An interview with Outdoorsy co-founder Jennifer Young:
Amidst the pandemic din and the never-ending scroll of doom, there is a bright spot not on a distant horizon for Americans hankering to get out and move again.
We are blessed with a very large backyard, filigreed with roads and pikes and pathways. And with the promise of safely cocooned journeys in vehicular bubbles while inhaling the big sky attractions and the little shoulder gems, there is a renewed sense of control as we steer to new meridians and coordinates. For those who seek the open road, this is mobile that is not about the latest iPhone.
It’s about the freedom of my way and the highway.
What if you could take your hotel suite with you? Consider the gleaming Airstream, as futuristic today as in 1929, at the outset of the Great Depression when it began to appear on American highways and in adjacent campgrounds. Then there is the full motorhome or tour bus Willie Nelson-style. And a little down the line the sleek, fully loaded Mercedes Sprinter or Via. The choices in recreational vehicles today, in all classes and sizes, for buying, leasing, or renting, are more extensive than ever.
Into the wild with creature comforts.
The open road and its promise of adventure have been coaxing since the roll-out of the Model T. It is romance as much with engineering and design as with the freedom, mobility, and connection to nature a four-wheeled tour allows. The ride to forests and fells, lakes and rivers, mountains and dells evokes a sense of validation and well-being. And once the brake is set, and the step made into the fresh air, there is the parade of wonder. The journey and its denouement are vital to mental and emotional health, and are available in superabundance in our own epic out-of-doors.
As international travel remains problematic, and reasonably curtailed, now is the chance, as never before, to explore America’s scenic byways and national parks, coastlines, great plains, deserts and waterways, and even those tacky roadside attractions. Many of us can work and school remotely, so why not Zoom with a real backdrop rather than the virtual option?
A remedy to lockdowns, hidden in plain sight.
Maybe another wave is coming; maybe not. But it is reassuring to know accommodations can travel with us; we can move about as protected as a tortoise in its shell when road tripping. We can control our interactions with others. Until there is an effective vaccine, we can sidestep the anxiety that manifests when entering a train or air terminal, and go camping, or glamping. We can build our own itinerary, and head to the thousands of campsites and RV parks that dot the American landscape. We can be safe and responsible, and still savor the joy of travel.
It’s not just in the movies. The great American road trip remains accessible and experiential.
We’ve traveled this road vicariously in such classics as Thelma & Louise (1991), Rain Man (1998), Lost in America (1985, featuring a cross country romp in a Winnebago), National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Sideways (2004, into California wine country), Into the Wild (2007, in the Alaskan wilderness) and — who of a certain age can forget — the heroic ode to self-rule, Easy Rider (1969).
These movies tap our urge to roll, to chart and navigate our own course through the distinctly American landscape. Just over the hill, around the bend, is the warrant for adventure, the promissory note of rejuvenation, and the unspooling film where we can be our own main character, with Google Maps and a day to save.
Even in strange times like this…
Open road expeditions have never been easier or more popular. Those eager to escape the disquietude of stasis can ease on down the road, balancing the science-based precautions of masking and social distancing with a restored sense of exploration and awe.
The lure of domestic motoring is something that has rattled the bones of Outdoorsy co-founder Jen Young’s for years. When Jen and her partner decided to make a go of it in 2015, they sensed a rising demand for the whirling experiences of the road. They sold their homes and bought a classic Airstream, within which they traveled the country for eight months, meeting and talking with mobile homeowners, campground operators, and regional RV rental companies. With the knowledge culled they developed the know-how, the software and the marketplace that has made Outdoorsy, as noted by AdAge, the Airbnb of the RV rental business.
The interview with Jennifer Young:
What is your biggest communications challenge in reaching and converting new customers as Covid cases continue to spike in various states?
Similar to other companies in the travel industry, Outdoorsy saw a spike in near-term trip cancellations in response to travel restrictions due to COVID-19, but we’ve also seen bookings skyrocket by up to 4,500% YoY from our lowest bookings day on March 30 to our highest bookings day on July 23.
