This is a follow up story for ROAMERICA. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published almost 2 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
We are Gretchen and Taylor from ROAMERICA, a camper van rental company based out of Portland, Oregon. We focus on renting fully equipped 2wd and 4wd vans so travelers can fly in with only a backpack and embark on an adventure around the Pacific Northwest.
We have been building our own vans for the rental fleet for a little over a year now. There has been so much interest from customers who want to buy a van after renting that we recently decided to launch a separate brand to focus on customer van builds. This new brand is called Axis Vehicle Outfitters.
It’s an interesting time to measure success monetarily but we do feel like we’re still doing pretty good, even with the coronavirus. We’re busy building vans for customers under Axis Vehicle Outfitters and taking reservations for ROAMERICA for later this summer.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
The business has been growing steadily over this last year, and we have new employees and partners to help us continue to expand. The new employees consist of carpenters and electricians for the new van builds and an avid outdoorsman to help with trip planning and customer service for the rentals. We’ve also brought on a business advisor and a new CPA. Our team is small but mighty!
If you throw in the towel when it's tough, you’d never know if success was right around the corner.
Unfortunately, we are in the middle of the COVID-19 situation and things have definitely changed in the last couple of months. Rentals are now on hold until things open back up and we lost quite a bit of revenue due to canceling the reservations for spring break and the month of April. We actually parked our rental fleet before the Stay at Home order was placed. We are taking requests for later dates and offering quotes to future customers. However, this is a time for all of us to do the right thing by staying home. This is not a time to be on vacation and visit our rural communities. We need to be smart about our movements, 1 infected individual visiting a small town can be catastrophic. They do not have the resources and we need to respect that. So instead of putting vans on the road right now, we are taking this time to document our procedures, create digital contracts and manuals and train our staff on our new cleaning procedures. This will decrease the touchpoints that we have with our customers but keep everyone safe and healthy.
We’ve also been adding to our services. We just secured 24/7 roadside assistance for all our reservations, at no cost to our customer! This includes anywhere in the US and Canada. Again, since we haven’t had rentals on the road, we’ve been able to dedicate our time to improve our service offerings and just make sure that our customers don’t hesitate when wanting to book a trip of a lifetime.
We are not doing any paid advertising right now as we want to be sensitive to the situation at hand. We are all affected by this financially and asking someone to book a trip in an advertisement when it just isn’t in the cards for most, seems insensitive to us. So instead, we are trying to be a source of inspiration and motivation. We’ve been writing more blogs and keeping customers updated through our newsletter. We do plan on starting some social media promotions in May, just to reach more people about our business news, blogs, and itineraries while still encouraging people to stay home until it's deemed safe to travel.
Taylor and I also decided to focus our energy on something positive. On April 1st, we started giving away a free van trip EVERY WEEK to someone affected by Covid-19. We have a web page to accept nominations and are really just trying to spread the word. Everyone is affected by this pandemic and this is just one way that we can give back and say thank you to everyone working through it and remaining positive. This is about community, and giving what you can, even though we are all losing a lot. This is about the therapeutic benefits of nature. The trips will only be available once it is safe to travel again so we do not add fuel to the fire.
Clearly anybody in the travel industry has been hit hard by this pandemic, including us. ROAMERICA was scheduled to move into a larger space on June 1 but with Covid-19, we just did not think that was the right move. We just don’t know how long the Stay at Home order will be in place and when parks, trails, and campgrounds will open back up. We truly believe everything will start to open back up soon and folks will be wanting to rent and buy a van but we need to be smart about every move we make right now. There is no room for mistakes. So instead, we are moving into a smaller space. We’re actually really excited about this move. At first, we were a bit frustrated and feeling defeated but now we’re looking forward to saving some money and putting that towards our vans, personnel, and marketing and hopefully a van that will be dedicated YEAR ROUND to free van trips. We’re pumped about this.
Fortunately, we have also launched Axis Vehicle Outfitters which focuses on building and outfitting vans, and that has kept our employees busy as we wait for the COVID-19 situation to dissolve. As you know, starting a new business is very involved and we’ve only just scratched the surface on everything that needs to happen with this new company but the paperwork is done and a very small website is up. Good for today:) We’re looking forward to being able to dedicate some more time to this brand once we have childcare again!
Although rentals are at a standstill today, we very much believe that we will be in high demand, as people will want (and need) to escape and explore the beautiful wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.
As business owners, it's important to tell our story but it's even better if someone else can tell your story:) We’ve been reaching out to magazines and online sources asking for them to spread the good word about our trip give away. We provide them with a great positive story with awesome pictures and in return get some good PR with backlinks and more van nominations! WIN-WIN! The story has been picked up by a few companies like The Outbound Collective.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
Be ready for major changes that are out of your control. Covid-19 definitely made us think about how we will need to run our business in the future. With out of state travelers being a major part of our business, and only essential travel being allowed, we have focused more on local business and cut back on the number of vans we will have available to rent. We are downsizing our shop as well.
We’ve always been the couple and business owners that say YES to every opportunity. While this isn’t a negative thing, it’s just not in the cards right now. We need to be very strategic with our spending and business decisions. We’ve had to turn down a lot of business these last couple of months. While people have been calling asking to rent a van to get out of town and go camping, we’ve had to tell them they should instead stay home and explain why. This was something that we never thought we’d had to do; say no to a reservation. However, it’s to protect our communities, staff, and even them!
