Airstreams and Inflatable Pools: Inside the Cutthroat Staycation Economy

Product shortages, clogged supply chains, and stir-crazy parents have left companies scrambling to keep up with surging demand

When stay-at-home orders forced Melissa Rooke, her husband, and two kids, ages four and eight, inside their Los Angeles home last spring, she attempted to buy an aboveground pool for $300. Seven weeks later, the pool had not arrived. After getting her money back from PayPal, she ordered another one on Amazon. Two months later, that pool hasn’t shown up either. “It’s so annoying,” Rooke says. “I really hope the pool comes. There is only so much of this lockdown that my kids can take before they lose their minds.”

Cherie Finch, a student in Los Angeles, found herself in a similar situation after deciding to buy a $500 aboveground pool for her two children, ages five and seven. By April, the price of the pool she wanted had quickly climbed to $1,800 before selling out. Finch found a similar pool for $300 with ladder, cover, and pump on an unknown website. For the next month, she received no updates from the company — and the seller’s website disappeared. Amazingly, the pool finally did arrive, but it excluded the accessories — which Finch wound up paying an extra $800 to buy separately. It’s been more than frustrating. “We were just trying to make life a little more comfortable here,” she says. “The kids love it, but I wouldn’t go through that again.”

Welcome to the hypercompetitive, cutthroat summer of the staycation economy. The coronavirus upended summer travel plans, imposing international travel restrictions, canceling summer camps and sporting events, and closing public pools. For months, starting in spring, people were already planning for a long, hot, childcare-free, landlocked summer under house arrest, tricking out backyards into mini amusement parks and country clubs. With cabin fever ensuing, others are getting their hit of wanderlust by hitting the road in an RV, camping, or staying at a local Airbnb.

As a result, Airstreams, Intex swimming pools, Ikea lawn furniture, REI camp stoves, and other outdoor products have experienced unprecedented demand — with desperate consumers willing to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars more for price-gouged items tracked down in some other state by some third-party seller. Meanwhile, the companies that make these items have experienced their own whiplash — from struggling to keep the doors open during a pandemic to desperately trying to keep up with an unprecedented level of seasonal sales.

Swimming pools

Like many CEOs across the country, Dave Rossi began belt tightening at his company, Blue Wave Products, when the coronavirus got ugly in April. The company makes aboveground steel-rimmed swimming pools — some as long as two SUVs — that sell for $300 to $4,000 at retailers like Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowe’s. With the United States facing a recession, Rossi wasn’t sure how the coming months would pan out.

To his surprise, Blue Wave is experiencing historic sales. The company often gets more than 6,000 orders in a single day from retailers, which struggle to keep pools from Blue Wave in stock. By the time summer arrived, people were hard-pressed to find any pools available. Those sold on eBay were typically priced 30% higher than retail. “We’ve been absolutely buried in requests for pools,” Rossi says. “It’s unlike anything the company has experienced in its 20 years.” (Pools from its competitor Intex have also been out of stock at online retailers like Home Depot.)

Sales are up 73% this year at the 83-person company, limited only by slowed imports of parts from Japan and China due to the coronavirus and manufacturing complicated by the virus — including limits on the number of people in the St. Charles, Illinois, factory and requirements of masks, gloves and twice-a-day disinfecting. The company has been trying to find parts elsewhere to fulfill demand, but it’s been tricky. “If we have twice the inventory, we’d double our sales. We’d sell every pool we could get our hands on,” Rossi says.

The demand for backyard pools is so great that a trend took off for stock-tank swimming pools — originally designed as water troughs for livestock on farms —which are now selling out on agriculture sites like TractorSupply.com.

Decks and patio furniture

The extra time at home has prompted purging and baking, but it’s also inspired new construction projects — in particular, decks. In fact, some architects are calling 2020 the “year of the deck,” because so many new clients want the outdoor extension.

During lockdown, sawmills closed, bracing for slowed demand, but then lumber sales suddenly shot up. People were building decks, fences, pergolas, fueled by stimulus checks. As a result, lumber and plywood prices have soared because of demand from DIYers, as well as home builders catching up after the early coronavirus lockdowns. Officials from PotlatchDeltic, which owns acres of timberlands, told the Wall Street Journal this month that the company could barely keep up with demand from Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Menards. More than 70% of 1,054 Americans recently surveyed by Bank of America said they have decided to tackle home improvement projects.

