Custom RVs: homes on the road

As sales of RVs trend upward year after year, so do the opportunities for fabricators in custom shops.

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The news for custom shops that tap into the RV market just seems to get better. Shops that connect with this group of ardent road enthusiasts could enjoy a comfortable niche—and a boost in sales of their services. For every new RV that lands a home, two used RVs are sold, says Kevin Broom, director of media relations for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA). And those previously-owned RVs are just begging for a facelift—which often translates into an extensive refurbishing, either accomplished all at once or, more commonly, over several years.

Says Josh Skiller, general manager of Countryside Interiors Inc. of Junction City, Oregon’s largest RV store, “Many of our customers bought a used model at $30,000 and then proceed to put in $10,000 in upgrades—better than paying $200,000 for a new vehicle. They remodel the interiors to look like new, using pretty much all types of fabric applications.”

Dave Ast, co-owner with his brother, L.J., of Dave and LJ’s RV Interior Design in Woodland, Wash., agrees. “The oldest vehicles we see were made 10 years ago, so they’re ready for an update,” Ast says. “Before the recession, folks bought a new coach every two or three years, but since the downturn, they’re not spending that kind of money. They refurbish it instead.”

Even custom upgrades in a more recent model can be cost effective for the client, according to Stephanie Williams, vice president and co-owner with her husband, Greg, of Classic Coach Works, Lakeland, Fla. “Customers came in with a very new, high-end 2011 coach, but they’d just looked at the 2013 model and wanted what they saw—so they added the features,” Williams says. “They spent $30,000 instead of $200,000 and now have everything they want.”

Who and where

It’s not just gramps and grandma any more. Yes, seniors were the trailblazers for RVs and still occupy a prime chunk of real estate in RV camps across the continent. But today vacationers of every age are hitting the highways in ever-larger numbers, keen on experiencing the advantages of traveling in their own “home.”

A study commissioned by the RVIA and conducted by the University of Michigan in 2011 reports 8.1 million RVs on the road. Those numbers continue to climb, says Broom. “Last year was a nice year: up 13.3 percent in RV sales, and we’re forecasting an additional 7.5 percent, to 8.9 million, in 2013, the highest ever.”

The surge may be driven by free spirits preferring to call their own shots, traveling wherever their fancy takes them, free to explore the byways that enrich their vacation experience. And undoubtedly 9/11 stoked the urge to strengthen family bonds with memorable “togetherness” time. Add in economic conditions, and airline travel, hotel bills and restaurant tabs could make travel financially out of reach for many.

“For a family of four,” Broom notes, “you really rack up savings. And if gas prices increase, you simply vacation closer to home—the state park down the road.”

Ownership is peppered across the entire continent, although highest in the West and Southeast, and the average age of the owner is 48. “A year younger than in our previous study, he says.” Three-quarters of these roadsters are married, one-third have children under 18, and the average income is $62,000. The biggest slice of the demographic pie by age is 35–54: families, plus empty-nesters and early retirees with their discretionary income burning a hole in their pockets, for whom, Broom surmises, “It makes a nice romantic getaway.” Those 55 and older corral another big chunk of the RV population, and the 18–35 age group is gaining on them fast, he reports.

Skiller notes the same trend. “When my dad started the business in 1981, it was mostly older owners. Now it’s the boomers too, spending half a year or full time in their vehicle.”

Dave and LJ’s boasts customers in every state. “They need to drive to us” to get their custom work done, Ast says. “But that counts as a vacation! People tend to remodel step by step, so they return every year.”

RVs reach Len’s Alternative RV Parts and Service, in Brandon, Man., Canada, from much of the U.S. as well as his native Canada, says owner Ernie Bessant. Ninety percent of Len’s customers are 55-65, and for them, “money doesn’t matter. The big boys with their toys spend five or six grand.” However, the second-highest spike is the 30–50 year-olds. “Young folks are doing more camping than ever before, wanting to try it out,” he says.

That’s also the observation of Michael Saivetz, COO/vice president of Richloom Fabrics Group, headquartered in New York City, N.Y. “There are two trends occurring in the industry: first, an influx of first-time buyers who are interested in the RV lifestyle; second is the demand from the 50-plus-age consumers,” he says.

Today’s preferences

Customers’ priorities lead off with replacing furniture, followed by flooring and shades, reports Ast. They’re tossing the carpet in favor of solid surfaces. “But we do small carpets, using Mohawk® nylon, for bedrooms and slide-outs,” he notes. It’s “curtains and carpets first,” agrees Skiller, while Bessant rates awnings—their specialty—as number one, followed by the skirt around the fifth wheel, for which he uses Vintex reinforced vinyl. Williams uses vinyl or acrylic such as Sunbrella® for awning work. Bessant makes all his own awnings using Caliban, a preshrunk, marine-quality used in boats, because, he says, “the freezes of spring and fall can make it bust and crack. We do 100 to 200 replacements a year, in all colors.”

