Above, Some of the campers available through Southern Michigan Camper Rentals
By Marta K. Dodd
Although the sale and rental of recreational vehicles (a socially distanced way to vacation during COVID-19 concerns) recently boomed in some areas of the U.S., the owner of an area RV rental company experienced something different.
With state campgrounds closed longer than normal by State of Michigan COVID-19 mandates and without a June race weekend at Michigan International Speedway, Southern Michigan Camper Rentals (SMCR) saw a 63 percent drop in June rentals (compared with 2019), according to owner Brian Dowling of Somerset Township. Their June rentals mostly were people who planned to camp in Indiana and Ohio, where different COVID-19 rules were in place.
As Michigan’s COVID-19 restrictions loosened, however, Dowling said he started seeing a turnaround.
“Rentals in July and the first three weeks of August were up 10 percent from last year,” he said. “July is always busy, so to see a 10 percent increase is a lot. We were the busiest we’ve ever been.” Even with that uptick, however, he predicted that SMCR “probably will end up being ‘down’ for the year, because of June.”
SMCR’s season typically runs from April through November, peaking from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Dowling hopes that any further loosening of COVID-19 restrictions and bookings by people who want to head “up north” to see fall foliage will give the business a boost before year’s end.
Brian Dowling, owner of Southern Michigan Camper Rentals
Many of SMCR’s customers this year were locals, and many came from around Toledo, Ohio, and the greater Detroit area. Dowling said that the Houghton Lake, Traverse City, and Mackinaw City areas are the top rental camper destinations.
However, they “noticed a different style of renter this year;” they delivered many campers to homes for people who “wanted to be with family but didn’t want to BE with family” because of COVID-19. “We have done a huge number of those, where normally we would only do a few,” he said.
Dowling started helping campers put a mobile vacation roof over their heads when he rented out his own camper in 2016. He and his cousin (the late Mike Stanton) bought three more campers to rent the following summer and acquired some consignment RVs. For consignments, SMCR handles the rental process for RVs owned by others; the owner and SMCR split the nightly fee.
SMCR currently owns four campers and has seven consignment units. The RVs range from 21 to 37 feet long. “Add-on” options include outdoor rugs, camp chairs, generators, and tank dumping. Renters can tow their rental camper to their campsite themselves, or leave the driving to SMCR, for a fee.
Before an RV renter leaves SMCR grounds, located near the intersection of U.S. 127 and U.S. 223, company officials spend up to an hour (depending on the customer’s camper experience) reviewing the ins and outs of the rental camper.
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“Probably 50 percent of our renters have never pulled a camper, but usually they have towed a boat or a utility trailer,” Dowling said. “But towing a camper is much different. It’s like a big sail. We tell them, ‘Go slow, don’t go in the fast lane, you’re going camping, so just relax.’
“I’m sure that backing the camper into space at a campground is more than entertaining for some of our first-timers,” Dowling laughed. “Campgrounds are tight, especially with a big RV. There have been a few that were nerve-wracking even for us, and we do it all the time.”
Visiting all those campgrounds is one of Dowling’s favorite things about his business.
“I like going to all of the campgrounds, seeing places I wouldn’t see otherwise,” he said. “I’ve been to almost every campground in the southern half of Michigan, most of which I didn’t know existed. I’m not really an ‘office job’ kind of person. I like getting out and using my hands.”
Customers include younger couples, families with children, and older retired adults. Families like bunk beds for the children; outdoor kitchens also are popular. Many renters want to take their canines camping with them; most units are pet friendly. Smoking is not allowed inside any of the rental campers.
A banner describes floor plans of some of the Southern Michigan Camper rental units
These days, when renters return campers to SMCR, cleaning plays an even larger role than before. That involves using a checklist that covers CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, and “lots of bleach, Lysol, and wiping down the surfaces,” Dowling said.
Since his cousin passed away in January 2019, Dowling is the sole owner of the business they started. His cousin’s passing caused Dowling to change his work philosophy.
“We started out with ‘Just do everything,’ but now we’re getting to the ‘Less is more’ philosophy,” he said. “He and I worked constantly, sun up to sundown. We did everything, without any help. But I’ve stepped back and made sure to spend more time with my family.”
Dowling grew up on Lake Somerset. He, his wife, Jessica (an assistant professor at Spring Arbor University), and their young daughter live near the lake.