It was an emblematic early scene of the Great Recession five years ago: the economic devastation wrought in northern Indiana, proud home of America's recreational-vehicle industry, where a major swoon in the business was slapping RV makers and stripping jobs because Americans didn't have the funds for fun anymore.
Fast forward (or at least as much as you can accelerate in a lumbering RV) to a much brighter scene that unfolded in Louisville last week, where the RV industry was showing off its wares for the annual show of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.
Brands such as Thor Industries and Winnebago were showing off their newest wheels as the business was celebrating the fact that RV sales are expected to improve by 11 percent this year over 2012, to more than 316,000 this year, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. This is the fifth consecutive year of recovering sales for the industry after the 2008 low. The trade group expects another 6 percent gain next year.
“RV shipments are growing,” RVIA President Richard Coon told Forbes.com. “Consumer confidence is growing, credit is available, and RVs are visible, popular and even cool. This is a good time to be in the RV business.""
And while car sales are expected to balloon to close to 16 million in the US this year, RV makers are happy to be in their own recovery mode with machines that can cost well into six figures.
Thor, for instance, sells a 39-foot model that costs well over $150,000, sleeps eight, and has a garage on the back, according to Businessweek. Such high-end machines largely have been driving the boom recently, with sales of motorized RVs on pace to increase by 35 percent this year and by another 10 percent next year.
But old-fashioned "towable" RVs also are upgrading to attract the modern buyer who's much more interested in amenities than in roughing it. For example, the $20,000 Palamino Puma Unleashed Toy Hauler tow-behind opens up to a big ramp in the back and offers hydraulics that lift its two queen-sized beds to the ceiling so the vehicle can accommodate cargo such as a couple of Harley-Davidsons underneath.
A nice outside feature is a water nozzle for spraying off such "toys", an outdoor shower and a 15-gallon fueling station. Inside, the vehicle offers a microwave, a freezer and a digital audio system with built-in speakers that can integrate everything from an iPod to Bluetooth.
Another factor may be subtle at this point, but also helping ensure a brighter near-term future for the RV business: moderating gasoline prices and increasing domestic supplies. As some of the most vulnerable Americans to gas-price increases that can disrupt their avocation, RV owners may be gaining a greater sense of "energy security" these days as US oil and natural-gas supplies burgeon, lessening pressure on global pricing as well.
It's the kind of feeling that can help RV owners sleep better at night, on the road, in their five-miles-a-gallon, $100,000 rigs.