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Revisiting: The RV Industry Death Spiral

Revisiting: The RV Industry Death Spiral

In 2016, journalist Greg Gerber wrote a series of articles called RV Industry Death Spiral.

This 63-page editorial outlined several serious issues with the RV industry, as Gerber saw it. His work received massive backlash from all sectors of the industry.

In hindsight, can we look at Gerber’s scalding report and find any meaningful takeaways? Or was it simply the musings of a clever but bitter journalist? 

Let’s revisit and find out!

The News Story

Greg Gerber has been a journalist for almost 40 years. He’s covered the RV industry since 2001 and started his daily blog in 2009 called RV Daily Report. After living in an RV full time for a couple of years, he decided to share the reality of what he had unearthed.

Gerber loved the RV life and loved writing about it. He was more than disheartened to learn firsthand about RV life through the eyes of the consumer. When faced with the brutal truth of what he observed in the RV industry, he felt compelled to share his opinion.

His editorial, The RV Industry Death Spiral, was the result. Gerber’s thesis proposed that the current industry business model is unsustainable. He outlined seven segments of the business and how each is problematic.

Gerber experienced severe backlash from key players in the industry. He lost subscribers during the two-week period in which he released his articles. But he also gained followers. His website, rvdailyreport.com, was sold and bought back again before being completely shut down in June 2019. 

If you read the RV Industry Death Spiral in its entirety, you’ll see that Gerber concluded that he was confident the industry would get it together and make needed changes. He loved the RV industry, and we assume he still does. 

His 63-page treatise was an opinion piece, just one person’s highly impactful opinion. Let’s explore what Gerber had to say.

Manufacturer Woes

One of the main points in Gerber’s original article was his argument that RV manufacturers are racing to mass-produce vehicles while cutting corners on craftsmanship. While the goal was to sell motorhomes at an increasing “mythical price point,” as Gerber called it, the result was decreasing value in the overall construction. 

Gerber argued that the number of consumers returning for repair under warranties was so high that dealerships feared the manufacturers would not reimburse them. Companies went under or otherwise denied warranty repairs.

Gerber quoted an Oklahoman RV service technician who said, “RVs ain’t for using, they’re for fixing.” 

Although many claim the warranty issues to be an exaggeration, the issue of quality control remains grim. According to a 2021 article on rvtravel.com, several RV dealers today say the new models on the market are “pathetic’. 

Partially due to mass production combined with lightweight manufacturing, you may be better off buying a used RV. But this decision remains entirely personal, based on your research and individual considerations.

Some of the more current reasons behind poor quality campers include poor customer service. Employees don’t stay on long enough to learn the ins and outs of quality control anymore. And with the social media appeal of #rvlife and #vanlife continuing to grow, the manufacturers have little to no pressure to step up their quality control.

Suppliers in a Tough Spot

The issue of RV industry workers not sticking around for too long has been present for years. The recent era of great resignation has only increased this high turnover rate. This means for the supplier that the people who install their products into an RV may not do it properly.

For example, Gerber’s 2016 article emphasized that a supplier’s refrigerator might work perfectly fine. But if the new guy at the plant doesn’t install it correctly, they could blame the supplier. In addition, service centers don’t typically compensate technicians for diagnosing the issue with a unit component. Instead, they’re encouraged just to replace it.

The result is tension between the supplier, manufacturers, and dealerships. Gerber argued that this tension, along with planned obsolescence of the RV itself, further stirred the RV industry death spiral. 

If that weren’t enough, add an emerging monopoly to the death cauldron. Gerber argued that Lippert Components, the giant RV supplier, has a stronghold on most brands out there. And this is still the case. A 2020 lawsuit by ASA Electronics accuses Lippert of bullying smaller companies out of the business.

Despite these troubles, as of 2022, the RV industry is anything but dead. The demand for recreation vehicles continues on an upward boom. So much so, in fact, that while supply chains across the United States suffered greatly in 2020 and 2021, most RV manufacturers thrived. 

