RVs in Class A, B, B+, and C; travel trailer; fifth-wheel trailer; pop-up trailer; and slide-in camper. Chassis are made by Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Chevrolet or Freightliner, depending on the size and model.
There are two types of buyers in today’s RV market, according to local dealerships. The first is families looking to buy a smaller, pop-up trailer for a weekend trip, most likely a campground within 150 miles from home. There are more than 16,000 campgrounds nationwide, where people can spend a relaxing weekend or longer.
“We see plenty of families who buy trailers to use maybe five times a year at a campground,” says Jeff Tegner, general manager of Sunny Island RV, 3442 Merchandise Dr., Rockford. The 40-year-old business, which opened as Al’s Motor Homes, provides sales and service on a variety of new and used vehicles.
The other frequent RV buyers are retired folks, looking for a bigger vehicle to make longer trips. “Retirees are looking for something that they can use to get to Florida or Arizona and back in six months,” says Tegner, who fondly recalls memories of cross-country RV travel with his father. “For baby boomers, there’s been a lot of pent-up demand. Many retired people are tired of worrying about the economy. You can only sit and fret for so long, before it’s time to move on. Sales have really been encouraging the past two years.”
The rising price of fuel doesn’t appear to be a deterrent. A 2011 vacation cost comparison study showed that a family of four can save 23 to 59 percent on vacation costs by traveling in an RV, even after factoring in ownership costs and fuel. When fuel prices rise, experts say, RVers adjust by traveling to destinations closer to home, driving fewer miles, and staying longer in one location.
Mileage on an RV ranges anywhere from 7 to 20 miles to the gallon. Franklin says the RV industry is developing ways to improve fuel efficiency. “You can still have a nice vacation and not spend more than you would by traveling any other way,” says Franklin, whose father, Robert, started Winnebago Motor Homes in 1967. “From the time you leave till the time you get back, you have everything you need right there in the RV.”
Even when he and his brother, Don, joined their father’s business in 1970, the price of gas was an issue. “We’ve gone through gas rationing and high prices, but people now are starting to get accustomed to higher fuel costs,” he says. “The RV business is coming back stronger each year.”
Today’s new RVs start out at about $50,000 and can get to $350,000 with all the bells and whistles. “Retirees might get into that price level, but most people can find something in the $75,000 to $100,000 range and feel very comfortable,” Franklin says. All units offer a variety of floor plans and options.
Customers these days are finding RV retailers via the Internet. “It’s huge,” Franklin says. “We get calls every day from people all over the United States. If we have what they’re looking for in stock, they think nothing of jumping on an airplane and coming to Rockford to pick up their new RV. The Internet has really opened up sales.”
Winnebago Motor Homes sells both Winnebago and Itasca models. One of the more luxurious options is a 42-foot Itasca Ellipse, with its solid-cherry wood interior, fireplace, leather sectional sofa, Euro recliner, king-sized Sleep Number bed, porcelain tile flooring, two bathrooms and three large LCD flat-screen TVs, one embedded into an exterior wall for outdoor viewing around the campfire.
Sunny Island sells a new line called Roadtrek, a van-like vehicle that has similar features to a more luxurious RV, but is priced more from $80,000 to $120,000. This vehicle, Tegner says, is drawing attention from seniors interested in long-distance trips.
Sunny Island also offers everything from Dutchmen, Aerolite and Denali trailers to a new line called Camplite, an aluminum lightweight trailer that sells from $18,000 to $23,000. The Camplite runs from 11 to 21 feet long, and weighs between 1,800 to 3,250 pounds.
Growing up, Tim Webb of Canastota, N.Y, a small town outside of Syracuse, was introduced to RVs by his father, who converted an old bread truck into a camper – one they took to Florida on three separate occasions.
A former competitive softball player who retired due to recurring knee injuries, Webb needed an RV camper to tool around the country chasing his new hobby, mountain bike racing. “I did a race in a small California town where the altitude was 10,000 feet,” says the small-business owner. “There weren’t really any hotels around. Camping seemed the way to go.”
Looking for something lightweight that he could pull around, Webb found the perfect model at Sunny Island. Earlier this summer, he drove to Rockford to buy a new Camplite aluminum trailer. The vehicle sleeps three, and includes a kitchen area, shower and flat-screen television. “I really like traveling with a kitchen, bunk bed and a shower behind me,” he says.
Webb loves his trailer so much that he’s already traded it back in to Sunny Island, replacing it with a 21-foot version. “More of my extended family is traveling with me, so it’s nice to have room for everyone,” he says.
From entertainment systems to external features, RVs offer all the comforts of home.
“Many of the changes we’re seeing are external,” Tegner says. “There are electric power jacks that crank the trailer up and down with a push of a button. That same remote control is tied to electric awnings. There are outside entertainment centers. It’s always neat to see what they come up with next.”
The digital TVs have opened up the entertainment arena. “You can put a flat-screen almost anywhere now,” Franklin says. “A 50-pound TV now weighs eight pounds. With satellite dishes, you have much better reception.
“The industry has made some big strides in terms of how to build them and add to the comfort. Modifications to the living room, bedroom and kitchen slide-outs have been huge. If you had a 24-foot unit and no slide-out, it was a relatively small space. With a push of a button, an eight-foot-wide camper can easily become a 12- to 13-foot-wide space. It makes it a much more livable space.”
It’s important to do your homework before beginning the shopping process. Franklin recommends reviewing different floor plans that fit your needs and lifestyle. Be ready to discuss your preference and budget before walking into a dealership.
Tegner suggests starting with a smaller vehicle. “You want to find a vehicle that you’re really going to be comfortable in,” he says. “Consider looking at the pre-owned market. You don’t have to get something new. You can pick out something that has been cared for, and you don’t have to break the bank. I’ve seen 20-year-old vehicles that are still sparkling. Storing RVs indoors is important. Keeping them washed, cleaned and maintaining the roof is vital. The life of your RV starts with your roof and sidewalls.”
Retailers offer plenty of assistance to first-time RV owners before they get ready to hit the road.
At Winnebago Motor Homes, new owners are encouraged to spend the first night with their RV in the store’s parking lot, so they can become familiar with their new purchase. Staff is available the following morning to answer any questions.
The same support is available at Sunny Island. “We don’t just hand them the keys and say, ‘See you later,’” says Tegner. “If you do have a problem down the road, you’ll be able to tell us exactly what’s wrong. We want to send you out of here with the best knowledge possible.”
When a customer becomes a proud owner, the possibilities are endless. Once-novice RVers, the Watnes now belong to the Winnebago Itasca Travelers club, a group open to anyone who owns a Winnebago Industries motor home. The 14,000 members receive special benefits, gather for monthly meals, and travel together during special caravans and rallies.
For 46 years, Barb has kept a journal chronicling their many RV adventures. The most enjoyable aspect of owning an RV, she says, is the friendships formed with other like-minded travelers.
“In all these years, we have yet to meet an unfriendly RVer,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if they own a pop-up trailer or a $2 million RV, they’re people who like to get out and have fun. There’s a bond between us that’s hard to describe. There’s nothing like owning an RV.” ❚