Living on the Road: RVs Grow in Popularity as a Vacation Option
After two not-so-great travel years as the result of a worldwide pandemic, people are ready to hit the highway—and some of them plan to do it in style. Traveling by RV (recreational vehicles, whether called motorhomes, campers, or caravans) is quickly growing in popularity, and for many people, it’s the perfect way to visit Alaska’s road-accessible attractions.
“RVing is a great way to get out and enjoy Alaska; it’s nice because you don’t have to be on a schedule, and you can quickly change plans if the weather isn’t cooperating,” says Shanna Johnson of Safe RV Travels in south Anchorage. “Not to mention that you don’t have to worry about sleeping in a tent in bear country.”
According to the RV Industry Association, a 2021 survey revealed that 72 million Americans plan on taking a trip in an RV that they rent, own, or borrow—up from 61 million the previous year. Last year also proved to be a banner year for the RV industry, with record-breaking shipment numbers and unending demand for RV products.
While some of this demand can be credited to people wanting to get out and about after staying at home for so long to avoid COVID-19, there seems to be a cultural shift occurring as well.
“The pandemic has driven people to reevaluate their lives—and rightfully so,” says Bob Johnson, director of marketing at Great Alaskan Holidays, also in south Anchorage. “People are valuing their personal time more, and the work/life balance is tilting quite a bit more to personal time being the top priority. It’s really an amazing shift; from a consumer perspective, it’s fascinating.”
As a result, many people are returning to what used to be the consummate vacation: the great American road trip.
“We’re seeing a lot more people wanting to get out and experience the world like people did when I was a kid. They’re setting down their mobile devices and walking out the door,” Bob Johnson says. “RVing, especially in Alaska, is a really attractive option because it gives travelers a sense of freedom. They can feel that pressure being lifted, and they’re getting a break from mundane routines—they are scratching that itch, so to speak.”
Move Over, Grandad
While the stereotypical RV owner is gray-haired, retired, and has waited years to see the world, today’s Winnebago warrior skews a lot younger. According to a 2021 demographic profile by the industry’s Go RVing campaign, 11.2 million households now own RVs, split almost equally between those over and under the age of 55. In fact, 18-to-34-year-olds now make up 22 percent of the market.
Roughly 9.6 million households state that they expect to buy an RV within the next five years, and among current RV users, 84 percent of Millennials and Gen Xers plan to buy another RV, with 78 percent preferring to buy a new model.
More than half of Great Alaskan Holidays’ renters were younger than retirement age in 2019, and an industry survey shows more than one-fifth of current RV owners are in the younger Millennial or Gen Z bracket.
On the rental front, travelers are renting from both RV companies and peer-to-peer networks. Marketing to renters is changing almost as much as the industry itself.
“From the Great Alaskan Holidays’ perspective, we’re seeing two things really stand out, the first of which is the digital transformation of the industry,” says Bob Johnson. “We rely more and more heavily on digital outreach as opposed to traditional advertising methods to more cost-effectively reach a global audience.”
He continues, “The second is the level of intuitive attention that we give our customer base… As RV organizations like us evolve, we need to realize that we’re not just renting a motorhome to a customer; we are selling an A-to-Z Alaskan experience. And that experience starts at the very moment the customer decides that they want to go on vacation to them writing an online review after the trip is completed.”
According to Bob Johnson, customer outreach is critical to providing visitors with a seamless transition.
“The customer’s decision of who to do business with is 60 percent complete before you even know they’re looking at you,” he explains. “You have to set the stage immediately about expectations: not just the reservation process itself but what’s required up front as opposed to follow-up requirements once they arrive.”
He notes that with most of the check-in process available online, Great Alaskan Holidays is able to get customers out the door and into an RV in as little as fifteen minutes. Once aboard, the company makes it easy for even a novice to learn how the motorhome works.
“We supply them with an orientation video that tells them everything they need to know about how to work everything in the motorhome and a hard copy of the same information,” he says. “If they need a third access point of information, they can use our customer service phone number and off-hours technical hotline.”
He adds, “We try to keep the entire process as painless for the customer as possible; the last thing we want is for the motorhome to be a burden to the overall experience.”
Great Alaskan Holidays’ customer base reflects this attention to detail. While 20 to 30 percent are first-time RVers, Bob Johnson says the company has a very large group of return travelers who have vacationed with Great Alaskan Holidays for the past ten to fifteen years. Many of these customers also take advantage of its VIP program that offers perks for repeat customers who meet different milestones.
“In 2019, we saw our demographics in the lower age ranges increasing; most customers were between the ages of 30 and 65, with an average party size of 2.4 people,” he says. “The average rental time was 9.72 days, and we had customers come from fifty-six different countries around the world.”
After a motorhome has been rented for three years, Great Alaskan Holidays retires it to the sales lot. That way, renters can rest easy knowing their shelter on wheels has minimal wear and tear.
Keeping It Moving
There’s nothing worse than having car trouble on vacation—except, perhaps, having an issue with the vehicle that is also your shelter. That’s why RV sales, rental, and repair companies employ mobile crews to go where help is needed.
“If you’re out camping and something goes wrong, like the slide-out wall won’t work, you can’t travel,” says Safe RV Travels’ Shanna Johnson. “Or if your furnace goes out and it’s a cold Alaskan summer, it can really ruin your experience. We offer a mobile service that comes to your location to do whatever is needed to get you back out on the road.”
