As millennials take to roads, camping, RV industries pivot toward adventurous comfort

Jan 26, 2018
  • By Eli Francovich
  • The Spokesman Review (Spokane, Wash.)

They don’t look like RVers. Jesse Coffman and Susie Coffman are young. No gray hairs. And not retired. Jesse is 29. Susie, 25. The couple recently moved from Texas to Lewiston, Wash. 

But on a recent Thursday, they were on the hunt for an RV at the Inland Northwest RV Show and Sale.  

“It’s important for us to travel and see the world,” Jesse said.  

“But comfortably, too,” Susie said.  

It’s these values — expressed by younger buyers like the Coffmans — that the RV and camping industries are increasingly pivoting toward. Younger Americans are hitting the road in search of adventure but still desiring the comforts of home. RV manufactures and campgrounds have complied, adding fancier gadgets and more luxurious quarters.  

“We just finished up our sixth record year in a row of both camper night and revenue growth,” said Mike Gast, vice president of communications for Kampgrounds of America.  

Eighty percent of the roughly 1 million families that spent a night at a KOA last year came in an RV, Gast said. Those who still sleep in a tent expect more comfort and more amenities.  

“Whatever level of comfort the camper is after, and (if there) proves to be a market, we’ll try and provide it to them,” Gast said.  

RV dealers and manufactures have pivoted toward the younger, weekend warrior demographic by creating lighter, cheaper RVs and campers.  

Jackie Butler, a saleswoman for nüCamp, was at the RV show. She stood in front of a tear-shaped camper trailer that weighted just more than 1,000 pounds.  

“I can’t even say there is a (customer) demographic anymore,” she said. “It’s just the minimalist lifestyle.”  

The smaller campers have “everything you need to go camping,” she said.  

The carpet is designed to get wet. In fact, it’s modeled after the carpets yachts have. The windows are made of durable plastic.  

“It’s made for people who are really going to do something,” she said.  

Lighter RVs can be towed behind normal vehicles, removing the need for “huge F-250 trucks,” Gast said.  

The marketing materials for nüCamp and others draw heavily on depictions of adventurous independence while simultaneously peddling comfort. A glossy nüCamp pamphlet handed out by Butler featured Henry David Thoreau quotes alongside pictures of gleaming bathrooms, queen-size beds and wall-mounted televisions.  

“It really has opened up the lifestyle to a completely new demographic of young families,” Gast said.  

Nationally, the demographic of RV users is getting younger, said Kevin Broom a spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. According to a 2016 demographic survey, the average RV owner was 45, Broom said. For decades that number stayed locked at 49.  

“RVers have been evolving into a much more active lifestyle over the last decade, decade and a half,” he said. “So, it’s changing recreation in the sense that people who are RVers, they want to get out there and enjoy their toys but they also want to see the sights, they want to take the hikes.”  

Since 2010, shipments and sales of RVs have grown every year, Broom said. In 2016, 430,691 RVs sold, representing a 15 percent increase from 2015.  

Gast, the KOA spokesman, said attendance at the more than 500 KOA locations in North America has also grown each year.  

At the same time that RV ownership and use have grown, tent camping has fallen, according to one survey. Tent camping participation fell 9.6 percent while RV camping rose 8.9 percent, according to a 2017 outdoor participation survey paid for the Outdoor Foundation.  

According to the 2017 North American Camping report, sponsored by KOA, more people camped, in tents and in RVs, than ever before.  

“I can tell you for our industry, commercial camping, it’s never been better,” Gast said. “We’re on track again for another record performance. It just keeps growing.”  

Brent Williams, 42, bought a camper van in his early 20s. Ever since, his family has traveled the region and country on weekends and extended vacations.  

“It’s nice to have that home base, that base camp that you take wherever you want,” he said. “We take it to whatever area we want to explore.”  

Williams has two children, a 22-year-old and a 4-year-old. With a younger child, he said, they’re staying in RV resorts and KOAs more often. He’s noticed, and appreciated, the increased amenities and comforts. Pancake breakfasts in the morning. Wine tasting for the adults at night. Hot meals, swimming pools and premade fires.  

“At the end of the day, especially when you have those little kids, it’s awful nice to come back to a KOA and have dinner waiting for you at a BBQ,” Gast said.