Opinion: The RV industry death spiral – Part 1

Two weeks from today, I will be stunned if I have any subscribers or advertisers left on RV Daily Report. I’m adopting the old adage, “If I haven’t offended you already, take a seat. I’ll get to you soon.”

After covering the industry for 15 years as a journalist, one of the best career moves I ever made was to actually purchase a product produced by the RV industry and hit the road using it. I started observing how the industry works from the eyes of a consumer. It hasn’t been pretty.

I have come to realize the RV industry is in a death spiral.

The current business model is simply unsustainable and the professionals working in the industry either:

  • Know what’s going on, are in denial, and remain hopeful the problems will simply fix themselves.
  • Don’t want to know what’s going on and keep their heads firmly planted in the sand ignoring many very obvious signs.
  • Are aware of the problem, know it won’t end well, but are simply choosing to ride the wave as long as they can.

Every other day for the next two weeks, I’ll publish another opinion column targeting a specific segment of the industry and explain how that segment is contributing to the eventual demise of the entire industry. I’ll look at:

  • RV manufacturers
  • RV dealers
  • RV suppliers
  • RV wholesalers
  • RV parks and campgrounds
  • RV associations
  • RV owners
  • RV media

Consumers are frustrated beyond words over product quality and customer service. Every single day I hear about another issue involving a new or experienced RVer. RV owners are seething over the finger-pointing response they receive when attempting to get problems addressed.

Yet, industry professionals are fired up to see 400,000 RV deliveries to dealers this year – the most we’ve seen in a very long time. The twinkles in their eyes suggest they believe the industry can break the 500,000 mark. One person recently suggested we could see 600,000 RV deliveries in one year.

Riiiiight!  Under the industry’s current infrastructure, there is not a snowball’s chance in July that will EVER come true. Unless something is done now, the industry has less than 20 years of viability remaining. Every year it delays addressing these issues further accelerates its pending demise.

It is as though everyone is having a great time at the wild and crazy all-industry party while delicately ignoring the dinosaurs in the room.  I say dinosaurs because the problems have been around longer than I have – yet few people seem willing to really address them.

The most telling point for me occurred during this year’s RV Industry Power Breakfast in May where the chairman of Thor Industries and the CEO of Forest River both admitted that the “customer experience” needed to be improved.

During the introduction it was noted the two firms control about 72 percent of the entire RV market. With Thor’s acquisition of Jayco last Friday, that number is now up to 83 percent. If the two leaders of 83 percent of the RV market realize a problem exists with RV owners, then maybe a problem really exists.  But, will anything of consequence be done to address it?

According to the RV Industry Association’s market data and trends, there are 9 million RV-owning households in America today.

Funny thing is that a 1997 report from Dr. Richard Curtain claimed there were nearly 9 million RV owning households. By 2001, that number dropped to 7 million. But, in 2011, Curtain claimed there were again 8.9 million RV-owning households – which he described as “the largest number of U.S. households ever recorded that owned an RV.”

So, there were 9 million RV owning households in 1997, and 9 million in 2011 and 9 million today. This despite the fact that, using RVIAs own shipment numbers, there were 5.7 million new RVs built between 1997 and 2015.

Yes, a whole bunch of RVers upgraded their units during that time, and some more than once. But the used RVs didn’t evaporate, did they? One would assume that people bought the previously owned RVs and added to the number of RV-owning households.

But, if there are just as many RV-owning households today as there were in 1997 — despite the flood of 5.7 million new RVs into the market during that time — then there were a heck of a lot of RVs junked in 18 years.

“Would you just shut up, Gerber! There’s nothing to see here. Move along.”

Oh, how I wish I could, but I’ve been too complacent for too long. Product quality and customer service was an issue when I first arrived on the scene in January 2000, and it’s an even bigger problem today despite the advent of technology designed to improve construction and service.

When the industry cheers the defeat of Lemon Law legislation, it conversely conveys the message to consumers that it is willing to tolerate imposing products that don’t work and can’t be fixed on unsuspecting buyers. Over the next few weeks, I will relay some real life experiences in hopes of educating people who can actually influence a solution.

As a full-time RVer I can see through the industry’s smoke and mirrors. The industry talks a good talk and markets the heck out of the lifestyle. But, it drops the ball big time when it comes to QSV — quality, service and value.

My goal in doing this series is to spark a desperately needed debate or at least a serious discussion. I’d be happy if professionals would engage in a 10-minute talk in some boardroom.

