With travel options limited, some are swapping vacations for big-ticket toys

Jessica Wong

Then came the pandemic, and Fichman, a retiree from Columbia, Md., found herself on the phone postponing their June 2020 plans. Like everyone at this time last year, the couple couldn’t have imagined the pandemic would still be raging a year later. “We figured we would be delayed for a […]

Then came the pandemic, and Fichman, a retiree from Columbia, Md., found herself on the phone postponing their June 2020 plans. Like everyone at this time last year, the couple couldn’t have imagined the pandemic would still be raging a year later. “We figured we would be delayed for a while,” Fichman says. “Then we decided maybe we should reschedule for the summer of 2021. Now, we don’t really see it happening anytime soon, if at all.”

As that reality sank in over the past few months, Fichman and her fiance started thinking about how they might pivot and use the money they had slated to their big wedding and honeymoon. “We decided to channel our time and money into something fun and safe,” she says.

Both Fichman and Zampi are creative and crafty, so the result became an unexpected passion project: They bought a cargo trailer, and with Fichman serving as design consultant, Zampi has set to work converting it into a customized RV. “We’ve been tricking it out with solar panels for electric and air conditioning, installed a Murphy bed, added skylights, a table, and wired it for sound,” she explains. “Mike made the table himself and is going to add cedar planking to the exterior. We think of it as a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired tiny house on wheels.”

While the camper was a big investment, it’s comparable to the money the couple would have spent on their far-flung wedding and honeymoon. In swapping one for the other, Fichman and Zampi joined a pandemic trend: using vacation dollars for a pandemic alternative.

It’s hard to name an industry that has been hit harder by the pandemic than the travel industry. According to U.S. Travel Association data, total travel spending by U.S. residents in 2019 topped $1.1 trillion dollars. In 2020, that number plummeted to $680 billion. It projects 2021 spending to rebound marginally, to $760 billion.

While vaccinations are helping some feel more confident about travel, for many would-be vacationers, this summer remains a time of caution. Instead of hopping on planes to reach destinations far away, they are turning their sights on fun ways to recreate closer to home. Boats, RVs, skis, high-end bikes — all experienced record high sales in 2020 and show no signs of slowing down as the calendar turns toward summer 2021.

New Hampshire-based real estate developer Michael Farris recently put in an order with Malibu Boats for just this reason. “In the current situation, this was a no-brainer,” he says. “We’re not planning any vacations right now, so with a boat, we can go to different lakes nearby and have a great day.”

Farris also considers a boat a safe way to spend time with friends with similar covid attitudes. “When you travel, you’re interacting with all kinds of people in restaurants, elevators, hotels, and you don’t know how they approach covid. On a boat, you can be outside and socially distance with people you trust.”

Powerboats, of course, do not come cheap. One like Farris purchased can range from $20,000 to $200,000-plus. He says this is a good trade-off to vacation spending, however. “The entry point is high, but after that it’s just gas,” he says. “I have three kids and we’ll be able to water-ski and tube and see so much on a boat, for years to come.”

According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, sales of boats, marine products and services hit $47 billion in 2020, up 9 percent from 2019. President Frank Hugelmeyer sees no sign of that trend slowing in 2021. “This segment of outdoor recreation is on fire,” he says. “Instead of using disposable income on international travel, cruise ships or eco-tourism, people are choosing outdoor recreation. Our campaign this year has been ‘the water is open’ and all sales metrics support that line of thinking.”

The boating industry is just one facet of outdoor recreation that is enjoying robust growth thanks to the pandemic. According to the NPD Group’s retail tracking data, five outdoor recreation categories saw explosive growth last year: Bike sales increased by 63 percent; paddle sports by 56 percent; golf sales by 51 percent; camping equipment by 31 percent; and binocular sales by 22 percent. The Outdoor Industry Association, which will soon issue a report on its participation expectations for 2021, ­reported that the jump in outdoor recreation participation this past year amounts to “the largest annual increase we’ve seen since we began tracking the numbers.”

Carrie Lyons, a teacher in Alberta, has always prized her travel, often spending time in the U.S. Rockies each summer running trail races, among other trips. She and her husband had plans for an anniversary trip to Panama this year, but as the pandemic heads into Year 2, they have also made the pivot to buying new recreation toys.

“Last year, we bought a trailer so that we could comfortably take our kids to some of the nearby sites,” she says. “This summer, we’re adding two stand-up paddleboards to the mix. We can travel an hour away to a beautiful lake and still have a great time.”

Lyons says the trailer ran the family around $32,000, and the SUPs around $800 each. “We figure we get a lifetime of memories and adventures with the trailer,” she says. “We’ve also saved a lot of money this year by not going to restaurants, paying for child care, kids’ sports and other activities. It was an easy swap for us — it’s just a different way of spending vacation dollars.”

While both Lyons and Fichman are satisfied with the new ways they’re spending their vacation dollars, both admit to mixed emotions. “I was crestfallen at first,” Fichman says. “But you make adjustments and figure out a different plan. It’s disappointing, but we recognize our fortune to be in this position, and everything will be okay.”

Fichman concurs. “We haven’t lost anyone to covid, we still have jobs, and we’re fortunate to have a stable life,” she says. “I remind myself that we can still have amazing adventures close to home. Still, right now, when it’s freezing outside, I’d give anything to escape to a warm beach.”

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