First-time buyers have much more to consider, including inflated gas prices and lag time in supply chain delivery.

That said, recreational vehicles modeled like most consumer items, built not to last forever, does little to dissuade interest.

Dealers Drop the Ball on Service

Another issue Gerber took up with the RV industry is poor quality service from dealerships. Gerber claimed that although some individuals were becoming more professional, a general malaise and lack of technical support was rampant. 

Things were seldom fixed right the first time, said Gerber. There were very few technical schools, aside from some trade associations in Florida and Pennsylvania. But finding accessible training online was all but impossible.

The good news is that there are training modules online now. RV Technical Institute offers online, hybrid, and in-person courses for technicians. Certifications to become an RV repair person are more widely available but usually require in-person learning.

That said, many of the points Gerber raised in his 2016 article remain problematic today. Wait times to get your RV serviced can take as long as six months. Dealers have been known to ghost clients by not returning phone calls and online inquiries. 

In many ways, what’s happening in terms of less than satisfactory customer service in the RV world, is similar to what’s happening in other sectors. 

RV owners need to be their own advocates and stay on top of dealers regarding repair issues. On the flip side, workers are less inclined to deliver good service as their wages don’t match what’s being asked of them.

As long as the bottom line in this industry is increasing profit, the quality of product and customer service will continue to diminish.

Campgrounds Losing Capacity

When it comes to whether or not Greber had it right when stating that there are fewer places to park your RV, generally, he’s correct. But the reasons behind this fact aren’t as nefarious as he made them out to be. 

The main reason there are fewer spots to camp is because interest in RV travel is booming. With more people able to work from home, and a cultural ideology shift from having everything to experiencing everything, it’s no wonder RV parks are packed.

Other market factors have made it more difficult for folks to jump on the road and find a spot to camp. Some campgrounds have sold land to real estate investment trusts (REITs). Others lean towards long-term and seasonal campers, leaving less room to book for a week or less.

Still, we think there are lots of great opportunities to be explored. You just may need to do a bit more planning ahead. First, the Walmart Corporation still allows overnight stays in some parking lots. The rub is that each store location can change its rules, so call ahead.

Second, be flexible. There should always be options if you can travel during the week or the off-season. We’re experiencing a campground explosion right now, and many long-time RV travelers have chosen to take a break. 

But this too shall pass. The industry will continue to adapt, and the RV community will always be passionate about making it work. 

Associations Can Influence Change

The associations mentioned in Gerber’s 2016 report remain strong in 2022. RVIA, RVDA, and ARVC each represent sectors of the RV industry. These organizations serve RV manufacturers, dealers, and campgrounds. 

The challenge for each is to spend resources on vocalizing critical issues like RV craftsmanship standards and campground permit issues. Conferences and Trade shows are cool, but satisfaction in day-to-day living is more important. 

These organizations need to pivot a little and focus on the increasing need for more space within RV parks and campgrounds and how to keep workers in every sector happy. 

Great customer service need not be an artifact of the past. 

Luckily, groups like Escapees RV Club and FMCA serve as a voice for the RV owner (or renter.) 

Both organizations lobby to protect RVers and offer many membership advantages such as emergency travel assistance and huge discounts. Escapees often invites manufacturers and suppliers to attend rallies to hear complaints and suggestions.

The other exciting shift is in which generations are camping. Although Gerber’s findings were correct in that Baby Boomers are still the lion’s share of lifelong campers, new campers are increasingly younger. 

According to KOA, there’s a healthy cross-section of generations exploring camping life. This translates to more voices who can call for change, so long as a culture of advocacy remains strong in our community.

RV Owners Share the Blame

As we have seen so far, advocating for owners in the RV world is crucial to avoid Gerber’s RV industry death spiral. The other side of that coin lies with our fellow RV owners. 

