MIAMI – This was to be the year of expansion to Orlando for Ondevan, a camper van rental dream-turned-business for Hallandale Beach residents Omar Bendezu, 34, and Haley Kirk, 28.
“My plan was to have a proper location with someone helping me there part time,” Bendezu said. “I was planning to add seven to eight campers this season.”
Those plans evaporated when the COVID-19 pandemic spurred travel restrictions in mid-March. Until then, around 95% of Ondevan’s customers were from outside Florida, many international. Kirk remembers the day that President Donald Trump announced U.S. airports would be closing to European travelers.
“The day after that, it was Omar just receiving call after call after call after call of people trying to figure out if they could cancel their booking,” she said.
It was an abrupt blockade for the growing business spawned over coffee at Moises Bakery in Hallandale Beach back in 2017, when Kirk and Bendezu were newlyweds. A stranger approached them and asked if they would like to buy her RV.
Bendezu, who always dreamed of being his own boss, asked how much the camper van cost, thinking maybe he could rent it out on Airbnb. “$5,000,” the woman said.
The only parking spot the couple had was in their condo’s garage, so they regretfully turned the woman down. But it got them thinking.
Where others may have seen an oversaturated market full of hotels, motels and vacation rentals, Bendezu and Kirk saw an opportunity in South Florida’s tourism scene: #VanLife
Bendezu contacted a friend who had a van for sale. It was in terrible shape — and just what he needed, he said. “A really cheap van, so I could remake it.”
He worked with a carpenter to tear out the van’s insides and replace them with a retractable bed and kitchenette, perfect for road trips through the wilderness. The couple went door to door in Wynwood to ask local business owners who had painted the murals on their walls. One of the artists, Muta, agreed to paint the couple’s first van. The couple landed on a name for the company: Ondevan, a nod to Bendezu’s native Peru where Ondevan is slang for “¿A dónde van?” (Where are you all going?).
Within a month, the camper van rental company was born. By the end of the year, their fleet grew to three vans. Tourists from all over the world booked road trips. By December 2019, the fleet had grown to 11 vans, and the couple was able to hire two employees to handle bookings and cleanings in between trips.
Instead of expanding to Orlando, this year the couple scrambled to reset their strategy. They settled on a policy where customers could cancel and get a credit to rebook their trip any time in the next two years, or receive a 50% cash refund and use the other 50% as a credit toward a trip in the next year.
So far, it has worked, saving the company some money. But they’ve seen their bookings plummet. Normally, the vans rent for around $120 per day. Now, they are available for around $69 per day.
If bookings remain this low for the rest of the year, the couple will need to reassess the business. So far they’ve been able to keep their two employees working part time, but with or without customers, they have to pay for auto insurance, parking rentals and administration fees that add up quickly. So far, they’ve received a loan of $1,000 from the Small Business Administration, and will be approaching banks about private loans.
The couple had planned to move into a house they bought last year, but instead they’ll remain in their one-bedroom rental and continue renting out the house to a tenant.
“When that travel mandate went down, especially because most of the customers were international, that was really scary,” Kirk said. “Right now we’re a little optimistic. Right now we’ve gone through the worst of the terror.”