Business is booming for South Florida’s van vacation rental company Ondevan as more and more locals seek auto escapes.
When COVID hit, Ondevan’s original clients — international tourists — disappeared, eliminating all bookings. Eight months later, about 80% of the company’s vacation vans are booked — almost reaching pre-pandemic levels. Locals, once infrequent bookers, now account for Ondevan’s entire clientele as COVID-19 cases continue to surge throughout much of the world. The rebound is providing owner Omar Bendezú, 34, some reassurance that his small business will survive the economic downturn that has claimed so many others.
The company has maintained its fleet of 11 vans and kept its two part-time employees working throughout the pandemic.
“It’s going really well actually,” he said. “I’m feeling good. October, September were good, 60%. But November, December it’s doing really well.”
Bendezú and wife Haley Kirk launched the Hallandale Beach-based company in 2017, bringing #VanLife to South Florida. But until the pandemic, the camper-van vacation rental company remained largely unknown to locals.
After international travel shut down in March, Bendezú pivoted quickly, listing the company on a website promoting local businesses called Support Local Florida and tweaking the main message on the company’s website, which reads, “Let’s save travel together, book your trip with a local business.”
A $30,000 loan from the federal Small Business Administration with a year deferment and 30-year repayment schedule allowed Bendezú to keep up with insurance and storage payments and invest in local advertising.
Since then, Bendezú has bought and sold several vans and added new features to the fleet to suit local preferences. Among the new perks: ceiling fans and plug-in capabilities for campsites with electricity.
One of the new vans — dubbed “Urpi” — has bunk beds allowing a family to live the van life, too. The other two most popular are “The Pro,” for its spacious interior, and “Tambo,” for its retro, Insta-friendly paint job.
It was social media that drew Miami’s Jojo Lee, 28, and her boyfriend to Ondevan for a birthday celebration trip in August. They rented “Scooby,” a bright yellow-and-blue painted van, for their central Florida adventure visiting Blue Hole Spring, St. Petersburg and Rainbow River. The biggest draw was the convenience, Lee said.
“It took camping to a whole new level,” she said. “Now it’s hard to go back to camping with a tent. All we had to bring was our clothes and food and that’s it. There were pots and pans, pillows. That made it so easy.” Nightly rental costs range from around $59 to $139, plus a $50 cleaning fee and $5 toll pass. The vans do not have bathrooms; some have sinks, and all come with camping essentials like stoves, utensils and lanterns.
Lee liked the trip so much she booked another one in September, this time with 10 friends in three vans. The group stayed at Chassahowitzka River Campground. She plans to book another trip with the company soon.
“If anybody is looking to explore what van life