When you’ve had it with COVID-19 isolation, these camper vans are ready for vacation
By TAYLOR DOLVEN | Miami Herald | Published: May 15, 2020
This was to be the year of expansion to Orlando for Ondevan, a camper van rental dream-turned-business for Hallandale Beach residents Omar Bendezu, 34, and Haley Kirk, 28.
“My plan was to have a proper location with someone helping me there part time,” Bendezu said. “I was planning to add seven to eight campers this season. My plan was to grow the fleet and grow in the market coverage and grow the business in general.”
Those plans evaporated when the COVID-19 pandemic spurred travel restrictions in mid-March. Until then, around 95% of Ondevan’s customers were from outside Florida, many international. Kirk remembers the day that President Donald Trump announced U.S. airports would be closing to European travelers was especially grim.
“This is supposed to be the high season,” she said. “The day after that, it was Omar just receiving call after call after call after call of people trying to figure out if they could cancel their booking.”
It was an abrupt blockade for the growing business spawned over coffee at Moises Bakery in Hallandale Beach, Fla., back in 2017, when Kirk and Bendezu were newlyweds. A stranger approached them and asked if they would like to buy her RV.
Bendezu, who had always dreamed of being his own boss, asked how much the camper van cost, thinking maybe he could rent it out on Airbnb. “$5,000,” the woman said.
The only parking spot the couple had was in their condo’s garage, so they regretfully turned the woman down. But it got them thinking.
“I remembered these types of campers in Australia that tourists were doing, and I thought, why don’t I do that?” he said. Where others may have seen an over-saturated market full of hotels, motels, and vacation rentals, Bendezu and Kirk saw an opportunity in South Florida’s tourism scene: #VanLife
Bendezu contacted a friend who had a van for sale. It was in terrible shape — and just what he needed, he said. “A really cheap van, so I could remake it.”
He worked with a carpenter to tear out the van’s insides and replace them with a retractable bed and kitchenette, perfect for road trips through the wilderness. The couple went door to door in Wynwood to ask local business owners who had painted the murals on their walls. One of the artists, Muta, agreed to paint the couple’s first van at a live event in Wynwood during Art Basel in 2017.
The couple landed on a name for the company: Ondevan, a nod to Bendezu’s native Peru where Ondevan is slang for “¿A donde van?” (Where are you all going?).
Within a month, the camper van rental company was born. By the end of the year, their fleet grew to three vans. Tourists from all over the world booked road trips. Some stayed in Florida to explore the Everglades, beaches and natural springs. Others drove cross country to see the Grand Canyon. One couple in their 70s from Spain took an Ondevan all the way to Alaska and back.
With each trip came insight into Florida’s most unbeaten paths. The couple put together a state map for tourists based on feedback from customers about where the best natural attractions and bathrooms are located. By December 2019, the fleet had grown to 11 vans, and the couple was able to hire two employees to handle bookings and cleanings in between trips.
Instead of expanding to Orlando, this year the couple scrambled to reset their strategy. They settled on a policy where customers could cancel and get a credit to re-book their trip any time in the next two years, or receive a 50% cash refund and use the other 50% as a credit toward a trip in the next year. So far, it has worked, saving the company some money. But, they’ve seen their bookings plummet. In April 2019, Bendezu they had an occupancy rate of 82%. In April 2020, it was down to 10%.
Normally, the vans rent for around $120 per day. Now, they are available for around $69 per day.
Overnight, the company pivoted to focus on South Floridians, who are desperate for some travel after weeks of isolation, by offering a 30% discount. They launched a new business offering camping gear rentals for people who may not have enough money to spend on a van and still want to get outdoors. They listed the company on a website promoting local businesses during the pandemic called Support Local Florida and tweaked the main messaging on their website, which now reads, “Let’s save travel together, book your trip with a local business.”
Now all of their customers are from South Florida, most of them on long road trips while they can work remotely.
“Many people didn’t know I existed,” said Bendezu. “They’re finding the company, they are excited by the photos. Now people have the time to do all these longs trips. All my customers are local.”
If bookings remain this low for the rest of the year, the couple will need to reassess the business. So far they’ve been able to keep their two employees working part-time, but with or without customers, they have to pay for auto insurance, parking rentals, and administration fees that add up quickly. So far, they’ve received a loan of $1,000 from the Small Business Administration, and will be approaching banks about private loans.
The couple had planned to move into a house they bought last year, but instead they’ll remain in their one-bedroom rental and continue renting out the house to a tenant. It’s a small sacrifice compared to other small business owners who have fared far worse, they said.
“When that travel mandate went down, especially because most of the customers were international, that was really scary,” Kirk said. “Right now we’re a little optimistic. Right now we’ve gone through the worst of the terror.”