MOORHEAD, Minn. — A first-of-its-kind business is launching in the Fargo-Moorhead area hoping to spark a sense of adventure and wanderlust among local residents.
Ben Gleason and Jason Gilbraith recently founded Vanna Adventure Vans in Moorhead, which is set to become the first custom van conversion and adventure van rental service in Minnesota or North Dakota.
Gilbraith first researched van conversion when his F-M-based photography and videography firm JLG Productions started receiving clients from Montana and Colorado.
"I came up with plans to turn that vehicle into a mobile office and home so I could eliminate having both a vehicle cost and apartment costs," he said.
Gilbraith brought new meaning to the term home-office, living and working out of the van for a year-and-a-half. Along the way, he met Gleason at the Mille Lacs Kite Crossing in Garrison, Minn. While Gleason and others camped outside, Gilbraith stayed warm inside his van.
"We're all out there kind of roughing it and in there it's 70 degrees the whole night," Gleason said. "I was very very impressed with the van."
Since then, Gilbraith and Gleason workshopped the business model for Vanna Adventure Vans over weekly coffee meetings, ultimately deciding to merge Gilbraith's van-construction acumen with Gleason's business skills.
"We realized this is definitely something that we can do in the area here and bring a sense of adventure and outdoors," Gilbraith said.
According to Gleason, approximately 100 custom van conversion companies have opened in the United States over the past 15 years. Before Vanna Adventure Vans opened, though, F-M area residents could only experience custom vans on Instagram, Pinterest or other social media platforms.
"Van conversion companies have been popping up all over the country over the past 10 years, but there's not one in North Dakota and there wasn't an established one in Minnesota," Gleason added. "We saw, 'Hey, no one in this area is doing this yet and we'd love to make it available for people.'"
Vanna Adventure Vans' first rental van, Gilbraith's Mercedes Sprinter, is approaching completion. The Sprinter is packed with air conditioning and heating, a lofted bed, shower, sink, refrigerator, freezer, composting toilet and four-burner stove.
On the roof are 400 watts of solar intake, though the Sprinter's transmission can also power its 400 amp-hour battery bank on cloudy days. Water is supplied through a 30-gallon reservoir and 7-gallon water heater. The van is also a four-season model, equipped with additional insulation to withstand the Upper Midwest's harsh winter conditions.
All told, the Sprinter features $35,000 worth of customizations.
Some of the most popular uses for converted adventure vans are weekend ski trips to the mountains or other getaways, Gleason explained. He has also seen interest from families looking to take a long road trip.
Vans offer notable benefits as compared to RVs or campers, Gleason added.
"The freedom in the van in comparison to the RV is they're off-grid and they're self-sustainable, so you don't need a water hook-up or electrical hook-up," he said. "(In a) RV or camper, you're restricted to an RV or camper lot. This is a passenger vehicle, so that means you can stay at any site in your city parks, state parks or national parks that you can drive into."
The response, not only in the community but nationwide, has been strong, Gleason continued. With other shops having waiting lists up to six months long, clients from as far as Texas have contacted Vanna Adventure Vans.
"People are really excited," he said. "We have a waiting list of people waiting to rent and purchase."
Vanna Adventure Vans also includes a GoPro Hero9 with each rental so customers can capture their trips and have Gleason and Gilbraith print canvases or put together video blogs for social media.
For an additional charge, customers can also rent a BioLite portable fire pit or Black Diamond headlamps.
To begin, rentals will only be available 90 days in advance and for a minimum of three days.
Gilbraith and Gleason hope to have their Sprinter available for rent by the end of January. The project could have been completed in two or three weeks had the COVID-19 pandemic not made sourcing materials such a challenge.
"Because of the pandemic, the amount of conversion vans has gone through the roof, so a lot of people are doing them and converting them. A lot of the materials are very scarce right now," Gilbraith remarked. "At the exact same time that's happening, the production facilities for those materials are actually cutting back on how much they can produce."
COVID-19 also sparked a greater interest in the outdoors, which made the duo confident that now was the right time to launch Vanna Adventure Vans. According to Gleason, camper van rentals have doubled across the U.S. since the pandemic began.
"Since COVID-19, there’s been a massive increase in people buying their own vans and converting them, people going to van conversion companies and having them built and camper van rentals," he said.
It's a trend Gleason and Gilbraith expects to continue.
"I think there's extra eagerness to want to get outdoors, explore and have an amazing getaway, escape or experience," Gleason said.
Once the Sprinter is completed, Vanna Adventure Vans plans to add more vehicles to its rental fleet while continuing their custom builds for clients.
For its custom builds, Vanna Adventure Vans can accommodate any type of project, Gleason said, noting that a young couple recently brought in a 2020 Nissan to convert into a tiny house.
Gleason and Gilbraith will hold an initial consultation to determine the desired budget, features, uses, lifestyle and designs for the project. Gilbraith will then put together a 3-D rendering of the van before agreeing to a contract. Once the van, which is sourced by the client, reaches the shop, builds are estimated to take four to seven weeks, depending on the level of customization.
"We can build whatever they want," Gleason said. "One of our slogans is 'You dream it, we build it.'"
When someone has a custom van built, Vanna Adventure Vans will also offer to rent the van as a "mobile Airbnb" when the owner isn't using it, Gleason said, allowing the owner to pay down the cost of the build.
In the future, Gilbraith and Gleason are eyeing a Minneapolis location to expand into a larger city.
"Because of the big population and all of the outdoor community in Minnesota, I think once we announce over there, we're going to see quite a bit of interest," Gleason said.
They’re also mulling other rental concepts, such as a custom 1970s Volkswagen for honeymoons or a "Frisco-ready" tailgating van for North Dakota State Bison football fans.
While Colorado often tops the list of popular destinations, Vanna Adventure Vans is also promoting shorter weekend rentals for local destinations such as Itasca State Park, Duluth and Minnesota’s North Shore.
"There are lots of beautiful places within a few hour drive,” Gleason said. "You don't have to take necessarily a week or two to try it out and have a cool experience."