Travel Trailer Pulled by Modern Pickup Truck on a Scenic Utah Route

RV History: The Revitalization Period of the Modern Era (2008-2019)

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After reading our Modern Era (2008 – Present) article, we’re sure it left you craving more. In the entire history of the RV industry, there hasn’t been such a polarization like this. Going from a near extinction-level event, recovery, and then to the greatest RV boom ever in a 12 year period would put anyone on anti-anxiety and blood pressure medication.

To record the Modern Era as best possible, we’ve broken it into two different sub-periods: The Revitalization and Remote periods. The Revitalization Period starts in 2008 with the U.S. Financial Crisis. As you read in the main Modern Era piece, RV manufacturers suffered heavily. Long-lasting names closed up, others filed for bankruptcy, and some became subsidiaries to stay alive. 

Over 10% of all dealerships closed and lenders stopped RV financing. While it took a few years to fully recover, by 2013, the industry as a whole was back on track and seeing a steady growth of sales. Join us as we take a closer look at the Revitalization Period of the Modern Era.

The Effect of the 2008 Financial Crisis

Much of this is covered in the Modern Era article, but one point we can echo is the overall strength of the RV industry as a whole. Throughout the Vintage Era, Classic Era, and Neo-Classic Era, RV manufacturers went from small companies to big corporations that had the financial girth to become significant economic powerhouses. 

They weren’t economic flagships like the automakers, but the incorporated Big Four (Forest River Inc., REV Group, Thor Ind., and Winnebago Ind.) and the other brands that did survive weathered the Financial Crisis in “safe-mode” better than their grandfather companies of the past.

The overall RV shipments for 2009 resulted in 165,700 units. In an industry typically selling between 350,000- 400,000 units per year, belt-tightening and surviving on instant ramen noodles was the new philosophy. As a result, some RV manufacturers extended the two-week summer shutdown, typically for tooling change over, for months. 

Instead of pushing for innovation, the RV industry as a whole took a page from history and switched its focus to value engineering similar to what the Antique Era RV designers did in the 1930s.

Value Engineering Has Its Benefits

Investopedia defines value engineering as:

“…[the] systematic, organized approach to providing necessary functions in a project at the lowest cost.”

The basic idea came out of the depression but solidified at General Electric during WWII. The idea is to use a less expensive part that increases the overall functionality of a device. 

For example, natural wood cabinetry in RVs made them heavy, which reduced the cargo carrying capacity (CCC) of motorhomes and travel trailers. So when RV manufacturers started using medium-density fiberboard (MDF), it reduced the cabinetry’s weight and made them stronger. 

MDF is also a cheaper material to produce and buy, which reduces production costs (and sales prices). This value engineering technique allowed RV manufacturers to develop more storage space within the living space since the MDF and high-density fiberboard (HDF) have higher load-bearing ratings.

When RV companies experimented with value engineering during this era, some tried materials like low-density fiberboard (LDF) and fastening hardware with the correct ratings but leaned more on the value side of the decision-making equation. As consumers used these Revitalization Era RVs, there was an elevated trend of warranty repair issues. However, the various RV brands continued to find the balance between value and durability. 

Value engineering further developed many new and existing innovations during the Revitalization Period, including:

  • Breaking with the beige and white exterior color tradition seen in the Minnie Winnie
  • Contemporary and modern RV interiors
  • King-size beds becoming standard features in more RV categories
  • Decreasing overall weight
  • RV outdoor kitchens
  • Plus many other features
woman using an RV outdoor kitchen
Photo from Bighorn.

The Big Four Go On a Shopping Spree

During the Revitalization Era, Forest River Incorporated, REV Group, and Thor Industries took advantage of the economic downturn by acquiring many independent RV, personal watercraft, bus, and other companies. The biggest buyer was Thor.  

Raptor fifth wheel RV parked in desert terrain with people dirt biking
Photo from Thor Industries.

Forest River acquired Coachmen (2008), Prime Time (2009), and Dynamax (2011).

