Many vacations became much more difficult or even impossible as the COVID-19 pandemic restricted travel, increased risks and limited tourist opportunities around the world.

Washington officials even deemed trips to the forest or other public lands off-limits for more than a month before slowly beginning to reopen the state in May. As people in Washington and around the nation looked for comfortable ways to spend time outside the house, RV sales began to boom.

“Everybody was wanting to buy an RV,” Central Washington RV owner Jason Carroll said. “We went from like 120 plus in inventory down to 24 in August and you can’t get replacements because other dealers are doing the same thing.”

Central Washington RV opened in April 2015. Carroll said they sold more RVs from May to mid-July of 2020 than they did for all of 2015. Deliveries to customers went from five to seven per week to three to four per day.

Canopy Country RV Center owner Todd Munson saw sales spike at his locations in Union Gap and Ellensburg as well.

Nationally, RV sales surged. RVshare said in June that bookings had increased by 1,600% since early April. Much like in other industries, those massive increases in demand brought some new problems along with profit for RV dealers.

Supply crash

Munson knows it’s beneficial to introduce new customers to the RV lifestyle.

Both he and Carroll saw a wave of first-time buyers this spring and summer as families adjusted their vacation plans to comply with COVID-19 restrictions.

The changes weren’t just visible at the RV sales businesses. Elk Ridge campground store assistant manager Kathy Foreman said they also saw plenty of new faces, noting they’ve stayed full virtually seven days a week since the pandemic began. The private campground is on State Route 410 outside near Cliffdell.

Just about any RVs on the lot don’t last long, Carroll said, noting they’ve seen fewer trade-ins with sellers recognizing they can get more on their own. Munson has seen similar strong results in Union Gap and especially at his prime location in Ellensburg.

“We’ve been plugging away,” Munson said. “There’s no question there’s been a challenge trying to provide the products and services to fit people that need the social distancing, need the quarantining and those kinds of things.”

Manufacturers struggled to keep up, especially since they often needed to hire new workers after layoffs at the start of the pandemic. Carroll said in many cases RVs sit on lots ready to go to dealers, but they can’t be transported due to a lack of drivers.

Some RVs contain as many as 10,000 different parts, Munson said, and supply chains have been stretched, especially for common parts such as air conditioners, fenders and axles. Carroll doesn’t expect the supply chains to return to a sense of normalcy until as late as next spring.

“Units are sitting in the yard for a month after they’re built, missing air conditioners, windows, fender skirts,” Carroll said. “Parts in general, you can’t get them nearly like you used to be able to because everybody shut down and now they’re trying to ramp back up and produce all this stuff.”

Buyers for RVs and parts keep calling from all over the Northwest. In one case, Carroll said a man drove up from Arizona. Monson has seen customers from all over the region as well, noting Canopy Country’s Ellensburg location sees a lot of business thanks to its proximity to travelers on Interstate 90.

Some new RVs started to arrive for Central Washington RV in September only to be sold almost immediately. On Sept. 17, Carroll said eight people were still on his waiting list.

The wildfires and resulting smoke hurt demand a bit, significantly driving down customer traffic in unhealthy air. Even without the inventory issues, sales are expected to fall this autumn, as they do for all Northwest dealerships when the weather gets colder.

Changing strategies

The sudden arrival of COVID-19 earlier this year forced businesses to adapt quickly if they wanted to survive in the new reality.

Health department officials at the state and local level approved RV sales to remain open as an essential business, since many people live out of their RVs. Carroll points out more than 80% of the RVs in the neighboring Circle ‘H’ RV park are full-time residents.

For the safety of his workers, Carroll decided to shut down Central Washington RV for 14 days and encouraged his employees to stay home as much as possible. Upon returning, a skeleton crew came to work later and went home earlier while trying to keep up with growing sales.

Customers could no longer wander around and look into any RV on the lot, and Monson said Canopy Country did their best to follow all of the health guidelines as new information about the virus continued to emerge. Both dealers pivoted to more online sales, and Monson said they relied heavily on virtual tours and FaceTime with customers.

“That really helped us,” Monson said. “It got us thinking a little bit more from a digital standpoint.”

Employees continue to make sanitation a top priority by always wiping down surfaces, and Carroll said they’ve spent plenty of money on cleaning products. Customers are advised to plan ahead and can only choose two or three models to look at during their visit.

Of course, Carroll said not all customers appreciated those strict regulations. Since most sales are done primarily outside on the lot, sometimes he’s able to make concessions, such as social distancing without a mask, but he’s not willing to overlook safety to satisfy everyone.

“When you have too many protocols sometimes it can steer some of the people away a little bit and we’ve made some of them mad because we wouldn’t let them go look around,” Carroll said. “They would just turn around and leave.”

The pandemic took its toll on staff as well, with some sickness at Canopy Country, plus two other employees who left for different reasons. Carroll worked hard to keep his employees, and some federal money from a Paycheck Protection Program loan ensured they were paid while staying home.

Eventually the steady flow of customers and slight ease on restrictions convinced Carroll to return Central Washington RV to normal hours in July, although he sent some employees home early in recent weeks due to wildfire smoke. As inventory and parts ran out, that also meant less work for both technicians and sales people.

Despite the obvious challenges ahead, Carroll and Monson remain optimistic about the months ahead. Monson points to a strong stock market and low fuel costs, noting social distancing, nervousness about boarding planes and restrictions on international travel likely won’t go away anytime soon.

“All that kind of lends to strength in RVs,” Monson said. “You’ve got your own bed, cook your own food and still see the destinations you want to see.”