How RVs became the American Dream

Rob Ganley looks to the US to find out how Americans fell in love with caravans and motorhomes, and how we’re seeking to emulate this success in the UK.

From 28 November to 1 December 2016, Louisville in Kentucky, USA, hosts the 54th National RV Trade Show.
I’ve been a few times in recent years to this trade-only event, where American RV dealers go to choose which motorhomes and ‘travel trailers’ – what we’d call caravans this side of the pond – to stock for the coming season.
Each time I’ve gone, I’ve been fascinated to learn how the Americans view camping and caravanning, how they promote it, how the market for leisure vehicles and campgrounds compares with our own in the UK, how they holiday in their RVs, and how their tastes differ from our own.
First, I’m going to share some vital statistics with you. Much like our own UK and European markets, the US market for recreational vehicles took a huge hit following the credit crunch in 2007 and during the recession. It hit a low in 2009, but has grown over subsequent years and now shifts 375,000 new RVs each year.
It’s a $50 billion industry in the US, and very much a manufacturing sector building for its domestic market.
Let’s be clear from the outset: an American RV isn’t just a big coach-style motorhome. They use the term to describe any outfit that combines transport and living quarters for travel, recreation and camping, and split them into two main categories – motorhomes and towables.
I’ll go into more detail into the make-up of the RV market in part two of this blog, but suffice to say that in total, towables accounted for around 325,000 of the new RVs sold in the US in 2015, and there were around 50,000 were motorhomes.
RVing is big business in the USAround nine million households own an RV in the US, and research shows that the typical owner is 48 years old and married, and averages around three weeks per year RVing.
In terms of size and scale, the US market for RVs dwarves the UK market by around 12 to 1 (here we sell around 30,000 new caravans and motorhomes each year). Its population is five times larger than ours.
Sure, the US has considerably more land mass, a lot more county to explore, and with around 16,000 campgrounds has approximately four times more than here in the UK.
But one thing I quickly learned during my visit: Americans are hugely positive, even evangelical, about the RV lifestyle. The pastime just doesn’t suffer the same negativity it does among parts of the media and public here in the UK.
A large part of that is the success of Go RVing, the industry’s national campaign to promote all things RVing to the wider American public through a major advertising and marketing communications campaign.
The Go RVing campaign is sponsored by RV manufacturers, component suppliers, dealers and campgrounds, and began in 1997. It’s a massive endeavour, with slick TV commercials in recent years voiced by the likes of Tom Selleck (best known as Magnum PI) on major cable networks.
It has massive media partnerships, extensive print and digital advertising, a dedicated website ( plus a huge social media presence that includes a Facebook page with some 700,000 fans.
RVing is a major part of American cultureGo RVing promotes the flexibility and convenience of RVing, positioning it as a convenient, hassle-free way to see America. RV travellers have the flexibility to go where they want, when they want, without the worry and stress of airport waits and luggage restrictions.
It also focuses on family appeal, claiming RVing as a uniquely enjoyable way to travel as a family, improving togetherness and family communication.
Versatility is key too: in addition to travel, camping and outdoor recreation, RVs are used year-round for a variety of other purposes, such as tailgating at sporting events. No, it doesn’t mean driving too close to the vehicle in front of you – American tailgating is a social event, traditionally held on and around the open tailgate of a vehicle, and usually involves beer and barbecued food in car parks before and after sporting events.
And the rental business for US RVs is a huge $350+ million industry and growing, with massive, multi-depot brands in heavy demand around holiday times, and also crucial for those looking to try before they buy.
The use of RVs allows Americans to be very sociableHow well has Go RVing worked for the US RV industry? The market grew from 250,000 new RVs sold in 1996, to a high of 390,000 units in 2006. Today it’s back to 375,000 units.
Down the years, Go RVing has ensured a steady stream of RVs in the US media, making motorhomes and towables familiar to customers: when they see a motorhome or trailer rolling down the highway, they feel like RVs are everywhere. It’s played a role in cementing RVs as a major part of American culture.
Thanks partly to celebrity endorsement from the likes of Matthew McConaughy and Dolly Parton, RVs are loved by most Americans, and that doesn’t happen by chance.
Here in the UK, over the last couple of years, the industry has taken a leaf out of the GO RVing handbook, and has been running its own coordinated, industry-wide approach to marketing the joys of caravanning, motorhoming and leisure vehicle holidays in general. It’s called Freedom to Go.
The Camping and Caravanning Club has invested time and money working with leading industry organisations to support the ‘Freedom to Go’ awareness campaign, and we’ve partnered with The National Caravan Council and The Caravan Club.
It showcases how camping and caravanning is the perfect way to visit many much-loved British destinations that are easily accessible from nearby campsites. We want to help more people experience the adventures it brings and ensure it’s integral to British holidaymaking.
Hopefully this blog gives some insight into how Americans view RVing, and into the coordinated and sustained effort from the RV industry to help build this positive image. Here in the UK we’re just starting out on that road, but if we get it right in the coming years and decades, the benefits for everyone with a passion for this way of life are huge.

Rob Ganley Rob is the Club’s Editor-in-Chief. A former group editor of Practical Caravan and Practical Motorhome magazines, he joined The Camping and Caravanning Club in 2014. Rob has been lucky enough to explore the world on fly-drive motorhome holidays, including US Route 66 in an RV, and New Zealand in a campervan. More recently he tours with his wife and children, 12 & 9, and together they’ve camped in France, Italy and Spain in caravans and motorhomes. Read other posts by this author