An 82% drop in overall sales followed by a rapid recovery is the kind of business success story that only makes sense during a global pandemic. This remarkable rebound happened in the recreational vehicle (RV) industry, which according to the RV Industry Association (RVIA) faced that dramatic drop in April of 2020, right in the middle of what is usually the busy Spring sales season.
Recovery began quickly, and by June of that year, RV shipments reached the highest monthly total since October of 2018, according to a report from the association. One year later, in June 2021, total RV shipments set another record, ending the month with 50,706 units, an increase of 25.3% compared to the 40,462 units shipped during June 2020, the association reported.
An RV is the ultimate social distancing vacation. It does not require co-mingling with strangers, can easily accommodate families, and taps into outdoor activities. New consumer interest in those benefits, along with pent-up demand from the 2020 Spring season, is driving this lasting growth opportunity.
RVing is a beloved American getaway
With our vast natural resources, majestic national and state parks, and interstate highway system, RVs have always been a great match for Americans' desire to both get outdoors and retain the comfort and convenience of home. The first motor homes ever produced were bolted onto automobiles or hitched. In 1915, wealthy motor-bus company owner Roland Conklin modified a bus into his unique, fully furnished, double-deck “Gypsy Van.” The drive from Conklin's home in New York across the country to San Francisco created much fanfare and excitement, leaving many people unsure what to make of the vehicle. The New York Times published several articles about the Conklins’ bus, calling it a “sublimated English caravan, land-yacht, or what you will,” with “all the conveniences of a country house, plus the advantages of unrestricted mobility and independence of schedule.”
After wide publicity of that style of travel, perhaps it was inevitable that the RV became ubiquitous on our highways.
While part of the appeal of camping is to “rough it,” the RV experience has long been supported by wave after wave of new technology. Everything from survival gear to weather-resistant apparel to roaming satellite service has evolved along with the motorhome’s vehicle sophistication and ease of handling.
During the pandemic, many people wanted to get outdoors, travel, and explore, but to do so without interacting with other people, using public transportation or staying at hotels. Travel abroad and by air were restricted, limiting travel to what could be done on the road, in-country. All that was needed was some way to get there.
And thus, the 2021 scramble to purchase an RV was born.
New interest from new audiences driving RV transport growth
The RV sales boom has been a boon for manufacturers, who are still struggling to keep up with demand. RV fleet managers and carriers have also felt the impact of this recent increase in interest in RV travel. Since the RV shipping business is a mix of both drive-away (one-way transport with the driver returning via a different vehicle or public transportation) and driver-owned trucking, there’s been an increased need for a fleet card management solution to support that complexity. The solution needs to keep drivers safe, happy, and supported on the road; all of which WEX’s products and solutions provide. This has been demonstrated through the strong partnership WEX has with its customers.
Joe Braun, President of Horizon Transport, located in Wakarusa, Indiana, and one of North America’s largest RV transport companies, explains the challenge in terms of driver experience. “Contract drivers expect that we will provide them with a reliable, secure, and seamless fuel and expense card service,” he said. “It helps that they recognize the WEX brand.”
Horizon had nearly 1,500 drivers on the road pre-pandemic, and after a drop during the initial lockdowns, is on track to transport 90,000+ vehicles this year with more than 1,600 drivers. “We are busier than ever, but meeting the high demand while keeping drivers safe and productive makes the day more enjoyable,” he says.
Mid-sized carriers are also growing their market share. Jenni Miller is the president and founder of Transport US, which launched in 2019. For 20 years prior to founding her company, Jenni helped lead her father’s transport business and WEX was right there with them all along the way. Because of Jenni’s great experience as a WEX customer, her new venture partnered with WEX from day one. While the timing of the pandemic-induced squeeze wasn’t great for the just-launched Transport US, the recovery has been rapid.
Technology that helps create a secure, safe driver experience
“Having just started out, when COVID-19 hit we had just 60 contract drivers,” Jenni said. However, they doubled that number by June of 2020 when the industry started to recover. All her drivers own their own equipment, and the savings and technology advances from WEX make Transport US competitive for contractors. “While we have many retail customers, most of our work is with dealers, who just want more units on their lots to capture the escalating sales opportunity.”
Jenni credits this sales growth in large part to clever marketing executed industry-wide. The new RV value proposition appealed to the desires of a nation chock full of pent-up disposable income. “I also think social media has had a hand in strengthening the market. RVs are family-friendly and modernizing the long-time #GoRVing campaign from RVIA onto social media has celebrated the joys of camping, and is attracting a lot of first-time buyers.”
Providing drivers with a reliable and satisfying experience is part of what WEX calls our “lifestyle platform” payment solution. “It works for both drive-away and carrier situations,” says Patrick Hicklen, director of national sales for WEX, who works with many of our RV customers. “Carrier companies can set up the payment card to cover as much or as little as they like, and give drivers the flexibility to shop anywhere Mastercard is accepted. Many carriers also have relationships with multiple fuel vendors, as well as cover daily expenses for the drivers and any family members who happen to join them on the trip.
“WEX has done a good job leading the fuel payments industry,” said Jenni of Transport US, “And the technology-based solutions are helping us adapt to these shifts in the industry.”
“We continually expand and diversify our fleet management offerings to modernize the overall experience, and provide more opportunities for our customers,” Patrick said. “Savings and access to the largest in-network fuel locations are just the start. We focus on ensuring that our technology at all levels - driver apps to back-end processing to POS transaction management - is scaling and flexing with our customers’ growth.”
“Fuel savings alone can make a large difference to the profitability of the trip for both driver and carrier,” he said. “On a 125 gallon purchase, a 30-cent savings per gallon adds up. Plus, using technology to manage sales tax and receipts is a huge time saver, as well as ensuring accuracy for the carrier.”
Carriers and their drivers are classified as essential workers. “We’ve been on the road throughout,” Joe of Horizon Transport said. “We need to provide our drivers with confidence that there is the proper back-office and on the road support they need.”
All fleet cards are not the same, and different types of fuel cards suit the needs of different kinds and sizes of businesses. View WEX’s fleet card comparison chart to see which fleet fuel card is right for you.
Visit: RV Industry Association (RIVA)
Visit: Horizon Transport
Visit: Transport US