While Saturday's snowstorm might have reduced the customer flow into the 50th Anniversary Maryland RV show, Greg Merkel didn't seem too worried. The owner of one of the region's largest dealerships, Merkel stood on the vast floor of a show he's attended for 43 years and declared the RV-and-motor home business alive and well.
"I looked at sales from August to December, and they were up 20 percent over the same period last year," said Merkel, owner of Leo's Vacation Center, the company his father started with campers and truck caps on the front lawn of his home on Crain Highway in Gambrills in 1972. "And this year is off to a good start."
The Maryland Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association believes lower gasoline prices have contributed to the increase in sales.
But a lot of the customers at State Fairgrounds in Timonium were repeat customers — people devoted to taking their RVs and campers on the road.
Tom and Glenna Wolking, of Anne Arundel County, ordered a 34-foot Keystone Outback, trading up from a smaller model they purchased five years ago from Merkel.
"Long weekends, time with the family and camaraderie," Tom Wolking said, citing reasons why he and his wife enjoy the recreational vehicle life.
"We have four children and four grandchildren," said Glenna Wolking, "and this is how we spend our time together — camping, visiting state parks."
The Wolkings wanted the larger model Outback for more sleeping room and privacy.
A couple from Essex also stopped by Merkel's sales table to purchase a 37-foot Highland Ridge Open Range.
"You can go anywhere and have a home with you," said Melissa Heim of Crofton, who tows a "fifth wheel," or trailer-style RV, with her Hummer when she camps and engages in her favorite hobby — hunting for sharks teeth. Her pet dachshund likes camping, too.
Tim Hughes of Howard County stopped with his wife and four sons to see RVs offered for sale by Beckley's Camping Center in Thurmont, Frederick County. One of his sons, he said, had become enthralled with a certain large RV so the whole family went to the show. "We just started looking," Hughes said.
Merkel described the RV customer base as "families with small children and empty-nesters."
People spend thousands of dollars on RVs and motor homes and take out loans for the purchases. Many consider them an affordable second home, with prices ranging from a few thousand dollars to $70,000 and up, depending on how big and stylish the ride.
But sales dropped significantly across the nation during and immediately after the recession of 2007-2009. In fact, new RV registrations fell 26 percent during that time, according to Michigan-based Statistical Surveys Inc., which monitors industry data.
That same organization reported a 10 percent increase in sales of RVs last year while motor home registrations were up more than 27 percent.
"We're having fun," said Merkel, showing off a 24-foot Thor Vegas for sale for $72,900, marked down from $97,946. "All the dealers are happy."