Earlier this year, Nate Luebbe came up with a new way to work from home: bring his home to where he worked, writes Heidi Mitchell for a Nov. 12 report published by The Wall Street Journal.
The Seattle photographer, who often had to travel three hours each way to shoots, bought an old ski shuttle for $15,000 and had it outfitted into a space where he could rest and work instead of driving home—complete with solar panels, a battery bank, a full kitchen and toilet, outdoor shower, sleeping quarters and desk space.
Mr. Luebbe, 33, liked the setup so much that he drove the shuttle through the Southwest and Mountain states with his girlfriend, working along the way.
“We could go to Costco and then not see anyone for a month,” he says. “I felt like it was better social distancing than being in Seattle, and it allowed me to be patient and wait for the perfect light for the best shot.”
After months of living under work-from-home measures and travel restrictions, many cabin-feverish Americans are looking for safe ways to work outside their house and see new places, too. They are turning to “Covid Campers”: specially fitted recreational vehicles – or retrofitted existing vehicles – that offer the comforts of home and office without exposing them to the risks of public restrooms, restaurants and even people altogether.
This new breed is largely younger people, says Monika Geraci, spokeswoman for the RV Industry Association trade organization. Many of them are accustomed to working remotely anyway, don’t have children to worry about and live in small spaces in cities – so hitting the road isn’t that big of a step to take.
While the majority of new RV sales are traditional travel trailers, the fastest-growing segment of the industry is the Type B camper van – easily maneuverable vehicles, typically under 21 feet in length, that look like vans and can be parked almost anywhere. Many come equipped with solar panels, cellphone boosters and Wi-Fi, full kitchens and baths, and space for multiple laptops.
As of the end of September, while total RV shipments were down 3.2%, Type B camper vans were up more than 48%, according to the RVIA’s latest report. “Typically, our dealerships see 25% of their customers as first-time buyers, but this year, they make up 55% of all RV buyers, and the 45-and-under demographic is the fastest-growing sector,” Ms. Geraci says.
Big manufacturers are responding to their needs. Among others, Winnebago, which launched in 1958, has seen a surge in demand for its pop-top Solis, which seats and sleeps four and has USB charging stations at every seat and bedside. The model’s new industrial flooring allows families to bring their dogs and sandy feet aboard, while the Wi-Fi is ready for installation and the shower is hot.
Russ Garfin, director of product management of Class B and Class C motor homes at Winnebago, says even with the shutdown of production from mid-March to May, his sector is booming, with sales in general, including of his new Boldt – built on a Mercedes Sprinter chassis and featuring smart navigation systems and noiseless lithium-ion batteries – taking him by surprise.
“We had to start a new production line to meet demand,” he says. “I have even seen people park these in their driveways to use as a home office when they are not on the road.”
Airstream, owned by Thor Industries, is currently working on the Flying Cloud 30FB Office, a concept vehicle that hitches to a car, which wraps the rear office space in a sound-deadening privacy screen, has loads of solar panels to charge its lithium-ion batteries and offers a 5G-ready roof antenna and Wi-Fi as add-ons.
“Early during Covid, Facebook made an announcement about working from home, and at that point it definitely seemed like people could work from anywhere,” says McKay Featherstone, vice president of product development and engineering for Airstream. “They could merge travel with work and live a different lifestyle, and we could help them.”
Meanwhile, dozens of small custom outfitters have cropped up across the country, repurposing used vans or other vehicles into high-tech mobile second homes.
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