It is astounding how poorly connected the industry is to its consumers. Most RV industry professionals know at least one journalist covering the industry side of the business, but how many can name just one blogger?

Pick any three bloggers who have the ears of consumers and their combined audiences are likely larger than that of the Go RVing website – and the bloggers aren’t spending $16.5 million a year in advertising to get the traffic.

With the flurry of activity involving the ENTIRE RV industry including all the segments mentioned above, minus RV owners, it employs 289,852 people, according to the recently released RVs Move America Economic Report.

When compared to 9 million RV-owning households, people employed in the industry equate to just 3.2 percent of people who own RVs. This graphic puts it into perspective.

owners vs industry

How 9 million voices can fall on mostly deaf ears defies logic. But, it happens. RV consumer forums and Facebook groups are brimming with horror stories about poor products and poor experiences. And it doesn’t just impact average everyday RV owners from Main Street USA.

Highly influential people in the RV industry have abandoned the lifestyle after the very expensive products they purchased failed to deliver on expectations.

I would stake my career on the fact that of the 289,852 people employed in the RV industry, just 3.2 percent – 9,275 — of them actually own an RV. A bunch more may borrow an employer’s RV for a long weekend, but my guess is they have never had to experience the pain of getting an RV serviced or in making a campground reservation.

I’m about to put it all in perspective and I’m probably going to offend a bunch of people in the process, especially when I show how RV owners themselves actually contribute to the problem. But, in doing so, maybe, just maybe, some eyes will be opened.

Greg Gerber

Greg Gerber

A journalist who has covered the recreation vehicle industry since January 2000, Greg Gerber founded RV Daily Report on April Fool's Day in 2009. He also serves as the editor of the publication and website. As an Eagle Scout, he has enjoyed camping for decades and has visited every state except Hawaii. A DODO -- Dad of Daughters Only -- to three young women, he has two grandchildren as well. He currently splits his time between Wisconsin, Texas and Arizona. Greg can be reached at editor@rvdailyreport.com.

Leave a Comment

  • Mike O’Rourke says:

    I am a retired process engineer, worked in automotive manufacturing most of my life. I’ve been through the plant that builds Surveyor / Rpod campers and was amazed at how manual/Unstandard their camper assembly process was. As near as I can tell the quality control consists of inspecting units after assembly and then fixing the mistakes. The biggest problem I’ve seen is the increase in the number of campers sold has made the whole industry lax, seems like people are lined up to buy campers and the industry is more focused on moving product out the door than checking to see the product is meeting customers expectations. It will be interesting to see how the market shakes out the next time the economy cools.

  • Greg says:

    Great job in doing this much needed critique of the industry. I look forward to reading it.

    My wife and I are between trailers. We are close to retirement and, like many, are researching 5th wheels so we can travel. What I have found in our research is just appalling. We have decided to go with a 5 +/- yrs used unit that has weathered the break in period. This is so we know we have a working trailer. Even this theory isn’t the best. It’s seems like it’s a crap shoot.

    • Ryan says:

      We owned a brand new travel trailer made by Shadow Cruiser before we bought our current trailer. A 5th wheel Cougar XLite 27RKS, around 30′- 6″ in length and 1/2 ton pickup towable (tow it with a 2011 Ford F150 5 liter that is rated to tow 9,500 lbs. We purchased our current trailer in the summer of 2014 and it is a 2012 model and was in like new condition when we bought it. We bought it at Lloyd Bridges RV in Chelsea, Michigan not far from where trailers are manufactured in northern Indiana. We live in central Illinois not far from Decatur, IL but spend our winters from late October to late April in central Texas in the New Braunfels / San Marcos area. We bought our 2 year old trailer (two years old at the time of purchase) for $17, 900 plus tax and I’m thinking the MSRP for our trailer was around 35 to 36 thousand dollars (good deals are out there, you have to find them, be willing to barter like mad and walk away from a bad deal and sign on the dotted line quickly on a great deal). When you compare what condos, houses, or apartments charge per month in the area we are located, then the monthly rent we pay is extremely reasonable. Again, you gotta look around. We are not the type that want to travel all over and explore the USA, we’re quite happy living in central TX and avoiding the ice, snow, and cold that the folks in central Illinois have to endure. Yes our F150 Ford pulls our 5th wheeler just fine where we go, however it could be a little light in the Rockies, I really don’t know and we don’t travel to the Rockies anyway.

    • jessica says:

      We bought a 2004 fifth wheel in 2015. We spent a long time looking at new vs used. Basically what we came to was anything post 2008 model year, as it follows fiscal model year just like cars, are built half as well as the models that were built during the race to the top years 2000-2008.

