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Camper van conversion companies are seeing a surge in customer interest despite COVID-19 ravaging the travel and transportation industry

Business Insider logo Business Insider 5/12/2020 bchang@businessinsider.com (Brittany Chang)
a car parked on the side of a vehicle: Freedom Vans' Pluto. Freedom Vans © Freedom Vans Freedom Vans' Pluto. Freedom Vans
  • At a time in which the coronavirus has decimated almost every possible travel and transportation-related industry, van conversions have been seeing an increase in client inquiries.
  • Camper vans are a personal and reliable way to travel, granting freedom from quarantine in a stationary home.
  • New Jersey-based Ready.Set.Van and Colorado-based Vanlife Customs have both seen an increase in client inquiries for converted camper vans.
  • While Washington-based Freedom Vans hasn't seen the same uptick, no customers have dropped off their waitlist.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The coronavirus pandemic has decimated almost every possible travel and transportation-related business, from air travel to car sales to cruises.

However, there is one quiet industry that has been rising above the rest in demand and sales, proving itself resilient to the pandemic: camper van conversion companies.

Van conversion companies specialize in creating tiny homes on wheels on the body of unassuming vans like Ram ProMasters, Mercedes-Benz Sprinters, and Ford Transits. This lifestyle has also spawned a large community on social media with over seven million #vanlife hashtags on Instagram alone.

Van life has also translated into profit for camper van companies amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"Honestly, I think [the coronavirus] is probably going to be quite good for the camper van industry," Ready.Set.Van's CEO and founder Benjamin Fraser told Business Insider. "For the next year at least until there's a vaccine, I don't think anybody's going to want to go to a resort, get on a plane, or even go and stay in a hotel in a densely populated city."

"People are trying to figure out what they can do," Fraser continued. "Getting in a car and going somewhere is something most people feel like they can do."

While car sales and travel-related businesses have been losing profits, van conversion shops like New Jersey-based Ready.Set.Van, Colorado-based Vanlife Customs, and Washington-based Freedom Vans have been seeing either a steady or increased demand for camper RVs. 

The reason is surprisingly straightforward: camper vans are a personal and reliable way to travel, granting freedom from quarantine while still adhering to social distancing rules. 

There has been an increase in customer interest since lockdown began.

a car covered in snow: Ready.Set.Van. Ready.Set.Van. © Ready.Set.Van. Ready.Set.Van. Ready.Set.Van.

Fraser's Ready.Set.Van has seen an uptick in customer demands for prebuilt converted vans since the beginning of the pandemic. These demands have skyrocketed so much, the company has been unable to supply the demand. 

In mid-March, when more people started working from home and state-by-state shutdowns were impending, the company saw over 40 inquiries for prebuilt vans.

Ready.Set.Vans — which started its operations late last year — had already been receiving a steady increase in client requests, but this 40-inquiry weekend was about fivefold what the company normally sees, according to Fraser.

"I think when this is all over, the number of people who are working from home is never going to go back to what it was, and a lot of those people would rather be mobile [when] they're doing that," Fraser said.

This uptick was also seen by Vanlife Customs, which sold two vans it had sitting in its shop within a week of Colorado's lockdown orders, Vanlife Customs founder and CEO Dave Walsh told Business Insider.

Vanlife Customs' Mountain View build. Vanlife Customs © Vanlife Customs Vanlife Customs' Mountain View build. Vanlife Customs

Since the start of the pandemic, Vanlife Customs has seen an uptick in requests for prebuilt vans, plus an additional 10% increase in clients looking for custom builds.

While Freedom Vans didn't see the same large uptick, the company didn't lose any clients who were already on the waitlist.

"It almost feels like people are realizing that flying [isn't the best way] to travel right now, so a lot of people just want their vans sooner," Freedom Vans co-owner Kyleigh Rogers told Business Insider. "But as far as business goes, we're still super busy right now."

Freedom Vans typically books most of its projects in the fall and sees a decrease in bookings during springtime, a trend which also applied to this year so far. However, the company still receives inquiries on a daily basis.

