- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

PERRY, Ga. - L.H. Boots, a retired Oklahoma rancher and oilman, enjoys traveling to Wyoming rodeos and Arizona horse sales in his $350,000 motor coach, and he isn’t about to let fuel prices of more than $2 per gallon spoil his fun.

“At my age, I’m going to do what I’m going to do,” said the 90-year-old, whose motor home was among about 6,000 parked last week at the Family Motor Coach Association’s 73rd International Convention.

RV enthusiasts like Mr. Boots are one reason spiraling fuel prices have yet to put the brakes on the sales and use of gas-guzzling recreational vehicles.

RV shipments peaked at 370,200 units in 2004, the highest since 1978 and 15.4 percent higher than the 320,800 units sold the previous year, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. Sales for January were 7.5 percent higher than the same month last year.

“We’re expecting another good year,” said Phil Ingrassia, spokesman for the 1,200-member National RV Dealers Association. “What people are telling us is that an extra $20 or $30 for a trip is not going to stop them from using their RVs. Some … have compared it to the cost of a couple of cheese pizzas.”

Indeed, the stock of the nation’s leading motor home manufacturer, Winnebago Industries Inc., has more than doubled to exceed $30 in the past two years.

A disappointing earnings report has prompted pullback in the stock, but the company told analysts that aggressive discounting by competitors and overproduction — not rising fuel costs — were to blame. Chief Executive Bruce Hertzke told analysts that vacationers may take shorter trips but are unlikely to stop traveling.

“Nobody’s willing to stay home,” Mr. Hertzke said.

The average price for regular gasoline rose to $2.11 per gallon as of last Monday, the highest since 1981, the Energy Information Administration reported. With the higher prices, some RV users will pay almost $500 to fill up their 235-gallon tanks.

At the convention, which ended Thursday, some RV owners expressed concern about the higher prices, while others said they might cut back on travel. No one said the increase was enough to force them to abandon their vagabond lifestyles.

“When people are paying $1 million for a bus, they aren’t asking about the price of gas,” said David Welp, 64, a retired Texas Instruments executive, relaxing on a sofa in his luxurious, 45-foot, 8-mile-to-the-gallon motor coach.

Doug Weatherly, sales manager for Detroit Diesel, a major engine supplier for motor homes, said most RV enthusiasts who stopped by his convention booth wanted to discuss technical issues, not fuel economy.

“Fuel efficiency in this market is not an issue,” he said.

Greg Gerber, editor of RV Trade Digest in Fort Atkinson, Wis., said he didn’t think the higher prices would have much impact on RV sales or travel, because the average RV owner driving 2,000 to 8,000 miles a year would pay $400 to $800 more for fuel.

The 1970s fuel shortage devastated the RV industry, but 2004 was a banner year, Mr. Gerber said.

Motor homes, which have gasoline or diesel engines, range from expanded vans with 25-miles-per-gallon turbo-diesel engines to 45-foot, buslike luxury coaches. The high-end models get 5 to 6 miles per gallon.

Mr. Ingrassia said the motor homes in Perry represent the high end of the market, with price tags of up to $1.5 million. He said many families instead opt for towable RVs ranging from pop-up campers to lightweight trailers.

“When gas prices started their upward trend last spring, we did not see a problem,” he said from the National RV Dealers Association headquarters in Fairfax.

The high fuel prices might cause some first-time RV buyers to hesitate, said Joe Wright, sales manager for John Bleakley Motor Homes in Douglasville, Ga., near Atlanta. But he says most will end up buying anyway.

“They’re going to buy the motor home regardless,” he said. “They lead active lives.”

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