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Economy & Business

Pittsburgh-area RV dealers cruise through COVID with a sustained surge in sales

Pittsburgh RV Show -- shoppers in aisles.jpg
Courtesy of Pittsburgh RV Show
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Pittsburgh RV Show promoter Randy Giancola describes the event as "nine acres of RV paradise." The show started last weekend at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and runs through Sunday, Jan. 16.

The Pittsburgh RV Show is in town through Sunday, and it coincides with a COVID-19-induced surge in the popularity of outdoor travel.

Sales of recreational vehicles soared early in the pandemic amid concerns about the coronavirus, and nearly two years later, local dealers report that demand remains strong.

“People are just tired of staying home,” said Scott Murray, RV manager at Butler RV Center & Auto Sales just outside the city of Butler. “They just want to go out, have fun, get out, explore. People don't want to stay in hotels because they're afraid of the COVID, so they'd rather have their own thing.”

At Butler RV Center, sales increased by more than 30% in 2020, and by at least another 50% last year, Murray said. He noted that supply crunches have also forced prices to climb by roughly 3% to 5% each month for the past year. Today, he said, the vehicles at his dealership range in price from about $25,000 to $120,000.

“We were already informed that there's another increase coming in February from the industry,” he added. But he said such hikes have “absolutely not” discouraged customers from purchasing the vehicles.

“They want it, and they're going to buy it,” he said.

For those looking to join the club, the Pittsburgh RV show offers a place to start. It runs through Sunday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Tickets are available here.

“We've taken the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, and we've transformed it into nine acres of RV paradise,” show promoter Randy Giancola said.

“There's lightweight travel trailers, fifth wheels, truck campers, motor homes, folding campers. Off-grid campers are new to the show this year,” he continued. And he added that more than 100 campgrounds and RV accessory makers sent representatives to the show.

Giancola, whose family once owned Clem’s RV in Ellwood City, said that RVing has become a way of life for more people during the pandemic.

“We had this transition where people started to work from home rather than go into the office. With an RV, you could be working from a rest area on Interstate 79 or Yellowstone National Park. … The kids could be home-schooled,” he said “So with the pandemic, it just made sense that the RV was the ideal mode of transportation.”

Giancola predicts that this month’s RV show could attract up to 27,000 visitors over nine days. Close to 10,000 attended over the first weekend, he said.

Last year, the event was postponed until the spring to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But that close to the summer sales season, some dealers couldn’t attend because supply shortages had already set in, and they didn’t have inventory to display, Giancola said.

“But now into January of 2022, the supply chain issues are getting better,” he said. “Dealers are telling me that they have plenty of inventory on their lot to sell, and they have plenty of inventory in the pipeline coming,” he said.

At Butler RV Center, Murray said inventories bounced back somewhat once the market began to cool around the holidays.

“Back in the summer, we were down to where we didn't have anything on the lot to sell. Everything that was on the lot was a display unit, and you had to order off of [the lot],” he said.

Hufnagel & Majors, a towable RV seller in Harmony, had a similar experience. Its stock dwindled to as few as three RVs at times last year. And some shipments didn’t arrive for up to six months, roughly double the usual 10- to 12-week wait, according to Hufnagel & Majors sales manager Brian Hooker.

“All of the stuff, it was getting pre-sold. Everybody knew that ‘If I don't secure this camper, then I'm not going to get one,’” he said. “Luckily, I had pictures of everything that was coming [to the dealership] online, so a lot of people are just buying them off of the website.”

Since then, however, the company has managed to restore its inventory. It now has 80 vehicles on-site and more on the way, Hooker said.

He estimated that sales at Hufnagel & Majors increased by 20% last year despite the supply bottleneck, which he said stemmed in part from a shortage of refrigerators and windows used in RVs.

Hooker predicted that the vehicles will keep getting more expensive as the summer sales season approaches.

“So if someone is looking to purchase something, [the] sooner the better to do it. Otherwise, they'll just pay more money by waiting,” he said.