Time and again, we talk about the Millennials – people from their late teens to their early 30s — with their authentically different views of our culture, products and society. They, like countless generations before them, audaciously challenge conventional wisdom on many levels as the RV industry works to develop products and parks to suit their intrinsic tastes.
Authentically different? Among their quirks, the mass media tell us, is a need for quick answers. They’ll take a pay cut in exchange for a better work/life balance and, as a result, half of these “edgy, hard-to-please” Millennials are looking for new jobs. And a lot of them don’t own cars, preferring instead to summon Uber for a ride to dinner. Many of them don’t even have TVs, preferring instead to gaze listlessly into their iPhones instead of making eye contact with the outside world.
But the good news, all jokes aside, is that many of them are already into camping, which should fuel growth at public and private parks for years to come, assuming park operators can stay in front of them. “The Millennials are going to be very focused on quality,” noted Toby O’Rourke, chief franchise operations officer for Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA). “As an industry we have to continue to modernize our parks. We have to have recreation in our parks and quality sites. Millennials are demanding excellence and they want quality.”
As a result, forward-thinking staffers at KOA and the Go RVing Coalition are scrambling to deal with this next demographic wave, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association’s (RVIA’s) Karen Redfern, senior director of marketing communications for the national Go RVing campaign, which is budgeted to spend about $16.5 million this year in advertising and promotions.
WCM: So, the Millennials are clearly on your radar, and that of Go RVing’s Dallas-based agency, The Richards Group, right?
Redfern: Absolutely. Obviously, they’re the next large population group to come in as the Baby Boomers are aging and moving toward the upper end of our target markets. So, we’re looking at moving our age demographics a little bit younger and getting them in a little bit earlier. And over the last five years or so, we have actually moved that needle down from the 35-54 range. We’re really in the 30 range now. We’ve been able to target a lot of those folks.
WCM: Dealers, we hear, are seeing more of these young people at shows, and campground operators are greeting them at their registration desks.
Redfern: Yes, the biggest challenge with Millennials in terms of product is that they’re looking for something very small and compact. So, some of them wind up going back to a lot of the vintage units out there. As a result, our challenge is going to be to ensure we’ve got product to meet their needs. We know that they like to get away and get to the outdoors, but they’re also a very different generation. For one thing, some are not into tent camping — sleeping under the stars. They will opt more for car camping, as they like to call it, where they just have their SUV.
They flip down their seats and sleep in there for the night. So, if we get some product in there that can be easily towed by their small SUVs or a very small motorized product for them, then we certainly can capture them and bring them into the market earlier because they’re definitely looking for a vehicle that will allow them just to travel and hang with their friends. For them, it’s more about the road tripping than the camping, per se, of going into the wilderness. But they definitely are looking at it as a social venue for them to gather and meet up at places.
WCM: What else do you think the industry, including park owners, ought to know about them?
Redfern: From the perspective of where they’re going to go and meet up, they’re going to be looking for campgrounds where they can feel that it’s more of a gathering place where they’ll be able to set up on a campsite with their friends close by and secure a small area where they might be able to get five or six campsites right together so they can assemble their little community. A lot of them may not be looking for as many of the bigger amenities, but they’re definitely looking for a place that offers them that gathering experience and a place where they can meet up and enjoy the company of friends.
They are into that socializing and camaraderie, but they like to do it among their own peers. They’re not really joiners in the traditional ways we’ve seen at the campgrounds where people wander around and meet their neighbors. They’ll generally want to stay together with the small group that their traveling with.
Yes, the Millenials are very different, and that’s why we need to make sure we’re approaching them with the concepts of what RVing can be in their lives in a way that appeals to their central motives: They want the discovery. They want to be with that small group of friends that they want to share experiences with, and they will go out in small groups traveling together and enjoying outdoor activities, but they’re not necessarily looking to go into the deep woods. They just want it more for the social aspects of it.
WCM: And they want it all to be technologically up to speed, right?
Redfern: Yes, especially with regard to the campgrounds, the Millenials definitely have got to have a digital experience. So, RV parks and campgrounds have to be easily found on websites through search engines or these consumers are never going to find them because they’re never going to pick up that traditional paper campground directory. You know, it’s got to be things that they can search.
And because they’re looking for the social gatherings, it might be wise for the campgrounds to guide them toward other activities they can do in the area. If it’s relevant to that area, maybe tell them how to set up a mountain bike tour and maybe lead them to local rentals for the equipment that they need. Those are the kinds of things that are going to be appealing to them because it’s going to help them carry out the kinds of activities that they want to participate in.
WCM: What you’re telling us results from the research you all have done, right?
Redfern: Correct — trying to follow some of the trends of what’s going on, studies that we’ve been reading nationally about who the Millennials are and what they’re looking for. And they’re definitely a group who will spend money on products that fit in with their lifestyle.
There’s a huge push right now in the social media — there’s a group that you can follow on #Vanlife for example — that really likes the old nostalgic Westfalia type of popup van campers because it’s something small and maneuverable for them to take on the road, It’s got a little bit of that tenting/outdoor kind of feel. So, they are definitely in the market looking for those older units, and they get together in large groups and travel and experience things together.
WCM: Will they, in your view, eventually graduate into larger, more conventional RVs?
Redfern: When they reach that age group they probably will, or whatever (product) is the trend by that point. But I think we’ve got to realize that it’s not just a one-size-fits-all scenario, and we’ve got to bring them in and realize that a starter vehicle for them at this point is not necessarily going to be the typical folding camping trailer as we know it. They like something that’s a little bit trendy. They’re definitely very conscientious about how light-weight and earth-friendly it is in those respects.
They’re looking for the product that’s going to get them out there with just some of the basic necessities. So, we just always have to remember that market that we’re targeting and, yes, eventually they’re going to move on up as they have families and as they age. But in the beginning, they may not want the amenities of our full-size traditional RVs as they’re starting out.
It’s kind of the idea of, you know, ‘it’s not your grandfather’s Buick,’ and we’ve got to find the product that’s going to appeal to them.
WCM: So, in the big picture, you see them becoming part of the greater ‘RV universe’ in due time, right?
Redfern: Absolutely, because of the way peoples’ habits change as they age. Now, they may not be the joiners in the large social groups that our Boomer-aged RVers are. But, obviously, as they grow older and they get into the working world and they become parents, they’re still going to be looking for some of those same core products and experiences that our target markets are looking for today. But we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got product that’s going to get them in at that earlier age and really grab them so it’s something that becomes a part of their life and they just want to continue it over the years.
WCM: Final question: So, why is everyone, especially the media, so focused on the Millenials and, yet, we barely mention Generation X?
Redfern: Well, they’re (Generation X) kind of that stuck-in-the-middle generation because they’re a much smaller generation by numbers and I think most of what it comes down to is that the GenXers think more like the Baby Boomers, whereas there’s a more drastic change with the Millenials.
If you think about it, the GenXers almost wind up becoming the tail end of the Baby Boomers because some of their thinking is still rooted more in the same values. So, they kind of get swept along still as the tail end of the Baby Boomers because they do come across as more traditional. The Millennials, on the other hand, come across totally different because they’re complete digital natives. They’ve been brought along in a very, very different world.