Looking for a boutique hotel on wheels or a sporty model with room for your surfboard or kayak? Welcome to the UK’s growing number of caravanners – even millennials are itching to join in.
The coronavirus pandemic has made holidaymakers see caravanning, often deemed a less fashionable alternative to camping, through new eyes. The confusion about overseas travel has sent internet searches soaring, while dealerships are struggling to get their hands on enough caravans to meet demand. Buyers face growing waiting times, and rising raw material costs have also pushed up prices.
“We’ve been trading caravans in the UK for over 54 years and the coronavirus crisis has resulted in a huge increase in demand,” says Jarrod Clay, the managing director of Robinsons Caravans. He says that in the second half of last year orders were a third higher than in 2019.
The upheaval caused by the lockdowns means, in common with other industries, manufacturers are scrambling to meet the growing demand. Waiting times for new caravans have doubled from the usual eight weeks to 16 and are heading towards 24, a delay that is in turn boosting demand for pre-owned caravans.
Robinsons’ biggest customer base has traditionally been the over-55s, often with grownup children and more cash to spend on themselves. This is still true but Clay has seen a sharp increase in the number of customers under 40, with that group now behind a quarter of the firm’s business. More than a third of customers are new to the hobby, he adds.
The Caravan and Motorhome Club says its membership increased by 14% last year and that growth has continued in 2021. The level of bookings for its sites, particularly for the peak summer months, means the organisation thinks this year UK touring holidays will be “more popular than ever before”.
In normal times about 50m nights are spent in caravans each year, with the market dominated by a handful of British-made brands including Swift and Coachman, both based in Hull. There are more than 1m leisure caravans in the UK but that number is expected to increase dramatically.
Costing an average of £25,000, a second home on wheels is seen to appeal to those who can’t face nights under canvas as well as the country’s legion of new dog owners who want to take their pet on holiday with them. Demand for other holiday vehicles, including motorhomes and converted vans, is also high.
Nick Lomas, the Caravan and Motorhome Club’s director general, says that since people were forced to spend long periods apart during the Covid crisis, the club has seen an increase in bookings from various generations of the same families.
“They may travel in their own units but all stay on the same campsite, or some may stay in their motorhome or caravan while other family members stay in one of our glamping options,” Lomas says. “It is this flexibility that more and more people appreciate.”
Veterans of childhood caravan holidays may remember white boxes fitted out with faux-wood veneer, drab banquettes and basic kitchen facilities. But a lot has changed. Most new models come with fridge-freezers, proper ovens, fixed beds and a separate shower room and lavatory, as well as central heating.
In the past, would-be caravanners might also have been put off by the prospect of having to reverse a caravan into position but today most new models have electronic motor movers fitted that enable them to be manoeuvred into position using a remote control.
Design-led brands such as Barefoot and Rocket Caravans offer stylish shapes and cool interiors but even mainstream companies are making models aimed at a new audience. With its racks for surfboards and mountain bikes, the Swift Basecamp, which starts at about £20,000, is billed as a “crossover camping vehicle”. Its ads feature a glamorous young couple who are keen kayakers.
“Where caravans were always white in colour, now you’ve got silver, champagne or metallic blue coloured sides,” says Clay, who adds that shapes are changing all the time. “The graphics used to be a stripe from front to back but can now be quite elaborate. They are a lot more modern.”
At the top end of the market Clay points to the Coachman Lusso, which, with a price tag of £42,000, he describes as having a “boutique hotel sort of feel inside”. Other features include roof-mounted wifi and solar panels, sprung upholstery, deep pile carpets and a ceramic loo. But they are hard to get your hands on at the moment: “We’re sold out; we can’t get any more,” he says.