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Apps and tech startups have gotten us accustomed to sharing our cars, our homes and even our backyard swimming pools. And during the pandemic, a growing number of would-be entrepreneurs are taking advantage of Americans’ cabin fever and lending out their camper vans, travel trailers and RVs.
The demand has been there for a while. There’s the social media scroller who wants to dabble in #vanlife without plopping down a big wad of cash. Or the retiree who wants to escape for a weekend to the mountains, without waking up to an achy back or lack of plumbing. Or the parents who want to go on a family road trip, but don’t have the space to store an RV. For the past few years, platforms like Outdoorsy, RVnGO and RVShare have connected those customers to camper owners looking to make some spare cash to cover their loan and insurance payments.
But when the pandemic grounded flights and made staying in a hotel with a bunch of strangers a risky prospect, even more travelers turned to RVs.
“Like many businesses, early on we saw a dip happen and cancelations,” said Evan Hopkins, Outdoorsy’s vice president of global sales and customer operations. “But once people saw how they could still travel, and this was one of the best and safest ways, we saw huge growth.”
From March to July of last year, bookings on the platform rocketed up by more than 4,500%, the company reported. In June 2020, compared to June 2019, bookings had spiked by 400%. Since Outdoorsy launched in 2015, nearly three out of every four of its bookings happened in 2020 and 2021. And Salt Lake City, with its proximity to national parks and other outdoor attractions, is among the platform’s top 10 most popular destinations.
“There are people who never thought about going on an RV trip before” the pandemic, Hopkins said. “It opened their eyes to something different.”
The rental platforms typically provide insurance for the trips, and the RV owners clean and sanitize the vehicles between guests. Most owners also provide basics like linens, cookware and bug spray.
Hopkins said when he rents a camping trailer for his family, he typically likes to have it delivered to the campsite.
“We show up and it’s like a hotel right on the lake or in the mountains,” he said. “The other nice thing about delivery is the owners like it. They’re more confident in themselves [pulling it], parking it and setting it up.”
The Utahns hauling in RV cash
Salt Lake City resident Mylee Brown works as an accountant, but wanted to make a little extra money on the side. Investing in a van and retrofitting it into an adventure-mobile-for-hire seemed like an obvious choice.
“I have wanted a camper van my entire life,” Brown said. “I am a total hippie, Utah, mountain-loving gal.”
Brown and her husband found and purchased their perfect van, a Ford Transit, in January 2020. When the pandemic hit a few months later, it was scary at first, Brown said. But being forced to work at home gave them more flexibility to retrofit the vehicle into an Instagram-worthy ride, just in time for the busy summer travel season.
The van has been consistently booked until November, Brown said. They charge $160 a night and require a minimum of three nights.
“We only have to rent out one or two good trips to cover our costs each month,” Brown said. “We didn’t anticipate how busy it would be, which is a good problem to have.”
In 2020, Brown said, the majority of her clientele was Utah locals. But as travel restrictions eased and people got vaccinated this spring, about half of her renters now fly in from out of state, and they’re booking longer trips.
The venture is so successful the couple is looking to invest in a second Ford Transit that they’ll retrofit over the winter.
“I’m pregnant,” Brown said. “So we’re going to make a baby-friendly van for 2022.”
Garrett Allred in Ogden also got involved in RV sharing because he wanted a camper van for his family.
“I found out about these [rental platforms] half way through my decision, and thought maybe it could help out with the cost,” said Allred, whose day job is sales at a car dealership.
Worst-case scenario, Allred figured, an occasional rental could help cover payments for the van. “Best-case scenario, we can rent it and make money,” he said.
After Allred listed his cherry-red 2021 Winnebago Solis for rent last summer, however, he had three bookings within 48 hours. He said it’s typically booked about 80% of days in warmer months.
“I bet we make six or seven times what the minimum payments would be on it,” Allred said.
The van was so popular that Allred recently drove to Wyoming to buy a SunRay 109 off-road trailer that he also rents out online. But whether he’d recommend RV sharing to someone else is a mixed bag.
“The return on investment is way more than you’ll find at a regular job,” Allred said, “but most of my days off are spent cleaning and getting the trailer and van ready. We have fun doing it, but it does cut into your free time.”
Mariela Montiel, who recently moved from Salt Lake City to St. George, said she’s in a perfect locale to rent her camping trailer to adventure-seeking tourists.
“You feel like you’re living in a national park,” she said.
Montiel will deliver her 2021 Keystone Springdale, which sleeps up to eight people, as far as 50 miles. She’s met people from all over the country by renting out the trailer, including people who couldn’t find a hotel during southwest Utah’s busy tourist season.
She admitted, however, that she sometimes gets strange looks when she tells acquaintances about her side business.
“Some people make comments, like ‘I wouldn’t let someone else sleep in my bed.’ And I’m like, ‘When you go to a hotel, do you take your own mattress?’” Montiel said. “It doesn’t bother me. ... It’s good money.”
The troubles with sharing
Simeon Miller in Bluffdale started an RV rental side hustle in 2018, before the pandemic, but grew his fleet of RVs from two to four over the past two years.
“My inspiration came from an interest in vacation rentals, like the Airbnb model,” Miller said. With real estate prices through the roof, however, especially in destinations like Park City, he opted to instead go the RV route.
But with a few years of RV rentals under his belt, Miller admits it’s not a hassle-free way of making some cash.
“One of the biggest things I’ve begun to realize is these RVs, they’re made more for people to take out for a few weeks per year,” he said. “So when you’re renting them out every single week, there’s always a little here or there that needs to be tweaked, adjusted or maintained.”
He’s also had a few horror stories. One customer who had no experience driving an RV rig scraped the roof on a tree and caused $10,000 in damage. Another had a fuse blow on the water heater after setting up camp in Glacier National Park.
“He was expecting service you get at a hotel” and an immediate repair, Miller said. “Well, I can’t do that if you’re in the middle of [Montana].”
Some of Miller’s biggest frustrations are the rental platforms themselves — sites like Outdoorsy and RVShare take a 20 to 30% cut of his sales, he said, and he suspects the algorithms favor newcomers to the site. He prefers to rent out his units through his own website, called Salt Lake RV Rentals, or through RVnGO, which only charges a credit card processing fee and serves more as a peer-to-peer network.
All of the RV owners interviewed said they got into the business because they wanted a camper themselves to enjoy the outdoors. But almost all admitted they don’t get out as often as they want, because their RVs are constantly booked and they don’t want to lose the revenue.
“It starts making your vacations more expensive, because you’re essentially renting your own RV,” Miller said. “Sometimes it’s fun to hear what my renters are doing and where they’re going, but I’m like, ‘Man, I wish I was doing that.’”