Rentals are an offering many RV dealers carefully consider at one point or another. After all, it seems fairly straightforward to build a successful business on sales alone, but renting towables and motorhomes has a different set of requirements. Accordingly, dealerships that started as rental stores are few, but Fuller RV Rentals & Sales is one such example.
Sheri Fuller and husband, Bobby, began their RV careers in 1984 in a small Central Massachusetts town northeast of Worchester. The couple returned from a trip to Florida in a rented motorhome owned by Bobby’s employer when Bobby asked to run the rental business. The owner – a longtime friend – agreed. After six months, the Fullers bought the name, West Boylston Motorhome Rentals, and managed the fleet of 13 coaches as their own enterprise.
That was during the era of leasebacks, so since the units were privately owned by individuals, the Fullers acted as brokers. As long as the motorhomes were used by their owners at least two weeks of the year, they could be offered for rent the other 50 weeks. It was an education, Sheri recalls almost 40 years later.
“A retail dealer and a rental dealer are two businesses. They need two sets of employees. You can’t legitimately give 100% to both, so you have to give 50-50. Doing the rentals first, you have a good handle on the customer, so you learn how to listen to the customer. You learn how to find out what they want without hounding them,” she says.
Today, Fuller RV – located on 2 acres at 150 Shrewsbury Street in Boylston that’s been home since 1995 – is both a rental and retail store. Every unit in the fleet, usually numbering between 50 and 60 motorhomes and travel trailers, can be rented or purchased. It’s a hassle-free experience, thanks to a method Fuller has developed over the years.
“I have a 15-page brochure. Every single unit is listed in it and every single unit is numbered on the front bumper and on the back above the license plate. On the door, there’s a ticket tape with the unit number and price,” she says.
Once visitors have the guidebook in hand, either received directly from Fuller on arrival or pulled from one of 12 info boxes on-site, they’re free to roam for as long as they’d like without an escort.
“They have the whole fleet in their hand and they can go from one end of the property to the other and nobody’s going to hound them,” says Fuller, who even distributes four-color pens to help customers with notetaking. “People will be here, I kid you not, for four hours looking at every single unit.”
It’s a hands-off approach that might be considered unusual by her peers, but it has served Fuller well, especially because Fuller RV has what she calls a skeleton crew. Other than herself and her husband, there’s only one other full-time employee; Fuller’s son is the sole technician. There’s a two-person, part-time cleaning crew, according to Fuller, as well as a daughter-in-law who helps with accounting – but that’s it. Time management, accordingly, is crucial.
Another crucial component has been inventory management. Fuller quickly learned about that as the fleet grew to 58 units by 1988.
“By 1993, the last privately owned motorhome was gone and from 1993 to 1999 we had about 10 to 12 units,” she says. “In 1998 or 1999, we went out to the Gulfstream factory and became a rental dealer. So now we didn’t have to buy from other RV dealers. We could buy right from the factory, which was huge. That’s when we started building our own fleet. So in 1999, we ordered five. By 2002, we’re up to 35, and by 2008, we’re up to about 70. From 2008 to now, we’ve averaged 50 to 60 units in the rental fleet, but they’re for sale at the same time, so when we get them, they’re for rent as well as for sale.”
Another manufacturer once had an issue with that, Fuller recalls.
“When we bought brand new, we couldn’t sell them until they were either six months past invoice date or 6,000 miles, whichever came first. With us, that was usually fine because it took us six months just to get the word out that we’ve got them or 6,000 miles to get someone interested in them at the right price,” she says.
Fuller RV owes part of its success to being so close to a nearby spur of Interstate 90, an east-to-west turnpike that runs the length of the Bay State.
“The location does make a huge difference, there’s no question about it,” Fuller says. “We’re a mile off the highway, you can’t beat it. We’re right on the other side of Worchester.”
Fuller’s overseas customers flew into Boston Logan International Airport, where they were picked up, driven to a waiting RV, then driven back to Logan for their return trip home once their stateside trip was over.
“We had a lot of international business. I even had an operator’s manual in five different languages,” she says. While that business went away during the Great Recession more than a decade ago, there were enough U.S. renters that the fleet still averaged 50 units.
In addition to travelers, Fuller RV also has enjoyed a brisk commercial business with corporations, hospitals and even regional utilities.
“You wouldn’t believe how many times we’re in a blizzard delivering units for National Grid (the regional power company),” Fuller says. “The blizzard would go by and they’d say, ‘OK, we’re all done. We didn’t need them.’”
An emergency response logistics company in Louisiana even hired Fuller RV to bring 25 units across New York and Connecticut during hurricanes Irene and Sandy, as well as 20 units for the 2011 Halloween nor’easter between the storms, according to Fuller. The units were used as housing for the catering staff that fed the linesmen working the emergencies.
“We’ve also worked with film studios and we’ve done commercials,” she says. “In 38 years for rentals, we’ve hooked units up with customers in a lot of different scenarios.”
Even individuals don’t always use Fuller RV units for vacation. Several customers have rented motorhomes for transporting the sick or elderly between care facilities or homes; it’s cheaper, according to Fuller, than long-distance ambulance transport and definitely feels more comfortable.
Until 1999, Fuller only offered coaches, but a customer request changed that, she says, during a residential remodel. The family needed a place to stay on-site while contractors raised the roof, so Fuller introduced travel trailers into the mix for those who didn’t need the mobility of a motorhome. Fuller RV even donated a unit for a day last September to a partnership between Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis and the RV Technical Institute (RVTI) to train inmates for a career after they’ve been released.
Today, towables account for about a third of the fleet and sell well.
“We’ve always had the longer ones for people that are going to be in them longer and the shorter ones for the people that are going from point A to point B. They’ve pretty much taken off. We’ve always had at least 10 to 15 at all times,” Fuller says. “What we did was pick up the single-axle lightweights because now everybody’s driving around in SUVs with six cylinders.”
Like other dealers across the U.S. and Canada, Fuller was scrambling for inventory when COVID-19 crippled manufacturers and brought production to a screeching halt. Enter Facebook Marketplace.
“We bought more than 60 units from private individuals from all over. We went to Pennsylvania, we went to New Hampshire, we went all around Massachusetts, New York,” she says.
The process was simple: she’d start an online conversation, negotiate a price, then husband Bobby would pick up the unit. Some of the units were purchased from former customers who only bought them a year or two before, as Fuller recognized the pictures they used because they came from her website when they first went on sale.
In addition to longtime partner Gulfstream, Fuller RV also offers THOR brands, recently adding Jayco products to the fleet.
One thing Fuller has observed in almost four decades of renting RVs is the length of time a unit stays in the fleet before being sold.
“For the first 20 years, it’d be 10 years before we’d get into the happy price,” she says. “It went from 10 years to five years to maybe not even a year now because of the fact some people just want brand new. With a lot of these used ones, they’re at the right price. Being older units, the price is right, right away. Even though the prices are crazy right now, we just reduced half the fleet by $3,000 to $5,000 in September when the new valuation book came out.”
At the time of this interview in December, Fuller says she anticipates the next big price change will take place in January, but she’s been in the industry long enough to understand nothing’s set in stone.
“Nobody really knows, either,” she says. “Some go up, some go down, and some stay the same.”