Skift Take

Horizonless highways and RVs certainly have a lot of appeal in the current climate, but longer term they'll be competing against aggressive hotel and flight discounting.

Recreational vehicles used to be about disconnecting from technology. Now the pandemic has turned RVs into the ultimate mobile office.

That’s just one trend to emerge in this particular sector of the outdoor market and campground operators need to be prepared, the CEO of one of the largest RV rental companies has warned.

“Work from anywhere is a massive tailwind for RV and short-term rental businesses,” said RVShare’s Jon Gray at Thursday’s Skift Short-Term Rental & Outdoor Summit. “No one wanted Wi-Fi, they did it to get off the grid. That completely changed in the summer, and now they want to stay connected. That will be a long-term trend in travel. This is a call to arms to anyone who manages campgrounds: make it ready for remote workers.”

Gray said the mindset had shifted, and RVs were convenient spaces to work even if it meant an extra two weeks away from the office for those that do have offices to return to once the criss subdues.

But it was just one trend of several to emerge for the category, which he believes has seen its awareness advance by five years since the pandemic began.

Where the Other Opportunities Lie

It’s not just remote workers. Similar to some urban short-term rental companies, a richer spectrum of traveler is on the horizon.

The booking pattern is familiar with those seen with hotels too, with Gray describing how RVShare saw most bookings come from frontline health workers earlier this year, as they slept in RVs outside their homes to avoid “cross contamination” with households. There was also an uptick in the use of RVs to cross states when flights weren’t possible.

Now the demographic has moved on from the empty nester stereotype. Gray said the core market is the “nuclear family” which also includes millennials alongside groups. Music festivals were also tipped to bounce back next year.

Speaking at the “From Short-Term Rentals to Outdoor: How to Capitalize on Rapid Growth” session, Skift founding editor Dennis Schaal asked if there was a luxury segment to target as well.

“It’s more around concierge,” Gray replied. “Delivery, outfitting, and when we say it has internet, we mean X speed, rather than the luxuriousness of the RV.”

And while Gray has said before tents are his biggest competitor (“40 million households go camping, and most choose to sleep on the ground”), he didn’t perceive short-term rentals to be rivals. They were even a “tie-in”, as some people hired an RV to use as an extra room if the hotel didn’t offer enough beds.

Schaal also wanted to know whether, with such fast growth in the future, was it going to be sustainable.

Gray thought so, as the RV space had just hit an inflection point. “We had more RV trips than we expected this year. It’s sustainable because people who go on RV trips love them. We have 93 percent 5-star reviews. It’s a great value proposition, and with that satisfaction, it’s an inflection point.”

Making the Model Work

Gray also believes RVShare has the right business model to suit a range of vehicle tastes. As well as offering fleet RVs, it operates a peer-to-peer model. One new trend is that with many first-timers nervous about driving larger RVs, owners were stepping up and delivering them directly to the campgrounds.

Meanwhile there have been record purchases of RVs, and Gray thinks people have identified a clear opportunity to make money by renting them in the future. Some were even paying off big parts of their mortgages by renting their vehicles.

However, there’s been less success with instant bookings. There has been demand, and not much resistance from the RV owners, but Gray said there was work to be done to ensure they kept their calendars up to date. “We’re seeing the sophistication of the supply base is still evolving,” he said. Currently just 30 percent of RVs can be booked instantly.

The Road Ahead

With growth for the RV market sustainable, as opposed to a pandemic blip, Gray told Schaal that RVShare will continue to focus on the U.S. — after all, that’s where 50 percent of the global market resides. And after recently raising $100 million, his focus was on getting this geography right before worrying about scaling it up elsewhere.

So what was the end game exactly? Does RVShare want to be acquired by an ambitious OTA, Schaal asked. “I feel like it’s naive to be a travel business and say that an outcome other than getting bought by Expedia or Booking is likely, as that’s the way it goes for most other travel businesses.

“We build the business to be a sustainable business, to be profitable, where it could be a public company, or a division of another company. We try to have many off-ramps.”

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Tags: RVshare, stro2020

Photo credit: RVShare's CEO Jon Gray said awareness of the RV category had advanced five years since the pandemic began. Willian Justen de Vasconcellos / Unsplash

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