In response to the pandemic, people have had to rethink many things — from how they shop for groceries and socialize to how they achieve work-life balance when working from home. We’ve had to train our minds to constantly think “Wash your hands! Cover your mouth! Stand six feet apart!” and that mindset isn’t just going to fade away overnight. One thing people have also started to rethink is how they travel — and how to do so safely and affordably. Acknowledging the general population’s pent-up desire to leave the house, but to do so safely, an RV rental becomes the best solution to get out quickly and not have to worry about crowds, confinement, or going stir crazy.
During the pandemic, we’ve leaned into messaging around localized road travel and delivery (it surprises a lot of people to learn that 60% of our owners offer delivery as a service), which could look like renters getting an RV delivered to a nearby state park or campground for the weekend or renters taking a multi-day micro adventure to a nearby vacation destination within a day’s drive.
We’ve also leaned into messaging that shows travelers when you rent on Outdoorsy, you are traveling in a self-contained vehicle and wherever you camp, you’re able to control the amount of space that exists between you and other campers. Regardless of where you stay, you can control your environment, and you’ll likely always be a minimum of six feet away from other campers.
Our customer is both the RV owner and the RV renter and, at the beginning of the pandemic, many of our peers, including us, were faced with challenges when it came to communicating various COVID-19 safety protocols to their communities, especially around cleanliness of the RVs (or hotels, Airbnbs, etc. for others in the industry). We’ve also had to emphasize our company’s commitment to trust and safety, including our COVID-19 cleaning guidelines, to our renters so they feel reassured that RV owners are taking proper cleaning precautions.
What has been the biggest change since the pandemic?
The number of new renters we’ve seen coming to Outdoorsy! Prior to the pandemic, RVing was a bit of a novelty — an experiential activity with a high learning curve — but it has now become the most affordable, safest, and social-distant-friendly way to travel. In September, 90% of Outdoorsy’s web traffic came from first-time renters.
Will you market road trips and domestic adventure travel differently post pandemic?
The amazing thing about our platform is that RVing is being hailed as the way to travel during and post pandemic. Our numbers support this — when we compare the beginning of the pandemic to late June when we started to see travel pick back up again, we saw over 4,500% increase in bookings on our platform. To put it into further perspective, we just celebrated 2.9M booked days since Outdoorsy was founded in 2015 — and 1.25M of those days were booked in 2020 alone!
Local travel and the feasible option of taking a quick getaway in your backyard doesn’t require much planning and will likely be the norm as people slowly dip their toes back into the vacation pond.
This past summer we saw a spike in immediate rentals and an uptick in people booking 1-3 days out instead of the average 2 to 3 months out — with 50% of booked trips departing within the same week. We attribute this to people planning a last-minute getaway from their homes for the weekend or to distance themselves in the outdoors.
To appeal to this local travel trend, we’re continuing to message the benefits of RV travel — it’s more affordable, more self-contained, and is more experiential than other modes of travel — and we’re also building out guides for RV travelers.
To help travelers make the most of their road trip, Outdoorsy continues to grow its library of 2,000-plus national and state park guides, with up-to-date notifications on park closures, pro tips on best places to camp, what flora and fauna to keep an eye out for, as well as top outdoor activities and hikes for each season.
Has your view of influencer marketing and digital advertising changed? If so, how?
Connecting RV owners with RV renters is the core of our business and both Facebook and Instagram armor us with the tools and agility to reach a very specific audience — people who own an RV, for instance — and to message them directly, in an authentic way. Through Facebook ads, we have been able to find entrepreneurial RV owners and, in return, help them discover a source of life-changing financial freedom through Outdoorsy. Through our private Outdoorsy RV owner group on Facebook, we have been able to engage, advise and cultivate a community of trust and safety that’s now 10,000+ members strong with a 90% engagement rate. And through social posting and promotions on Instagram, we’re able to connect the dots between Outdoorsy and the ever-growing #vanlife movement while also adding aspirational fuel to the strong sense of wanderlust held by our renter community.
Any unexpected marketplace insights that may be useful to others in travel and hospitality and to travelers themselves?
Outdoorsy’s gift card sales saw 2x growth from August to September, which shows us that the desire to travel and take a vacation is extending beyond Labor Day this year.
