The vacation is over for the “vacation business” as people are again buying recreational vehicles, just in time for Labor Day for one last road trip.
“RVs are a discretionary item. You don’t have to have an RV,’’ said Jeff Englebart, co-owner of Lasso E RV of Anamosa. “Right now our sales are up. (Business) is improving and has gotten better each year, but it’s not where it was in the mid-2000s.”
Sales for the high-volume travel trailer sector edged up 2.1 percent in June, according to a Statistical Surveys study reported by RV Business.
“We’ve kind of bucked the (economic) trend here in Eastern Iowa. We’ve been able to run strong through it all. We’ve felt very fortunate,” said Gary Ketelsen, of Ketelsen RV in Hiawatha, now in its 50th year in business.
“Unemployment is lower (here). We are also in an area where core family values are still important.
In the Midwest, people still see the need for family get-togethers,” which RVs can provide, Ketelsen added.
TAKE OUT THE TV
RVs are one way for families to go camping, without having to rough it.
“A lot of peoples’ idea of camping is the Marriott — they want the comforts of home. People want to stay comfortable, but they still want to enjoy nature,” Englebart said.
Some do make comfort concessions.
“We’ve had some people request that we take the TVs out of units,” Englebart added.
Ketelsen RV sells the gamut of RVs, from pickup campers to motor homes. (The motor homes aren’t kept in stock but can be ordered.)
For $80,000, for example, there’s a fairly plush 39-by-8-foot fifth wheel, with a raised living room/den with sculpted wood trim, three TVs — including a 40-inch — an electric fireplace, two leather couches, storage, a king-sized bed, freezer-refrigerator, stove, microwave, a bathroom — plus five slide-out areas that can be expanded at the push of a button.
But the meat and potatoes of Ketelsen’s business are 27-foot travel trailers that sleep six adults and cost about $18,000 to $20,000.
Amenities include a regular bed, bunks, a full bath with tub-shower combination, microwave oven, refrigerator, TV, rollout canopies and air conditioning.
Contrast the price of the travel trailer with a pickup topper, designed to fit into the bed of a pickup truck. A basic topper is about $15,000, but extra features can shoot the price to $20,000 to $25,000. The pickup toppers come in only 6- , 8- , 10- and 11-foot sizes.
“You would get much more with the 27-foot travel trailer for less money,’’ Ketelsen said. “The cost difference is in the manufacturing.
“The travel trailers are popular and are mass produced, holding down costs. Pickup toppers are special ordered and built to specifications, which costs more than mass production,” he explained.
There’s also a $10,000 to $12,000, 15-foot travel trailer with homey features such as a shower.
Lasso E carries a full line of pickup campers, travel trailers, fifth wheels and motor homes. An entry-level travel trailer — at 16 to 17 feet, 3,500 pounds, fully equipped and self-contained — are the most affordable at $8,600 to $8,700, Engelbart said.
But most customers want something larger, so the bulk of Lasso E’s business is larger travel trailers in the $15,000 to $35,000 price range. An entry level fifth wheel is about $20,000.
Motor homes are a major investment. Base price for a “starter” motor home, a Ventana LE, is $205,000. A fully-loaded unit usually prices out at $230,000 to $240,000, though can run $400,000 with more extras.
Motor homes have air brakes and that requires some experience to operate. So Engelbart can spend a full day with a motor homebuyer doing a walk through.
Neither business rents RVs. Both offer full-service garage facilities.
Most recreational vehicles require a larger pickup or SUV to pull them. Ketelsen said the starting point with a customer is matching their towing vehicle with a proper-sized unit.
Along with a long list of amenities offered these days, one of the biggest changes in RVs is making them weigh less. A 33-foot unit now runs about 6,000 pounds, down from 9,000 pounds, allowing owners to use smaller towing vehicles.
The weight loss is attributed to using lighter, strong materials.
And Engelbart predicts technology will make future units even lighter.
“Using carbon fiber will be the next big leap — when it becomes more affordable. That will help with (tow vehicle) gas mileage,” he added.
Peak employment is 32 full and part-time.
FOR JUST A TASTE …
A smaller market exists for recreational vehicle rentals.
In fact, Tim Miller, who has run Eastern Iowa RV Rental out of his Cedar Rapids home for three years, has precisely three motor homes for rent.
One is 28-feet long, the other two are 35 feet. Model years range from 1999 to 2003.
Miller owns one of the motor homes and rents the other two for other owners.
The vehicles sleep four to six people and have “all the comforts of home — including pots and pans,” Miller said.
“People (who) don’t want to make a big cash commitment for a recreational vehicle or take out a long-term loan’’ come to him to rent, he said.
During the summer Miller requires a minimum three-day rental, but he has no minimum for off-season months. Daily rental is $285, which includes 100 miles of driving, plus $38 for each additional 100 miles.
The weekly rental fee is $1,600, and Miller will deliver a vehicle within 30 minutes of Cedar Rapids.