The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many people’s lives and businesses’ circumstances, mostly for the negative. In the RV world though, the pandemic pushed the industry to a new height, and some local businesses have experienced this good fortune as well.
Dave and Leslie Cochran are the new owners of the Four Seasons RV Acres business east of Abilene. Their inventory has been affected by the national shortages, but as their products have become more available, their sales have increased. The increase though is just a sample of what is being seen nationally.
“The supply chain has been what’s keeping us from probably completely blowing everything out of the water from a growth standpoint,” Dave Cochran said.
“RV sales were on a climb anyways,” Leslie Cochran said. “So in 2017, [the industry] had the biggest year in RV sales ever. So there was an increase happening already. I think everything with COVID spurred that on.”
According to a historical data chart by the RV Industry Association, the 2017 record is around 504,600 RV units sold. Since 2016, industry sales have been over 400,000. That trend looks to continue in 2021, with the association predicting around 577,200 units will be sold. Before 2016, the previous record for sales was back in 2006 with just under 390,500.
Over the last few years, Dickinson County and beyond has seen a rise in RV parks as well. David Riley, owner of the Chapman Creek RV Park, said since he opened his park six years ago, four other parks have opened. One of those is in Abilene, the 24/7 Travel Store’s Flatland RV Park which opened June 1 this year. Natalie Dick, general manager for the 24/7, said this is the first RV Park the company has opened.
“We’ve always catered to RVs in all of our stores,” Dick said. “We have 10 stores state-wide. Most of them have dump and water [hook-ups]. We’ve had that extra land back there, so it seemed like a good fit and a good time to dip our toes in that.”
The local RV parks have been successful too. Kelly McKenzie, owner of Walt’s Four Seasons RV Park, said the park has had a great year this year and in 2020. She said the campground has been staying around 80% capacity, even during the lockdowns in 2020. McKenzie explained that, from her perspective, the increase of RV sales has translated to new campers coming to her park.
Riley saw an increase of visitors staying overnight during the summer of 2020. Ever since the west bound exit ramp for exit 286 closed for construction on the bridge though, his business has seen less overnight visitors than usual. His extended customers, he said, have stayed essentially the same throughout the pandemic.
Dick said the number of RV’s she sees stop at her store has increased since the pandemic started.
“I’m here, day-in and day-out, and I see them at the pumps constantly,” Dick said. “Even all throughout the winter, though not as many.”
Each owner has their own explanation as to why the RV industry has thrived throughout the pandemic. Dave and Leslie Cochran have a few. First is the improvement of the quality of RVs is one reason.
“An RV used to be a really plain simple piece of equipment. Now, it’s got automatic leveling jacks. I can digitally control it from wherever I am, I can keep track of the air conditioning, know the temperature inside,” Dave Chochran said. “The RV has greatly increased in inserting technology.”
This increase of technology in RVs, Dave Cochran said, has “leapfrogged” over the past few years. A second reason is RVs are more able to boondock, setting up in the wilderness without having to stay at an RV park.
“I can fill up with water. I got solar. I got a generator,” Dave Cochran said. “Solar is huge. Manufacturers are starting to make it standard on a tremendous number of units. Not all, but a tremendous number of units. Customers are expanding on that making it even bigger, depending on what they want to do.”
A third reason is that younger generations are camping more often than previously.
“Historically, it’s been pretty much 50+ years old individuals or those who are retired who start to camp. We are seeing that younger millennial camping,” Leslie Cochran said. “They are really liking that interaction with nature. They pretty much like a simpler camper, more of a bumper pull they can pull with their cars.”
For the campground owners, McKenzie and Riley both saw people wanting to get out of their homes, especially during the COVID lockdown.
“A lot of people live in their RV. They can travel in their RV unlike staying at a hotel. So people continue to move,” McKenzie said. “You can work from your RV. If you can work from home, you can work from an RV, whether it’s parked in Abilene, Kansas, or parked in Montana.”
“By the summer when people were stir-crazy for stuff to do because they couldn’t get out and fly and do that stuff. I actually think that summer was better for us,” Riley said. “For our extended stays, right out the get-go, people were scared because they didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
Dave and Leslie Chochran said this trend of RV use doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Some in the RV industry thought that there would be a larger amount of used RV’s for sale since so many people bought them in 2020, the Cochran’s explained.
“It’s absolutely not the case,” Dave Cochran said. “It’s extremely hard to find a used RV right now. As a dealer, we used to be able to buy all we wanted, but now it’s much harder.”