REV Group acquired:

  • E-ONE – 2008
  • Fleetwood/American Coach – 2009
  • Halcore – 2010
  • SJC Industries – 2013
  • Monaco/Holiday Rambler – 2013
  • Buys Thor’s Bus Division – 2013
  • Hall-Mark & Dealerships – 2015
  • KME Fire/Renegade RV – 2016
  • Create Frontline Ambulance – 2016
  • Create World Trans Bus – 2016
  • Midwest Auto Designs – 2017
  • Ferrara Fire – 2017
  • Lance – 2017
  • Partner with Daimler Bus – 2017

Thor acquired:

  • Heartland – 2010
  • SJC Industries – 2010
  • Krystal Infinity – 2012
  • Federal Coach – 2012
  • Bison Coach – 2013
  • Sell Bus Division – 2013
  • Livin’ Lite – 2013
  • Wakarusa Campus – 2013
  • KZ RV – 2014
  • Cruiser RV – 2015
  • DRV – 2015
  • Postle Aluminum – 2015
  • Jayco – 2016
  • (Germany) Hymer- 2019

While the other three were busy integrating their new acquisitions into their families, Winnebago Industries took a different approach. In the summer of 2009, Winnebago extended its summer shutdown for a few months. The retooling process was more complicated than in previous years. If the Flying W was going to survive the 21st Century, they needed to archive all of their designs and do a complete rebrand with new perspectives, ideas, and innovations.

Bunkhouses for Every Age, Application, and Attitude

Interior view of bunkhouse in RV with dinette, fold down bunk, and entertainment area
2021 Roamer 354MBH Bunkhouse. Photo from Highland Ridge RV.

The bunkhouse travel trailer concept came to life in the Neo-Classic Era but truly developed in the Revitalization Era. The four twin-size bunks (two on the door-side and two opposite) worked well for large families, but parents wanted more. Specifically, they wanted the living room TV back.

Some extreme RVers enjoy stripped-down travel trailers with the bare essentials and fill their day enjoying the wonders of nature. Most RV families don’t want to bring the game console argument with them on their RV vacation. When Mom and Dad want to enjoy the evening with a movie, going 15 rounds with the kids about turning off the game console and getting the constant whining interruptions about being bored destroys any chance of relaxing.

Substituting the lower off-door bunk with a sofa or two-seater convertible dinette and the lower door side bunk with an entertainment center was a dream-come-true for RV parents. For example, in 2014, parents could watch that year’s Best Picture Oscar Winner, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in the living room of their new Keystone Sprinter 316BIK. Meanwhile, the kids sat on the hide-a-bed sofa in the bunkhouse blasting aliens on the mounted LED TV in the entertainment center below the door-side top bunk. Argument avoided, and the RV vacation was a success.

Midsize travel trailers with bunk beds saw the introduction of full-size bunks. Younger children could double up comfortably and teenagers had more space to spread out. Privacy curtains allowed kids to “turn off” the world if they needed time alone with their thoughts.

RV designers added net pouches, USB charging ports, 110v outlets, and fold-down TVs with DVD players in Class A motorhomes so kids could connect their mobile electronics and enjoy their own space. 

Full-time RV families found bunkhouse travel trailers and fifth wheels more useful in many ways. Kids now had their own space, and roadschooling became easier with the two-seater dinette. In addition, the bunkhouse allowed for a shared sidewall space for an outdoor feature that enhanced the outside living space ten-fold.

Climbing, Crawling, Mudding, and Off-Roading

Black and white image of vintage Airstream being towed
Wally Byam and the Airsteam. Photo from Airstream.

Taking an RV off-road isn’t a new concept. When Wally Byam took his Airstream travel trailer on a European tour in 1948, and a Caravel sized trailer from Texas to Nicaragua in 1951, there were many “roads” (we use that term loosely) that were nothing more than widened trails full of mud, rocks, and tree roots. One of his goals was to test the trailer on extreme road conditions. It’s a good thing he brought extra parts.

The 2010 model year could be considered the year of the RV off-road suspension. It was the year Australian manufacturer Opus Camper introduced Americans to their air-inflated pop-up camper with independent coil springs and dual shock absorber suspension. Jeep featured its off-door side one single bed pop-up

Many mainline RV brands started offering off-road packages that beefed up the suspension, bigger tires, and added other features allowing their towables to take on more challenging terrains. 

By 2013, consumers found small travel trailers and campers built specifically for off-roading or affordable packages from almost all of the domestic RV brands.

off-road RV
EarthRoamer LTi-001. Photo from EarthRoamer.

Expedition RVs had been conquering mountains, fording through rivers, and crossing deserts for years. These towables weren’t at that level, but they came close. People who enjoyed off-road SUV mudding, rock crawling, and other vehicle adventures could set up their coach close by instead of miles away.

From a value engineering perspective, suspension technology for this off-roading level already existed. RV designers had to adapt the existing technology cost-effectively. Most off-road suspension packages readjust the leaf spring placement and other components, giving the wheels more clearance. In addition, 15-inch tires replace 14-inch standard versions and have a better grip. Skid plates and other protective armaments protect the underbelly and sidewalls from damage.

