The RV industry is our doppelgänger when it comes to comparing boating to the next-closest industry. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it’s pretty close: Both industries involve recreation, cyclicality, wide ranges of models and price points, emotional but rational decisions about when to pull the trigger on the big-ticket purchase, workforce shortages, and the tacit understanding that there are many less-expensive choices in recreation. Ultimately, boating and RV are about experiences: being in nature, doing something fun or spending time with friends and family.
In this crossover issue, we take a closer look at the two industries using multiple lenses to gauge the similarities and differences. We looked at the main stakeholders — distributors, manufacturers and dealers — to measure any kind of cross-fertilization that the two industries share.
We talked to dealers who sell RVs and boats, marine distributors who have expanded into RV and RV distributors moving into marine, and RV equipment giants like Lippert, Patrick and Dometic changing the marine-equipment landscape by acquisitions.
It’s definitely a brave new world when Land ’N’ Sea holds a show in Las Vegas, and a third of the attendees are RV dealers. Or Patrick Industries opens a showroom for its 22 marine brands. Or Lippert pairs Lewmar with another of its recent acquisitions to grow share in Europe’s marine market.
We also compared funding models for Grow Boating and Go RVing, and discovered why the RV sector is speaking with a much “louder voice,” as former Grow Boating president Carl Blackwell puts it, since Go RVing’s funding is three times higher than Grow Boating.
Also in the issue, NMMA president Frank Hugelmeyer wrote about what boating could learn from the RV and outdoor industries, and RVIA president Craig Kirby discussed what his industry has done right, as RV units are much higher than their prerecession highs.
What did we Learn from all This?
The two industries are indeed doppelgängers, or at least first cousins, but on different tracks. RV is reaching millennial buyers at an envious pace compared to the boating industry, mostly because of entry-level products that start around $8,000. Of course, it helps that 85 percent of new RVs are towables without engines.
That affordability quotient means that the share of RV buyers ages 25 to 44 has risen from 23 percent to 30 percent in the last five years. Their growth has pushed the average age of RV owners from 50 down to 45.
The boating industry has been enjoying impressive sales on larger, higher-horsepower boats, but the unit trendline continues to be flat or slightly down. Last year, unit shipments were about 280,000, while the RV sector forecasts about 390,500 units, its fourth-strongest year. In 2017, the RVIA reported record shipments of 504,600 units.
It feels as if RV is pointed toward the future, while we’re looking in the rear-view mirror with an aging boomer buyer in the backseat.
This isn’t news to anyone, but the shortage of entry-level products and compelling solutions are topics Hugelmeyer addresses in his column. It really needs serious discussion. We can do better than setting up boat clubs as the only solution for declining first-time boat buyers.
Creativity and Passion
One of the things I love about this industry is the range of boats on the water. The RV industry’s three largest manufacturers account for 85 percent of annual sales, and arguably the boating industry has similar dynamics among its top 10 or 15 builders. But you’ll never find a 300-foot RV parked beside the azure waters of Monte Carlo, or a 10-foot towable running 60 mph in 6 inches of water. Whatever else they say about boating, it’s an industry built on creativity and passion. And serious innovation.
And grit. Real grit. I don’t think that point was ever made in this issue, but I want to underline it. It’s an industry created by enthusiasts. I don’t think that will ever change.
Introducing new Voices
This will be my last issue as editor of Soundings Trade Only. My next job involves covering boating, but in a different capacity.
I’ve really enjoyed the last two years, and I think we’ve made big progress with the magazine. I wanted to introduce more voices from the industry, as contributors and sources, and we did that. International coverage also went way up, a necessity in this age of tariffs and imported yachts.
Jeff Moser, most recently executive editor of our sister magazine Power & Motoryacht, is taking over as editor-in-chief. Jeff has seen the boating industry in two different stints at PMY. He’ll be a solid editor, backed by a strong team.
I always told my editors to aim high for the reboot of the magazine, and they did. Their efforts showed. I want to thank them, art director Steve Jylkka, my boss and friend Bill Sisson, AIM Marine Group president Gary DeSanctis, and publisher Michele Goldsmith, one of the most inspirational people I know in the industry.
It has been a great run.
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.