TAMPA — When it comes to recreational vehicles, small is in big demand.
"Everybody is downsizing," said Dave Kelly, spokesman for the 28th annual Florida RV SuperShow. "People want lighter, more maneuverable RVs."
The time of the monster motor home has not gone the way of the dinosaur, but the recession has reversed the trend of bigger is better.
"The market was once 60 percent motor home and 40 percent travel trailer," Kelly said. "But now that is reversed. They are selling 80 travel trailers for every 20 motor homes."
The downturn in the economy hit the RV industry hard. But according to a 2011 survey by the Reston, Va.-based Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, the number of RV-owning households has grown to a new peak of 8.9 million, up from 7.9 million in 2005.
The Florida RV SuperShow, at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa through Sunday, features hundreds of recreational vehicles of all varieties and price ranges. You will still find rows of million-dollar motor homes, but the hot buys this year are $20,000 or less.
"You can't beat a Winnebago," said Melissa Farrior, an RV consultant from Camping World in Bartow. "It is a household name and the quality is just outstanding."
The bright yellow "Minnie Winnie" weighs less than 3,500 pounds. When I first stepped inside the 20-footer, I thought it would have a sticker price of $40,000 or more, but it was less than half that, starting at $17,000. Equipped with maple cabinets, a kitchen and bathroom, I joked that I could put a satellite dish on top and never go in the office again. The travel trailer, also available in white and fluorescent green, could be towed easily by my 10-year-old sport-utility vehicle.
"Part of the appeal of these new, lightweight travel trailers is that you don't have to go out and buy a new vehicle to get it to where you want to go," Kelly said. "They can be pulled by any truck or SUV."
While partial to the Winnebago, the new Rockwood Hardside, a cross between a travel trailer and a tent camper, also caught my eye. The Rockwood reminded me of the popup trailer that my dad used to park on the side our house.
But unlike that old camper, the Hardside expands into an A-frame with a solid roof and walls, which undoubtedly makes it more durable. The canvas on our old camper was always getting holes poked in it by tree branches, errant arrows and the occasional stray tomahawk. The Rockwood looks like it might even be able to handle my kids, both of whom are notorious tent rippers. The cost: $12,000.
However, if I win the lottery before Sunday, I am going to spend a good chuck of my loot on something better suited to my nomadic lifestyle: an adventure vehicle. The Bengal TX, a camper mounted on the bed of a 2013 Chevrolet 3500 HD Silverado, can go anywhere, anytime, for no reason at all.
"We really don't like to call it an RV," said Joe Joyner, a salesman with Tiger Adventure Vehicles in West Columbia, S.C. "That name implies that you are going to park it on the blacktop. This vehicle can go off-road."
Tiger's line starts at $100,000 and runs up to $150,000. But remember, you get a pickup truck as part of the package. If you don't like Chevy, then mount your camper on a Ford or a Dodge Ram.
"People are not sitting around waiting to see what happens with the economy," Kelly said. "They want to recreate. If that means making do with a smaller, more affordable camper, then that is exactly what they are going to do."