The Power of the People: All Season Features Become Standard

Have you ever had someone say to you, “Who in their right mind goes camping in the winter for darned sake!?” As a family-friendly website, we’ve cleaned up the language, but for those that enjoy late-season camping and winter activities, winter in the snowbelt states is when the real fun begins.

Around 2012, once we realized the Mayan calendar didn’t foretell our doom (although Hollywood made a decent movie out of it), mainstream RVers started to notice the benefits of all-season RV enhancements. Winter RVing was another style of camping that dated back decades. Those interested in four-season RV features wanted the ability to head out in January, even if they never did.

Others saw a great way to keep their coach cooler during the summer heat. The increased insulation so the air conditioner didn’t have to work so hard to maintain the inside temperature. Boondockers and full-timers found this the most appealing since it would reduce generator run times and reduce electricity meter bills, respectively.

All-Season RV packages commonly offered:

  • Sealed underbellies with corrugated composite material
  • Increased rigid foam or fiberglass batt insulation below the subfloor
  • Heat ducts rerouted around water holding tanks to prevent freezing
  • Electric heating pads inside the water holding tanks to prevent freezing 
  • Insulation wraps around propane and house batteries
  • Quick fill/drain winterization valves for water heaters
  • Temperatures resistant PEX piping

As the packages became more popular, by 2018, RV brands started offering some of the optional amenities as standard features. Underbellies came sealed and insulated, heat ducting always routed around the holding tanks, and the quick fill/drain winterization valve for the water heater became permanent. PEX piping was already a standard feature.

From a value engineering standpoint, this was a pure customer feedback issue that needed to happen. The corrugated plastic sheeting for the underbelly already existed in other industries, and the overall cost fits well within the building costs. Customer approval rose, even with the slight increase in sales price. Happy customers make for a happy RV company.

The New Innovations of the Revitalization Era

The Revitalization Era wasn’t entirely about using value engineering. Finding the best substitute at the lowest cost could only go so far. New innovations did show up. One of the Big Four completely rebranded itself to the point where they re-imagined the possibilities of an entire category.

The Sound of Silent… Electricity

In 1839, French physicist Edmond Becquerel was the first to produce electricity from radiant energy. Throughout the years, other scientists would add their work, but it wouldn’t be until the 1950s that Bell Laboratories created the first solar cell that was 6% efficient (yes, that Bell Labs from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). It’s only in the 2010s that enough interest and funding moved solar technology from the dusty corner to the fancy, big-budget lab.

Before the Revitalization Era, solar panels were big, heavy, expensive, and not too efficient. As the technology became easier to produce, boondockers started to install 100-watt panels on top of their RVs and the other necessary components. Soon 200, 300, and 400-watt panels became available in manageable sizes. In addition, inverter technology and lithium-ion batteries made solar systems powerful enough to keep RVers comfortable off-grid without powering up the gas generator for many of their electronic devices. 

Running an RV A/C on battery power was still a problem, but cooking, lighting, using mobile devices, watching TV, and enjoying the RV experience could be achieved. Smaller systems required balancing wattage usage with recharging capabilities, but it was less of an issue for those in teardrop campers and small travel trailers than bigger RVs.

As the solar panel concept caught on, the RV manufacturers started offering optional packages. The factory would install a solar panel that ranged from 100-150 watts, a 1,000 or 2,000-watt inverter, and other features. All RVs became standard with solar system prewiring and had ports on the exterior sidewall to plug in portable solar systems. 

Lightweight, flexible solar panels on the roof of a mini van
Photo by Nikki Cleveland.

Wireless Technology Enhances RV Work/Life Opportunities

The Russians beat the U.S. on sending the first person into space and created the first satellite TV Network, Orbita, in 1967 (during the Cold War, America considered both of those events a bad thing). The first American satellite TV Network, Satcom 1, started transmitting ABC, CBS, NBC, and HBO as a premium service to consumer households in 1975. Today’s modern satellite networks like DirecTV and Dish Network started broadcasting in 1990 and 1996, respectively.

The Revitalization Era saw a lot of advancement in wireless networking technology. Cellular technology allowed smartphones and mobile hotspots. In August 2014, weBoost started offering data boosters. Around this time, other companies, like wireless giant Winegard, aggressively competed with their versions and other advancements. 

At the time, the cellular service providers AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon were racing to deliver the highest data speeds with the most access on their towers. The advancement from the 2002 3G download/upload speed made mobile wireless networking difficult. Once the major cellular carriers upgraded to 4G (LTE was a partial speed upgrade measure from 3G until the service providers could fully realize 4G) in 2011, the towers and various transfer components were ready to handle the complexities required.