      We bought it for half its value on a health sale, from original owner who used a total of 5 times per year. It was cared for meticulously. All we had yo do was improve it.

      We added second a AC, renoved the fridge, installed a residential freezer and replaced the fridge with a portable Whynter, replaced the heater using a older new model we picked up off ebay , new water heater, new prinary AC unit made in austrsila that had built in Heat Pump, byoassing all Heat Strip models, all new fixtures on the outside because its ten year old plastic amd plastic ages in any condition,

      The appliances didnt all need replacing, but we didnt want to wait being we bought it at ten year matk we could figure they would be going out sooner rather than later.

      we bought an agreed value policy on it from progressive because we bought it under 15yo for its retail value rather than what we paid, and since we bought a front living unit with a living room slide we were able to remodel the front living into a second bedroom, and remove the dinning area to make a game room .

      We installed a single basin commercial stainless sink, oh man that has been a super upgrade, a Dickinson Marine 3 burner oven and stove, got rid of the Atwood crappy rv drop in stove, so many upgrades. Bonus-it had 0 smart crap in it.

      Anything we have had to do to the coach, we have yet to find any indicators or poor craftsmanship.

      After the crash more corners got cut than ever before in all industries acriss the US including rv manufacturing, which tried to cut corners on things even before that, but it escalated to a whole new level, it has never returned to quality as they are now basking in the profit . There is no incentive to fo do.

      post 2008 corner cutting was done to stay afloat , after a while when it bounced back it became mode of massive profit so manufacturing found a new way to make more profit and i dont expect it will go back to their previous profit margin unless its forced.

      so 2000-2008 is the sweet spot in rv builds. new rvs are as i have read over and over enough to turn people off camping for life because its a huge investment with sometimes 0 return.

  • Robert Friendly says:

    Get a Professional Inspection including Leak Test. Dealers don’t care. It’s a Sucker’s game that the Customer never wins!

  • Mike says:

    I don’t really understand the why of the pie chart comparing RV Owners vs RV Industry Owners. I’m guessing the implication is those in the “RV Industry” are too smart to buy a crap product. May be so. I see it a bit differently. Go to a Porsche dealership where the average price of a new 911 is $100K. Take a survey of everyone who work at the dealership and you might find that few own nor can really afford that vehicle. There will also be those that can afford it but don’t want it.

    • AnRVsalesChick says:

      No, it’s because anyone involved in the RV industry works 60 hrs a week during peak season, and has no time to even enjoy the use of and RV. We work like slaves.

  • Jim Grant says:

    Interesting read. We owned a used Sunnybrook TT and never had an issue. It was a solid as a rock, great camping experience.

    Next trailer was a Forest River TT and it was terrible for the first 2 years. If not for our dealer we would have sold it at a great loss and moved on. Terrible quality just terrible.

    We now own a Northwood fifth wheel and after camping a few times in it we have found it to be of great quality. What will the future be like, I don’t know but it is starting out very well.

    One thing about RVing, you better be prepared to do a lot of maintenance work yourself or you’re going to be very disappointed. RVing is as much as hobby as it is a vacation or whatever. Just like any other vehicle they demand a lot of upkeep and the more you can do the better your experience will be.

  • H. Tatosian says:

    The US RV industry ketwill last until the Chinese , Japanese and Koreans see the potential in these products and enter the market. As long as there is terrorism in Europe and the rest of the world, there will be people willing to pay to vacation in the US in these flimsy-build RVs. All we need to do is look at the US automobile industry to see the negative impact of a US invasion by the Pacific rim countries!

  • S G Bock says:

    I find so many complaining of defects of their new rigs and that the older rigs built before about 2007 built much more solidly and without many defects at all. People buy RVs thinking it is a cool thing, or cheap way of living and both are not really true. It is a lot of fun, if you take it for what it is, a big extra for families when you take into account the price of the RV, the truck to sufficiently pull the trailer or the cost of a MH that is worth anything is going to about $250,000, those costing less, are paper thin walls and screws that fall out, chassis loose and so many other things falling apart. It is a costly hobby for sure. To spend that in golfing or skiing is rare. And we have not talked about no RVing with it, fuel and site costs, maintainence. Lots of rigs are just junked when people go to but a new one. I am glad that Thor is worried and wants to improve things because the complaints I see are mostly Thor owned companies which are many.

  • Bill says:

    I will following your upcoming articles closely. Count me.and my wife.amomg those who have horror stories concerning service.

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