PANDEMIC VACATION
Bloomberg Businessweek|May 10, 2021
The RV business is booming and shows no sign of slowing down. To find out why, our correspondent dragged his reluctant family to the RV capital of the world— the cutest city in north central Indiana!—and hit the road
Patrick Clark

Forest River’s Sunseeker Classic motor home is built on a Ford E-450 chassis, framed with vacuum-bonded laminate, and crammed with features the armchair outdoorsman would never consider. On the 31-foot model I piloted recently, those included a propane furnace to keep the cabin toasty in freezing temperatures, two refrigerators (one for the indoor kitchen and one for the outdoor one), three sleeping areas, and dozens of cabinets, drawers, and compartments to conceal disorder.

All that engineering was pretty satisfying at the campsite. On the road it was noisy, adding clatter and a little bit of mystery—honey, did you hear that?—to the task of keeping a 14,500-pound motor home upright going over winding mountain roads and through crowded interchanges. At least that’s how I saw it. Like a real RV dad, I was doing my best to ignore the complaints of the unhappy campers with whom I was sharing the cabin. My kids had been slugging each other periodically, and when the iPad ran out of juice they tossed markers in my direction. My wife, Eleanor, had a premonition somewhere in the Allegheny Mountains and was now certain our brakes were about to give out. And that was before I opened an artery in my hand with a hatchet and wound up riding an ambulance from an obscure state park to an emergency room, asking myself how, exactly, I’d come to believe this would be a relaxing vacation.

It had started some months earlier, when I’d convinced the editors of Bloomberg Businessweek that we should visit Elkhart, Ind., where the world’s largest RV companies are based. Elkhart, which is about halfway between Ohio and Illinois and just south of the Michigan state line, may not be known as a tourist destination. But, as I’d insisted to Eleanor, it’s a surprisingly bucolic place, where Amish farms mix with factories.

The vaccine was just starting to become widely available when we arrived at the end of March, and RVs remained compelling to travelers understandably turned off by the idea of sharing an airport waiting room or hotel lounge with a nose-masking stranger. Meanwhile, large portions of the American workforce were continuing to log in to the office virtually, creating an opportunity for the younger and more adventurous to work from the road, integrating their jobs into the #vanlife. Even the Oscar-winning film Nomadland romanticized this lifestyle in its own way.

The pandemic has been good for owners of vacation rental properties and shareholders of Airbnb Inc. It’s also been great for the RV industry. After all, a motor home (or travel trailer, which is an RV you drag behind your car or truck) is like a halfway house to nature, perfect for indoorsy types who still enjoy national parks and retirees looking for a safe way to drive across the country to see their grandchildren. And so, starting last spring, people began canceling European honeymoons and going to RV dealerships instead. The motor-home-curious flocked to rental offices and Airbnbstyle sharing websites. This drove so much demand for new RVs that by the time we got to Elkhart, help wanted signs were calling out from factory gates and roadside billboards.

Conventional wisdom says that workers and vacationers are on the road back to pre-pandemic norms. But it’s also possible that the sudden embrace of RVs signals the beginning of a longer-term trend—a future in which tech executives and second-grade teachers finish their last Zoom of the day, emerge from their respective travel trailers to gather around a campfire, and unwind over cold beers and hot s’mores. Let’s hope they’ll all be trained to chop kindling safely.

There was really only one way to find out how realistic that vision was. When the kids’ school headed into spring break, I took the family to Elkhart, picked up the Sunseeker, and hit the road.

The vacation, such as it was, started at the Thor Motor Coach Class B plant in Bristol, Ind., right outside Elkhart. It was, to the extent such a thing is possible, ground zero for the RV boom—the place where the biggest company makes its hottest models. Although a cold front was threatening ominously, it was sunny. Inside, workers wearing T-shirts ducked in and out of a procession of Ram ProMasters that snaked around the factory floor. Plumbers, carpenters, and electricians did their thing. A horn would honk, and a van shell would roll down the line to the next station.

Indiana, where more than 80% of North America’s RVs are made, came to play an outsize role in the industry more or less by accident. In one version of the story, the son of a prominent Elkhart merchant was captivated by the travel trailers he’d encountered at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago and begged his parents for startup capital. His success inspired other entrepreneurs, and a network of companies sprung up to manufacture motor homes and supply the nascent industry with specialized suspension systems, gas ranges, and refrigerators. Over the decades, the ranks of once-independent RV companies consolidated into a small group of conglomerates, the biggest of which are in Elkhart.

Thor Industries Inc., which accounted for roughly 40% of all RV sales last year, is one of them. The company was founded in 1980 by a descendant of the brewer Adolphus Busch and spent the ensuing four decades acquiring manufacturers, including Airstream Inc., Jayco Inc., and a dozen other makes you’ve probably gawked at on the highway. Thor’s lineage and its thirst for acquisitions make it a little like the Anheuser-Busch of motor homes. Forest River Inc., which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and which owns Coachmen RV, Shasta RV, and other manufacturers, is the second-biggest: the industry’s Heineken, as it were. Forest River is based in Elkhart, too.

Thor, like the rest of the industry, had been focused on building travel trailers and larger motorized coaches, which might have a washer-dryer and theater seating. But in recent years Class B motor homes—what the rest of us call camper vans—have been the fastest-growing segment. Class B vehicles are easier to drive without sacrificing too many amenities. Thor’s TMC Tellaro, for instance, is a 20-footer that can sleep up to four semi comfortably. Depending on the model, it can also cram in two propane burners, a microwave, a kitchen sink, a full (if tiny) bath, and an innovation called a cassette toilet—a commode that empties into a tank that works like a rollaway suitcase. That feature, I was told, is big in Europe.

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