To many, planes and hotel rooms won’t be a possibility, owing to continued concerns about the coronavirus (not to mention the expense, which 40 million fewer Americans can likely afford). That leaves perhaps renting a local Airbnb this summer or, for a growing number of people, looking for the first time to rent an RV or camper van.
Last week, we talked with Jeff Cavins, a serial operator and the co-founder and CEO of a company that’s poised to benefit from the latter trend: Outdoorsy, a peer-to-peer RV rental company that was founded in 2015, bootstrapped by its founders for a couple of years, and has more recently attracted $88 million in venture funding, $13 million of it an extension to a $50 million Series B round that it quietly closed early this year.
We wanted to know what trends the company — which collects fees from both the vehicle owners and the renters on its platform — is seeing, including how its customers are changing, and where they’re looking to park themselves this summer. Below are some excerpts from our chat, edited lightly for length.
TC: How has your model changed because of the coronavirus?
JC: We had typically seen an average rental on our platform would run about six days. That’s now over nine days. With COVID, as with many other companies, we saw a lot of de-bookings on the platform, but then they all roared back and then some. We’ve seen a 2,645% increase in bookings from the low point of COVID, which was late March, to right now.
TC: What percentage of those booking trips are first-time customers?
JC: In the month of May, 88% of our bookings were by first-time renters, which is a record for us. And more than half of them have come back and already booked their second trip. So some booked in May; they went away for the Memorial Day weekend [and] came right back. And they booked another one for, in this case, like the Fourth of July or [trips in] June. As you know, a lot of people are at home with their kids, so everybody in America has this big, long extended summer break. And with the kids, they’re finding this is the safer option for travel.
TC: Are their expectations different? Are they looking for certain things that maybe more seasoned RV campers wouldn’t think to ask?
JC: The big trend that we’re seeing in the RV industry, and this is not unique to America, is the new consumers don’t want those big land barges. What they want are camper vans, because the average user on our platform is under the age of 40, which was a big surprise to this industry because it’s always leaned a little bit towards the Boomer or the retiree demographic. And they like camping off the grid. They like to operate with vehicles that feel comfortable to them, that have a smaller footprint, that are easier on the environment. And so things that have become popular are solar power, potable water that can be transportable, hookups for mountain bikes, sporting gear . . . They also want to be able to head to unique locations where they can build those Instagram mobile moments. So we’re starting to see that trend, and it has become a global phenomenon.
TC: When we last talked, in January of last year, Outdoorsy had around 35,000 vehicles available to rent on the platform. How many are on the platform now?
JC: We have 48,000 peer-to-peer listings; when we add our international users and we have a lot of these mega fleets that are connected to our site via an API like Indies Campers or Jucy, that puts our supply at 68,000 units.
TC: And how are you making sure that these vehicles are free of germs and don’t transmit diseases?
JC: Cleanliness is a big factor for any form of accommodation. In our case, we’ve been producing for our listing community CDC guidelines on cleaning standards. We’ve asked our owners to place additional time between rentals so they can let the vehicles take time to manually disinfect. One of our investors at our company is a molecular biologist [whose] doctoral thesis at Harvard won the Nobel Prize for chemistry and he’s been helping us communicate with our owner community on things like these new ultraviolet radiation lamps that are common. You’ll see them installed in ambulances . . . if you let them set for a while, they will help completely decontaminate the environment.
We’re also encouraging renters to bring cleaning supplies with them. A lot of people will feel much more safe if they’re able to control their environment. And we’ve started a contactless key exchange, [meaning] the owner will deliver the vehicle to a campsite, put up the awning, the camping chairs, and so on. And then the renter will come later.
TC: You mentioned changing user behaviors. Out of curiosity, are you seeing renters who aren’t heading to Yosemite or Yellowstone but instead to an RV down the street so they can, say, work apart from young children?
JC: One of the things that we’ve seen is, I may live in San Diego, for example, and grandma lives in Kansas City, and there’s no way for the kids to go see her. So camper van and RV travel has become that way for families to see those loved ones they haven’t been able to see during quarantine and maintain family connectivity.
TC: You mentioned de-bookings earlier this year. Did you have to lay off staff?
JC: We had about 160 employees prior to COVID. And we did do some right-sizing. Most of the impact in our organization was in our international markets — we had a team in Italy, Germany, France, U.K., Australia, New Zealand [that were cut]. In terms of our domestic employees, rather than cuts, we sat down with the team and said, ‘If everybody is willing to take a salary adjustment, we will reward you with more equity in the business. This could be a period of time where we save those jobs around us.’
I work with no income; I don’t have a salary. And there are a few other executives who elected to [forgo theirs]. So it was a way to align our employees with our investors by compensating them more in equity.
TC: As business picks up again, are you thinking about another round of funding?
JC: There is no plan to [raise more right now]. We were profitable in the month of May. We’ll be profitable again in the month of June. Unless there’s a second wave of COVID and lockdowns, our booking activity is now foretelling a profitable July, August and September, so we’ll possibly produce a year-on-year fiscal profitable year.
The ones we typically get inbound activity from are the late-stage growth investors. We’ll all sit down with the board and we’ll talk about it and decide: Do we want to do something with that or just want to just keep, you know, chopping wood as fast as we can on our own?