This last year was a great year, however, these last couple of months are getting all the attention because everything was so drastic and happened so fast. Everything everywhere came to a crashing halt. At the beginning of 2020, the plan for the year was to document our procedures, recession-proof our business, find a new CPA and business advisor. Covid-19 has just fast-tracked it all. When things start to open back up, we are ready! We have been working tirelessly to make sure our fleet is ready, our staff is brought up to speed on new procedures and our customers have everything they need prior to their trip so they feel confident in their decision to rent from us.
At the beginning of the year, one of our main goals was to get our books and finances organized. Unfortunately, we had been using an accounting firm for the last few years that did not keep our books very organized so it was hard for us to get a quick look at our finances and know what we needed to do, if anything. So step one for 2020 was to find a new CPA. Luckily, we had just hired our amazing business advisor who had the perfect recommendation. We acted fast and got everything up to date and organized. Thank goodness, because when the world came to a crashing stop and we needed to apply for PPP and provide documentation, we were ready! This was a great lesson we luckily didn’t have to learn the hard way. Always know where you are at financially with your business. You should always have financial docs up to date just in case you need to hand them over to a bank, investor, etc.
Another lesson we’ve learned from day 1 but also this last year is that there are people out there who don’t have any business ethics, they will take your designs, ideas, etc and claim it as their own. This is very upsetting and aggravating, to say the least, but Taylor and I just try to rise above it and remind each other that we must be doing something right if someone steals it from us. We’ve had our logo, website, campaigns, etc stolen and we’ve chosen to ignore. We truly believe that if we remain positive and a leader in this industry, the public will start to take notice and choose to support us. We were a bit naive when we first started this business, thinking that people (grown adults) like this didn’t exist in our industry. However, they do and there isn’t anything we can do about it. They’re not worth confronting and it’s not worth our time to fight it. We just stay the course and remain a leader.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
Once Covid-19 is over, we will ramp up our rental fleet offerings, fleet size, and focus again on franchising. We also need to grow the Axis brand. We have a lot to do each and every day. Hiring a few more bodies will be in the cards next year to help grow both businesses. We plan to offer 4x4 conversions, offer guided trips, more detailed trip planning, and forge new partnerships throughout the US not only for gear but places to camp as well. We also want to create our own private campgrounds here in Oregon. Designated for ROAMERICA customers. This will be a fun challenge and something we’ve always wanted to do.
Our short term goals include getting through this spring and summer. Our goal is to have a full reservation calendar but that is 100% dependent on health authorities saying it is safe to travel and parks, trails, and campgrounds opening back up. Again, we do believe this will happen soon but we need to make sure our customers feel confident and safe when renting from us. So we’ve broken down our goal in a long to-do list that we are tackling every day.
We’ve always wanted ROAMERICA to have a rig dedicated to free van trips. Whether it's for raffle winners, auction winners, donations, etc we just want to get those deserving of some mother nature time in a van! We’ve always struggled with the hard reality that we never have enough vans, not only for paying customers but to give away trips as well. So, we are working towards building a rig that will be designated to give back to the community. We are so excited about this and really looking forward to building this sweet rig!
Have you read any good books in the last year?
While we haven’t read any books this past year, we’ve listened to many podcasts. We have two little kids and not much quiet and downtime to read. However, we do have a 45-minute commute through the Columbia Gorge to listen to a podcast! I (Gretchen) like listening to the Foundr podcast with Nathan Chan. He interviews a wide variety of businesses and they all have unique advice. It's just a fun lighthearted podcast that always leaves me feeling motivated and inspired. Taylor likes the Jocko Podcast, Entre-leadership, and How I Built That.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
Stay the course and don’t give up. You may be just around the corner from success.
This is easier said than done. We also stress the importance of hiring people you want to hang out with, folks you want to be around in good times and bad. You really need to love what you do. Right now, this is more important than ever. It’d be very easy to call it quits if we didn’t have an amazing crew or love what we do. Growing your own business is not a task for the weary. It takes time, patience, a positive outlook, and grit.
It’s pretty common for people to think that we’re super successful and it happened overnight. This is not the case. Honestly, we don’t even feel successful right now. Yes, our business is growing and we are in control of our schedules. However, we work on the business 7 days a week, we are constantly getting pulled in a million different directions and it seems as if we are never making any headway. We even cut our own salary down to zero these last 2 months so we could continue to pay our staff in full. These are all the things people don’t see, it’s just not obvious how much work goes into growing a business. However, it’s important to not make the mistake of quitting when it’s hard. If business is good and you’re still not liking what you’re doing, then it’s time to reevaluate. If you throw in the towel when it's tough, you’d never know if success was right around the corner.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
At this point, we are not hiring. We have an amazing team and want to focus on keeping them as happy as possible. However, we are always accepting applications, so please send them our way ([email protected]) if you need a change of pace!
Where can we go to learn more?
- Reservation Request Form
- Blog: Trip Ideas, Itineraries and #vanlife Stories
- A look inside the rigs!
- Sign Up for Our Newsletter
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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