Boats, travel trailers see sharp sales increase

MILWAUKEE — Sales of boats and travel trailers are at some of the highest levels in years as consumers feel better about making discretionary purchases.

Tuesday, the National Marine Manufacturers Association said recreational boat sales were up as much as 7 percent this year compared with 2013. Furthermore, 2014 retail expenditures — which include spending on boats, engines, marine accessories and services — could eclipse 2007, one of the healthiest years for the industry.

Some of the strongest sales were in ski-and-wakeboard, pontoon and aluminum fishing boats. Sales of larger boats also started to see an uptick, according to the trade association.

“An improved economy, an improved housing market, a stronger job market, increasing consumer confidence and a multiyear low on fuel prices has bolstered people’s financial outlook, which bodes well for new boat sales,” said Thom Dammrich, president of the Chicago-based association.

This fall, wholesale shipments of travel trailers were at some of the highest levels in decades, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, based in Reston, Va.

RV industry shipments are expected to total 361,400 units in 2015, up 4 percent from 2014.

The 2015 figure would be more than double the industry’s recent low point in 2009.

“We’ve had a good year in 2014. Our October numbers were up 30 percent from September and were the best October total we’ve posted in 38 years,” said RVIA President Richard Coon.

Sales of travel trailers and motor homes are big business in Wisconsin, with people coming here from the Chicago area to buy rigs costing tens of thousands of dollars.

“We had our best year ever,” said Paul Beitzel, sales manager at Ewald’s Airstream, of Wisconsin, an Airstream travel-trailer dealership in Franklin.

New Airstream trailers cost $42,000 to $140,000.

The Ohio-based trailer manufacturer has benefited from baby boomers not wanting to wait much longer to buy one of the luxury units that sometimes serve as their second home.

“The baby boomers are retiring and want a lifestyle change,” Beitzel said.

Airstream, known for its shiny aluminum trailers with rounded corners, had hoped to double the sales of one particular model but exceeded that goal, according to Beitzel.

“If I ordered one today, I wouldn’t see it until June,” he said.

Wholesale shipments of travel trailers, including fifth-wheel models towed by large pickups, increased 24 percent in November, according to new data from Robert W. Baird Co.

Low fuel prices have helped bring some people back to the dealerships, a good sign before the start of the winter RV shows that get under way in January.

There’s still pent-up demand from the recession, when people wanted recreational vehicles and boats but postponed the purchase until they felt better about their finances.

“Even when consumer confidence was low, people were still researching RVs, going to shows and dealerships,” said Kevin Broom, spokesman for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.

Many of the new travel trailers are smaller and lighter to pull, but they have as much room inside as larger models from a few years ago.

Slide-out rooms create more living space in a trailer. Smaller electronics and appliances, such as flat-screen televisions and tankless water heaters, also free up more inside space.

There’s strong interest in trailers that are replicas of models made in the 1960s but have modern amenities such as an air conditioner and a microwave oven.

One of those is a replica of a 1961 Airflyte from Shasta RV, an Elkhart, Ind., manufacturer.

In 2014, the company pledged to manufacture more than 1,900 of the special edition trailers. Dealers, including two locations in Wisconsin, snapped all of them up in just three days, said President Mark Lucas.

The Airflyte “is a lot tougher to build than some of the other trailers. The metal corners are hand rolled with a hammer … a lot of the stuff is more craftsman built than assembly processed,” Lucas said.

The starting price for an Airflyte is $14,998. About 80 percent of the trailer is identical to the one built 53 years ago, according to Lucas.

“A lot of people think it’s a restoration,” he said.

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