By Joy Martin
There’s the recreational vehicle and then there’s van life: a niche nomadic lifestyle movement reserved for travelers who access wild, beautiful places via vans converted into homes-on-wheels. Whether they’ve spent $5,000 or $350,000 to retrofit their rootless abodes, van lifers seek the same things: flexibility, fresh air, and freedom. Their drive has spawned a unique industry of van conversion, van parts manufacturing, van rental, van apps, and van repair businesses, many that were inspired by the pursuit of these transient treasures.
In 1992, two decades before social media popularized the #vanlife movement, Mike Labate was following the Grateful Dead on tour while living out of his recreational vehicle. Eventually, Deadhead tours led to Phish tours, hot springs tours, snowboarding tours, and, well, anything that offered an excuse to keep going.
A mechanic since he was 15-years-old, Labate would fix his RV when it broke and assist fellow zip code-less wanderers when their mobile lodges needed mending. He and his twin brother, Greg, were known for their work with a highly specialized Volkswagen Vanagon community of van lifers and, in 2004, decided to turn their passion for van engines into Rocky Mountain Westy, a custom van business based in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“I woke up at 29 totally broke and had this revelation that I was not employable,” says Labate. “So, I made a commitment to figure out how to turn some debt into a business. The plan was to work hard through my 30s and 40s, so I could enjoy my 50s and 60s.”
At 47, Labate hopes he’s still on track with the nearly 20-year-old company that’s since morphed into Van Cafe after the brothers purchased a California van manufacturing warehouse. In 2018, they moved Van Cafe to Fort Collins to join Rocky Mountain Westy and their VW Vanagon repair shop, Mr. Mechanic. Labate and team are currently transitioning to offer services and parts geared toward other non-Westy platforms, like Ram ProMasters and Mercedes Sprinter vans.
“We’re a little late to the party, but we have the infrastructure now and can offer that full-life cycle from design to manufacturing to sales and tech support,” says Labate.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of custom vans trucking along America’s highways and byways has mushroomed by as much as 400%, according to some estimates.. A quick check on #vanlife social media channels would have the world believe that 1. It’s the coolest way to travel and 2. Everyone is doing it. But, as of March 2022, the number of van lifers rolling around the country can’t be quantified; some live full-time in their vans while others are hardcore weekend warriors or simple spring breakers.
In Colorado, dozens of van-centric businesses serve the Front Range, with a dozen or more scattered around the state.. In 2015, Patrick Spainhower and Colleen O’Brien left Denver for Alaska in a 2008 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van they had converted for life on the road. They only got as far as Durango, but the quicker-than-planned adventure unfolded the blueprint for their custom campervan business, Wanderful Wheels.
“Campervans offer a solution that wasn’t in the market before,” says O’Brien. “You can’t just roll into a brewery with your trailer or RV. With a van, you’re so much more flexible.”
O’Brien says that the majority of Wanderful Wheels’ customers are millennials and baby boomers, and 20% are full-time vanlifers. Each year, Spainhower and his production team convert 30 cargo vans into campervans. All vans include a roof solar system, while many feature full-blown heaters, bathrooms, and off-the-grid electrical systems. These custom builds cost anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000, with production times ranging from eight to 12 weeks, depending on the current supply chain.
“We’re adapting to the van supply chain,” says O’Brien. “Instead of only building out custom vans, we want to sell vans with a set layout, which we call the Wanderer. This would help us save time and money and get vans to customers faster, but we could only produce a few prototypes this year because we couldn’t source vans.”
Like Van Café, Wanderful Wheels is considering expanding into manufacturing van accessories. Because Wanderful Wheels launched a year before the pandemic, O’Brien says it’s been challenging to figure out a realistic market.
“We don’t know what’s a real stable demand and what’s just a skewed trend,” says O’Brien.
Another big obstacle to their growth is space. In 2021, O’Brien and Spainhower found a 4,000-square-foot warehouse in Durango’s Bodo Industrial Park. With the current demand, however, O’Brien says they are already outgrowing it.
“Durango’s tight on warehouse and manufacturing space,” says O’Brien. “But we’re here because this is where we want to live, and this business offers a way to do something we love in a place we love.”
To help make decisions in a rural economy and tackle looming challenges, like environmental regulations, waning interest, supply chain issues, and other unknowns, O’Brien says they lean into local resources and mentors, like the Southwest Colorado Accelerator Program for Entrepreneurs. Her encouragement to other small business owners in rural Colorado is simple:
“You’ll sit there forever and come up with all the reasons why you can’t do it or why it’s hard,” she says. “Make your website, build your van or whatever, take that first step. It’s daunting to look at the whole picture. But if you just start, a few years later, there you are.”
For Labate, it was all about taking his own road.
“Now I’ve been self-employed for 25 years and would absolutely say that you should make your passion your business,” says Labate. “I turned a hobby into a part-time job, into a home-based business. Just remember that you’re never too small to do it right.”