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Recreational Vehicles Grow in Popularity - 2004-09-05


When most Americans think about camping, they picture setting up tents, gathering twigs for a campfire, snuggling off to sleep in bedrolls with a clear starry sky overhead. Other people picture the mosquitoes, the unexplained noises in the middle of the night and the need to use a flashlight to find your way to the bathroom. But camping is now an option for those who want to be in the great outdoors, while staying out of it at the same time. Brian Bull tells us about this new way to rough it.

It's an unseasonably cold, windy day at Lake Koshkonong, Wisconsin. Campers are donning sweatshirts over their tank tops, and keeping off the lake because of the choppy waters. The weather has driven many outdoor enthusiasts home with their tents and sleeping bags, but Brian Williams is toughing it out at his campsite.

"We have a drop-down bedroom, we have a full queen-size bed with a full closet, the woodwork is first class, we have a chandelier that hangs over the table," he says.

The stocky, middle-aged businessman is showing off a recreational park trailer (RV), the next big thing in the camping industry for people who want some nurture with their nature experience. In fact, the campground looks like a tiny town with more than 600 of these plush little units. Mr. Williams says the park trailer beats his old camper, not just for luxury, but for convenience.

"With motor homes, you load them up on Friday afternoon and you head out to your destination which can take anywhere from an hour to three hours. By the time you get set up, you're ready to go to bed, then you have one day of camping. Then on Sunday, you're ready to tear down and come home, and you're beat from the weekend," he says. "This type of application, you come in and put the key in the door and you're ready to go."

Down the road from the Williams campsite, Bob Klug shows off one of the latest recreational park models. "Last year, we sold 64 park models. [That's] up from last year about 20 percent," he notes.

Mr. Klug is assistant sales manager for the Lakeland RV Center, the largest retailer of these units in Wisconsin. He says like trailers, campers, and other RVs, recreational park models don't incur property taxes, as long as they're under 37-square meters. But unlike its predecessors, these heavy and cumbersome vacation homes aren't very mobile. Once they're constructed and dropped off at a campground, they stay put, their owners popping in whenever they feel like a vacation. Mr. Klug says the average customer so far is a professional in his 50s, nearing retirement, someone who can afford the hefty price tag.

"Because the price points that park models come in at are anywhere from the $28,000 to $32,000 range, can go all the way up to about the $48,000 dollar range," he says. "The record one we've had come in was about $61,000, but that had hardwood floors in it".

Some recreational park models are custom-built. Here at Lee Enterprises Manufacturing in Elkhart, Indiana, workers piece together a unit with choice materials.

"The kitchen cabinets and the knotty pine units we do buy, outsource. But they have to put them together," says Micki Lee, co-owner of the company.

It's been in business for 20 years, but she says most people didn't know about park trailers until recently, thanks in part to a first-time advertising campaign.

"On a regular year, we build between 80 and 100," she adds. "This year we should hit the 130 number. The consumers want more than what we can give. So we're just all struggling. It's a good problem."

According to recreational industry officials, nearly 4700 recreational park models have been shipped so far this year, a 30 percent hike from 2003. That's a small piece of the pie compared to the more than 38,000 motorhomes shipped during the same period, but it's a piece that's steadily growing.

So what does this blossoming affair with upscale campground housing say about American campers?

"We do have this love-hate relationship with the natural world," says Ron Seely, an environmental reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.

"We tend to want to have all of the positive things about the natural world without all the negative things, being the bugs, and the thunder, lightning, and the heat and the cold and all of the things that actually nature really is all about," he adds.

So one day, perhaps every camper will sit back in an air-conditioned park model, watching a widescreen TV and munching microwaveable s'mores. The great American camp-out will be as safe and cozy as a weeknight at home, unless raccoons steal the remote control. For Coast to Coast, I'm Brian Bull in Madison, Wisconsin.

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