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Amid pandemic, many value control over their vacation: Are RVs the answer?

SHARE Amid pandemic, many value control over their vacation: Are RVs the answer?

Sharon Ginger and her husband, Joel Owsen, of San Diego, set up their Airstream trailer at the KOA campground in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns eager to find alternatives to vacations that heighten the risk of exposure to coronavirus are turning to recreational vehicle rentals in droves, spilling into RV parks for socially distant vacations.

Tempted by the level of control they offer, first time RVers — people who’ve never rented or owned an RV before — in particular are trying it out, according to Kampgrounds of America Vice President of Communications Mike Gast.

“A phenomenal amount of people — and most of those first timers — are flocking to rent RVs from other people and give that lifestyle a try or have decided that’s going to be their vacation this year,” Gast said. “We are seeing a huge bump in business right now.”

It’s a trend that’s been reflected in a number of different RV parks, according to Ben Imlay, operations manager for the popular McArthur’s Temple View RV Resort in St. George. He said the business has seen a “very large increase of first time RVers” at the park, in addition to a surge of same-day reservations.

“There have also been a lot of people traveling from other states that have been locked down coming here because RV travel is one of the safest ways to travel because you have your own bed and living quarters,” he said. “There were also a lot of people who stayed here longer in Utah primarily because the areas they were heading home to were impacted by COVID much more and they didn’t want to travel to that.”

While travel restrictions, financial restraints and other travel-related fears brought down the number of stays overall this year, Gast said KOA sites are “clawing their way back,” and each week gets a little bit better. Recently, weekends have seen “phenomenal numbers” and there’s been advance reservations at the end of the June that were higher than the number of bookings at that same time in 2019.

“We know that demand is there. We know that people were quick to return to the camping lifestyle, and we certainly aren’t going to recover to the end of last year, it’s just too much of a gap there,” Gast said. “But it certainly did come back strong, and we also understand that there’s likely going to be surges in certain areas.”

Gast said one of the more encouraging things is that customer satisfaction is up. This coupled with the fact that more people are turning to camping and renting an RV for the first time, makes him feel positive about KOA’s future.

“We think the net result of COVID is we probably have been able to increase the audience for camping. We’ve got more people interested in it, more people giving it a try, and we know that once they give it a try they are going to want to do it again,” he said.

Chris Clark, of Orlando, Florida, is also staying at the Salt Lake City KOA site. She’s currently on a six-week trip with her husband and daughter.

She said she understands why traveling by RV is such a popular thing these days.

“Camping is naturally socially distancing,” Clark said. “It was easy for us because it gives us the flexibility of you can go and do. There are so many advantages of traveling by RV.”

Peer-to-peer rentals like RVshare and Outdoorsy have seen a considerable surge in public interest. Similar to Airbnb, these companies allow people to rent out or find an RV all over the country.

RVShare CEO Jon Gray said stays in Utah specifically have doubled in June compared to the previous year. While the service exists all over the country, the Western metro area is a big market — Salt Lake City being one of the top cities.

Gray said RVshare’s rentals have shifted quite a bit since mid-March when the coronavirus began heavily impacting life in the U.S. Initially, the company pivoted business to service health care workers so they could have access to an RV in their driveway in order to lessen the odds of potentially infecting family members, and to other critical workers who needed to isolate themselves.

As states have steadily loosened restrictions, RVshare has seen surges in rentals in those areas and “a pretty high percentage of new bookings coming from first timers,” Gray said, explaining the numbers are “pretty astounding.”

He credited this to the aspects of the RV business that are attractive to people where “control is a premium” when there are so many unknowns because of the pandemic.

“RVs allow you to have your own bathroom and your own kitchen. They allow you to stay away from crowds. They allow you the flexibility to stay where you want to control the environment around you,” Gray said. “These things cast in the light of COVID have become even more important.”

He pointed to a recent RVshare survey that found 93% of respondents are aiming to avoid crowds this summer on their vacation.

“You have the RV and you can drive it to where you want. If you come upon a campground that you feel is too crowded, you don’t have to go there. You can go to the next one,” Gray said.

Sharon Ginger, of San Diego, echoed these sentiments. She and her family are staying in the Salt Lake City KOA campground while embarking on a 17 day trip.

“It’s our space. Nobody is coming into our space unless we invite them into it. It’s our bed every night, it’s our sheets and our pillows. We can cook in our camper if we want to,” Ginger said. “You can be fully self-contained.”

Ginger said she has a compromised immune system because of her history with a rare form of cervical cancer. She explained she feels “totally safe” camping, and said her diagnosis actually helped encourage her to get out and live — including selling her home four years ago and embarking on a six-month trip with her family’s first camper.