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RV industry continues to grow in Florida, spurred in part by the pandemic

Sales and RV park usage are still on an upswing in 2021 as families enter the market.
Lorrie Atkinson, 60, walks her shih tzu, Hope, outside of her 43-foot Jayco North Point fifth wheeler RV on Thursday, April 15, 2021, at Bay Bayou RV Resort in Tampa. Atkinson has been living at the Bay Bayou RV Resort with her husband, Jim Atkinson, 62, for the last four years working remotely from the clubhouse and her camper. Now she's witnessed many more families jumping into the RV life as a result of the pandemic.
Lorrie Atkinson, 60, walks her shih tzu, Hope, outside of her 43-foot Jayco North Point fifth wheeler RV on Thursday, April 15, 2021, at Bay Bayou RV Resort in Tampa. Atkinson has been living at the Bay Bayou RV Resort with her husband, Jim Atkinson, 62, for the last four years working remotely from the clubhouse and her camper. Now she's witnessed many more families jumping into the RV life as a result of the pandemic. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Apr. 28
Updated Apr. 29

Lorrie Atkinson, 60, and her husband have been living out of their camper for four years at the Bay Bayou RV Resort in Tampa. She found it’s a cheaper alternative to renting and home ownership, allowing them to save for retirement.

In the past year, plagued by the coronavirus pandemic, Atkinson has noticed a demographic shift among her RV neighbors.

“There are a lot more families coming in,” she said. “I’m seeing people up here teaching their kids school. I’m seeing other people up here working.”

The recreational vehicle industry both nationally and locally already was on the rise in terms of sales and RV park development, with customers skewing younger and younger. Thanks to last year’s travel restrictions, an increase in homeschooling and remote working, and a general concern for safety, the industry not is only weathering the pandemic but is on the upswing again this year, according to industry experts.

“The RV market was ready for everybody to latch onto it,” said Bobby Cornwell, president and chief executive of the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.

An RV arrives on Thursday, April 15, 2021, at Bay Bayou RV Resort in Tampa. The resort offers 100 permanent locations and 200 transient locations on their property, where the longest permanent residents moved in 1994.
An RV arrives on Thursday, April 15, 2021, at Bay Bayou RV Resort in Tampa. The resort offers 100 permanent locations and 200 transient locations on their property, where the longest permanent residents moved in 1994. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

RV park and campground usage grew by 20 percent in Florida last year, he said.

Typically, January through March is the state’s peak season for RVers, driven in part by Canadian snowbirds, Cornwell said. While international border closures tied to the pandemic led to a drop in that clientele last year, domestic travelers from in and out of the state made up for it.

Cornwell also reported a higher number of summer reservations, which isn’t typically expected in the state.

Part of that was driven by younger RVers who wanted to work remotely and from outside of their home, a trend that started before the pandemic, said Amir Harpaz, who oversees the Torrey Trails RV & Golf Resort in central Florida and other parks in South Florida. For the past five to seven years, it’s been 40- and 50-year-olds and even younger entering the RV market, he said.

“People no longer need to retire in order to RV and come to Florida. They can just work from everywhere,” Harpaz said. “I think COVID accelerated that trend.”

Atkinson saw some of that shift at Bay Bayou RV Resort last year as she noticed people working from the park’s clubhouse where she’s also been working remotely for years in advertising.

The increasing popularity wasn’t all about finding a new office space, said Darla Sinnard, regional manager of the Tampa park and Sunkissed Village RV Resort in Summerfield. They also served a lot of families looking for a staycation last year — a safe way to get out of the house and enjoy time outdoors.

Paige Wagner, 11, leaps into the clubhouse pool on Thursday, April 15, 2021, at Bay Bayou RV Resort in Tampa. Wagner is staying at the park for a week while on vacation with her family from Michigan. The resort offers 100 permanent locations and 200 transient locations on their property, where the longest permanent residents moved in 1994.
Paige Wagner, 11, leaps into the clubhouse pool on Thursday, April 15, 2021, at Bay Bayou RV Resort in Tampa. Wagner is staying at the park for a week while on vacation with her family from Michigan. The resort offers 100 permanent locations and 200 transient locations on their property, where the longest permanent residents moved in 1994. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

As part of their safety measures, the Tampa park closed to new reservations in April and May last year to protect guests already staying at the park.

This month has already seen a 30 percent increase in reservations compared to April 2019, she said.

The Tides RV Resort in Palmetto, which opened in January 2020, required campers to stay at least 30 days as a safety precaution, said Leslie Taylor-Rharbi, senior vice president of operations at Zeman Homes and Resorts, which owns and operates the site. It limited the number of people coming in and out to minimize people’s exposure and contact with one another.

The resort maxed out last year at about 30 percent occupancy, but has already reached 95 percent occupancy this year, Taylor-Rharbi said.

The start of 2021 has shown growth in recreational vehicle sales, as well. The national RV Industry Association reported in February that wholesale shipments of towable RVs, led by conventional travel trailers, was up by 31.1 percent from last February. Motorhomes sales were up 21. 8 percent, and sales of park-model RVs (moveable resort units designed exclusively for part-time recreational use) were up 16.6 percent. Overall, manufacturers reported a 30.1 percent increase in units shipped compared to February 2020.

“I think most every dealer is on a record pace for sales this year,” said Dave Kelly, executive director of the Florida RV Trade Association.

Smaller campers seem to be selling better, Kelly said. They are typically cheaper and require lower maintenance.

He expects continued sales growth this year because of the continued uncertainty of traveling by air and the lingering shutdown of cruises.

Atkinson, meanwhile, is happy to see more people embracing the RV life, which has offered her quality family time over fussing about material belongings.

“I’ll be an RV-er for life now,” she said.

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