Carpeting and upholstery are next to get an update. Flooring comes first for Classic Coach’s customers, reports Williams. “They want new carpeting in the bedroom, but other places, it’s hard surfaces, like PVC, easier to clean. Then they replace the shades and, next, the furniture. A lot of reupholstery.”

In unison, these owners hailed the popularity over the last five or six years of dual day and night shades as “a must,” replacing the once-standard cotton/poly pleated numbers. “It’s two different shades on one unit, operated by a power button, so no more dangling strings. The top roller is a light-blocking vinyl for night, while the bottom, daytime shade, of lighter weight, creates a filtered effect that affords privacy but still provides daylight,” Skiller explains. Ast, like most, uses Auto-Motion® shades to replace those faded pleated numbers with their broken strings. Williams, another Auto-Motion fan, goes for their wide range of choices: “Eighteen for the light unit and 36 for the vinyl night version, plus a lot of upgrades.”

Material choices

In upholstery, think Ultraleather™—the most sought-after faux leather, offering durability, comfort and soil resistance. “The suede microfiber repels liquid and stains, so we use it for RVs. But for trailers, we use vinyl, which is cheaper,” Ast adds. Ultra Leather merits a full 80 percent of his upholstery redos too, “because it’s easy to care for. But it’s up to three times the cost of fabric, so we also carry printed knitted nylon for recliners and captains’ chairs.”

“We’re big on polypropylene,” says Bessant. “Tweed, stripes, all different colors. People like variegated colors in their fabrics to complement the rest of their fittings. We stock 200 rolls so they can come in and pick.”

“We do sofas and pilot seats in Ultraleather,” says Williams, “But we also use BRISA®—similar, but with a little softer texture, [and] Garrett leather too. People like neutrals because they blend with the rest and don’t have to keep changing. Some people even use suede and Ultraleather as a decorative ceiling, adding LED lights or rope lighting.”

Fabric Services, of Bristol, Ind., sells to manufacturers of new RVs. RV marketing manager Michele Kay reports high demand for faux leather too. “We also use many different fabrics, such as chenille and flat-woven, in transitional designs and geometrics. Earth tones, a natural palette of black, brown and tan, prove most popular. Owners simply want a good-quality, long-lasting product.” Fabric Services also manufactures a soft-touch, off-white vinyl ceiling. “It provides a plush look along with sound-muffling and good R-values,” she explains.

New York City-based Richloom supplies directly to RV manufacturers as well as independent fabricators. “There’s a trend toward slightly lighter decor, using more taupes and neutral colors. Polyurethanes—faux leathers—are very popular for the living quarters. In bedrooms, designers prefer woven jacquards to prints. Overall, residential looks are having a huge influence on the interiors,” says Saivetz.

Upgrading

Mattresses pose another sales opportunity as people upgrade. “They’re wanting higher quality,” says Skiller, “so we put in innersprings from Seville and Lockhart with a quilted tick top and ultra-soft quilt foam.”

“Foam,” points out Bessant, “that takes moisture from your body to add comfort is fairly cheap to use. For the market that spends a bit more, it’s a custom-built pillowback, with a wedge corner if needed.” “Mattresses? We just started!” says Williams. “We use Blu-Tek™, a foam that helps regulate body temperature because it’s ventilated both horizontally and vertically, because lots of people complain about being too hot.”

But the applications don’t end there. Skiller uses fabric made from 100-percent recycled plastic bottles as his carpet option “because it wears really well.” Other flooring Countryside carries segues from linoleum to vinyl, laminate to rubber. Bessant finds that polypropylene carpeting stands up, repelling moisture and mildew better than jute backing, which “shrinks and busts. The new, heavier vinyl won’t shrink, crack or stretch, making the change from cold to heat.” He also supplies heavy net of reinforced nylon with a plastic finish, which can double as tarp on a truck.

Williams puts in a good word for PVC flooring, which fights moisture and is easy to clean. “We tell customers there are two types of vehicles: those that had a leak and those that will have—so this flooring is not affected. It looks like wood or tile, but without the weight of tile. And it’s antimicrobial”—a feature slowly beginning to grab customers’ attention.

While most of these companies do all their own work, Classic Coach contracts with several outside businesses. “We do wraparound, but we do not sew,” Williams specifies. Ast notes that there are “lots of RV repair shops for items like awnings, but they don’t do interiors.” Indications are that there’s ample room for fabricators to carve themselves a slice of this lucrative pie.

Carla Waldemar is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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