Diehard Auburn football fans Rick and Susan Turner hold season tickets on the 35-yard line at the university’s Jordan-Hare Stadium. But when the Tigers are on the field, the Turners are in the parking lot.
Every home game, the Birmingham, Ala., couple tailgates from their 45-foot 2016 Tiffin Zephyr, a luxury motorhome. The Zephyr offers an entertainment center and a full kitchen with solid-surface countertops and stainless-steel sink, as well as a range, microwave, dishwasher and refrigerator. And unlike the stadium, there’s no line to use the Zephyr’s bathroom. Most important, electrical hookups and an automatic generator ensure that the motorhome is fully air-conditioned.
“It’s hot in Alabama in September,” says Mr. Turner, 64, senior vice president of Greenbrier Rail Services, a company that makes freight railcars and equipment.
Doug and Dani Stiebeling’s Itasca Ellipse motorhome, on the right, at their lot at Hearthside Grove in Petoskey, Mich.
Tony Demin for The Wall Street Journal
When the Turners hit the road—which is quite often—they travel with all the luxuries of a five-star hotel. In the world of motorhomes, Class A models that measure 40 to 45 feet are among the most lavish. New, fully loaded Class As off the lot start at about $250,000, and customized coaches can reach $3 million. Because of the price, Class A buyers are typically retirees or those nearing the end of their careers.
Mr. Turner, who paid about $525,000 for his Tiffin, retired once, but returned to the Portland, Ore.-based company at the request of the CEO. When he travels for work, he likes to take the RV, and his wife Susan, 63, and Labrador retriever Buddy typically come along for the ride. But they take plenty of personal trips to visit friends and extended family, as well as motoring to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and to the Florida Keys. In all, they put 10,000 to 15,000 miles on their motorhome each year.
Getting there isn’t cheap—most Class As get roughly 8 miles per gallon in good conditions. “If you have to worry about MPGs, don’t get an RV,” Mr. Turner says. “You’re spending $300 to $400 every tank of gas. It’s a small mortgage for some people.”
Rick and Susan Turner tailgate before every Auburn University football game. But with their 45-foot-long Tiffin Zephyr RV, it’s not your average tailgate. Take a tour of the big rig with the Turners.
Mr. Turner plans to retire full time in a few years. The couple—he was 15 and she was 13 when they started dating—hopes to spend six to eight months taking their RV up the West Coast from Southern California, across the country to northern Maine, then down the East Coast back to Birmingham.
Alabamans Susan and Rick Turner inside their 45-foot-long Tiffin Zephyr. Photo: Caleb Chancey for The Wall Street Journal
Recent retirees Doug and Dani Stiebeling found their happy place in Petoskey, Mich. The couple’s full time home is in Orlando, Fla., but they wanted a summertime destination to escape the Florida heat. In June they paid $250,000 for a 42-foot 2014 Itasca Ellipse, and drove it to Hearthside Grove, a luxury motorhome resort in Petoskey exclusively for Class A models. Their wooded lot, purchased in “the $250,000 range” measures one-fifth of an acre and includes a paved driveway with electrical, water and sewer hookups. Like many of the lots at Hearthside, the Stiebelings also have a 200-square-foot bungalow on their property where guests can stay when they visit.
The Stiebelings, along with their dog Pumpkin and cat Sammi, make Hearthside Grove their home base for much of the season, which runs from mid-May to mid-October. They hitch a car to the back of their motorhome to use for trips to the grocery store and other errands.
“There is so much to do in northern Michigan,” says Mr. Stiebeling, 65, who retired in April after a 35-year career selling medical devices and artificial skin to burn centers. “The water is so clean, and there’s trout fishing, golfing, restaurants galore—and not the typical chain restaurants. They’re ma-and-pa places.”
If they ever decide to take longer trips, they can put their Hearthside lot in the rental pool, allowing other Class A owners to lease their space and bungalow for $100 to $175 a night. Leasing their lot won’t necessarily keep the fuel tank filled, but it could defray the property taxes and insurance on their lot, as well as a rental fees to store their motorhome when not in use.
The Stiebelings put about 6,000 miles on their Itasca each year but plan to take longer trips down the road. They recently stopped at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, where they stayed at a campground. But many national parks limit RVs of this size. (Look for parks and campgrounds that say “big-rig accessible.”) And wherever they go, Mr. Stiebeling does the driving. “She has driven it, but it makes her palms sweat a little bit,” he says of his wife, Dani, who is 58.
Living in such close quarters could lead to domestic squabbles, but the Stiebelings’ RV has three “slides” that can increase the floor space to almost 400 square feet when they’re expanded, giving them their own space.
If anything, the RV life allows couples to spend quality time together and share experiences on the road. “We enjoy going places and seeing things together,” says Mr. Turner. “I’m 64. I want to maximize the time I have with my wife.”
