Vintage Trailers and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Where Do We Go From Here?

Vintage Trailers and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Where Do We Go From Here?
by Steve Hingtgen, President/Founder of Vintage Trailer Supply

2020 Disruption and 2021 Restart

Obviously 2020 was a hot mess and we saw in our community that we had to clear our calendar for 2020. Whatever plans we thought we had really didn’t play out. In late winter and early spring, we saw job losses throughout the country and in our industry there was fear among many of us about how deep this would go and whether it would be a repeat of the Great Recession. How many of us would lose our jobs? How many of us would be scaled back? It created a lot of confusion and frankly paralysis throughout the country. It hit our industry, our hobby, and our lifestyle.

As we looked forward to warm whether camping and rallies, we faced what was to be the 2020 summer of regulation and caution. That meant that a lot of the events that we had planned couldn’t happen. Some of us viewed that as uncomfortable and objectionable. Many of us saw it as the only possible safe response. Regardless of opinions, it was definitely a monkey wrench for everyone.

Now, as we begin 2021, we are emerging from a period of fear and chaos into a new phase which is that we are all accepting a new way of life that revolves around health and safety. We know life will begin to return to normal, but with it will come changes to how we interact, what is possible, and even what we want.  Safety will be a new predominate mindset when we travel.

In 2020 we had limited events. In fact we cancelled most of them and those that were held were subject to major restrictions. We are all eager to get back to a new normal but the truth is that many of those restrictions are likely to continue throughout 2021.

My question for all of us is this: Will it return? Will we ever get back to the way we were from a social perspective when it comes to vintage trailer events especially?

One of the great community-building traditions of vintage trailer life is the vintage trailer rally.  The social experience is like no other. But rallies are not as socially distanced as some other camping. Handshakes and hugs with old friends who you haven't seen in a year. Shared meals, sitting together inside and outside trailers.  And what about the Saturday Open House tradition?  Obviously we’re not doing those now, but will we ever do them again? Will we be opening up our events to the general community and having people--sometimes hundreds in a few hours--come through our trailers? 

My sense is that we will eventually resume the tradition because it's always been a way to introduce newcomers to a lifestyle we love. I just think that it’s going to be one of those things that is slow to return. Perhaps is slower than any of the other pieces will be.

I think it’s a very different world that we’re going back into when we start these events this year. As a company we’re having a debate right now about how soon to be restarting and re-supporting events in 2021.We've built some guidelines on which events we’re able to support based on social distancing and just having some good safe practices as folks restart their social connections again.

Explosive RV industry growth

The RV industry is changing dramatically. 2020 was an interesting year for the RV industry as a whole. Despite have been completely shut down for a couple months. It was one of the best years in history and the manufacturers delivered about 400,000 RVs in 2020. That's the 4th best year on record.

It’s likely they’re going to set a new record in 2021. Or they may at least match the earlier record.  Expect around a half million new RVs on the road in 2021. Of course some will be removed from service too, but not nearly as many as are being added to the overall RV community. 

In the vintage trailer world, we're seeing something similar. Vintage trailers are being bought up quickly. In the last few months, we've seen a shortage of trailers for sale to a growing customer base.  These first time trailer owners are especially looking for trailers to buy that are ready to go or pretty close to ready to go.

Right now, if you've got an older trailer in good shape that could be camped in, it's probably gone up quite a bit in value. In fact even the project trailers have gone up a lot in value. While there are no formal statistics kept, we keep track of these sales informally as we connect to most of the professional restorers and the folks who are buying and selling trailers professionally. We're seeing sale prices going up anywhere from 15% up to double. Certainly 50% is not uncommon for a desirable model. Demand is outstripping the supply right now on all RVs in the vintage world it's starting to be that way too.

One fascinating phenomenon is that younger families expressing more interest. They're looking for safe ways to go on vacation this year and beyond. They often want larger trailers. This is a gradual demographic shift we've been watching for years, but the pandemic appears to be accelerating the movement.

Many of us own very small vintage trailers because we understand how practical they are for frequent weekend travel. But we're seeing a new focus on the larger trailers that can be self-contained and of a size that might be able to accommodate a small family rather than just couples. 

Challenging our vintage trailer restorers

Over the last decade or so, a much more robust and professional community of restorers has evolved. More than ever before, many of our neighbors and community members have begun making  their livings by refurbishing, customizing and renovating collectible trailers.

2020 was a tale of two years for them.The first half of the year was scary. Many of us don't have a lot of cash reserves. We're living virtually paycheck to paycheck and when we received the emergency health orders from our state's governors in the spring, many shops had to shut down or scale way back. That was true especially of the were bigger shops with more than one or two people.

Then in the second half of 2020,demand started to pick up and by the end of the year bookings had resumed for restoration work. In fact by the end of 2020,I was hearing some really positive stories about demand. We can see now that many of our shops are booking into 2022. That means they've got work booked far ahead that they're putting customers in a queue saying that we'll get to you as soon as we can but not this camping season. 

Of course the shops still have the same stressors. This isn't a lucrative business for almost anyone, It’s a difficult business and our vintage trailer professionals are still feeling out how to make it work, especially in a turbulent economy. Skilled labor shortages are always a challenge, as restorers need to scale up to be able to meet the demand. This has always been problematic for many trailer businesses, but it is doubly chaotic this year.

Parts availability has been tough. Whether through our Vintage Trailer Supply or through others, a lack of reproduction parts slows work down and costs small businesses money.  Supply chains throughout the world are disrupted right now and it is hitting our industry hard.

Small businesses in the vintage trailer industry have been maturing but few are truly sustainable yet. The industry has needed to focus on professionalism regarding customer-client expectations, billing, profit margins, job estimating, quality of work, among other things.  They've been a struggle for this rather new industry, and the growth pressures in 2021 will test every business's skills.

Camping infrastructure shortage

Many tens of thousands of new people coming into the vintage trailer world and the RV world is going to make it hard to find a place to sleep.  And it's not just new comers that are putting pressure on.  The roads and parks will be overflowing from pent up demand from those who didn't go on vacation in 2020. They stayed home for the first time in years. We're going to see those people really hit the road in 2021.

Much of America has already got a problem with campground shortages. The lack of facilities, especially near popular destinations, is going to become severe. In recent years, many state and national parks have been booking 6 to 12 months in advance.  But now we are seeing distant future bookings become the rule rather than the exception at private and public parks around the country.

So, 2021 is a plan ahead year. If you are not booking your trips now for summer fall and into spring next year it's time to get on it.

Three takeaways

  • It's a little too early to feel normal, A lot of our social distancing is going to continue through 2021. Rallies and other social gatherings will look different. Be patient.
  • Prices are going to be strong for vintage trailers as well as new RVs. Not much inventory and fewer deals to be had for buyers. A good time to sell.
  • We're going to have a crowded campground this year. Plan ahead. Find a road less traveled.

I think this is the big one. For a lot of us, it is still stressful and if we can love on each other and really take care of each other as we have in the last year. It's going to be a much easier 2021 for everyone.

What are your thoughts? ...You can provide your opinion here...