Like any company in any industry, Freedom Vans, Vanlife Customs, and Ready.Set.Van have all needed to shift their operations in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus in their own shops.

a van parked on the side of a road: Freedom Vans' Pluto. Freedom Vans © Freedom Vans Freedom Vans' Pluto. Freedom Vans

Vanlife Customs was previously closed for a month amid Colorado's Safer at Home orders, and Walsh estimates the company may not have been able to last any longer than the month break.

"It's been really tricky for us as a van builder because nobody has really defined what we can and cannot do," Walsh said. "It's been one of the toughest decisions and logistical things that I've had to deal with."

In order to reopen safely, Vanlife Customs staggered its employees' schedules. This allows the shop to be occupied by no more than three employees at once, creating more space and flexibility for social distancing.

"Essentially, we want everybody to be able to get full-time pay and work done, and be able to get our projects out to the customers," Walsh said. "But we also want to make sure that we are doing the responsible thing and keeping our employees separated and safe." 

Like Vanlife Customs, Freedom Vans shifted its employees' schedules while trying to distance in the workplace. However, the shop was already well-equipped to handle the pandemic.

a stove top oven sitting inside of a car: Freedom Vans' Fitz Roy build. Freedom Vans © Freedom Vans Freedom Vans' Fitz Roy build. Freedom Vans

Freedom Vans — which was deemed an essential business by Washington governor Jay Inslee — was uniquely positioned to handle the virus because its shop already had safety measures related to air quality in place.

This workplace quality control overlaps with measures that prevent the spread of the virus.

With woodwork "you're constantly fighting dust and particles floating in the air and certain small levels of very tiny particles," Freedom Vans co-owner Tom Doran told Business Insider.

Well before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Doran wanted to create a safe workspace by focusing on dust collection and mitigation, as well as the prevention of dust particle inhalation. 

The air filters that were already being used in Freedom Vans' shop are the highest grade allergen-rated filters that, "coincidentally are rated all the way up to virus filtration," according to Doran. These safety measures allow Freedom Vans and its employees, who already had access to masks at the shop, to work through the pandemic.

However, the shop — which stocked up on soap and cleaning supplies — isn't sharing tools like they had been before the pandemic.

a kitchen with wooden cabinets: Ready.Set.Van. Ready.Set.Van. © Ready.Set.Van. Ready.Set.Van. Ready.Set.Van.

Ready.Set.Vans had a different approach to continuing business in the face of the pandemic.

Instead of staggering hours, the company allowed its communications staff to work from home, leaving Fraser and his three van builders to continue the conversion work by quarantining themselves in the shop while living in their vans. 

"Security is super important," Rogers said. "We are in year five of our business [and] we are responsible now for eight other team members, so creating a stable work environment has been a huge priority and I feel like it's really paying off now."

Fraser goes home to see his family periodically, but "everybody agrees that it's the best thing," Fraser said.

Issues facing the van conversion companies, however, are unrelated to potential working conditions. Instead, the issue lies in disruptions to the supply chain.

Vanlife Customs' Pops build. Vanlife Customs © Vanlife Customs Vanlife Customs' Pops build. Vanlife Customs

Several van conversion companies are now seeing an issue in the sourcing of parts. "We're all having problems getting parts and components because a lot of them come from Italy and Europe," Walsh said. "It started causing a backlog in trying to get [parts]."

Freedom Vans has also been seeing a similar supply sourcing issue. "Our clients are more understanding right now and what's going on [in that] we haven't booked any van pickup dates," Rogers said. "Normally we have those kind of planned months in advance and right now, we can't promise anything, not that our projects have been very delayed."

Despite the supply stock issue, which will likely pass when the pandemic ends and "normal" begins, the van conversion community sees a positive future for their business.

a van parked on the side of a road: Ready.Set.Van. Ready.Set.Van. © Ready.Set.Van. Ready.Set.Van. Ready.Set.Van.

Rogers said in the same way his company was prepared for the pandemic, "our van makes us feel really prepared in the face of emergencies as well," Rogers said.

The van industry may start seeing even further increasing sales as more potential clients start seeing the benefit of local trips in private camper vans.

"As long as the economy holds up and people have money in their pockets this summer, people are gonna want to be traveling around the US," said Walsh. "They're not going to do their overseas travel and leave the country."

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