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Economic slump takes a vacation

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — The concept of freedom has long been used as a selling point for makers of recreational vehicles and motor homes.

Now, with many Americans shying away from overseas travel, the domestic airline industry in chaos and relatively stable gasoline prices, sales of such getaway vehicles are reaching heights never seen before.

“Actually, May was our best month we’ve ever had here,” said Martin Valencia of Valley Camper RV. He has owned the 24-year-old business for the past six years.

He said that soon after Sept. 11, 2001, he noticed an increase in the number of people shopping for RVs.

“That really helped the industry coast to coast, because I think it got people thinking more about being with their families,” Valencia said.

According to the most recent statistics available from the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, ownership levels of RVs had already reached record levels two years ago.

A 2001 study the RVIA commissioned from the University of Michigan found that nearly one in 12 American households owned an RV that year. Sales don’t seem to have waned since then.

“We do definitely think there’s a lot more people staying closer to home, and motor homes are more in demand right now,” said Ken Williamson, president of K&C; RV Inc.

He said his company’s old record of 139 vehicles sold in May was shattered last month, when K&C; sold 173 of them. Overall, he said his business was up $3.5 million year-to-date over last year.

“Strangely enough, January was the best month we’ve had over the past four years, but then February was the worst,” Williamson said, noting that the country was gearing up for war in Iraq during February.

But current events don’t seem to have much of an effect on RV sales — at least not in a negative way.

“Everybody keeps talking about the economy being bad, but in our industry, it’s not,” said Brian Ward, owner of Outfitter Manufacturing, which makes and sells pop-up truck campers at its location on the Interstate 25 Frontage Road near Mead.

“We’ve already sold more this year than the entire year last year, so it’s up at least double,” he said.

According to a recent survey by the Travel Industry Association of America, 11 percent of those surveyed said their leisure travel this summer would be closer to home, and 9 percent said they would avoid flying.

For those choosing the RV or motor home route, there’s no shortage of varieties to choose from.

Styles range from fold-up camper trailers — averaging about $6,500, they are often the starter models for people just getting into this type of recreation — to 40-foot “type A” motor homes that have every bell and whistle imaginable and can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Rick Liestman, finance manager for Century RV and someone with 20 years experience in the industry, said the type of RV buyer hasn’t changed much — they still range in age from the 20s up to the 70s. But he said the sophistication of the units themselves has improved greatly.

“Everything’s insulated; everything’s heated,” said Liestman, adding that the plumbing can be good to 45 degrees below zero.

“Everything’s automatic now,” Valencia said. “You push a button, and you have a refrigerator; you push a button, you have a furnace — just like you do at home.”

The biggest misconception about RVs and motor homes, Liestman said, might be their seasonality. “People think when school starts, you’ve got to stop RVing,” he said.

Valencia said his customers have used their units to take winter-time excursions to go hunting or ice fishing.

“They’re making them more four seasons so they can take them out in the winter,” he said.

Another big factor in rising RV sales, Valencia said, is low interest rates, which are bringing in “a lot younger buyers, and families.

“I get a lot of first-time buyers in here, and we’re literally teaching them how to camp,” said Valencia, whose family members are veterans of the RV lifestyle. “We get out the map and even tell them which (camping) spot to go to.”

He said that while one of the benefits of his job is that his family gets to try out many of the varieties he sells on his lot, the downside is that this time of year, he can’t be on the road camping as much as he would like to because of the business.

“We’ve camped forever — we camped before (this business) and we still camp as much as we can now,” Valencia said. “There’s no better time spent than sitting by the fire and holding your children and talking about stories or whatever.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.