RV rental sector booming, but it's a bumpy road for agents

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A camper van-style RV. The RV rental market has seen strong demand as travelers seek greater control of their vacations.
A camper van-style RV. The RV rental market has seen strong demand as travelers seek greater control of their vacations. Photo Credit: Tracks & Trails

Bolstered by the summer's surge in demand for domestic, drive-only vacations, the recreational vehicle travel sector is continuing to boom well into the fall.

According to peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace RVshare, RV bookings were up 95% year over year for Labor Day weekend and 123% for the autumn season on the whole.

The platform also reports that it recently doubled its seven-year booking total in just the past 13 months, going from 1 million days booked since the company's 2013 launch in July 2019 to 2 million days booked by Sept. 1.

"As we look toward the fall months, we usually see reservations drop off," said RVshare CEO Jon Gray in a recent statement. "This year is different. In fact, we will be up significantly in bookings for the rest of the year as travelers continue to opt for travel options that give them more control."

But despite their popularity, RV trips present some unique challenges to the trade. Jack Richards, CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said that while the company recently considered adding RV trips to its repertoire, the tour operator was turned off by the many add-on fees inherent to the RV planning process and ultimately "decided to pass."

"There is a daily rate for the vehicle and some charge for mileage, as well," said Richards. "If you want kitchen supplies such as plates, forks, knives, etc., you have to buy a package. Same for bedding, pillows, blankets, etc. This is a very expensive travel option."

Though the RV sector can be lucrative at the ultraluxe end, Richards said that for the vast majority of trips, "the commission we could pay travel advisors was low. And we believe the customer satisfaction would not be that high versus the risk of a negative experience."

A recreational vehicle campsite.
A recreational vehicle campsite. Photo Credit: Tracks & Trails

Dan Wulfman, founder and president of Colorado-based RV vacation-planning company Tracks & Trails, acknowledged that the RV travel category does have a high barrier to entry.

"An RV vacation is a really difficult type of vacation to do well," said Wulfman. "It's nearly impossible for a travel agent to do on their own. And it's not something they can just sell for us, then send us the booking and be done with it. We've tried to have trips that are so standardized and simplified that if an agent can sell it, we can easily deliver it and get out of the way. But it just doesn't work."

Launched in 1996, Tracks & Trails specializes in customized self-drive itineraries that include fully equipped RV rentals, campground reservations, activities and more. The company's trips generally cost around $10,000 to $15,000, which Wulfman said positions Tracks & Trails between do-it-yourself, peer-to-peer players like RVshare and the $30,000-per-week, ultraluxe RV vacation planners that include amenities like a driver, chef and overnight accommodations at high-end resorts. 

Tracks & Trails pays 5% of the base vacation cost for agent referrals, with that referral fee also applicable on repeat bookings made by the same client.

"RV planning requires such a granular level of decision-making," said Wulfman. "So we love to work with agents who are willing to hand their client over to us and say, 'Tracks & Trails are your people.' We really have to have direct communication with the client in order to do it right."

Planning an RV road trip for the first time can be intimidating. From deciding which type of recreational vehicle best fits a client's needs to figuring out plumbing systems, there's plenty of room for error.

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Meanwhile, for advisors looking to book an RV trip for their clients in the near future, time is of the essence. According to Wulfman, U.S. state park and campsite reservations are largely booked up through the end of 2020, with Tracks & Trails now focused on getting clients booked for summer 2021.

"I can't guess yet whether this is permanent, but there's now so much pent-up demand for next summer because all the people who didn't get to go this summer are booking for next year," said Wulfman. "People are reserving and booking up campsites months earlier than ever in the past."

Jeri Clausing contributed to this report.

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