Recent data shows that the RV industry has made a significant comeback since nearly bottoming out after the 2008 housing crisis. Major RV manufacturers have faced such demand in recent years that filling orders have been challenging. However, keeping up production isn’t the only test facing RV manufacturers. Fueling the Fire of the RV boom is a new generation of travelers that differs greatly from previous generations: Millennials.
For decades, RVs have been marketed primarily to retirees or weekend campers with little in between. Millennials, however, buck the stereotypical RVer image. They’re young, connected, diverse, and tech-savvy. They seek experiences over material possessions, and some are looking to RVs as a lifestyle rather than a vacation or getaway.
So, who are Millennials? What sets them apart? Why are they drawn to camping? And what can the RV industry do to engage Millennials and encourage further RV sales? These are all important questions, the answers of which cannot be ignored if manufacturers intend to remain competitive and relevant within the rapidly expanding camping industry.
MILLENNIALS: THE GAME CHANGERS
Millennials are those people born from the early 80s to the late 90s, which means they can’t necessarily be classified by age demographics. Some are just starting out while others are already established with jobs, partners, and sometimes entire families. Because the generation spans such a significant age range, not every Millennial will want the same things in an RV.
Adding to the age disparity, there is also an increasing diversity among Millennials who are interested in camping. According to the KOA 2021 North American Camping Report, 60% of all first-time campers in 2020 were non-white. What used to be viewed as a retired white man’s choice of recreation is fast becoming an every-person’s choice of recreation. Further, many Millenials aren’t solely interested in RVing. They are also interested in trying other forms of outdoor experiences such as yurt camping, tree-house camping, and glamping.
Regardless of age or race demographics, one thing is true of Millennials as a whole: they are a force that must not be ignored.
REWRITING SOCIAL PRIORITIES
Millennials, much like preceding generations, are leaving their mark on society by rewriting social priorities. Home ownership is no longer the benchmark of success, and amassing goods is far less desirable than amassing memories. Furthermore, this shift in consumer priorities is not limited to Millennials. As the economy moves away from mass consumption, other groups are also finding satisfaction in the less-is-more mentality. This shift creates significant challenges for the retail market as a whole, but especially for industries that offer big-ticket, physical goods, such as RVs and ATVs.
For better or worse, however, the experience economy is the new normal, and even though it has definitely changed in the face of the global pandemic, it is still growing. Getting onboard now could mean life or death for RV manufacturers and dealerships. In order to continue the recent uptick in sales, they must understand what Millennials are looking for in their products, and they must make shopping for and buying an RV a worthwhile experience.
ESCAPISTS AND NOMADS
Fortunately for the RV industry, Millennials already have an interest in their products. Many Millennials work in the technology industry and have the ability to work remotely. Since the emergence of COVID-19, companies have moved even more employees over to a remote work model, and, as a result, some have found themselves freed from the office but tethered to their homes. For this reason, many Millennials have been looking for novel ways to escape the confines of their home offices while avoiding public modes of transportation, such as airplanes.
Escapism, however, isn’t the only reason Millennials are drawn to RVs. Social media has contributed greatly to the desire for a simpler, more freedom-oriented life, and RVs are increasingly viewed less as a vacation option and more as a dedicated lifestyle. Traveling, working, and living on the road is appealing for many experience seekers, and as higher numbers of workers find themselves freed up to work from wherever they can get a connection, the dream of living a nomadic lifestyle can be explored as a potential reality.
Millennials are certainly experience seekers, but beyond that, they are also experienced sharers. They stay connected with friends and family mainly through technology, and they are more likely than any other generation to upload and share images via social media. Their influences come less from television and news media and more through Instagram, YouTube, and other social media outlets.
It should come as no surprise that so many Millennials are interested in camping and, more specifically, RVing. There is no shortage of full-time nomads who have made their lives public through blogs, vlogs, and other social media outlets. Living vicariously through the images and experiences of such influencers has made the RV a cultural symbol of freedom and independence, and its appeal is heightened by its ability to create and share many experiences over an extended period of time.
Since Millennials are already drawn to camping and outdoor experiences, one might assume that RVs would sell themselves. This, however, is not so. RV manufacturers and dealers need to understand that while Millennials are interested in RVing, they are also interested in other things, pollution for example.
Millennials are keenly aware of the environmental challenges RVs present. All modes of travel that involve petroleum products take a toll on the environment, but dragging a camper behind a gas-guzzling pickup truck or driving around the country in a luxury tour bus to the tune of around 10 miles per gallon doesn’t sit well with Millennials. They are looking for more environmentally friendly RVs that are safe and energy-efficient.
This demand for more eco-friendly RVs has brought about changes in the RV industry, and that’s a good thing. According to Popular Mechanics, RVs are more efficient than ever, and many models are being made from lightweight composite shells and sustainable materials such as bamboo and birch wood. They utilize gray water tanks to reduce water waste, and they incorporate solar power to reduce the need for less efficient generators.
This is a great start, and as efficiency rises and fuel consumption falls, RV manufacturers and dealers will surely benefit. This is why it is crucial that RV manufacturers continue to innovate. Incorporating hybrid technologies, alternative fuels, and waste reclamation systems will make RVs better for the environment, friendlier to the eco-conscious, more sustainable for boondocking, and, of course, more profitable.
While environmental impact is a major concern for Millennials, image is also a factor. As culture evolves so do aesthetics, and while some vintage looks may be timeless, many of them simply aren’t. There may have been a time where large, scrolling swoops and swirls licking back over the length of an RV may have evoked imagery of wind rustling through one’s hair as they headed off into the sunset, or whichever point they preferred. Today, however, swoops, swirls, and bland neutral color schemes are just dated.
There is a problem with Millennials and aesthetics, however: individualism. How does a company mass produce anything for a group that has consistently inconsistent taste? A group in which everyone is their own person, each with their own style, and each style representing who each person is as an individual?
New and innovative exterior designs, custom color palettes, and personalizations are no less important to the RV industry than they are to the automobile industry. If you want to make more sales, you must produce product lines that appeal to many different demographics. Aesthetically speaking, one size does not fit all.
As with aesthetics, each person has their own space dynamic. More space is always a good thing, but driving a bus or towing a fifth-wheel camper is not necessarily the answer Millennials are looking for. Smaller campers that can be towed with smaller vehicles are highly desirable. And even where larger RVs are preferred, manufacturers must find new and creative ways to save space, increase storage, and innovate expansions that are both durable and user friendly.
Space isn’t all about square footage, either. Spaces that are designed to facilitate specific needs or interests are important to Millennials, especially those who are working remotely. Specialized spaces created with connectivity and comfort in mind add value to a mobile office. And specialized areas for gaming, streaming, and indoor relaxation are especially valuable to those traveling with family.
Tailoring RVs to individuals is a wide step away from the traditional RV model, but not every person purchasing an RV is looking to live nomadically. RVs are still primarily recreational, and the camping industry is becoming a much more competitive place. If RVs are going to compete with cabins, yurts, treehouses, and glamping (none of which require money down, a monthly payment, or insurance, maintenance or repairs), manufacturers need to give buyers a reason to invest in their products. They must make products that promise adventures, escapes, and most importantly, experiences.
Born and raised in Detroit, now a resident of Kansas City, Azaliah is an experienced author who specializes in creative nonfiction: articles, satirical pieces, short stories, novels, and blogs. She’s got a wicked sense of humor and loves to travel!