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Fans of RVs Not Deterred by Fuel Prices

Category: RV News
Source: The Courier Journal
Publish Date: Sunday, December 2, 2007
Summary: Smaller campers prove popular at Louisville industry trade show.

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Keith Horton knows who is buying the Lil Traveler teardrop trailer.

"This is an over-40 love machine," the company's general manager said of the teeny trailer equipped with little more than a mattress and an outdoor kitchen.

"It has got to be good on gas mileage," Bowling Green resident Jamie Gregory, 26, said Wednesday as she peered inside the 960-pound, Amish-built teardrop at the Kentucky Exposition Center. "I have not outgrown tent camping yet, but this would be a nice step up."

While the RV industry still caters to the gray-haired crowd, niche products like the retro-style trailer were prominent among thousands of vehicles on display at the annual Recreation Vehicle Industry Association show in Louisville last week. (The trade show was not open to the public.)

Dealers touring the show could see top-of-the-line granite-tiled deluxe motorcoaches featuring DVD players on every bunk.

They could also check out the burgeoning toy hauler or sport utility category. Popular with motorsport fans in Southern California, these won't be found in your grandpa's driveway. Some, like the Weekend Warrior vehicles, come decorated in black leather. Others feature a giant studded dog collar motif splashed across the side of the vehicle.

Even as RV fans diversify, the theme remains the same. An RV lets you get away and still take your home with you.

An Airstream trailer fan, actor Matthew McConaughey, summed it up on a video shown across monitors at the Expo Center. McConaughey, who owns three of the silver capsules, declined Airstream President Bob Wheeler's invitation to speak at the show.

"You have a new back yard everywhere you go," McConaughey drawled, relaxing on the stoop of his Airstream. "Traveling in my Airstream is one of my favorite things."

Ever-rising gas prices are dampening RV purchases, but only a little, RVIA President Richard Coon said. In 2006, the RV industry posted a record $14.7 billion in revenue, after five years of rising sales, he added. This year, the Virginia-based trade association predicts that figure will slip only by about 5 percent.

"We sell happiness," said Fran Connors, a spokesman for the association.

The largest market for RV travel remains buyers age 49 and up, Coon said. Travel trailers and fifth-wheel campers priced between $15,000 and $45,000 rank among the most popular models. While some newer diesel-powered camper vans yield as much as 22 miles per gallon, most motor homes still average between 7 and 10 mpg, Coon said.

Banking on the trend toward continuing bigness, Ford Motor Co. unveiled its new motor-home chassis, upgraded from a towing capacity of 22,000 pounds to 26,000 pounds. The company sells the chassis to RV manufacturers, who attach their cabins.

As diesel fuel prices begin to rise, the automaker also expects growth in sales of powerful gasoline engines for RVs.

"It is a real anomaly," Ford spokesman Peter Syvertsen said. "People with disposable income are still out there and they are still buying big."

Among standard RV enthusiasts at the show were Arnold and Phyllis Rocco, of Osceola, Ind. Arnold, 68, and Phyllis, 67, have been camping in a Jayco travel trailer since 1987.

"People are still buying, but they are parking them at a campground for the summer," said Arnold Rocco, an organizer of the Jayco Jafari International Travel Club. "That will be the trend until they get used to the higher fuel prices."

One trend endures. In endless shades of tan and brown, durable shag carpet, wood veneer and plastic laminate finishes still dominate RV interiors.

Even the Amish-built trailers, which cost from $6,200 to $14,000, hew to that timeless motif.

Minister Joe Mullet assembles his trailers by hand using birch, white fiberglass and aluminum in Sugarcreek, Ohio. His wife, Ina, hand-sews the curtains from beige cotton duck.

Their craftsmanship passed a test by David Herlig. The RV-toilet manufacturer from South Bend, Ind., hefted himself onto the door of one of the Mullets' trailers and hung suspended for a few moments.

"If the frame doesn't flex when you hang on the door, you know it is well made," Herlig said.

The nearby Elite iCamp, which ranges in price from $14,500 to $16,500, did not fare as well, bending under Herlig's weight. The tiny white iCamp breaks away from the country camper look with its electric orange or sky-blue exterior trim and a sleek Danish-style interior with yellow or blue highlights.

Wired with iPod chargers, the 16-foot-long trailers are assembled in China. Expanding from the growing RV market in China, inventor and CenTech Specialty Vehicles Co. President Alan Wang brought iCamps to the show this year for the first time.

"China is a big country with many beautiful places," Wang, 45, said. "People there want to have RVs too."

Reporter Jere Downs can be reached at (502) 582-4669.

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