Minnesotans buying RVs like never before, pandemic a big factor

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Baran St. Michaels is an unabashed king of the road.

His 41-foot RV is roomier than a small apartment, with all the amenities.

"Oh yeah, we have a lot of fun," he said, smiling.

There’s a large bedroom and bathroom, a living room equipped with a sectional couch and two flat-screen TVs, and a kitchen stocked with a full-size fridge, a gas stove, even a Keurig.

"Everybody wants to be in some type of enclosed area that they can control, these offer the perfect vehicle for that," St. Michaels said.

For the retired U.S. Air Force veteran, his house on wheels has an added benefit in these pandemic times. Hotels aren’t on his travel itinerary anymore.

“You’re not exposed to the common areas, you find a lot of individuals walking around, having coffee in the morning,” he said. “Have coffee on board, whatever you like."

St. Michaels is a member of the Minnesota Voyagers RV club — 12 couples who’ve changed the way they vacation.

“A lot of people are resorters,” Sylvia Allen, the club’s president, said. “They have resorts and they go to resorts once or twice a year. With COVID, that was kind of put on hold.”

With this group — all fully vaccinated, by the way — hotels and restaurants are out, and RVs are in.

"In an RV you have your own bathroom, own bedroom, kitchen. You prepare your own food,” Allen said. “It’s COVID protocol and it’s safety, it’s sanitized. It’s your own unit.”

The RV Industry Association, a manufacturing trade group, says Minnesotans are snapping up RVs like never before.

The group says in 2020, 9,555 of them were shipped out for sale in the state. The association is projecting 13,617 units will be shipped out by the end of 2021.

“The COVID period, what has happened, it’s introduced a lot of new people to the RV lifestyle,” Bryan Hughes, the chief financial officer for Winnebago Industries, declared.

Hughes says there are other factors: people experimenting with new work-at-home arrangements, or families trying camping vacations, for example. But he says health concerns are also a part of it.

"We all want people to stay safe. RVing and the lifestyle is certainly one way to stay safe as a family unit,” Hughes added.

Winnebago says consumer demand for its product has created a backlog of 18,145 RVs, valued at nearly $2.2 billion.

At the Ham Lake resort, this is the last weekend of the season for RV camping. Manager Dwight Belsheim says there are 60 RVs in place — more than half his capacity. He says it’s been a busy time.

"With the last two years with the pandemic, we’ve been full,” Belsheim noted. “Had to turn away people even."

Winnebago says its revenues for the third quarter were a record $960 million — a 138% increase from the same period the year before.

The company says it plans to add workers to meet the increased demand.

Meanwhile, St. Michaels says his RV — not a Winnebago — cost around $275,000.

Winnebago says there are cheaper models out there but you might have to wait on some orders.

As for the Minnesota Voyagers? They say for them, this "on the road" lifestyle is here to stay.

“It’s your home away from home,” Allen said.