Americans are back on the road, and apparently many of them are driving or towing recreational vehicles.
Akron-based RVshare, a company that uses its online platform to link owners of recreational vehicles with those who want to rent them, says its business is going up dramatically in states that have reopened amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re running at about three times what we were last year at this time,” said RVshare CEO Jon Gray.
At the moment, one of Gray’s challenges is finding more RVs to rent, he said, though the numbers of those willing to rent also have been on the rise, just not as quickly as the demand for rentals has shot up since about mid-May.
The year started out well, and RVshare was continuing to grow as it had in 2019, Gray said. The company does not disclose its revenue, but has been growing by triple digits since 2015, he said. Then, the bottom fell out.
“We were having a great year through February. The middle of March hits and all the bookings dried up,” Gray said. “We had a couple of very worrisome weeks.”
He even remembers the day the flood of cancellations came: March 12, a day after the U.S. announced plans to contain the virus, prompting much of the nationwide shutdown.
“On March 12, there were no more bookings essentially,” said Gray. “Not only that, there were thousands of cancellations from people not planning to take their trips anymore.”
RVshare pivoted, he said. Instead of finding vacationers to rent vehicles, the company started to provide RVs to doctors working in hospitals who wanted to social distance from their families by living in their driveways.
Places like power plants, which needed to remain constantly staffed, also used RVs to provide workers living at the plants a place to stay.
By the end of April, however, some states were starting to reopen, especially in the South. Gray said that every time another state reopened throughout May, he saw demand for RV rentals quickly spike.
Now, RVshare’s business is triple what it was a year ago and up 16 times what it was in April, he noted.
But the nature of travel has changed. For instance, RVshare usually rented a lot of its members’ vehicles for use at big events, like concerts and festivals. That business has yet to come back, Gray said.
A lot of customers used to fly from one state to another, then rent an RV to travel and stay in while on vacation. Now, nearly all of the company’s rentals are for in-state users who stay close to home, with apparently little appetite to return to air travel.
“What we’re seeing this year is a lot more drive-to trips instead of fly-to. They’re basically getting the RV near where they live and staying close to home. … Control over your trip is just at a new premium this year,” he said.
That’s likely playing into RVshare’s favor, Gray reasoned, as RVs afford the ability to both travel and maintain social distance.
“With an RV, if you go to a campground and it’s too crowded, you can just go to another campground. … Things like that, that have been part of the RV experience for many years, are getting pushed into the spotlight,” Gray said.
Plus, if you’re in an RV, you don’t have to rely on hotels and eateries being open; you’ve got a bed and kitchen.
How long the rental boom continues may depend on whether states remain open and whether the pandemic eases or worsens. Gray said he can tell from his revenue where the shutdowns have hit his business and the economy the hardest and where they’ve been lifted.
“We’re disproportionately strong this year in Florida and Texas, and we’re disproportionately weak in places like Oregon and Washington,” Gray said.
His company’s experience might be a sign that Americans are building up a good deal of pent-up demand when it comes to travel.
While it may take longer for Americans to begin flying again in numbers that mimic previous years, or want to stay in hotels, it appears camping with RVs is enjoying an early rebound.
Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp- Resorts, which includes more than 80 campgrounds around the U.S. and rents RVs on its own, as well as hosting RVshare renters, said it’s seeing a similar rebound in states that have reopened.
“Jellystone Park locations across the country have seen big spikes in reservations as stay-at-home orders are lifted,” said Brad Ritter, a spokesman with Ritter Communications in Columbus who represents the campgrounds. “Phones often start ringing the moment states announce restrictions on camping are ending. Many campgrounds are sold out for Father’s Day weekend, and reservations for the rest of the summer are filling up quickly.”
Gray said he hopes the surge in business portends more growth to come. His best customers have always been repeat renters, so getting new customers now is a good thing for his future business.
So far, he still has enough vehicles to rent, but he’s looking for more.
“Our first test was Memorial Day, and we did fine. We still had (available RVs) in all our major markets. Our next test will be the Fourth of July,” Gray said. “We are definitely full steam ahead and trying to get more RVs online. … We don’t think this is temporary.”