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 email@example.com 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."