In 2015, when Colleen O’Brien and Patrick Spainhower were converting a van to a camper to serve as their temporary home during their planned escape from the Front Range, they didn’t suspect they were actually taking their first steps to forming a new business.
Six years later, O’Brien and Spainhower are operating Wanderful Wheels, where they plan to convert 20 high-ceiling cargo vans to campervans this year and 30 next year.
Right now, they’re booked through February 2022.
Next year, they plan to make their own line of prebuilt campervans to add to their custom-designed creations and gradually expand the number of vans they’re able to complete annually.
In 2015, O’Brien and Spainhower initially planned to settle in Alaska after a trip through Colorado and then trek up the West Coast to find a place to settle up north.
They made it as far as Durango, where O’Brien had previously applied for a job with the city. When she landed the job, plans for Alaska were dropped.
Spainhower finished their half-converted van-camper conversion at his brother’s house in Durango, and O’Brien began working with the city’s Planning Department as a business and redevelopment specialist.
By word of mouth, interest grew about the couple’s van conversion, and Spainhower and O’Brien began converting vans as a side job on a property they had bought in La Plata County.
“We were working out of garage space, maybe 400 square feet. Then we built another shop on our property maybe 1,000 square feet, and we worked in that space for maybe a year before COVID happened,” O’Brien said.
With outdoor excursions from hiking, kayaking to camping gaining popularity as the virus spread, the couple soon found out they not only were expanding beyond the capacities of a home business, they had a pretty good startup business on their hands.
Wanderful Wheels was officially born in 2019, and O’Brien left her position at the city to devote all her efforts to the new business.
The arrival of COVID-19 has only further fueled demand for O’Brien’s and Spainhower’s van conversions.
“COVID happened, and suddenly, we needed more space. We’re like: ‘My gosh, we have eight vans stacked down the driveway. We built another shop, and we just outgrew that within a year,” O’Brien said.
Wanderful Wheels converts Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Ram ProMaster and Ford Transit cargo vans into campervans.
In the design process, customers determine features and amenities with input from Wanderful Wheels.
Customers can choose flooring, finish, cabinets and benches to meet their needs with Wanderful Wheels providing a 3D rendering of the design.
An estimate for the work is given, and work begins on customers’ vans.
Wanderful Wheels takes eight to 10 weeks to complete the conversion. Customers are provided a flight to pick up their completed vans in Durango.
The cost to customize a van generally runs between $40,000 and $70,000.
Next year, Wanderful Wheels will begin selling its own line of prebuilt campervans. O’Brien and Spainhower plan to sell the base model, prebuilt campervan for $90,000, which includes the price of the van.
The top prebuilt campervan will come in at $115,000.
All of the vans have roof solar panels, allowing the campervans to get away from organized campgrounds.
The solar power systems generally start at 275 watts and have gone up to a 600-watt system.
“The charm of campervans is you don’t have to go to an RV park,” O’Brien said.
The vans can also be plugged in at RV campgrounds and vans’ electrical systems are charged through the alternator when the van is running.
The next big step for Wanderful Wheels will be taking on financing to buy and customize 20 vans for its predesigned, prebuilt campervans it plans to market next year.
Wanderful Wheels will have to cover the cost of the van, the labor and the materials to make the conversion before they see cash flow from a sale.
“Right now, the customers buy the van, and then we build it out for them. So it kind of finances itself,” O’Brien said.
Alpine Bank is working with O’Brien and Spainhower to set up the financing so Wonderful Wheels can offer its prebuilt campervans next year.
Prebuilt vans will be available for preorder in the fall, and customers who preorder early enough will be able to customize some details like finishes and floor surfaces.
“I think campervans are here to stay,” O’Brien said. “They’re a good solution other than a pull-behind trailer, or a big RV. I think they are that trend that's going to stay.”
Wanderful Wheels is one of six startups taking part in the Southwest Colorado Accelerator Program for Entrepreneurs, or SCAPE.
Right now, demand is hot for cargo to campervan conversions, and Wanderful Wheels is in the enviable position of working with SCAPE to design a business model that can handle a reduction in demand if that’s what the future offers.
But even a recession might not be so bad for Wanderful Wheels.
O’Brien noted the campervan conversions are cheaper than RVs.
SCAPE is part of a support system available in the Durango area that has helped convince O’Brien and Spainhower that they are in the right place to build their startup.
Spainhower said, “We could have gone anywhere, and probably made things cheaper, maybe found a bigger workforce to look for employees. But we really wanted to be in a community we liked, and we love living here in Durango.”
O’Brien added the couple tried living in Denver, which proved too big, and Breckenridge, where Spainhower is from, and it was too much of a resort town.
“We’re both from Colorado. So it was just a matter of finding the right place,” O’Brien said.
Key to staying in Durango was finding the right location to grow in a town short on light-industrial space.
O’Brien and Spainhower thought about expanding their search to Mancos, Cortez, Bayfield, even Farmington and Pagosa Springs before the right opportunity opened.
Tile & Light Art vacated its shop in Bodo Industrial Park in late February, moving the shop behind its 4½-year-old showroom in Three Springs. Spainhower said the old Tile & Light Art shop proved an excellent fit for Wanderful Wheels.
Cutting custom slabs of granite required large, water-cooled, power equipment, a need shared by Wanderful Wheels – so Tile & Light Art’s old shop set up worked well for Wanderful Wheels.
“There’s not a lot of options in Durango, so we felt super fortunate to find this place. We needed the big garage bays, there’s warehouse space and a big yard,” O’Brien said.
Paul Beasley, co-owner of Tile & Light Art, said he is glad to hear the old shop is working well for O’Brien and Spainhower.
“The move worked for us, too,” he said. “We consolidated our space. We no longer had two locations that we had to manage and upkeep. So it brought about a huge amount of efficiencies, and there was some cost savings because it's our building,”
Also, like Wanderful Wheels, Beasley is dealing with growing demand for remodels and new home construction, thanks to market dynamics triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re just like everybody else in the construction industry. We are booming beyond belief,” he said. “It's crazy. I've been doing this for 35 years, and I've never seen anything like this.”