Our renters aren’t coming from one specific generation — they’re growing in demand across the board. The typical assumption is that millennials are driving renter traffic, but we’re seeing growth across all generations.
Have you or members of your team personally taken any road trips since March?
My co-founder and Outdoorsy’s CEO, Jeff Cavins, and I hit the road again to truly experience the ‘new norm’ of road travel a couple of months ago. We packed our bags, relocated our temporary office into our beloved Winnebago and set off! It was such a humbling experience and so amazing to be able to meet with our customers and receive feedback directly from the source. We were on the road for a total of 6 weeks and started our trip in Austin, driving through 9 states along the way (Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and California — where we’re currently located).
Work truly transitions anywhere you open your laptop and the majority of our team has taken this time as an opportunity to travel safely, work remotely and experience Outdoorsy’s product firsthand. The benefits of having that immediate internal feedback has been indispensable to providing our customers with a constantly improving, first-class travel experience.
What is the biggest misperception among travelers who have never driven an RV or taken a trip in one? And what is your most popular rental (in length of time on the road, destinations visited and/or type of vehicle) for solo, couple or family travel?
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a special license to drive an RV.
The greatest hurdle for first-time RVers is the mental hurdle of driving one. To help ease first-time renter nerves, Outdoorsy RV owners will offer renters a walkthrough of the RV to show them how all the equipment works. They will often accompany them on a test drive of the RV too to ensure the renter feels comfortable driving.
A lot of people don’t know that you can get an RV delivered — whether that’s to your campground, the airport, or your driveway. In fact, 60 percent of Outdoorsy owners offer delivery for those who want to get outdoors on a trip, but don’t want to actually drive an RV. Owners will deliver the RV to your campsite and get everything set up for your arrival, meaning it’s a contact-free key exchange and you can spend less time setting up camp and more time on what matters most: spending free time with family, friends, or your furry friend.
Since the start of pandemic, we’ve seen longer trips booked on the platform. We used to see an average booking length range from 5-6 days and now we’re seeing the average booking length range from 7-8 booked days.
Many people are traveling in smaller groups and going off-grid or to more remote destinations. Smaller, more sustainable, and more easy-to-navigate RVs are on the rise in popularity. We’re talking Class Bs (i.e., Winnebago Revels, Mercedes Sprinters, Dodge Promasters, and Ford Transits), Class Cs, and campervans.
Outdoorsy isn’t about the cookie-cutter RV lifestyle (although we’ll gladly take a cookie). Renters can find a vehicle that fits their personal style, personality, and travel needs — anything from Sprinter vans with wood-paneled interiors and solar-paneled roofs, teardrop trailers that can be towed by a Prius, Instagrammable Airstreams, and driveable Class B campers.
Some people think that in order to stay close to nature, you have to rough it. But with an RV, you can bring all the comforts of a luxury hotel room right into the heart of the outdoors. So one minute you can be kicking back watching a big screen in a recliner equipped with a massage function or taking a warm shower, and the next minute you can be taking in the views and swimming in a water hole after a long hike.
How would you define The Great American Road Trip?
To me, the Great American Road Trip is any trip that gives you a new perspective and appreciation for home. To be able to return home from a road trip and see everything with fresh eyes and a fresh mindset is, I believe, one of the greatest rewards of travel. Going on an adventure doesn’t have to mean hustling down a terminal to make a flight connection — adventure can be found simply by stepping out in your own backyard. We have such beautiful and breathtaking destinations right here in the U.S. and Canada. I always give the advice to first time RVers to start small and take short, local road trips before setting off on a longer, cross-country journey. I’m also a huge believer in the incredible health benefits that come from disconnecting from your 9-to-5 and reconnecting yourself — or with family and friends — in the outdoors.
What would be your ultimate dream itinerary?
An epic, Outdoorsy road trip in an Airstream traveling from SF to LA via the Pismo Vintage Trailer Rally, hiking through Big Basin Redwoods State Park, followed by a cookout on Half Moon Bay State Beach, hanging with the surfers along the coast at San Luis Obispo, boondocking in Los Padres National Forest, cruising through San Bernardino Valley desert, and running through Joshua Tree.
Photo by Karen Poole, Steller