There are a lot of leisure activities people are not participating in during the pandemic.
As the NBA and MLB reboot will attest, they’re not going to sporting events. As the plunge in the hospitality sector continues (down 7.6 million jobs so far), it’s evident that they’re not flying or staying in hotels.
But it turns out that there’s one activity that’s having a pandemic moment: recreational vehicles or RVs, which have now found a place in Digital 3.0.
According to RVshare, the “Airbnb of RVs” and a company that bills itself as the first and largest peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace, Labor Day bookings are already up 50 percent and climbing. The company’s Travel Sentiment survey shows that more than half of its respondents said they feel more comfortable traveling now than they did three months ago. It says that 69 percent of Americans plan to travel in the next three months and hope to do so for seven to 10 days at a time.
With the majority (63 percent) reporting that they will not fly anytime soon, road tripping is becoming cool again, which is just fine with Jon Gray, CEO of RVshare.
“This whole year has been great for drive to travel of all forms,” Gray said. “If you're a hotel that is near a destination that people drive to, you're doing pretty well this year. If you're a vacation rental that's near a destination that people drive to, you're doing pretty well this year. So, it's not surprising to see that we're doing well just because of that. Now, I'm expecting — and we're already starting to see this — but I'm expecting the booking season to be much longer than it usually is.”
Instead of the core booking season stretching from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Gray said he expects it to last deep into the fall. His company is finding that because of the delayed openings of schools, a lot of people are planning to be flexible with their education options, take their kids on the road and, and learn remotely.
The business model and process behind RVshare is similar to Airbnb, a comparison Gray is comfortable with. The user logs onto the site, enters a geolocation and travel dates, answers a few qualifying questions and is then presented with a menu of available RVs that have been submitted by owners and vetted by the company. The user selects by size, price, comfort levels with driving and proximity. The RV can be picked up or delivered. Since the pandemic, Gray said the company has encouraged users to pay extra attention to cleaning the vehicles, and RVshare has formed a venture with TaskRabbit to facilitate that.
It’s not the only business change that Gray has overseen since the pandemic started. When it first hit in mid-March, much of its business was canceled pretty much overnight, he said. Spring break rentals were gone. Family-oriented spring vacations were gone. Gray said RVshare went from being in the leisure travel business into what he calls the relief travel business. Doctors were renting RVs to quarantine away from their families. Families that needed to be close to a local hospital or even a large medical center were renting RVs for that purpose.
“Basically, there was a group that popped up organically through Facebook,” Gray said. “A nurse and the wife of a doctor put together this Facebook group called “RVs for MDs.” And they basically were just in this very organic way connecting people who were looking for an RV with people who were willing to share it. We got connected with them, and we realized we could also professionalize what was happening. We made sure people had the right sort of insurance in place and all those types of things. It did feel good for us as a company, but the guys who came up with RVs for MDs were the ones who had the vision around this. We just helped bring it to reality.”
Now reality is setting in for the travel business as well as for the families who need to rethink their vacations. Gray said he is seeing some interesting trends as his summer bookings come in and fall bookings start to spike. First, travel is more local than usual. The top 10 destinations for the company over its seven-year lifespan (Gray joined in 2018) have been almost exclusively national parks. In fact, families would fly to the Western cities such as Denver and Las Vegas that could access Yosemite and other parks and then rent an RV from there. Gray’s data shows families are using RVs to visit state parks or other destinations that are within 300 miles of their home.
“If I'm pre-COVID and going to New York with my wife for the weekend, I want to stay in a hotel room,” Gray said. “I'm taking my kids, and we're going to spend a week at the beach, I want to stay in a vacation home. Back when that was completely safe, it was the best way to travel. But now an RV is perfect because it gives you all of this control over your space like where you park it and how you use it. And you get to bring your bathroom and kitchen with you. So, I do think the functional benefits of an RV are pretty cool. And we're just seeing that come out pretty clearly this summer. People trust RVs more than hotels.”
Now that the pandemic is introducing travelers to the RV life, Gray said he expects his company will see long-term benefits.
“My hope is, once we're on the other side of a pandemic, that people will have all travel options available to them again,” he said. “And if they want to take a trip to Europe, they can. I love travel. It has been my whole life, and I hope it all returns to its former glory. That said, I think the future is really bright for the RV business because this has been a great summer. People are seeing RVs for what they are, which is a great travel option for some types of trips. And we think that once that selection is there and once you've kind of had a seat at the table while groups and families are planning their trips, that doesn't go away.”