They’re also upgrading their patios with new furniture and toys. Sales of patio umbrellas and outdoor lounge chairs are up 87% at Blue Wave, and sales of outdoor games like bocce ball and badminton are up 100%. Finland-based Acon has seen a 120% increase over the 10 million trampolines it sold last year, resulting in monthlong shipment delays and out-of-stock models. NPD Group also notes a 47% rise in sales of water toys and an 81% growth in playground equipment. Overall, people spent $193 million more on outdoor toys in April 2020, a 51% increase over the same time period last year, according to NPD.

RVs and campers

RV manufacturers shut down operations in April, and most didn’t expect the economy to bounce back very quickly. But not long into shelter-at-home orders, people flooded dealerships with orders for vehicles, ranging from $6,000 pop-up campers to $1 million RVs.

“Sales are off the charts,” says Robert Zagami, executive director of the New England RV Dealers Association. “I had dealers break all-time sales records in May, then they beat those numbers in June. I’ve covered this industry for 24 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s insane.”

In fact, some East Coast Airstream dealerships sold every vehicle on their lot. At least 46 million Americans plan to take an RV trip in the next year, according to a recent survey by the RV Industry Association. This year may equal the record hit in 2017, when the industry sold 504,000 new RVs. Sales have also risen for car and RV necessities, such as hitches (+42%), portable air compressors (+37%), and RV antifreeze/coolant (+31%), according to NPD Group.

Zagami suggests that people aren’t flying, going on cruise ships, or clamoring for amusement parks, and campers offer an affordable and practical way to get out of the house while social distancing. Just venturing out on the weekends offers a great way to break up the never-ending Groundhog Day of home life. The vast majority of those RVs are going to people who had never owned one before or even visited a campground, Zagami says.

Staycation rentals

The pandemic crushed airline travel for many Americans, but it hasn’t stopped them from getting out of the house, even if it’s just a short drive away.

Take, for instance, what’s happening with Airbnb. When Covid-19 struck in early spring, the online vacation rental platform laid off 1,900 people, delayed its IPO filing, and raised $1 billion to stay afloat. But things took a surprising twist, and now the company is now on track to do more business in 2020 than it did the year prior. The reason: local getaways.

From May to June, people booked more nights via Airbnb in the United States than during the same time period in 2019, according to the company. And 60% of those bookings were for trips within 300 miles of the person’s home — mostly rural getaways inside cabins and cottages.

Camping equipment

Bookings are up at private and public campgrounds, and the pandemic has also prompted a good chunk of Americans to invest in new camping equipment. In the two weeks ending May 2, sales for camping basics jumped across the board, including recreational tents (+30%), hammocks (+103%), camp sets (+119%), and campfire equipment (+42%), as well as grills (+74%), smokers (+94%), and fuel (+23%), according to NPD. Portable power kits were also hot (with an 87% uptick), as were bike trailers and joggers (up 133%), hanging hitch racks (a 51% lift), and U.S. travel books and road maps (a 77% growth).

Boats

Sales of new outboard, inboard, jet-propelled, and sterndrive boats were up this year, marking the second-highest sales in 12 years. That’s been true at Mississippi boat dealer Midway Marine, which saw a 25% surge in sales for its kayaks and fishing boats after everyone canceled their travel plans. “It left boating and fishing wide open,” owner Guy Connor told U.S. News & World Reports.

Sales of ski boats were up 338% in May, pontoon boat sales jumped 292%, and cruiser boats were up 239%, according to market research firm BoatsGroup. The buoyed sales extended to ancillary items such as cycle batteries for boats (+33%) and powersport batteries for jet skis (+49%), according to NPD. River watercraft and stand-up paddleboards are also in high demand, which has caused weeklong shipment delays and price gouging by third-party sellers on Amazon and eBay. Many makers of boats, rafts, and boards for rivers and lakes reported some of the busiest weeks in their companies’ histories, even as states ordered people to stay close to home. Being on the water, some argue, is a great way to social distance while spending time outside.

I write. Journalist and author of weird, but awesome young adult fiction. www.jenniferalsever.com www.trinityforestseries.com

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