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RV sales in Florida not as bad as you might think

Category: RV
Source: Orlando Sentinel
Publish Date: Thursday, December 25, 2008
Summary: It helps that Florida is a year-round RV market. Even more helpful has been a drop in age of the average owner.

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RV sales in Florida not as bad as you might think

Down nationally but Florida market coming back

Steven Cole Smith

Sentinel Automotive Editor

December 25, 2008


With row after row of unsold recreational vehicles in stock, you might think that Dennis Charron, general manager of Giant Recreation World, would be worried.

He is concerned -- but only a little bit. Sales of RVs, down nationally 27 percent this year, have been better than that in Florida, traditionally the nation's No. 2 RV market behind California, he said.

"Gas prices really didn't hurt us," Charron said. "The financing crunch slowed us up a little. But it's coming back around for us. It's still a cheap way to travel."

Charron's father opened the dealership 32 years ago, and in the 20 years he has worked at it, Charron has seen a lot of changes in the industry.

It helps that Florida is a year-round RV market. Even more helpful has been a drop in age of the average owner.

"This used to be a seasonal business," Charron said. "When the snowbirds hit, we did a lot more. But in the last five or six years, the area market has really opened up. And one of the biggest changes is that younger people are getting into RVing."

Charron said in the past the average age of his customers was mid- to late 50s, but now it has dropped to the mid-40s.

That said, it still isn't easy to find buyers willing and able to shell out $300,000 for the 45-foot motor home that Charron has in his inside showroom.

The massive Sportcoach, built on a Freightliner chassis with a 500-horsepower Cummins diesel engine, has a built-in washer and dryer, king-size bed, side- and rear-vision cameras, two LCD televisions and three air conditioners.

Charron takes solace in the fact that the RV market also includes $4,000 pop-up towable campers, and everything in between.

The Virginia-based Recreational Vehicle Industry Association says that RV sales dropped 9.7 percent in 2007, after five straight years of growth. And while shipments of all RVs totaled 353,400 in 2007, down from 390,500 in 2006, it was still the fourth-best year in the past 30 years.

When the numbers are in for 2008, says RVIA director of media relations Kevin Broom, it will be significantly worse than 2007, but there is still reason for optimism. "Our analysts believe that we'll start to see things turn around in the last half of 2009," he said.

Broom and Charron agree that fuel prices have little to do with RV sales.

"Fuel prices don't push the market," Charron said. "That's a major misconception. You've got to understand -- the guy who's buying a diesel might be spending $100,000, $200,000 or more on the vehicle."

So even if fuel goes up a dramatically, it doesn't affect the RV owner that much.

"Our customers can adjust to fuel prices," Broom added. "Instead of taking a thousand-mile trip, they take a hundred-mile trip."

Still, as has been the case with automobiles, financing can be a challenge. Fifteen-year loans on bigger RVs are not unusual, and 20-year loans are not unheard of.

At least one manufacturer has begun financing its own products, and bank financing "is starting to loosen up a bit," Charron said.

Plenty of people, Charron added, still prefer RV life to traveling from hotel to hotel.

"The nice part of having an RV is that we can hook up anytime and go," he said.

Charron's company also has a rental fleet of about 20 motor homes, with the largest going for $225 a day, or $1,575 a week, "and we're almost all booked up," he said.

"This is still an affordable way to go," he said. "We're Americans. We're going to have our fun no matter what."

Charron said he is seeing some customers trading larger units in on smaller ones.

"We had quite a bit of that for a while, but we're seeing less of it," he said. "But even though some people are downsizing, they aren't getting out of it."

And there are those who continue to get bigger motor homes. Last week Charron delivered one to baseball star Ken Griffey Jr., who traded in his 23-foot motor home for a 38-footer.

It is a particularly popular size, especially for families -- prices start around $150,000, and Griffey added $15,000 in extras to his.

Griffey and his wife have three kids. "I asked him, 'Are you really going camping with the family in this?' And he said, 'Absolutely.' "

Minutes later Griffey called the dealership, asking for advice on some of the electrical equipment the motorhome has.

"He's camping right now!" Charron said.

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