The Road Trip Revival: Capturing the power of the classic American vacation

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With gas prices falling to a 10-year-low this spring, more Americans than ever are hitting the road for summer vacation, boosting revenue for parks, campgrounds, and—for retailers—certain gear categories.

 Credit: faungg via Flickr

Credit: faungg via Flickr

THERE HAS BEEN NO RITE OF PASSAGE LIKE THE GREAT AMERICAN ROAD TRIP, a romance woven of Kerouac’s On the Road and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, and a stronger metaphor for freedom and wide open space than any author could dream up.

Now, the tradition is seeing a resurgence, especially among families on summer vacation. According to a survey by AAA, 55 percent of Americans said they were more likely to take a road trip in 2016, citing record-low fuel costs as the primary motivator. Nearly 70 percent of families surveyed expressed an intent take a road trip vacation, with 49 percent dreaming of National Park visits.

Americans are proving true to their word; this Fourth of July, AAA said roads bore the highest Independence Day traffic volume on record. In fact, traffic volume, as measured by the Federal Highway Administration, has remained almost exactly constant this decade until 2015, when it increased slightly from the year before — by about 146 billion vehicle miles.

There are a number of other factors contributing to the road trip’s rebirth, including millennials’ exhaustive search for authenticity and American heritage. The National Park Service’s centennial celebration is another influence, with #FindYourPark and A Kid in Every Park campaigns urging more folks than ever to fill the ketchup-stained seats of the family station wagon and make a pilgrimage to our nation’s historic wilds during summer vacation.

More good news: inexpensive gas benefits all adventurers, not just those planning sea-to-shining-sea epics. Weekend warriors are venturing out more. According to the American Recreation Coalition’s Outdoor Recreation Outlook 2016 report, sales of recreational vehicles, including campers and pop-up trailers, are ticking upward. The report also credits low gas prices with increasing family vacations to rafting, kayaking, and paddlesports destinations. Hispanics and African Americans were more likely to report that gas prices heavily influenced their decision to camp or road trip, according to KOA’s 2016 North American Camper Report, indicating that lowered transportation costs could be key to dismantling historic economic barriers to outdoor recreation.

Kerouac may have broken up his stints behind the wheel by overextending his welcome on various couches, but the modern road tripper seems to prefer quieter accommodations. ACTIVE Network, which manages the portal for all camping reservations on federal land, reported a 19 percent increase in reservations in 2015.

The same year, 79 percent of campers said they were camping more often thanks to low gas prices, and 70 percent said reduced costs allowed them to venture farther from home, according to the North American Camper Report.

What does that mean for the outdoor retailer?

Roadtrip Graphic

For purveyors of small tents, not a lot. Neither REI nor Henry Shires of Tarp Tent, a heavyweight in lightweight tent production, reported much out of the usual in tent sales overall. Big Agnes, however, has been enjoying “substantial growth” in family and recreational tents over the past year, according to Marketing Director Len Zanni. REI has also seen increased sales in gear better suited to car camping and road tripping, though no consumer attitude data exists to verify the correlation for certain.

Courtney Gearhart, REI’s Earned Media Program Manager, reported significant year-over-year gains in coolers and insulated thermoses, with coolers up 100 percent and thermoses up 55 percent since 2015. Family tents are up 8 percent and camp and backpacking chairs combined have seen a 6 percent increase.

Overall tent sales seem to be marching upward at the same steady pace they’ve enjoyed over past years, and, according to data from the North American Camper Report, it’s likely that the future of tenting remains bright.

In 2015, 71 percent of millennials reported choosing tents over cabins or RVs while on vacation. Of non-tenting millennials, 50 percent said they were interested in trying out a tent, unlike their older counterparts, who proved determined to stick with what they know. This is good news; with about half of all new campers falling into the age range of millennials, this generation represents the future of recreational camping and related retail.

What’s certain is that more Americans than ever are paying homage to the open road, and the re-blossoming romance may already be trickling down into gear sales. Retailers also have the opportunity to harness the road trip fascination in their marketing strategy.

Brands have already used cross-country trips to raise awareness for various campaigns. KEEN’s yellow Live Monumental bus and Patagonia’s town-hopping Worn Wear van are two examples of effective mascots. Targeting the consumer’s road-bound daydreams is but another angle on the same theme.

Designed by artist Jay Nelson, the Patagonia Worn Wear wagon runs on biodiesel while driving and solar power when the sewing machines are spinning.  ERIN FEINBLATT

Designed by artist Jay Nelson, the Patagonia Worn Wear wagon runs on biodiesel while driving and solar power when the sewing machines are spinning. Photo: Erin Feinblatt

“There are stories and visual content to be shared on the journey — from nights spent meeting new friends in a campground along the route to forks in the road leading to unplanned adventures and new discoveries,” said Zanni. “That’s the appeal of getting out and seeing your world by car: even with a map, you never know where it could lead you.”

The road tripping story is one we all know. Tying your brand to it ensures you get invited along for the ride.

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