By most metrics, the RV industry is on the rise. Since taking a hit during the financial crisis of 2008, RV manufacturers have seen sales increase and experts expect the industry as a whole to be worth about $75 billion by 2025. Those numbers are no doubt comforting to the three biggest companies in North America: Thor Industries, Forest River, and Winnebago. Love campers and trailers? Come join our new community group.
But change is afoot. If the RV industry wants to survive whatever economic twists and turns emerge over the next decade, they need to pay attention to one major group: millennials.
New data shows that millennials make up the largest group of campers at 41 percent and that share of the market is growing. By 2025, the number of consumers between the ages of 30 and 45 will total 72 million people.
The importance of millennial campers was the focus of this year’s newly revamped trade show, RVX. In his keynote speech, RV Industry Association (RVIA) President Frank Hugelmeyer said that more than 40 million people are potential RV owners, and he questioned whether the industry was doing enough to get new customers.
“The RV industry talks to all consumers in the same way,” Hugelmeyer said. “But the next generation of buyers are different,” Airstream President and CEO Bob Wheeler tells Curbed. “[For millennials] it’s not about the stuff you collect, it’s about experiences, travel, and who you meet.”
Bob Martin, CEO of Thor Industries, told Curbed that the company is seeing the age of consumers coming down drastically across its 17 brands. Thor isn’t selling strongly with millennials yet, Martin reported, but he believes that will happen over the next five years.
Wheeler sums it up well: “Innovate or die. Brands like Airstream could become irrelevant.”
While I doubt that Airstream will become irrelevant anytime soon, Wheeler, Martin, and Hugelmeyer all make the same point: Embrace millennials or risk obsolescence. But while these execs have all identified the same problem, none of them are millennials. So what do millennials actually want from the RV industry? This RV-owning millennial breaks it down.
Start with better design
Head to an RV sales lot and you’ll notice the same thing: A sea of identical RVs. From the boring exterior graphics to the mundane beige that afflicts most interiors, the RV industry has struggled to adopt modern design trends. It’s not just about getting rid of the dated swooping graphics—although I can’t stand the swoops—it’s about approaching RVs like how we approach design and building more generally.
RVs should be well built (more on that later), functional, and pleasant to look at. Some would argue that good design is as little design as possible. In most travel trailers, fifth wheels, and Class As, the RV industry has just added more—more slide-outs, more TVs, more of all the things they think will sell.
But millennials don’t want more. We want the iPhone of RVs: Elegant, user-oriented, and innovative, with clean lines and sleek surfaces that don’t have to be hidden behind swoops.
RV industry data has long shown that older consumers between the ages of 55 and 75 like more traditional, large RVs, while younger consumers favor smaller trailers. But there are signs that in the future, smaller trailers and campers will reign supreme. Campers like the Happier Camper, the Air Opus, and the Barefoot Caravan have garnered a ton of attention in the U.S., and some older RVers are ditching large Class As and Class Cs in favor of the maneuverability of smaller campers.
Millennials in particular are eager for smaller models, a trend confirmed by Airstream’s Bob Wheeler and Thor’s Bob Martin. Compact campers provide all the essentials in a small and affordable package, and lightweight models often don’t need an additional tow vehicle to pull them. Trailers like Taxa Outdoor’s Mantis check all the boxes: lightweight, can sleep a family, and fit in a standard garage. And bigger companies like Airstream are paying attention; Wheeler confirmed that for Airstream, “small is the new big,” and customers can expect more models trending down in size and weight.
Embrace van life
Along with the “think smaller” mantra, RV manufacturers need to embrace van life. While still a small sector of the RV industry, camper vans are a growing trend that’s here to stay. Packed with amenities and with more functionality than the stuffy motorhomes of yesterday, Class B vans are easy to park, get better gas mileage than many other RVs, and can easily tow small boats or toy haulers.
They’re also loved by millennials, and not just because of Instagram. We’ve reported on pricey custom camper vans that can go off-grid for days, affordable Boho-themed vans with style to spare, and DIY vans that cost just $18,000. The van craze is real.
To be fair, the big manufacturers know this. Winnebago’s Revel camper van is selling so well they just released a new Class B, adventure-minded model called the Boldt, while Thor Motor Coach debuted a new concept camper van at RVX. You can also expect a new focus on four-wheel drive in the future. But manufacturers need to go further, investing in camper vans both big and small.
Rethink the bathroom
There will always be a debate over whether or not you need a bathroom—read: full toilet and permanent shower—in your camper. I don’t have a full bathroom in my custom conversion van, and I don’t miss it. But there are plenty of alternatives beyond taking up a massive amount of room for something you don’t use all that often.
