Don and Melissa Foss are like many parents of a 17- and a 13-year-old: being pulled in myriad directions by school, sports and other activities while looking for ways to spend quality time with their kids.
To help keep their son, Derek, and daughter, Amanda, interested in hanging out as a family, the Fosses own an RV, a 2016 36-foot Jayco Eagle fifth-wheel trailer, and a 2017 22-foot Harris triple-pontoon boat with a Mercury 150-hp outboard, making them one among many American families that combine a recreational vehicle and recreational boating as favorite pastimes — the kind of family that industry leaders are working to target.
The family is from Raymond, Maine, and they keep the boat in a marina slip in nearby Naples, giving them access to the two largest recreational bodies of water in the area: Sebago Lake and Long Lake. “The days are numbered for us as a whole family,” Don says. “We’ve used boating and RVing as family activities.”
Their story follows a familiar path of moving up through the years. When the couple met, Don had a 17-foot Sylvan bowrider with a 135-hp OMC engine. They bought a Crownline bowrider and, after having the kids, a Crownline cuddy-cabin model, thinking the small enclosed bow would be a great place for naps. “They never slept a wink,” Don says with a laugh.
They sold the boat about 2006 but continued to own and use RVs. They were out of boating until they spent time on the water with friends during the summer of 2016. The fun rekindled their interest.
“We always have a good time, and it brought back memories of when we really enjoyed boating,” Don says. After some pressure from the kids, who also had been on friends’ boats in 2016, the Fosses started talking with the local Harris dealer, Scott Allen of Raymond Marine.
Don, 47, and Melissa, 50, were interested in pontoon boats because of their passenger capacity, but wanted better performance. Allen showed them a tri-toon model, saying it would drive and feel like their old bowrider.
When he got behind the wheel, Don was convinced. The tri-toon offered the performance he was looking for and the space for passengers and gear that the family wanted. “I was amazed at the acceleration and turning ability,” he says. “It really rode nothing like a traditional pontoon.”
Thanks to available longer terms, the couple got attractive financing. At the end of the 2016 season they bought the boat.
Now that they own two recreational vehicles that are often used in the same season, Don says, “It’s difficult to choose which one you want to do.” Having a slip helps make it easier to use the boat when time is limited. Even if it’s just for a couple of hours after work, they drive to the marina, toss the lines and spend some quality time on the water. If the family had to trailer the boat to use it, Don says, they probably would only go aboard for a full day on the water.
One thing that works in favor of the boat, versus the RV, is that the Fosses don’t like to use their RV during the summer’s heat. They prefer to use the RV when the temperatures drop in the fall.
Don hasn’t yet serviced the tri-toon, but says that when he previously owned a boat he believed that the service department at his RV dealership, Call of the Wild in Oxford, Maine, was “better organized and more structured than my experience with marine service has been. It just seems that things are done quicker and easier.”
RV-boating industry cooperation
Despite the fact that boating and RVing compete for the attention of customers such as the Fosses, the two industries have worked cooperatively for years to grow fans and lobby the government so the public will maintain access to waterways and national parks.
“We’ve always had a great, open relationship between the NMMA and [the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association] in sharing ideas,” says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
As with boats, sales of RVs have grown steadily for the past few years. As of September, the RV industry had sold 334,408 units, an increase of 15.1 percent from 2016. In August, 45,031 RVs were sold, a 15.3 percent increase. Sales of towable RVs, led by conventional trailers, totaled 39,749 units for the month, an increase of 26.7 percent from the previous year.
“The sales of trailers have been the leading product category for the last 15-plus years or so,” says Kevin Broom, media relations director for the RVIA. “Some of that is price, and a lot of people already own SUVs and pickup trucks, and the third thing is that there are lightweight trailers that can be towed by smaller vehicles.”
Leading the way are the smaller, easily towed trailers. “It’s your young set wanting a short unit, low 20s in length and selling in about that price range,” says Sherman Goldenberg, publisher of RVBusiness magazine. He attended the RVIA’s California RV Show in Pomona, Calif., in early October. “Only about 31 percent of the deals sold at Pomona had trades on them, which tells [dealers] there are a lot of people coming into the RV arena,” he says.
Further evidence of growth, Goldenberg says, is that national parks have had three consecutive years of record attendance and private parks are enjoying commensurate growth.
Park conditions and the ability to accommodate new RV designs are concerns. For example, Broom says, many rental spots at state parks aren’t wide enough to accommodate an RV that has slide-out sections, which many newer models have.
Additionally, many people who use the parks are boaters and RVers who have shared concerns.
“All forms of recreation need access, and most federal public lands don’t have Wi-Fi,” Dammrich says. “The millennial generation isn’t going to go if they can’t share pictures of themselves.”
Outdoor Recreational Industry Roundtable
Addressing such common issues was the impetus behind manufacturers’ associations getting together about five years ago to form something of a coalition. Richard Coon was the president of RVIA, and he and Dammrich invited manufacturers of winter skiing equipment, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, fishing gear and more to get together.
“Think of any kind of outdoor recreation equipment, and we met for several years to get to know each other and share some information about our industries and build some trust,” Dammrich says. “As we were meeting with the executives of all these industry associations, what we quickly realized was that the guy who owns a boat probably owns an RV, goes downhill skiing.”
Today, the official name of that coalition is the Outdoor Recreational Industry Roundtable, and the NMMA and RVIA are members. A study by the Outdoor Industry Association found that in 2016 $887 billion was spent on all of the recreational pursuits mentioned above. Congress passed the Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act of 2016 (the REC Act), which directed the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis to create an outdoor recreation satellite account to pull together all the numbers that relate to outdoor recreation. The ORIR met with the bureau to provide input and learn how the account was being developed. “We left that meeting very confident that we’re going to get the report we wanted,” Dammrich says. “There is consensus that we can be a potent force in getting recreation the attention and respect it deserves.”
Goldenberg agrees. “This is taking them more than a modest step toward an outdoor recreation presence,” he says. “Through Department of Interior contacts made to the roundtable, you’ll see more of the step toward outdoor recreation and marine working together.”
Prior to the last presidential election, the ORIR wrote a white paper for the candidates. “They were all things that at a 50,000-foot level we can agree to,” Goldenberg says.
The approach got the Trump administration’s attention, with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke being receptive to recreational industries and advocating for increased access for fishing, boating and hunting.
“We do feel that the current administration and current Congress, we have some opportunity to advance some things,” Dammrich says.
Ultimately, he says, “The purpose of ORIR is to make sure that regardless of who’s in the White House or Congress, we want it to be a favorable environment for outdoor recreation.”
In addition to the marine and RV industries working together at the federal level, more consolidation could be coming with Camping World’s recent acquisition of Gander Mountain. Goldenberg sees a time when Camping World will be exhibiting and selling boats, kayaks, campers and other recreational products at one facility.
“I don’t think you can separate what we’re seeing with the outdoor recreational roundtables on the political front and Camping World with their movement toward outdoor recreation,” Goldenberg says. “It’s sort of a thematic integration of some elements of these different industries that we’re more than likely going to see integrated at the retail level.”
Another similarity that the marine and RV industries share is a jobs crisis. The majority of the recreational vehicles manufactured in this country are built in Elkhart County, Ind., where there is 2 percent unemployment and help-wanted signs in many business windows.
“To have record-setting production, you need people,” Broom says.
Still, whether it’s RVs or boats, a problem that relates directly to annual sales increases for the past five years is one that most industries would like to have.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue.