When Aaron Fensterheim founded Off-Grid Adventure Vans in 2017, it was one of the only companies converting sprinter vans into fully livable campers on the East Coast.

Four years later, Frederick-based OGA is one of hundreds. 

The renewed interest in camper vans and souped-up sprinters has driven up demand — those interested in a van conversion will have to wait on a list for about a year. That's been true since about 2018, when OGA really took off, Fensterheim said, but the interest has definitely spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"[The pandemic] has not increased sales, but it has increased interest," Fensterheim said.

If Fensterheim hadn't added another 20 crew members to his company in recent years, that year-long wait would be much longer. OGA is now converting about 70 vans a year for people all over the country from its workshop in Frederick. Yet while the company's capacity has increased, so has the demand. 

YouTube and Instagram have been filled with pictures and videos of people living their "van lives," traveling the country in their vehicles and staying wherever they please. Most have remote jobs or are self-employed; travel vans are well-suited for their lifestyle.

The uptick in social media buzz surrounding vans was already driving up demand by 2019, Fensterheim said, when OGA moved from its original Montgomery County location to a larger spot in Frederick on Bowman's Crossing. But the coronavirus pandemic sent interest through the roof.

Google Trends shows the number of searches for "camper van" began to skyrocket at the beginning of April 2020 and reached its peak popularity mid-summer. The term received double the amount of searches in July 2020 than it did in July 2019. 

"With everybody being able to work remotely, even before COVID ... I think a lot of people are adjusting to that, or had already started to before COVID,"  said Bob Fensterheim, the company's chief financial officer and Aaron's father. "You can get [internet] everywhere, so if people that can do that ... a lot of them are starting to work anywhere and do it out of a van."

Meagan Beauchemin and Kevin Atkinson of the Instagram account@vista.van were initially drawn to van life from Instagram and figured it would be a possible transition with Beauchemin's photography job and Atkinson's work, which was remote pre-COVID.

While the Rhode Island-based couple searched for East Coast van conversion companies, they saw OGA recommended online. It also helped that Atkinson's family lived 45 minutes away, so they could stay nearby while the build was being completed in early 2020.

"We were really impressed how it seemed like everyone working on the vans were just as excited as the people they were building the vans for," Beauchemin said. "We had some really great conversations with people who were putting the work in on our van … it was a really nice way to support a local small business, but also, it just feels like a family in the end."

The Fensterheims said their clientele has also shifted somewhat. Bob and Aaron said they have retirees requesting vans more than ever. Aaron surmises this might be due to the fact that the younger generation — at whom "van life" social media is typically aimed — does not have the financial means for van conversions, which run upwards of $40,000.

Bob credits the pandemic with at least some of the increased interest from retirees, as driving a camper provides a safe way to travel and an opportunity to forgo hotel rooms, planes and even campgrounds. That's also a perk for people who like to camp, but don't want to risk being in crowded campgrounds.

For example, Beauchemin's van was finished in April, which she said worked out with the pandemic because the van was totally off the grid. They chose to install a shower in their van, which helped significantly as campgrounds and gyms — two common shower sites — were closed. 

Camper vans' main competition are RVs, which are typically already built-out for customers without any wait times on production. But Aaron Fensterheim said he believes the quality of RVs is typically lower than their price points would suggest. 

"We try to build our things as if they're houses, because a lot of our customers are living in them," he said. 

Vans also allow for greater customization to suit exactly what the client needs. OGA offers four standard layouts for its vans, which are cheaper and take less time than custom layouts. They can involve everything from fold-down beds to toilets to miniature home offices. Aaron Fensterheim also said the company has been seeing more partial build-outs lately, where a client comes in with a partially-finished van and just needs some professional help installing features like fans, heaters or solar power. 

OGA has also changed the way it runs open houses and van tours. In the past, they would open the shop on a Saturday a few times a year to show open house attendees the finished products. Now, they do the events every few weeks on Zoom and feature a less-polished tour of the vans as well as the build-out process. This means they're able to keep the workshop running during the tour instead of having employees clear out and halting production.

"People would come to our open houses from Pennsylvania, New Jersey at times, but now there's no difference between Baltimore and Denver, because Zoom doesn't care," Bob Fensterheim said. 

OGA recently acquired a second workshop space on Bowman's Crossing to help physically distance their employees and increase production. Aaron said the company is always looking to hire to help keep up with the demand — which has all happened organically. The Fensterheims haven't advertised in years, because they don't have to: van owners share their conversions on social media and tag OGA, driving traffic their way. 

Even with so many new companies popping up on the map, the Fensterheims aren't concerned about competition. Most of the new companies are one- or two-person operations, meaning inherently long wait times for them, too. 

"There are some people that hear a year and they want it next month, so they go elsewhere," Bob Fensterheim said. "And going elsewhere means not another van conversion company, it means buying an RV. Because that's really, to some degree, the only alternative."

Follow Erika Riley on Twitter: @ej_riley

(11) comments

public-redux

Only somewhat related: I watched “Nomadland” recently. It’s a fiction film shot in a documentary style about people —one in particular, played by Frances McDormand — who live out of their vans/RVs. I was underwhelmed.

mrnatural1

I'll have to check out Nomadland, public.

Those people are referred to as "full-timers". We've never had any desire to live in our RV year-round. For one thing, they aren't designed for temps much below freezing, but if people stick to the 'Sunbelt' I guess that isn't an issue.

Another practical concern is living space. Unless a couple (let alone a family!) has a class A "rock star coach" with multiple slide-outs and all the comforts of home, they will feel cramped. A class C (the ones built on a cab-chassis with a cab-over bed) -- let alone a conversion van -- is very tight quarters. If the owners are outdoor type people and the weather is nice, then interior space is not as much of a concern, but otherwise it's important.

We prefer to go on the road for a few weeks and then come home. It's fun to travel, but it's nice to have a place to come back to.

The "van life" thing has become very popular, but I have to wonder about a lot of the YouTubers promoting it. Many of them really lay it on thick. Finances are ignored or glossed over: "Yeah, I got tired of washing dishes so I bought this $150,000 van and hit the road!" Quite often the video will feature an attractive woman who likes to lounge around in a bikini and go skinny dipping -- you know, just your typical RVer. Anyway, most of them really hype the lifestyle -- you'd think they sell the vans! The weather is always perfect; the people are pretty; their meals are a work of art; and often there is no one else around. In short, they're selling a fantasy. Somehow, you never see them dumping the grey and black water tanks at a dump station...

There are a large number of "full-timers" -- hundreds of thousands at least -- but most of them have huge "diesel pushers" (diesel engine in the rear). Many of those are like a small luxury condo on wheels: residential appliances including a washer/dryer; multiple slides for extra room when parked; large bathroom; king size memory foam bed; full home theater set-up, etc, etc. They can sell for $1M or more. Anyway, full-timing is more practical in one of those.

What do the people on Nomadland have? Is it more of a "van life" movie?

public-redux

It is mostly about people with few financial resources, whether that is the result of A) bad luck, 2) bad choices or ⠼⠉) a combination of A and 2.

mrnatural1

I see. Yeah, that's a different group.

I saw something on TV recently about them. I can't find what I watched but I did just come across this about Nomadland:

https://www.outsideonline.com/2420931/nomadland-chloe-zhao-movie-review

"Nomadic living has grown fashionable over the past few years, given the increase of telework and the technology that makes it possible. The ubiquity of social media has helped fuel this rise, documenting the phenomenon using soothing filters to hide its blemishes and flaws. (I, too, am not without sin.) The hashtag #vanlife fills Instagram with thirsty photos of sun-kissed twentysomethings performing yoga handstands atop $100,000 rigs in a magical world where it’s always the golden hour. It’s a fantasy land of eternal youth, full of beautiful people who seem to spend an extraordinary amount of time not wearing pants.

Nomadland is not about those people. In fact, there are hardly any young people in the movie at all. Instead it tells a much needed, unfiltered story of nomadic life. For many, mobile living isn’t about a lifestyle, chasing adventure, or becoming an influencer but about necessity, survival, and grit. There are no sponsored posts, no hashtags, no likes."

~

That's similar to what I posted above.

Definitely 2 separate groups.

mrnatural1

Quote:

"Camper vans' main competition are RVs, which are typically already built-out for customers without any wait times on production. But Aaron Fensterheim said he believes the quality of RVs is typically lower than their price points would suggest."

That's true, and overall quality is getting worse, not better, as RV mfrs continue to spit out rigs as fast as they can.

Not only are they working too fast, they cannot find qualified employees. That's in part because the pay is incredibly low. No skilled electrician; carpenter; cabinet maker; or plumber is going to work on an RV assembly line for $10 or $12 per hour. During the tour of the Winnebago factory in Forest City, Iowa, the tour guide actually bragged that it is a non-union shop and that's how they keep prices down.

Unions have their good and bad qualities, but one of the good ones is that the members are almost always well trained and highly skilled. For example, my former employer, Metro, has a long list of problems. It was hard to find anything that was not messed up in some way (if not completely) but one of the few things that was done right is the wiring. It is picture perfect, very impressive. It was all done by union electricians -- IBEW I believe.

So yes, the quality of RVs is often embarrassingly mediocre. It is as if there is little or no QA at the factory. They just ship them out and expect the dealers to repair any problems. The thing is, the dealers are all independent. They do not like warranty work because it pays less. There are ten of thousands of incredibly sad stories of people who buy a brand new (often "high-end") RV, only to discover it has multiple issues. The dealer -- the one that took their money last week -- says "Get in line suckers!" -- and the owners, who were planning to leave on vacation, have to wait weeks, sometimes MONTHS(!), for the dealer to look at their rig. Then, when it is finally returned, many of the problems may not be repaired! It can be a real nightmare.

Oh, and don't assume any "Lemon Laws" will help. The RV mfrs have made sure that they do not apply!! An RV owner can have his/her rig in the shop 10 times for the same problem -- it doesn't matter. They have zero recourse. Some resort to begging the factory to fix the issues. Then they have to drive to Forest City (or wherever) and hang out there while the problems are (hopefully) corrected. Of course they are not compensated for all of their time and expenses

BUYER BEWARE!

BTW -- none of the above happened to Mrs. Natural and I, because we bought a used 2009 View in 2012. Back then, Winnebago was building them better. Also, common advice on any RV forum is to buy used. The original owner takes a huge 20-30% depreciation hit, and they will generally have had most/all of the factory defects resolved.

gabrielshorn2013

But do they offer a 4WD or AWD option?

shiftless88

I think you supply the van

mrnatural1

MB sells a 4WD Sprinter here in America. I believe it is only available in the "2500" (single rear wheels), not the 3500, but that should not be an issue for a conversion van (aka "class B" RV) as opposed to a heavier class C like the View/Navion.

As you probably know, while 4WD can potentially get a person/couple to places others can't go -- ground clearance; approach and departure angles; and breakover angle are all critical. In some cases (like out West where dirt roads are usually dry) a 2WD vehicle with better clearance is often more useful than 4WD.

Also, driving an RV off-road or on washboard dirt roads will quickly drive you insane. OK, maybe not "insane", but even with careful packing, the rattling of tools; silverware; pots & pans; dishes; canned goods; etc, is not exactly an enjoyable soundtrack.

In addition, all of the vibration cannot be good for the coach. I've heard some horror stories of cabinets falling off walls, etc.

The Sprinter itself has it's own quirky problems, and parts and service are expensive (and hard to find in some parts of the country). It's basically a solid truck, but is over-engineered. I see they also convert the Dodge ProMaster. I'm not familiar with it, but an acquaintance has one that he converted (the most professional conversion I've seen) and he seems to really like it. He says it gets 20+ mpg which comes close to the Sprinter (not that mpg should be a primary, let alone only concern).

matts853

Good fall back option for people getting a divorce.

francesca_easa

I read about these folks a couple of months back when I was looking at the cost of renting a camper van. I could never drive a big rig like an RV. So happy to see a business such as this doing very well during the pandemic. It is refreshing to see new businesses emerge as leaders and which ones have the ability to shift gears when everything becomes topsy turvy. Huge kudos to OGV. I was going to suggest you get a gig on DiY network. But I think I saw an ad the other day for another guy who converts vans who is going to have his own Cable series. Looks like someone else beat you to it.

shiftless88

Those look amazing!

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