Rethinking the bathroom doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of it; it means paying attention to function. At the new RV trade show this past spring, SylvanSport debuted a revolutionary hard-sided trailer that features a patented all-season, indoor-outdoor sliding kitchen. And while outdoor kitchens are nothing new, this one slides out from the shower area for a brilliant use of space. We’ve also seen innovative showers in camper vans and bathrooms that do double duty as gear storage. The options are endless—RV manufacturers just need to step up.
Focus on quality
If there’s one negative association people have with the RV industry, it’s that manufacturers don’t build for quality (stay tuned, we have a feature on this issue in the works). Some companies use top-notch materials, while others use thin-grade aluminum, sub-par laminate and woods, and spot welds. And because of the high number of RVs rolling off the production line, it’s rare for every single RV to be checked for quality before leaving for the dealer—in some cases only 20 percent of campers are being inspected.
Want to impress the next generation of RV buyers? Don’t skimp on quality.
Look to Europe
It’s a common lament in the Curbed RV and camper community group on Facebook that Europe “has all of the cool campers.” And it’s true, there are a plethora of innovative, interesting, and downright cool campers in Europe. What’s interesting is that CEOs here in the U.S. know this, too.
Bob Wheeler from Airstream admitted that “Europe is about 15 years ahead of us in terms of design.” He blames market forces, saying that companies need to take more risks and think creatively about what consumers want.
Airstream’s parent company, Thor Industries, is hoping to use their recent acquisition of European RV-maker Erwin Hymer Group to help boost innovation in the states. Although Thor won’t ship products from Europe, they will look overseas for “R&D and to give us an edge,” says Bob Martin.
European ideas can help push the American RV market to innovate. Recently, North American-based NüCamp RV announced that it will start manufacturing the popular, retro-inspired Barefoot Caravan in the U.S. We need more of this.
Use technology well
Likewise, technology is integral to the future of campers and RVs. But while some want to throw as much geeky tech into an RV as possible, millennials know it’s more about the true functionality of the technology than the mere fact that it exists.
Throw out the giant TVs and instead focus on how technology can improve an RV owner’s experience. App-controlled smart trailers and new RV apps are a start, but manufacturers shouldn’t sleep on smart appliances, high-end batteries for off-the-grid travel, and autonomous driving technology. And in a world where remote work is more prevalent than ever, integrated high-speed internet connection is essential.
Beyond tech for personal use, real innovations in RV technology should be oriented toward making campers more eco-friendly. The irony of enjoying the outdoors by pulling heavy, poorly-constructed trailers with gas-guzzling trucks is not lost on younger generations.
Millennials want electric-powered campers that emit zero emissions, better solar-power systems, electric camper vans, and lightweight campers that can be towed by electric cars. Give us hybrid RVs, eco-friendly materials, and ways to charge electric bikes from our campers.
A love for the outdoors unites most RVers, no matter their age. Manufacturers should capitalize on this commonality and commit to eco-friendly construction and products.
Families are the future
Camping and RVing have always been family-oriented activities. It’s an easy way to vacation, travel, and adventure with multiple generations. But sometimes manufacturers forget that millennials have families too—54 percent of millennials camp with their kids, and 63 percent of millennial parents who camp do so more than seven nights per year.
This means that instead of waiting for millennials to buy giant Class A RVs, manufacturers need to start incorporating all of the other pieces of advice listed—like smaller, green RVs—and build them for families, too. The Winnebago Revel is a fun camper van, but it can only sleep two. The adventure-minded Airstream Basecamp also only sleeps two. Small campers don’t have to just be for couples.
Big manufacturers need to innovate to fit families into compact, more maneuverable campers if they want to truly capture the millennial market.
Provide more gear storage
The phrase that millennials are “all about experiences” is cliché at this point, but it does carry an element of truth. Instead of assuming this just means millennials are on Instagram all the time, RV manufacturers need to think about how this influences RV design.
The number one way manufacturers can take advantage of the younger generation’s focus on experiences is this: Build campers with gear storage.
For me, my camper is not just a mobile home that goes from RV parking lot to parking lot. I explore off-the-grid, and I use bikes, kayaks, SUPs, skis, snowboards, and climbing gear to do it. But an alarming number of RVs have no place to put bikes for a family, much less larger items. I believe this is why van life is so appealing to younger generations; even though vans are smaller than other types of RVs, they often have more room to store bikes, skis, and even snowmobiles.
For millennials, RVs are the means by which we adventure. If you build it, we will come.