RVs beckon baby boomers despite fuel costs

Fuel costs aren't keeping baby boomers from fifth-wheeled retirement.

PERRY, Ga. -- At the nation's largest gathering of recreational vehicle enthusiasts, talk inevitably turns to the versatility of Velcro and the challenges of toilet maintenance.

One topic that isn't getting much focus — on the official program, anyway — is the meteoric rise in gas prices. Hard-core RVers, which include many of the 8,000 attendees at the four-day Rally 2008 that ended Monday at the Georgia National Fairgrounds here, will tell you an RV isn't just a vehicle. It's a lifestyle. And a little thing like $4-a-gallon gas isn't going to put the brakes on a way of life.

Fuel efficiency isn't a hot topic among the 300 vendors here, either. Over at the Born Free Motorcoach exhibit, for instance, the spec sheet inside a spanking new 32-foot $174,015 President model offers details on cabinet finish (cherry), toilet type (porcelain) and upholstery (leather) but is mum about what it costs to actually drive the thing.

"It's something that gets talked about enough without you pointin' it out," says sales manager Jerry Ehrhardt.

As if on cue, an elderly man in a brown polyester jumpsuit strolls up and asks, "What kinda mileage does this get?"

"Ten miles a gallon," Ehrhardt responds.

"Ouch," the man says and moves on.

"Would it make you feel better if I said 20?" Ehrhardt calls out after him.

Sales of RVs, which run the gamut from humble folding camping trailers to luxury motor homes, peaked at 400,000 in 2006. The industry attributes the subsequent drop in sales to 354,000 last year to the overall economic slump rather than rising fuel costs. But with the first wave of 79 million baby boomers poised for retirement, industry experts are betting that boom times are on the horizon.

The 1,000 or so factory-fresh rigs on display at the fairgrounds, with names such as Renegade, Conquest and Dynasty, speak to the notion that you can take it with you. Super-deluxe models can cost in the seven figures, and even more modest rigs (starting, say, in the $250,000 range) sport 42-inch-screen TVs, surround-sound systems and granite countertops.

"As baby boomers age, they clearly want more than their parents had," says Mike Schneider, president of Affinity, sponsor of the rally and owner of RV-related clubs and publications. "Their parents were do-it-yourselfers. They're the do-it-for-me generation."

They're people like Ken and Mona Bram of Chester, N.Y., who are ensconced inside their 45-foot Newmar Essex motor home over in Lot 5, Row 112, Space 30. She hates hotels (the germs). He hates airports (the hassles). They both love road tripping. So the 6.5 miles per gallon they get when towing their 6,500-pound Hummer on the open road isn't an issue. They paid about $400,000 in August for the used, low-mileage rig, which has antique-white cabinetry, creamy leather sofas, four flat-screen TVs, marble floors, tasseled window treatments and a king-size bed. ("We weren't going back to a queen," Ken declares.) The only thing it lacked was a satellite dish. They just bought one at the rally.

It's an elaborate set-up, all right, but hardly the top of the RV hierarchical heap.

"The guys who really stand out are the Prevosts," says Ken, 65. "I wouldn't be comfortable in one. They're too over the top for me."

"I would," says Mona, 46. "They're beautiful."

Prevost, a Canadian bus manufacturer, sells the shells for about $500,000; several U.S. companies customize the interiors. The cost can climb to "whatever your bank account allows," says Matt Martinez, a motor-home salesman from Knoxville, Tenn. The one he's showing (by appointment only) goes for a cool $1.6 million.

It's parked on a bed of Astroturf, and its chocolate, rust and gold-swirled exterior paint job glistens like a rich confection. Inside, the ceilings are mirrored. The floors are heated. There are hand-tiled backsplashes and a seated shower, two walk-in closets and a built-in pressure washer. Everything from the window shades to the sound system operates via remote control.

Sales of mid-priced RVs, which Martinez puts in the $200,000 range, have slowed, he says. But the market for top-end models such as Prevost remains strong. Martinez's dealership sells 20 to 25 a year.

Buyers "have made their money, and they're going to enjoy it," he says.

Behemoth motor homes dominate both in the exhibit area and on the fairground fields, where 3,500 RVs are parked side by side. American flags, pinwheels and placards that read "Hi" and "Somewhere it's 5 o'clock" lend a touch of individuality to a monotonous landscape. After all, as a T-shirt worn by one rally-goer proclaims, "Home is Where You Park It."

For Robb and Carole Isaacs of Springfield, Ill., home for seven-plus months of the year is a 38-foot "fifth wheel" trailer hauled by a 30,000-pound semi that guzzled about $20,000 in fuel last year. The couple is among a small subset of RVers who tow their rigs with commercial trucks that have been converted to RV status (doing so drastically lowers insurance rates, among other benefits). Their trailer has many of the comforts of home, including a remote-control fireplace. So does the semi cab, with its microwave, refrigerator and roomy bed tucked behind the driver's seat. Robb, 67, bought Carole, 69, a port-a-potty for Christmas. She plans to install lace curtains.

The rig gets 11 miles a gallon, about twice what the big motor homes get, and even at a mind-boggling $800 for a fill-up, Robb considers it an "economical way to travel."

Bob Livingston, publisher of Affinity's RV publications, takes that pronouncement a step further and declares RVs "champions of the environment."

"Do they get good mileage? No," he says. "But when is the last time you took a 6-gallon shower or flushed the toilet with a quart of water? Plus, you use less electricity than if you were at home."

In this sea of opulent rigs, Gloria Schmitten's existence in a pop-up tent trailer seems positively bohemian. The Youngsville, N.C., resident will become a citizen of the road — or "full-timer" in RV parlance — when she finalizes the sale of her house next month and moves permanently into the trailer. In doing so, she'll join an estimated 400,000 modern nomads whose primary residence is their RV, according to Recreation Vehicle Industry Association estimates.

"It may last three months or three years or forever," says Schmitten, 61. "I'm doing this because I can."

While Schmitten plans to move between national parks and other wilderness areas, many longtime RVers are flocking to purpose-built luxury resorts. Though Livingston once sought out backcountry areas, he says the social aspects of the RV lifestyle now supersede merely being in the great outdoors. These days he's more likely to steer his rig toward an RV resort in a spot such as Palm Springs, Calif.

"It used to be hamburgers and beer. Now it's ahi and fine wine," he says.

Indeed, RVers are a social bunch, judging from those at the rally, anyway. There's an enthusiastic turnout for the morning "singles mingle" sessions. Saturday's dog show costume contest (theme: Southern Culture) brings a parade of canines in Gone With the Wind getups. An attempt to capture the world's record for Most Couples Dancing propels 2,356 attendees into the fairground's arena. Afterward, a ballroom dance competition awards three winning couples.

The prize: a $50 gift certificate for gas. It's something any RVer would treasure.

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