Lindsay Berresford and her husband David mooned over their friend's campervan for years: for the freedom it offered them, but also for its original interior and offbeat aesthetic. Then, in 2007, they scraped enough money together to buy their own van, Bella. ‘We both got quite carried away,’ says Lindsay. ‘David spent hours carving plywood to create this hobbit-house effect and I shed blood, sweat and tears over the upholstery. By the end, Bella felt like part of the family.’
When an opportunity to work abroad came up, the couple couldn't afford to keep Bella on the road – but they also didn't want to sell her. ‘It occurred to us that others might want to experience a campervan but not have the money to buy one. We looked around and found a couple of websites offering campervan rental, but they were either focused on white motorhomes or classic VWs. We thought: either this is a great idea nobody has thought of yet or it's a terrible idea and that's why no one else is doing it,’ says Lindsay.
That's how Quirky Campers was born. The couple, based in Bristol, UK, were amazed at how much interest they got from their bare-bones website. They hit their three-year target (for the number of nights rented) in their first year, and soon added more vans into the mix. They now have the highest occupancy rate of UK operators and, in 2019, they opened a New Zealand arm.
For Lindsay, it's always been about the one-off unique designs: ‘We genuinely had no interest in running a business that was about renting factory fit-out campervans. It was about these exquisitely created homes.’ While at festivals, they found themselves meeting more and more self-built van owners who also wanted to rent their vehicles out. This led to them creating an agency within the business.
Even pre-pandemic, average occupancy would be 90 nights a year or 200 at the top end, so their owners would be looking at £5,000 to £13,000 a year, minus insurance and MOT (road worthiness certificate). ‘That's an amazing return, especially if you're converting and maintaining it yourself,’ Lindsay says. For those who aren't, a cottage industry of artisan campervan converters (eg, DB Campers or Out of Order Design) has sprung up to satisfy that need. For in-demand converters, waitlists can be six to 12 months, while a conversion costs from £500 to £40,000.
The self-build community for private vehicles is big in the US, too. Although the rental market there, as in much of the world, relies more on standard identikit models, this approach hasn't hampered the growth of Indie Campers, which was set up in Portugal in 2013 by two friends, who had the idea while traveling in Australia. It's now backed by private equity and is one of Europe's largest rental companies, with more than 1,200 vans in 40 areas across the continent.
Like Quirky Campers, and many other campervan businesses, Indie Campers did well during the pandemic, thanks to the self-contained, social-distancing-friendly travel it offers. UK bookings were up more than 400% in summer 2020 and, towards the end of the same year, Indie Campers launched a subscription model to cater for people who want to work remotely for extended periods.
But, despite the clear ambition of some businesses to create the Amazon or Airbnb of campervan rental, Lindsay thinks there'll always be more personalized opportunities for those who want to rent out their pride and joy.
This article was first published in Courier's 100 Ways to Make a Living. To purchase a copy or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.