After a twenty-year career in healthcare, Shanna Johnson and her husband Forrest decided to make a career change based on their love of the RV life. Shanna recently finished training to become a certified RV inspector, and Forrest is certified in RV repair.
“My whole life I’ve been involved in RVing; my grandparents were in a motorhome club, and my parents had different types of campers while I was growing up,” Shanna Johnson says. “My husband and I randomly rent RVs, like Class As and Class Cs, to try out.” Class As are the heaviest type, sometimes built on a bus chassis; Class Cs are mid-size, larger than a Class B camper van and typically with a sleeping area over the cab.
The couple, who plan to live fulltime in an RV after their daughter graduates from high school, decided to start a business providing mobile inspection and repair services during vacation season so that they could travel the rest of the year.
“If you want to purchase an RV from a dealer, you want to make sure that it’s in good condition before you buy it,” Shanna Johnson says. “Or if you’re renting your RV out for the summer, it’s a good idea to get it inspected and to make sure that everything is working properly.”
She adds, “It’s people’s entire vacation—their transportation as well as their lodging—so they don’t want issues while enjoying Alaska.”
As with any type of equipment with so many moving parts, things can go wrong.
“It’s a home going down the road; at some point, things are going to break,” Shanna Johnson says.
She advises RV owners and renters to check for propane leaks and to make sure that smoke detectors are working and not out of date. “It’s also not a good idea to drive down the road with the propane turned on,” Shanna Johnson suggests. “It’s not illegal to do so, but it’s a bad idea; it could be a safety hazard.
“Tires and brakes are extremely important, and you need to make sure that the air pressure is right and that the brakes are working well,” she adds, noting Alaska’s often curvy and hilly roads. “On towables, make sure that you have an emergency brake switch so that if the trailer comes away from the vehicle, the trailer brakes will activate and stop the trailer.”
She notes that battery maintenance is also important to keep all the appliances in the RV running well.
While some online RV rental companies require a rental inspection every ninety days, others do not, so renting online it’s important to ask if this has been done and confirm that everything is in good working order. In case there is a problem on the road, it’s important to know the contact number of mobile repair firms.
“The nice thing about mobile service is that you don’t have to haul your RV or trailer to a repair shop,” Shanna Johnson says, adding that Safe RV Travels charges a flat rate call-out fee and charges by the hour for service. If the call is from outside a 30-mile radius, they charge a per-mile fee as well.
“The need here for service is huge, especially in the summer,” she adds. “Every repair shop and dealership is busy, so we’re here to help. Vacation season is really short, so you don’t want to wait weeks or months to have your RV fixed.”
Great Alaskan Holidays contracts with roaming mechanics around the state that can travel to their customers when there’s a problem.
“We will even drive a replacement motorhome to the customer and transfer their stuff from one RV to the other so that they can get on their way,” says Bob Johnson. “We deal with it so that their vacation isn’t interrupted.”
Bob Johnson adds that the company mitigates the possibility of mechanical difficulties by taking rental RVs out of their fleet when they reach three years old, graduating them into their sales fleet.
“Our rental customers never drive anything over three years old, which significantly reduces the possibility of anything going wrong,” he says. “On the sales side, the customer is buying a motorhome that has had one owner for the life of the vehicle, and that has been well maintained and inspected after every single rental. Any bugs that might occur with a brand-new motorhome have been worked out before it graduates to the sales fleet, so it’s a very safe purchase.”
Living the RV Life
What should first-time RVers consider when getting ready to take the wheel? Bob Johnson suggests doing research to find a reputable organization that is familiar not only with RVs but with the state itself.
“Refer to online reviews from reliable resources and definitely go with an organization that has some longevity behind them,” he says. “Renting a motorhome is different than renting a car and staying in a hotel. You are entrusting your vacation to a house on wheels. The last thing you want is to be broken down somewhere with no one to help you.” He adds, “Get involved with a reputable organization with a reliable track record, longevity, and integrity. That dramatically reduces the chances of having a bad experience.”
While Great Alaskan Holidays does not offer trip planning, they do have recommended itineraries on their website.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in our lobby in the summer talking to customers, and many of them don’t have an itinerary; they’re looking for suggestions from people who know the lay of the land,” Bob Johnson says. “They don’t want to gamble on an advertisement they saw at home; they’d rather talk to a local about how to have a true Alaskan experience.”
Because of this familiarity, local companies can also advise customers on different excursions or activities they may like, as well as recommend vetted service providers.
“We recommend excursion companies like K2 Aviation and activities like the Phillips 26 Glacier Cruise; we even promote them on our website,” Bob Johnson says. “There is no financial exchange between our companies; our intent is to promote excursions and activities that we know the customer will have a great time doing or we wouldn’t put it on our site.”
Bob Johnson expects to see more growth in both the RV rental and sales industries over the next three to five years, based in part on lifestyle changes caused by COVID-19.
“We anticipate continued growth if for no other reason than that the pandemic has driven people to reevaluate their priorities and their need for family time, and to make appropriate adjustments so that they can live more fulfilled lives,” he says. “And the chance to be out in nature is a significant part of what drives those decisions.”