– Words by Sandra Jones Photography by Lia Crowe
To say that the pandemic has been and issue for business is like saying the iceberg was a challenge for the Titanic. There is no question that the economic fallout from COVID-19 has been grim. But amid the coronavirus chaos, some businesses have not only thrived but seen a surge in sales in response to changes in consumer behaviour.
For Craig and Rose Little, owners of Arbutus RV, this has been an unprecedented year.
“We were enjoying record months in the early part of 2020 and that came crashing to an abrupt halt for about six weeks,” says Craig. “It didn’t stop altogether, but sales dropped by 50 per cent.After that, sales went straight up.”
Fortunately, as the largest full-service recreational vehicle dealer network in the province, Arbutus RV was ready to handle the increased volume.
“We always like to carry lots of inventory and we were fortunate to have 840 units on hand when the pandemic hit.”
Their large inventory has sustained the company as consumers—reluctant to fly, yet still eager to travel—regarded RVs as the ideal self-contained and safe solution. With units running the gamut from high-end luxury coaches to compact trailers, there are options for every lifestyle and every budget.
Rose says they’ve seen a lot of changes to RV amenities over the years.
“They can be a true home on wheels with residential-sized fridges, outdoor kitchens, TVs, home stereo systems with surround sound and fireplaces. We get a lot of feedback from customers who tell us the RVs are nicer than their permanent home.”
One popular option has been the travel trailer.
“The 17- to 30-foot travel trailer is especially appealing to the first-time buyer,” notes Craig.“Most people already have a suitable tow vehicle, for at least the smaller units, so you just need to have a hitch and away you go.”
And, while those in the boomer generation have long been fans of the RV experience, now millennials are rolling into the market too.
“Even before COVID-19, we were seeing a huge interest from young adults who had enjoyed camping as kids with their boomer parents. Now they want to make those same great memories with their own kids.”
Whether motivated by the pandemic, nostalgia or a love of the great outdoors, customers have been turning to Arbutus RV for more than 32 years. Craig, who opened his first store in Mill Bay after identifying a gap in the marketplace, has exponentially grown the business, adding six additional sales and service stores, stretching from Sidney to Courtenay.
“It’s been pretty organic growth,” says Craig. “After Mill Bay opened, we got a call from an operation in Nanaimo. They had been selling mostly park models and horse trailers and having a hard time making a success of it.We ended up taking over that location and shortly afterwards got approached to buy another dealership in Sidney. So suddenly we ended up with three locations, which wasn’t necessarily a well-thought-out plan.”
But the couple saw the demand was there and went to work to begin building up the infrastructure, systems and team to support the growth.
“With a marketing background, I spearheaded the marketing,” says Rose, “while Craig was in charge of ordering the product and managing the day-to-day business.”
As Craig recalls, the early years of growing the company weren’t always easy:“We worked long hours and I remember doing payroll at one location and staying up all night to get payroll done for the next location. It was challenging but fun.”
Now all-nighters are a thing of the past but the expansion of this going-places company didn’t slow down for long.
“There was a bit of a lull in our growth as we made sure the three locations were up and running smoothly,” says Craig. “But then opportunity knocked again.”
Rose remembers flying home from Alberta after assessing and ultimately walking away from a business opportunity that didn’t seem like a great fit.
“I told Craig that I’d rather open up another dealership on the island instead.”
So, when they landed in Comox, Craig had a suggestion.
“He said he’d had his eye on some property in Courtenay years ago and that we should drive by and take a look. Turns out that property wasn’t for sale but the one directly across the street was. If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is,” laughs Rose.
Two weeks later, they bought the property and as luck would have it, they ultimately bought the original property that Craig had spotted years ago as a way to expand their lot.
The company has since added two more locations—one in Port Alberni and the most recent acquisition this past September in Parksville.
“We want to make sure that our customers can buy their RV in their own community and get it serviced close to home as well,” says Craig.
Their team has also expanded to keep pace and now includes 150 staff.
“We’ve built an awesome team,” Rose says. “Many of them have been with us for decades.”
Employees aren’t the only ones who are a committed part of the Arbutus RV operation.
“We were at our Parksville location and one of our customers told me they were delighted to see us at the new location as they had purchased five RVs from us over the years,” says Rose. “It’s also not uncommon to meet people who are the second and even third generations of a family who keep coming back. We love that!”
On an island that is seeing significant population growth, the Littles see a clear road ahead.
“We’re so blessed to have this natural setting and so many opportunities for adventure in the most marvellous climate in Canada. Even though some people started RVing this year because of the pandemic, I’m pretty sure they’ll get hooked on the lifestyle.”