Upgrades to the Google search engine algorithm, YouTube, application building software, and other tools gave RV full-timers opportunities to expand their revenue streams working from the road. Instead of finding the best job opportunities in the real world (or having enough savings to live off investments), the virtual world held new opportunities. 

Full-timers, part-timers, or virtually anyone could discover some of the most remote places in the United States and still connect to the world wide web. (Death Valley and some parts of mountain ranges and areas around government facilities are still “dead zones.”) They could sit in their favorite chair, upload videos, blogs, and other material to their pages. 

With a big enough viewership, the right advertising agreement package, make a valuable app that’s downloadable for a fee, and other monetized strategies, a significant portion of RVers make enough to continue their RV lifestyle. 

Read more: Meet This Digital Nomad RV Couple

Please be aware: We recognize that we’re oversimplifying the process to prove our point that during the Revitalization Era, these online revenue techniques became possible. If you’re curious about how to earn money online, we recommend you conduct in-depth research on the subject. It can take longer than two years before you see a significant return on your investment.

Life on the Road Becomes Safer With RV Alarm Systems

New wireless alarm systems hit the market in the residential housing market, changing the home security industry. Previously, systems like Guardian and ADT would run wires through the house, connecting them to various sensors and use traditional telephone landlines to transmit intruder alerts. 

The new wireless alarms use unique radio frequencies to signal a central hub. The hub then uses either the internet or a cellular frequency to contact the owner or professional monitoring services. Some systems allow owners to see and speak with the other person in real-time, while others record movement. 

The fascinating part of this story is the fact that these systems work well on RVs. Only one or two let RV owners subscribe to professional monitoring services because, in most cases, the feature requires the location to be a structure with an address. The alarm equipment still records or sends audio/video to your mobile device while you’re away from your RV. 

Besides intruder monitoring, some expandable alarm systems like Ring and SimpliSafe have disaster alarms for flooding, fire and listeners for carbon monoxide and other alarm devices. There’s even a pet feature, so the system doesn’t confuse your dog or cat with an actual real event. 

RVers have become an extensive client base; wireless alarm system companies are making devices geared towards protecting motorhomes and travel trailers.

How Well Did the RV Industry Revitalize?

The 2009 RV shows across the country were the make-it-or-break-it events. Even though the RV manufactures were financially in a bad situation, each one of them knew that if they didn’t show something spectacular to the RV community, their troubles would worsen. 

We showed you how each manufacturer used value engineering to take existing features to the next level, break from traditional ideas, and experiment with new building materials. Each brand won in some way, but most would agree that Winnebago went “punk” on the conventional ideas that year. 

After the 2008 Financial Crisis, RV sales rose consecutively from 2010-2017, reaching a record-breaking 504,600 units sold at its zenith in 2017. However, 2018 and 2019 saw a dip in sales that returned to over 400,000 units per year. The RV industry was running smoothly again, and RVers were getting into life on the road. There was more information online about great destinations, how to get into the RV lifestyle, and choosing the best RV category for your particular needs.

And Then Came COVID…

We’ll discuss the Remote Period (2020-Present) of the Modern Era in our next article that further explains the issues and innovations of the second half of this unprecedented time. We recommend rereading the second half of the Modern Era piece before delving into the Remote Period, so you have everything fresh in your mind. 

After all, at the beginning of 2019, who could imagine a global pandemic becoming a reality (besides sci-fi writers, doomsday preppers, and those in Homeland Security that deal with those scenarios)? Better yet, the concept of turning RVs into personal protection equipment during a global pandemic, resulting in the biggest RV boom was last seen in the 1996 movie, Independence Day.  

Sign up for our free newsletter that comes out every Tuesday on the Camper Smarts website, so you don’t miss the Remote Period article and other topics we discuss. You can also learn more about all things RV from our RV Life Network affiliates on Camper Report, Campground Reviews, Do It Yourself RV, and RV Life Magazine

If you want to take a deep dive into a particular subject, take a class with the RV Masterclass experts. You can learn about a variety of subjects like homeschooling on the road, the essentials of boondocking, the best tips on buying an RV, preparing for full-timing, and more. Your instructors are veteran RVers who have the education, real-life experience, and have put the time in on the subject matter they teach. So what you’ll learn is both practical and knowledge-based. 

So, from our family to yours, safe travels, and we’ll see you down the road.

About the Author

Although he’s from Motown, Brian Newman is a legacy RVer who grew up on I-75. He, his wife, and two working-class fur-babies have enjoyed the full-time RV lifestyle since 2017. Like John Madden, he hasn’t “worked” in years because he gets to write about his passion. When Brian’s not writing, he supports his daughter’s dog rescue efforts and disability causes.