For Doug and Nicki Craig, the ''aha'' moment came in 2007.
He felt terrible. It was his heart. After triple bypass surgery, he and his wife vowed to start enjoying life to the fullest. They didn't want any regrets.
They bought a 27-foot Winnebago and took trips across the country as their work schedules allowed.
The more they traveled, the more they fell in love with the lifestyle. They could bring their dogs and move at their own pace. They didn't have to mess with booking flights and hotels.
With every mile logged, they wondered, "Wouldn't it be great to travel full time?''
This spring, they did it. They sold their big house in Ohio and hit the road in a Monaco Dynasty motor home they bought for about $265,000 at Lazydays in Seffner.
"It's freeing to get rid of all your stuff and travel where you want, when you want,'' said Doug, 59, who works remotely part time as a recruiter for hospital executives. "You meet the greatest people who you have something in common with right off the bat.''
The Craigs join a growing number of people buying top-of-the-line motor homes, the last category of RVs to rebound after the recession. Shipments of RVs to dealerships grew nearly 10 percent to 192,065 units in the first half of this year compared with 174,918 last year, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. Shipments of the most expensive Class A RVs climbed 23 percent to 11,274.
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The RV business crashed during the economic tailspin, dropping from shipments of about 353,400 RVs in 2007 to 165,700 in 2009. Some of the top RV manufacturers, most of which are based in Indiana, went bankrupt.
The industry began to recover in 2010 but shipments remain well behind pre-recession levels. Fueling the growth are younger buyers ages 34 to 55, retiring baby boomers and lower financing rates.
Today, a record 9 million RVs are on the road nationwide, reflecting a "strong and enduring appeal of the RV lifestyle,'' says a recent study by the University of Michigan.
At Lazydays, the nation's largest RV dealership, the recovery started with less expensive towable RVs (travel trailers, fifth wheels, truck campers) and gradually shifted to Class B and C camper vans and medium-sized motor homes. Most recently, sales have rebounded for Class A motor homes, bus-like RVs that can cost upward of $1 million.
"All classes in the RV business are in play now,'' said Lazydays CEO Tim Sheehan. "The business is back, and we have to be really in tune to what customers want and need.''
Those needs go beyond dinettes that convert into beds. Today's high-end RV buyers want all the comforts of home, from satellite TVs and king-sized beds to LED lighting and instant hot water systems. Kitchens must have granite countertops and bathrooms need big showers.
To cater to those upscale customers, Lazydays offers Crown Club memberships to anyone who buys a new RV priced $300,000 and up and certain used versions of those models. Memberships last three years on new RVs and two years on used ones. Membership can't be bought, and the only way to renew is by buying another RV.
Lazydays started the club in 2001 to pamper its elite customers and add extra incentive for buying another RV from the 126-acre dealership off Interstate 4. Members stay at the Crown Club campground for free and have access to a clubhouse with a swimming pool and restaurant serving free meals and drinks (up to three drinks in one sitting because some people abused it). Members also can take classes on how to drive, operate and even cook in their RV.
The club grew to about 4,000 members a decade ago but dropped significantly during the economic downturn as the customer base dwindled and Lazydays struggled amid layoffs and a bankruptcy reorganization. Today membership stands at about 3,000, a number that's growing, Sheehan said.
As sales have returned, the dealership has refocused efforts on the Crown Club to attract and retain its top customers. Over the summer it repainted the interior of the 10-year-old clubhouse, installed new pavers and speakers in the pool area and added white tablecloths in the restaurant to reduce noise and create a more upscale experience.
In July, Lazydays named longtime employee Russ O'Connor Sr. as the club's president to schmooze with members and serve as liaison between buyers and the sales and service teams.
"Our customers are very loyal, and we don't want to do anything wrong that would cause them to leave and go to a competitor,'' O'Connor said. "They are people who have worked hard their whole lives and have been frugal with their money and this is what they want to do. We want to take care of them.''
About 15 percent of Lazydays buyers are Crown Club members, who come from across the United States and Canada. They typically come for weeklong stays to get their RV serviced in one of 41 bays devoted to the Crown Club (out of a total of 220). They often meet up with traveling friends.
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The Craigs met Greg Raczynski, a sales rep for Lazydays, while attending an RV rally in Louisville, Ky., a few years ago. They stayed in touch with him and reached out when they were ready to pull the trigger on a big RV.
The Craigs decided on a 45-foot Monaco Dynasty with 1 1/2 bathrooms, solid wood cabinetry, three TVs (including one outside for watching next to a campfire) and four slideouts that increase the square footage to about 500 when parked.
At 6-foot-3, Doug wanted an RV with a high ceiling so he wouldn't have to slouch. Nicki, a former fashion designer, wanted enough storage for a sewing machine and a large bathroom with space for her four Yorkshire terriers — Bandit, Layla, Tori and Mac — and their doggie beds.
The Craigs bought the RV with the intention of living in it full time for at least two years. They'll visit their children and grandchildren in Texas and Ohio and visit sites on their bucket list, like the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
So far, all the togetherness in close quarters hasn't driven them crazy, even after 31 years of marriage. Getting 6 miles per gallon isn't so bad, they say, when you consider the cost of airfare and hotels. Driving from Lazydays to Mount Rushmore, for example, would cost about $1,300 in diesel.
"We love the freedom,'' said Nicki, 56. "It's shocking how much there is to see in this country. When we chose to do this, many of our friends said, 'You are our heroes. We want to do this, too.' ''
The couple are expected to leave Lazydays this week after technicians finish repairs on their RV. They plan to head west but have no fixed agenda. Part of the adventure will be figuring it out along the way.
Contact Susan Thurston at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston.