Vacations Are Curtailed, but Road Trips Are Rolling—and That’s Good News for These Brands

Makers of RVs and portable grills are revving up marketing accordingly

Family standing next to a packed car
'People are itching to get out,' said GasBuddy analyst Patrick De Haan, 'and that’s the easiest way—get in a car.' Getty Images

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Summer is historically bread-and-butter season for the people at Traeger, the manufacturer that’s sold its high-end, wood-fired grills from Salt Lake City for three decades now. The fundamentals of cooking over wood may not have changed since the stone age, but one of Traeger’s latest offerings, the Pro Series 575, is a smart cooker that lets grillers add hickory smoke simply by tapping their phones. Of course, like the executives at most every nonessential brand in the country, Traeger’s management held its breath with the onset of Covid-19. As well it should have: With an estimated 40 million Americans now out of work and pool parties on hold for the foreseeable future, this is hardly the best time to sell Americans an $800 Wi-Fi-enabled grill.

Nevertheless, CMO Todd Smith is feeling optimistic, and there’s a good reason for it. Indications are that, as summer travel season hits, Americans who plan to take a vacation will increasingly be hitting the road to do it. For many of them, that means camping and, for Smith, that means an opportunity to sell them a lower-priced Traeger portable.

“Rather than jumping on a plane, train or boat, many consumers will be jumping in their cars or renting an RV and heading to state parks or campgrounds or the beach to relax and get away,” Smith told Adweek. “As we head into the summer months, our two most portable grills, Ranger and Tailgater, continue to be some of the hottest and most sought after.” (In fact, of the six portable grills the company makes, half of them are sold out.)

Smith is not alone. Despite the lugubrious picture of the travel industry right now—airline travel down by 95% in April, hotels losing an estimated $500 million a day—a select number of brands are starting to sound optimistic notes. Not coincidentally, these are also the brands that stand to benefit from consumers who heed the call of the open road.

Traeger's Ironwood 885 ($1,500) is a griller's dream, but the big demand now is for portables.

Jon Gray is one of them. As CEO of peer-to-peer recreational vehicle rental platform RVshare, Gray has watched as a comparatively sleepy corner of the sharing economy suddenly became very busy. RVshare lists some 60,000 campers and motor homes for rent at any given time. In April, it saw a 650% increase in bookings for the summer travel season. As of May 19, bookings were up by 1,000%.

“Domestic travel is going to reign supreme this summer,” Gray said. “As travelers look for affordable and safer options, they will turn to drivable destinations rather than flying across the country.”

Statistics suggest that Gray’s predictions aren’t just hyperbole. In May, travel insights platform Skift published a survey in which 41% of Americans said their first trip after the Covid danger passes will be to a destination within 100 miles of their homes. Another way of putting it: They’ll be driving, not flying. Consumers, the report stated, “want to travel in their own car or a rented car instead of flying, and they want to avoid densely populated urban centers that used to be the scary epicenters of the pandemic.”

As a result, companies like RVshare have also stepped up their marketing efforts. “We’re expanding our presence in a few key regional markets through TV, radio and ad buys,” vp marketing Martijn Scheijbeler told Adweek, adding that the company will be “investing in performance marketing through our highest booking months.”

Cheap gas and other incentives

Given how quickly the pandemic is evolving and the dramatic differences in local conditions, it’s admittedly hard to forecast how consumers will be acting anywhere in the country come August. But several factors explain why driving looks likely to be the travel medium of choice this summer.

One of them is low gas prices. Memorial Day weekend saw lower prices at the pump than at any time since 2003. The lower cost of filling up the tank is a powerful incentive for Americans. So is just plain cabin fever.

“A lot of people said they’d be reducing travel—but that’s not everyone,” said Patrick De Haan, the head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy. “People may gravitate toward staycations, go camping or rent an RV.”

Wheelhaus is seeing an uptick in interest for its tiny homes like this one.

“People are itching to get out,” he added, “and that’s the easiest way to get out—get in a car.”

The prospect of more Americans on the road is also a bright spot for companies like TravelCenters of America, which operates around 270 full-service rest areas on American interstates. While TCA had been forced to furlough some of its employees in April, mainly as a result of being forced to close its full-service restaurants, spokesperson Tina Shaerban Arundel said management is pinning its hopes on the coming months.

“We’re optimistic that we’ll have the opportunity to serve more families and motorists who choose to take road trips this summer,” Arundel said. “Our travel centers have restaurants, stores and gasoline that are all needed amenities while driving.”

De Haan also ventured that, while the jobless rate is high, a budget-friendly driving vacation can still fit into the austerity budgets of many homes.

“There are a lot of jobless people, a lot of people struggling, and I don’t want to understate that,” he said. “But unemployment benefits are fairly long—26 weeks, and some states have added additional payments. So you’ll have some people who may use that money to hit the road—to do something.”

It’s probably no coincidence, then, that some car-rental companies, while hard hit by the precipitous fall of airport traffic, have beefed up their incentive marketing. Premium auto rental company Silvercar by Audi, for example, is offering contactless transactions and is touting its new 19-step cleaning process. And while Hertz filed for Chapter 11 protection on May 22, the company continues to operate and has also rolled out a number of new incentives, including lower one-way rates and dropping its age requirement to 18. It’s also touting a new program called Hertz Gold Standard Clean, a 15-point sanitizing protocol that adheres to CDC guidelines and is geared toward addressing consumer fears of touching contaminated surfaces.

Feeling safe behind the wheel

Leaving aside the affordability of driving vacations, the leading reason Americans would rather drive than fly or cruise right now is personal safety. As Adweek reported in May, 68% of respondents to a U.S. Travel Association poll said that, when outside the home, they feel safest in their vehicles.

And it’s that promise of being able to control one’s immediate environment that’s given an unlikely marketing edge to the recreational-vehicle industry.

On May 8, Camping World Holdings, the country’s leading retailer of RVs and associated gear, saw its stock price jump 35% after releasing Q1 results that showed how consumers, driven by a “desire to vacation while maintaining social distance,” were buying RVs. What’s more, many customers were buying the rigs online, forgoing the chance to kick the tires in person. In some markets, demand for motor homes—some now call them “Covid Campers“—exceeds supply.

“With rental bookings being way up year over year, travelers certainly see the benefits of traveling via an RV,” said RVshare’s Gray. “With their means of travel, cooking and sleep all on board, their trips can be completely self-contained allowing people to get back to traveling while doing so responsibly.”

The venerable Winnebago, which has embodied the motor home business since 1958, is also feeling good about the summer season. Despite lingering fears created by the pandemic, “indications lead us to believe the appeal of accessing the outdoors and outdoor activities is enduring” the company’s public relations specialist Sam Jefson told Adweek.

“We are cautiously optimistic about several indicators within the outdoor industry,” Jefson continued, “including an uptick in campground reservations and marina traffic in select areas, continued low gas prices and interest rates, easing of stay-at-home restrictions in some states leading to increased commerce conditions, and improved access to some state and national parks.”

Winnebago has instituted a number of new branding initiatives, including providing goodwill repairs and replacement parts for 60 days past its standard warranty— “our effort to mitigate any repairs that were impacted as a result of the Covid-19 response,” the company said. Many of its dealers are providing mobile service appointments and even roadside support.

Escape to a micro house

The rising tide that’s lifted sales of RVs also seems to have benefitted adjacent businesses such as tiny houses, defined as homes usually under 600 square feet that are often on wheels so they can be easily moved.

Jamie Mackay is the founder and CEO of Wheelhaus, which makes the Wedge RV, a 250-square-foot modular house (price: $87,800) that can be towed to most any woodsy location for however long a stay the owner wants. “We’re seeing an uptick in inquiries for sure,” Mackay told Adweek. “The ‘cabin in the woods’ concept is hot right now,” he added, especially with people who park one in a rural spot so they can “scoot to their cabin to escape the city.”

The Wedge RV lets city dwellers escape to a country house for less than $88,000.

Wheelhaus has also been dialing up its PR and marketing efforts in an attempt to draw the attention of would-be escapees from the city.

Meanwhile, back at Traeger grills, management has put a number of summer marketing initiatives in place that it hopes will appeal to customers irrespective of whether they’re on vacation or not. Slated for June 11 is Traeger Kitchen Live, a cooking event starring bowhunter John Dudley, who’ll be cooking wild elk tenderloin kabobs. Then, on June 12, the company will host a Father’s Day promo for the Pro Series 575. Customers who want to regulate the grill’s temperature and hickory smoke from their smartphones will be able to do it for $100 off the list price.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.