In Gerber’s opinion, owning an RV is a luxury. If you’re lucky enough to explore this lifestyle, then proceed with some humble gratitude and an abundance of self-awareness. Basically, we tend to agree.

There are many ways some RV owners could do better: don’t litter, don’t walk through other people’s campgrounds, and mind your dog. Take time to learn the basics of maintaining holding tanks before hitting the road. 

Although it’s rare, some parks have had to close their doors due to poor camping etiquette. One such incident in 2019 left a section of Joshua Tree National Park irreparable for at least 200 years.

Gerber pointed out how the Internet could be a place for community or for useless flamethrowing. This is true for any online community. We’ve seen remarkable growth in the positive side of online resources over the last five years. Keep up the good work, team!

The other cultural component that falls on the shoulders of RV owners comes back to being your own best advocate. Do your research before buying an RV, so you don’t walk into the transaction blind. 

Maybe don’t buy everything online, especially your RV! The more consumers enable online shopping, the fewer items dealerships carry, and the less need for humans to be accountable for what they’re selling. We know it’s highly convenient. But just weigh if it’s worth it.

When you do have issues and file a complaint, be kind. Exercise patience so the people working with you will be more inclined to help. 

Being a great customer need not be an artifact of the past!

Industry Media Falls Asleep

When Gerber released his 2016 article, new media was still gaining ground. TikTok didn’t exist, and Instagram was not the massive platform it is today. The country was still feeling the aftershocks of the great recession, albeit slight. 

Gerber struggled with the lack of transparency of news and magazine outfits reporting on negative news in the RV world. Well-funded media outlets are supported by advertisements. And if your ad comes from a company behaving poorly, you’re less likely to report the bad stuff.

Although this remains a general truth, newer forms of storytelling are a lifeline that didn’t exist in quite the same way as they did in 2016. People see eye-catching stories on Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook and follow those travelers. 

There’s much more exposure to bloggers and YouTubers who highlight problem areas. This, in turn, gets the industry to listen.

Spiral into Possibilities

Gerber’s 2016 article, The RV Industry Death Spiral, is a lesson in tough love. But whether you agree with what he had to say or think he was full of unmerited salty mudslinging, his words are worth consideration. 

The question is not precisely whether his predictions and accusations were accurate, but in fact, what do they stir up? What about them makes you flustered, and why?

The only constant thing in life is change. And change, for the love of all things camping, is what Gerber was after. He’s just not the best candidate for an RV diplomat or Ambassador.

The RV stratosphere is changing. And it is a stratosphere. It’s no longer a little wading pool for retirees to have fun in their sun-setting years. We are experiencing growing pains, the kind that hurts your bones and causes you to lash out and act a little wacko. But this is a good thing. A beautiful thing, really.

That is if we can stay the course and work together. 

RV life must encompass the needs of those who need to downsize due to the high cost of living. It needs to offer solid craftsmanship to those who will live in them for much of the year. It needs to respect and conserve the nature we all seek to be a part of. And, it still needs to be fun! 

Hitting the road for a weekend of recreation will always be a part of the RV lifestyle. We just need to keep building our passionate community to contribute to that change. This is where the spiral exists – in possibilities.

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LG

Saturday 29th of January 2022

Decriminalize RV Ownership

I believe that one of the main factors affecting RV ownership, is that today it is almost impossible to find a city that will let you park your RV on the street -- especially in non-commercial areas of town.

For example -- in my city it is illegal for me to park my motor home on the street in front of or next my house. Ironically I was not aware that this ban was going into effect until after I bought my RV in 2017. The city expects all owners of RVs over 22 feet to rent a parking space at a storage facility -- which is another industry that is experiencing a shortage of availability. The city offers free 72 hour permits for residents but they are limited to 20 per year. I live in a part of town that has almost no parking issues -- when the city-wide RV parking prohibition went into effect I started getting tickets for parking my RV on the street directly next to my house -- no one ever parks there. I move it several times a week to keep a step ahead of enforcement.

