Airlines, cruise lines and hotels are suffering from a sharp reduction in demand from travelers, but Americans are, perhaps now more than ever, seeking to escape the mundane confines of their homes as much of the country remains closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. And so they are renting — and buying — camper vans in order to safely explore new territory while maintaining their social distance.
Wade Jorgensen, who in late 2018 founded Sunstorm Vans, a van rental business in Los Angeles that rents vans for around $150 per night, said he's seen an uptick in rental demand in recent months for the vehicles that he buys and retrofits with custom interiors. The surge in interest marks a 180-degree turn from the way things were going when the coronavirus pandemic first hit the United States, and 100% of his customers cancelled their bookings.
"The spring was really bad. I lost every single reservation I had for the entire 2020 calendar year in March. It was devastating, and I didn't know how much longer the business would survive if we couldn't get any rentals on the calendar," he told CBS MoneyWatch.
Jorgensen applied for anto help tide him over, but it took months to be approved, and the terms of the government-run program were unfavorable, in his opinion. He turned down the loan in hopes that bookings would again resume — and they have: Since May, he reports, he's fielded one request after another.
"The demand went through the roof, and I am now booked out through September, because everyone is traveling but people don't want to fly or stay in hotels," he said. "They want to self-isolate and be safe, and they can do that in a van or RV. I can't build them as fast as I need them," he added.
Millions of cooped-up Americans
Indeed, companies that rent and sell vans are starting to benefit from one effect of the coronavirus: Americans' long-distance travel plans have been put on hold and they have for months have been cooped up at home. Now, instead of visiting far-flung locales, they are renting vans and traveling to destinations within driving distance from their homes.
Indeed, 46 million Americans said they plan to take a RV trip in the next 12 months, according to research from RV Industry Association.
Omar Bendezu, who with his wife runs Ondevan campervan, a camper van rental company that operates in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, Florida, is grateful for the interest in RV travel during the pandemic. The virus — which led to bans on foreigners from entering the United States as well as domestic quarantines — cut him off from his usual pool of customers, who typically come from overseas or outside of Florida.
As a result, he lost all of his bookings for March and April, and considered closing. But beginning in May, he started reaching out to locals, who now make up all of his customers.
"Before the pandemic, about 5% of our business came from locals, now 100% of our occupancy comes from locals, so that's a big increase," Bendezu said.
His fleet was about 80% to 90% booked before the pandemic; now, he's at around 50% occupancy.
Roam if you want to
The industry is seeing strong sales, too, in particular among first-time buyers, RV Industry Association President Craig Kirby said in a press release last month.
Erin Gilmore, director of operations for Benchmark Vehicles, which converts Ford Transit and Mercedes Sprinter vehicles into custom "escape vessels" that Benchmark sells, said the company receives between six and 12 new inquiries from prospective customers every day. The van conversions cost between $75,000 and $300,000, not including the cost of the vehicle.
Business is up by at least 100%, with orders now taking up to 12 months, versus the usual four to six months to complete, she said.
"I am hearing people say they want to stay out of public restrooms and be on the road in a self-contained vehicle they can sleep in to avoid hotels," Gilmore told CBS MoneyWatch. "They are coming to us with those desires," she added. As a result, the company made two new hires this week.
That same desire — to roam the country in a safe manner during the pandemic — will help Jorgensen grow Sunstorm Vans, too.
By day, Jorgensen works as a project manager for a real estate investment firm. Working nights and weekends, he hopes to build Sunstorm into a thriving business his wife can take over once the couple's young children are older and more independent.
Bookings for June, July and August are double what they were during the same period a year ago.
In March, the future held no hope. Now, the increase in revenue will allow him to update his fleet of custom-built vans for rent.
"As of right now it's a really small company, but we are expanding in the very near future," Jorgensen said.