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On an unseasonably warm Saturday morning for mid-March, Emily Michener sat down at a table inside a 21.5-foot Springdale comfort travel trailer that sleeps five.
Outside, her husband, Nick, received a walk-through tutorial from delivery coordinator Rich Matzen inside the showroom at US Adventure RV in Davenport.
The North Liberty couple's 3-year-old daughter, Lenyn, checked out the couple's newly purchased home away from home - bouncing on the queen bed, inspecting the two bunk beds, refrigerator, small stove, microwave, sink and dining table that converts to a foldout Murphy bed.
After spending most of last summer inside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first-time buyers pulled the trigger on investing in a $15,000 camper.
The couple has been skittish about staying in hotels and taking their daughter to kids' museums, playgrounds, water parks and other indoor amenities due to pandemic concerns.
'So we were just really kind of thinking the best thing to do was camping, and tent camping is really hard to do with a 3-year-old,” Emily Michener said. 'It was very much driven by COVID” and having a safer, more affordable travel option that provided opportunities for family outings and fishing trips with extended family who live nearby.
'Having a young kiddo and really just seeing that she was spending way too much time on technology, we just wanted her to be outside more” and appreciate nature, Emily Michener said. 'We were thinking of things that we could do that are COVID-friendly. And with a 3-year-old, there really wasn't much of anything.”
Largely because of buyers like the North Liberty couple, the recreational vehicle market has seen record sales in the time of coronavirus, providing the comfort of home with the benefits of the outdoors, with the less of the stress, worry and cost of booking a flight and hotel room amid the pandemic, said John Dresselhaus, president of US Adventure RV in Davenport.
'Business has been very brisk,” he said. 'It's been the best year in the history of the RV industry,” with a trend toward smaller, lighter-weight 'yet high-quality” types of campers and RVs.
'Families are just discovering it's a great way to spend quality time with each other traveling and exploring this magnificent country of ours ... and there's no better way to do that with your own schedule and in your own, safe environment,” Dresselhaus said. 'You don't have to book a plane. You don't have to rent a car. You don't have to stand in lines. You don't have to go to restaurants or book a hotel. You can control your own environment, your own diet and do it much more inexpensively.”
Nick Michener echoed the sentiment. He used the example of Door County, Wis., where the couple likes to travel.
'And you're looking per night something that might be two months worth of payments on an RV,” he said. 'And if you want to spent any amount of time up there, like a week up there, you're looking at spending, you know, a couple thousand dollars just to have a place to stay up there versus paying a nightly camp fee.
'You don't have to worry about who has been in the room before you or who you're going to run into,” he said. 'You take care of your own stuff and you're away from the general public and you have control of your environment.”
Jody Gorsh, of Iowa City, started Out2xplore, a trailer rental company in late 2019. His business model is selling and renting smaller pull-behind trailers and vans that can be used for camping, mountain biking or hiking trips. The challenge now has been getting enough inventory to meet the demand.
'If we could be capitalizing now, we'd be doing even better,” said Gorsh, who also owns Gorsh Electric.
Gorsh purchased four teardrop trailers last year and sold two right away. One went to a couple who was downsizing from a larger trailer and one to a recent college graduate who wanted to travel before starting a new job.
Despite offers from customers who wanted to buy the two other trailers, Gorsh kept them for rental. He also rents out a mini camper with a rooftop tent that sleeps five, a Sprinter van that sleeps two and a 15-passenger van equipped with 10 bike rails.
Distributors have limited inventory because of demand and because many manufacturing facilities have not run at full capacity during the pandemic. Gorsh is a new dealer and has to take what's left after distributors have served their longtime customers, he said.
Sun & Fun RV, in Tiffin, also has had challenges getting enough RVs for all the potential buyers.
'Sales took off in May last year and went nonstop until we ran out of inventory,” owner Chad Goedken said.
The company restocked somewhat over the winter, but RVs are again in demand as warmer weather arrives.
The recent soar in consumer interest in RVing driven by the pandemic has led to a marked increase in RV shipments.
For the month of February, RV manufacturers shipped more than 48,000 units, a 30 percent increase over the same month last year, making it the best February on record, due to strong demand from new customers, according to the RV Industry Association. And the industry remains on track to build more RVs in 2021 than in any previous year.
The industry anticipates a surge in RV shipments this year. The association estimates shipping more than 507,000 units in 2021, a 19.5 percent increase over record sales witnessed in 2020.
Many of those purchasing an RV, like the Micheners of North Liberty, are first-time buyers, said Doug Bahls, general manager at Camping World of Davenport.
Dealers estimate anywhere between 50 and 80 percent of buyers, depending on location, are first-time purchasers of RVs. Pre-pandemic, that number was between 25 and 35 percent of buyers.
In the first nine days of March alone, Camping World of Davenport sold 71 campers compared with 48 sold for the entire month of March 2020, with 39 sales made over just two Saturdays alone.
'There was a lot of uncertainty in March, April and May time frame last year, and once we hit summer people realized (the pandemic) wasn't going away any time soon,” Bahls said. 'And they were canceling or had their vacations - to Disney, to Mexico, whatever they did for vacation - and they took those funds and purchased RVs where they just can go out and be with their family and still be out of the house and be out in the open.”
In the fourth quarter of last year, Bahls estimated about 70 percent of the customers purchasing RVs were first-time buyers.
'And the people that purchased last year - the first-time campers - are already coming back in and realize they love the lifestyle and they're trading from a small travel trailer into larger travel trailers already,” Bahls said. 'Frankly, we pulled so many first-time RVers into the market that I think the word is just spreading that, ‘Hey, this isn't such a bad thing. We don't need to spend a bunch of money on a vacations. We can buy an RV and go on a mini-vacation every single weekend with our family.'”
Erin Jordan of The Gazette contributed to this report.