We also found out that our neighbors have no problem with our RV parked on the street. I do not believe they have called parking enforcement, however one neighbor did say that when houses in the neighborhood are for sale real-estate agents may call parking enforcement because they believe that prospective buyers will be discouraged if they see RVs in the neighborhood.

I wrote to several RV organizations asking them why they are not actively fighting for the decriminalization of owning an RV and none responded. I finally did receive a response from an RV-owner advocate who informed me that some RV manufacturers and other RV-associated entities had entered the lucrative RV hospitality side of the business and were acquiring resort campgrounds and RV storage facilities to increase their company's residual income. As a result of this, they have little (if any) motivation for fighting to reverse or stop these blanket "city ordinances." In fact they may be encouraging the bans.

Oh well...

V. Jackson

Saturday 29th of January 2022

Good information for an upcoming new Rv'er. Thank you!

Mike Miller

Friday 28th of January 2022

Another thing that's going to affect RVs are electric vehicles. They can only tow a very lightweight trailer around 150 miles before recharge. People will have to carry less stuff. No more 40 foot 5th wheelers with canoe and bikes on board. Same with motor homes towing cars.

Peter van Arkens

Friday 28th of January 2022

Many RVs are bought and sold online and dealers buy used RVs at no cost to sellers. Based on photos and assurances by sellers, a dealer may send a transporter/purchaser/inspector to a seller's home and complete a transaction. This is very convenient for sellers, because the sale is mostly hassle-free and dealers negotiate price up front. Once sold to the dealer, the transporter will drive it to the dealership where the used RV gets a thorough detailing makeover to ptepare it for resale, much like flipping houses. All of this is at no cost to the seller, which is a huge benefit to folks who want to get out of the RV life.

Greg Gerber

Thursday 27th of January 2022

What a surprise to see my editorial enjoying a second wind! The authors did a great job summarizing the problems I identified nearly six years ago and updating the situation.

The entire premise of my editorial series was that the RV industry had less than 20 years of viability remaining because its members refuse to address many glaring deficiencies -- and they have been burying their heads in the sand since I landed a job as the editor of a trade publication 22 years ago.

The industry may very well be bustling today, but we'll see where it stands 14 years from now. As long as the industry can convince 400,000 suckers to buy a new RV every year without doing research before signing on the dotted line, it will continue to maintain, but the RV industry has wasted an opportunity to truly thrive.

Those editorials were the most painful things I wrote during my nearly 20-year career as a journalist covering the RV industry.

Yes, a major manufacturer retaliated by threatening my advertisers and telling them if they continued to support RV Daily Report, the firm would not buy any of the advertiser's products to install on any RVs its many subsidiaries built. As a result, my business was forced to close.

That's certainly not what I envisioned when I bought a used motorhome and ventured out to report on the RV industry by using its products. I spent nearly three years visiting all 48 lower states at least once while interviewing hundreds of RV dealers, manufacturers, suppliers, campground owners and RV owners.

What I thought would be the defining moment of my career as the ONLY industry journalist who had ever engaged in full-time RVing, actually turned out to be a death knoll. Yet, the message had to be delivered. I went into full-time RVing thinking I was very familiar with the industry's problems as it attempted to manage them, but I was not prepared for what I actually encountered.

It got so bad that by year three I was no longer identifying myself as an industry journalist at campgrounds where I stayed. I was inundated with very sad stories about people who invested a lot of money in hopes of living their travel dreams only to experience one heart-breaking disappointment after another.

Yes, it is still possible to enjoy the RV lifestyle, but only if you are capable of fixing your own RVs. Check out the RV Fundamentals Course offered by the National RV Training Academy in Athens, Texas. If you learn to fix 80% of the problems you WILL encounter with your RV, it's likely you'll have the time of your life.

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