Spending time with his wife, Linda, was one of the main reasons Nicholas Grimaldi purchased his 45-foot 2017 Entegra Anthem.
The Grimaldis live in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., and are retired from the family’s canvas and upholstery business. Mr. Grimaldi, 64, also works for an insurance company in claims, and he had Wi-Fi installed in his RV so he could work while on the road.
But the real driver behind the decision to buy is Linda Grimaldi’s bucket list of destinations—the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and Minnesota to see the aurora borealis. “Because of my wife’s medical condition, she can’t fly. She has a hard time breathing,” he said. In the RV with portable oxygen, “we can go out and not skip a beat.”
Mr. Grimaldi says a “great deal” made a Class A motorhome possible. This summer, he paid $302,000 for an unsold 2017 model with an original sticker price of over $500,000.
“It’s all about timing in life. I always wanted to buy one. I never thought I’d be able to swing it,” he says. “Never give up. If I can do it, anyone can.”
Who’s Buying RVs?
Consumers between 55 and 74 years old are the “sweet spot” for the RV industry, and manufacturers are already seeing a baby-boomer bump in sales.
A record 504,600 recreational vehicles were shipped to dealerships last year, a 17.2% increase from 2016. And shipments this year are expected to reach 539,900, according to the RV Industry Association, a Reston, Va.-based trade group that represents manufacturers of motorhomes, towable trailers, fifth wheels and other recreational vehicles.
Most people buy RVs for the convenience and flexibility. “People can go when they want, where they want,” says Phil Ingrassia, president of the RV Dealers Association, another trade group, based in Fairfax, Va. “They’ve got their stuff with them—whether it’s golf or fishing. When we do surveys, we find that traveling with pets is a big motivation.”
Class As represent a smaller segment of the overall market in terms of volume, with just over 62,000 units shipped last year, Mr. Ingrassia adds.
With six dealerships in the U.S., Lazydays RV is the country’s top seller of Class A diesel motorhomes, says Bill Murnane, chairman and CEO of the Lazydays. Its main location just east of Tampa sits on 126 acres, with 1,500 to 2,000 RVs on the lot at any given time.
Class A buyers are often retired snowbirds who have a house in the North. “They’ll hop in the RV and tow their car and travel south to one or multiple campsites they’ve reserved. Many times they’ll travel in groups,” Mr. Murnane says.
Most buyers select their RV from what’s available on the lot, but Class A purchasers increasingly want custom features on their motorhomes, says Ryan Roske, Class A-diesel product manager for Winnebago Industries, based in Forest City, Iowa. “There’s been a shift in interest in owners wanting to really make the motorcoach their own,” says Mr. Roske, noting that Winnebago has a customization division. Custom touches include specialty shelving in the wardrobe, an office suite instead of a dinette, and storage space converted into kennels to house pets.
With all those upgrades, some Class A owners make their motorhome their primary residence, says Brion Brady, general manager of Entegra Coach, a brand made by Middlebury, Ind.-based Jayco. Roughly 60% of Entegra buyers are on the road traveling six to eight months of the year, Mr. Brady estimates.
“This is for the older buyer that doesn’t want to sit still or just golf every day,” he adds. “They want to experience everything. And they want to take ‘home’ with them. It’s your pillow, your sheets, your refrigerator, your shower.
Resorts for Motorcoaches
When they’re not on the road, many Class A motorhome owners camp at luxury resorts that offer basic hookups, lavish amenities and an active social calendar. Here’s a sampling of three resorts exclusively for Class A owner:
Las Vegas Motorcoach Resort
Lots: 407 total, with 41 currently on the resale market
Price range: $88,000 for an unimproved lot, to $379,000 for lots with ‘palapas,’ shelters typically with kitchens and entertaining spaces
Amenities: Clubhouse, pool, tennis/pickleball, fitness center, putting green
Social scene: Monthly movie parties as well as scavenger hunts, poker parties, barbecues.
Desert Shores Resort
Lots: 141 total, with on the resale market
Price range: $300,000 to $600,000. Every lot includes a villa, a 1,200- to 1,800-square-foot structure with a great room, kitchenette and bathroom.
Amenities: Dog park, clubhouse, pool, fitness center; financing through Wells Fargo .
Social scene: Dancing, Jeep excursions and an annual ‘Casita Crawl,’ in which some owners serve cocktails to other members.
Hearthside Grove Motorcoach Resort
Lots: 165 total with another 17 under construction; 45 lots currently listed
Price Range: $99,000 to $923,000 for lots with bungalows, outdoor entertaining space and water/fire features
Amenities: Clubhouse, pool, theater, tennis/pickleball court, fitness center, business center, laundry facilities.
Social life: Cooking classes, billiards tournaments, movie screenings, and manufacturer-motorcoach parties
Write to Beth DeCarbo at firstname.lastname@example.org