Americans have long been enamored of the open road. There was John Steinbeck circling the country in Travels With Charley. Buz and Tod tooling west on Route 66. Clark Griswold loading up the family for a National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Today, though, motorists are increasingly traveling in style.
In recent years, sales of luxury recreational vehicles, better known as RVs, have soared. Why stay in a tent or hotel room when you can bring all the amenities of home when you go? French door refrigerators, granite countertops, flat-screen TVs, even king-size beds — all that and more can be found just behind the driver’s seat.
“It’s pretty much a home on wheels,” said Frank X. Konigseder, vice president of Liberty Coach.
Based in Illinois, 50-year-old Liberty is at the top of the market with prices ranging from $2.4 million to $2.7 million. Owners of the company’s customized RVs include NASCAR racer Kyle Busch and his longtime sponsor, the Mars family of M&M’s and Milky Way fame.
Typical buyers, though, are NASCAR fans who like to travel the circuit. “They’re business owners, or maybe auto dealers or contractors,” Konigseder said. Because of the time and cost involved with customizing a coach, “this is a relationship-based business, no questions about it,” he said. “We are tied to them for many, many years, they become good friends. We have second-generation (customers).”
Liberty, whose sales offices are in Stuart, builds its coaches on tour bus chassis that come from the Canadian maker with not much more than a driver’s seat and slides — the sections that slide out from the main frame and can expand the RV’s width, when parked, from 8 ½ feet to about 13 feet. Following the buyer’s specifications, Liberty takes eight months or so to customize a vehicle. It generally turns out 15 a year.
When finished, a coach has approximately 480 square feet of living space and gets 7 to 8 miles per gallon. Konigseder said that’s 20 percent better mileage than in the past, thanks to the more environmentally friendly technology and materials the company now uses.
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Opulent RVs don’t all run into seven figures. Newmar Corp., whose parent company is Winnebago, lists its 2022 Ventana model with a base price of $383,960. Among the features: a hide-a-bed sofa; a dual-sink vanity; and a work desk with chair, overhead cabinet and large window providing natural light.
Options include heated floor tile and theater-style seats.
Another maker of high-end RVs is Alabama-based Tiffin Motorhomes, which like Liberty is celebrating its 50th year in business. Tiffin is unique in that its builds its own chassis for its two top models, the Allegro, which ranges from $500,000 to $600,000, and the Zephyr, which runs around $750,000.
“We don’t necessarily build a custom floor plan but clients have a wide variety for decor and options,” said Andy Baer, Tiffin’s general manager. Among the most popular options: wine coolers, heated floors and built-in espresso and cappuccino machines. Many clients also ask for dog beds and somewhere to stash a kitty litter box.
TVs are standard and can be as large as 55 inches. “If it gets much bigger,” Baer said, “you have an issue of being far enough away” to comfortably watch it.
Tiffin sells to sports figures, but Baer said its main customers are auto dealers, entrepreneurs, professionals and, somewhat surprisingly, “a lot of pilots,” who like to travel that way when not in the air. For about a fourth of buyers, the high-end coach is their main residence. Many work from the motor home thanks to 5G systems “that allow you to have your own hot spot with an antenna on the roof,” Baer said.
“It’s a very independent way to live and live where you want,” he added.
The earliest RV was said to be a converted 1915 Packard truck that could sleep 11. Winnebago, founded in 1958, was the first company to mass-produce motor homes accessible to a growing middle class. As incomes increased and more people began to take vacations in the early ′70s, “our industry really began to gain traction,” Baer said.
Since then, the RV industry has exploded in variety and popularity. In 2019 alone, it contributed $114 billion to the U.S. economy and supported nearly 600,000 jobs, according to the RV Industry Association. More than 11 million households now own some type of RV: The typical owner is 48, married, has an above-average income and uses the RV three or four weeks a year. Although you could spend a lot of nights in some very nice hotel rooms for what a high-end coach costs, the association says RV vacations are 27 to 62 percent less expensive on a per-day basis than other vacation options.
The pandemic has undeniably boosted interest in RVs, especially among people who want to travel but avoid crowds. In January, 53,290 RV units of all kind — coaches, camper vans, fifth-wheel trailers — were shipped. That’s a 16 percent increase over 2020, the industry association says.
Tiffin Motorhomes annually makes about 30 Zephyrs, its top model, and 600 to 700 Allegros, its second costliest. Baer said the company is currently sold out of Zephyrs, with a yearlong waiting list, and nearly sold out of Allegros, with a wait time of six to eight months.
“It’s been crazy,” he said of pandemic-era sales. “I think people realize this is a safe way to travel, you get to take all your own belongings, your own linens. You are essentially independent for much of your surroundings if you need to be.”