With summer travel plans put aside under the threat of COVID-19, many are turning to new methods of enjoying the warmer months. Across Canada and the U.S., that has resulted in a huge spike in recreational vehicle (RV) sales.
For Niagara Trailers owner John Petrie, that has meant a busy season at his York Road business.
Like all non-essential businesses, Niagara Trailers was closed at the start of the pandemic. Deliveries of recreational vehicles were put on hold until Petrie was able to reopen in May. With more than 200 pre-sold units awaiting their new homes, much of the first six weeks was spent making good on those deliveries. New sales were slower than normal, though Petrie says they did sell on average at least one trailer per day.
When Niagara moved into Stage 2 of the provincial reopening strategy, only seasonal, or long-term camping was allowed. Petrie says that lasted for about three weeks, during which his staff were fielding mostly inquiries about larger park models and fifth-wheel trailers.
Finally, transient, or overnight camping was phased in, and visits to the 2019 Spirit of Niagara Awards Company of the Year really ramped up. “That’s when we started selling more travel trailers,” Petrie explains. “We have people taking them up to friends’ cottages, taking them to fields. They’re using them not just for camping resorts, but for many, many different functions.”
With the virus out there, the advantages of traveling by trailer are obvious. “When you buy a trailer, it’s your unit,” Petrie continues. “You can customize it to the way you want, it’s your mattress, you can have your trailer steam-cleaned and disinfected to your perfection, you can cook in them. RVs are almost perfect for this environment that we’re in right now. You can completely isolate yourself from the rest of the world in an RV.”
A recent Ipsos poll in the U.S. found that 20 per cent of respondents are more interested in RVs as a travel option in the aftermath of COVID-19. As well, more than 50 per cent of those who plan to take a trip this year reported that the pandemic has increased their interest in luxury camping.
That has meant a lot of newcomers to the RV world are taking the plunge. As an almost 50-year-old family business, Niagara Trailers has built up a large base of loyal customers across Southern Ontario. But the pandemic has driven many people to RVs for the first time.
“As I’m talking to people,” Petrie observes, “I’m finding that these are people who were thinking of possibly doing this, maybe not this year or next, maybe three or four years from now, but not having other stuff they can do has brought them forward. These are usually people who already enjoy the outdoor lifestyle. I wouldn’t say they’re new to camping, but they’re new to trailers.”
With all these “newbies” pulling trailers behind their cars, one might worry about their ability to tow their new rig safely through NOTL. Petrie puts these RV rookies through a two-hour orientation session at Niagara Trailers.
“We teach you how to hitch your trailer properly, and then we take you for a little test drive around St. Davids to make sure you’re comfortable with it,” he assures. They also walk buyers through the features of their purchase, including how to connect to water, power and sewage services at campgrounds, and they provide them with brochures and literature about different campsite options around the province and western New York state.
The new models aren’t the same trailers your parents may have dragged up to Rice Lake back in the 1960s, by the way. Petrie says “a lot of the new trailers are a lot more electronic, most of them have electric awnings, electric jacks, our bigger units actually self-level at the push of a button. if you look at the furniture that’s inside them, the stereo systems, the TVs, it’s high-end.”
Petrie says the first thing newcomers need to know before entering the RV world is the capability of their tow vehicle. That capacity obviously can limit the size of the trailer they purchase. Next, he says it’s important to decide whether to park the trailer in a more permanent location, such as a seasonal campground, or to travel with it to different locations. That decision can influence the purchase, of course. Petrie estimates that about 35 per cent of the RVs he sells are delivered to parks, where his staff will help set them up.
The current demand for trailers has left Petrie and his family with little time to travel themselves. “For the month of June we hit record sales,” he says, “and July seems to be the same. People are using RVs, going out and having a good time with them, and enjoying them.”
Instead, as with most summers, he will await the end of camping season before taking the opportunity to enjoy his own leisure time.