Gas prices force large RV sales down, scooter/motorcycle business up

For many people, summer means loading up the family in the RV and hitting the road for a long camping trip. But with gas prices topping the $4 mark, many RV owners are adjusting their vacation plans.

"People are still taking vacations, but they are just not driving as far," says Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort owner Kristin Levesque. She says the resort's reservations have been steady the past few years, but has noticed a growing trend.

"Since gas prices have been on the rise, we have had a lot of customers from Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. Many have mentioned that they are stopping in Traverse City instead of making the longer trip to the Upper Peninsula."

Recently, Friend Communications, an online business management company for travel and leisure industries, named Timber Ridge a top earner in the country with at least $50,000 in online reservation sales last year.

At current gas prices, it costs approximately $145 to fill up a smaller RV's 35-gallon tank. A top-of-the-line RV with a 75-gallon tank costs more than $300.

And because of this expense, along with a slow economy, some area RV dealerships say sales are down. Leisure Time Auto & RV has been selling RVs in Benzonia since 1999. Owner Carl Johnson says this is the worst summer yet for sales. And customers who are still buying RVs are purchasing smaller, more fuel-efficient models.

Lori Watson, owner of Nature and Me RV in Traverse City, has also noticed a decline in sales. But despite the decrease, she believes RVs are still a great way to travel for vacation.

"With the average hotel room costing $100 a night, in the long run it could save you money. Western Michigan has great campgrounds, so you don't need to go far."

The slumping market for RVs extends beyond the Grand Traverse region; national RV sales have also experienced a decline from last year. According to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, first quarter 2008 RV shipments were down 11.8 percent from 2007. However, experts project that shipments will stabilize next year and predict that by 2010, 8.5 million households will own an RV, up from 7.5 million in 2005.

But while RV sales are slipping, scooter sales are revving up. Vespa Traverse City, also owned by Watson, has experienced a 40 percent increase in scooter sales since last year.

Vespa is an Italian manufacturer of gas-powered scooters that can range in price from $1,900 to $10,000. The fuel-efficient scooters can get 80-100 miles per gallon, and certain models can travel at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. "Vespa" means wasp in Italian, and the scooter was given this name because aspects of its design resemble the insect. Watson refers to the Vespa as "the Mercedes of scooters."

Another area business hopes that customers who don't want to buy a Vespa will think about renting one. Last year E Company debuted in Traverse City with a fleet of in-town-only electric cars. This year the company expanded to include Vespas and electric scooters that can go the distance.

"We think our product range appeals to young and old. One product will supply the needs of a town-dweller, the other can address the needs of someone living farther out of town," says owner Ella Cooper. "The scooters will appeal to tourists of all types. Who wouldn't want to tour this beautiful area with the breeze in his or her hair?"

Scooters aren't the only two-wheeled trend in transportation. Motorcycle sales are also up this year. Classic Motor Sports in Traverse City says it has seen about a 30 percent increase in sales since last summer and has a lot of first time bikers coming through the door.

"I think our sales could be even higher if it weren't for the slow economy," says salesman Chris Heroy. "But I think people are finding it's cheaper in the long run to buy a motorcycle now than drive a car." BN