ROANOKE, Va. — Charlene Nibert planned to celebrate her retirement from teaching on an Alaskan cruise. But it was canceled because of the coronavirus.
So Nibert, of New Port Richey, Fla., used the money she’d set aside for the cruise to buy a recreational vehicle. She and a friend are traveling along the East Coast, and earlier this month, they were at Roanoke County’s Explore Park.
“This is like the best vacation,” Nibert said, as she relaxed in a folding chair.
She’d already been hiking and biking and was contemplating kayaking next. Nibert, 63, ended up in the Roanoke Valley because her traveling companion has a daughter in the area.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced summer vacationers to alter their plans. But rather than give up a vacation altogether, many travelers are seeking more remote options where they can enjoy nature but continue social distancing. It’s translated to a boom in business for RV dealers and campgrounds.
When restrictions were lifted on campgrounds, visitors flocked to the cabins and yurts at Roanoke County’s Explore Park.
“It was like somebody flipped a switch and everybody was running outside,” said Don Harrison, who manages the rentals at the park.
Camping, hiking, biking and tubing offer people an opportunity to get out of the houses they’ve been cooped up in for months but still keep their distance from strangers, he said. The number of people booking stays this summer is far more than he anticipated, which he believes is because of the pandemic.
Visitor data indicates guests have come from all across the country. More than 20 states are represented in the data, which logs visitors from May 1 to July 30. Most are from along the East Coast, but there have been visitors from as far away as Arizona and Texas.
Some out-of-towners have ties to the area, or have come to see family and friends but feel more comfortable staying in a cabin than a hotel, Harrison said. He’s also seen a number of first-timers for whom a cabin or yurt offers a nice middle ground between a tent and a hotel.
“I’m sure they thought, ‘Well, instead of going to some place where we’re going to be around a whole bunch of people, let’s go as a family, do some outdoor stuff and maybe be safer,’ so they come stay with us,” Harrison said.
The pandemic has also prompted a surge of recreational vehicle sales. Joe Childress, general manager for Tonie’s RV in Salem, Va., said the demand is unlike anything he’s seen before. Many people aren’t even attempting to negotiate a price.
“They’re not even negotiating because they know if they snooze, they lose,” Childress said. “If they don’t buy it, there’s four more people behind them that want it.”
The boom in business presents some challenges. Childress said reserving a spot at a campground can be tough, especially on weekends, and that inventories of both recreational vehicles and parts are not being replenished quickly enough.
“The whole industry is trying to accommodate everybody’s surge in purchasing, but we can’t,” he said.
Many buyers are RV newbies, not familiar with the lifestyle, which Childress said could lead to many used units eventually flooding the market.
For the last six weeks, Childress said he’s been working 16-hour days, seven days a week. Getting all the recently purchased campers prepped and ready to hand off to their new owners is keeping the service side of the business busy. Childress said the next available service appointment isn’t until October.
“I’m actually happy almost all my inventory’s gone and I have nothing to sell,” he said. “I’m tired. I’m worn out.”
Under normal conditions, there might be eight to 15 people browsing the lot on a Saturday afternoon, Childress said. These days it can be more like 30 or 40.
“I’ve never sold so many parts in all my life; I’ve never sold so many campers at one time,” he said.