RV on the road
Outdoorsy gives travelers an alternative to hotels by offering RV rentals. — Getty Images/cookelma

Having just rolled into Croatia and Italy, Outdoorsy, now operates in 14 countries. Next up: The Netherlands and Belgium.

The RV rental platform, whose 2014 proof-of-concept exercise – an eight-month road trip to gather intelligence, is shifting into high gear, netting $81 million in funding since its 2015 launch.

Austin, Texas-based Outdoorsy is among the latest entrants to the sharing economy, also called peer-to-peer (P2P) economy because buyers and sellers negotiate terms directly online. Just as Airbnb connects private homeowners with consumers seeking lodging, Outdoorsy facilitates transactions between owners of recreational vehicles and travelers drawn to road adventures, but not to the burden of RV ownership.

The Outdoorsy platform has booked 840,000 travel days among 620,000 users, generating $325 million in revenue as of April 2019, CEO and co-founder Jeff Cavins told CO–.

Cavins and co-founder Jen Young had a good gut feel about their “Airbnb for RVs” concept but a field thesis was in order to validate. They sold their homes, liquidated assets “Lost in America” style and moved into a sausage-shaped, gleaming aluminum Airstream trailer hauled by a Denali truck. The fact-finding mission took them across rural America to learn about the RV lifestyle from travelers at campsites, RV parks, coffee shops, hot air balloon festivals, auto races and anywhere RV enthusiasts congregate.

Eight months and 1,200 interviews later, Cavins and Young compared their notes to conclude: “There is a marketplace opportunity here, a psychology of people who want to do this and there is pent-up demand,” Cavins told CO–.

Millennials are not interested in a marbled lobby hotel vacation. That is not what they want anymore.

Jeff Cavins, CEO and co-founder, Outdoorsy

Investors initially balked. “People laughed at it,” Cavins said. “So I said, I’m going to fund it myself, for as long as I could. It gave us a lot of control to build out our vision.”

Eventually, the concept clicked for investors and Outdoorsy secured $25 million Series B funding in 2018 followed by a fresh round of $50 million Series C funding in January 2019, enabling management buildout and global expansion.

The road trip yielded valuable information as did YouGov research. “I learned things I would never have learned in a research lab or library or Google,” Cavins said. They discovered that perceptions about today’s RV traveler are out of date, global travelers are poorly understood, traditional rental companies lacked sufficient supply and demand for RV rentals, and that rentals are rising among an unexpected demographic — millennials.

“Millennials are not interested in a marbled lobby hotel vacation. That is not what they want anymore,” Cavins said, citing the value this age group puts on experiences over material possessions. “They want to see the outdoors. They want to see glaciers and Yellowstone. That’s what millennials want.”

Cavins said millennials’ affinity for RV travel runs counter to perceptions that only empty nesters are drawn to the lifestyle. While millennials rent, it’s retirees who own RVs that sit idle in a driveway or paid storage facility most of the year. Cavins and Young saw the opportunity to unlock this dormant inventory – estimated at 18 million vehicles worldwide – and give RV owners a way to monetize the underused asset: an online rental marketplace.

Touting a full-service, safety-first model

While it has rivals in RVShare, Mighway, Campada and Airbnb, Outdoorsy claims two major distinctions from the competition, with the first being priority on safety.

“We made the decision early on that we are going to invest in trust and safety because people are giving us their children, their families, their pets and we need to make sure they are safe and protected,” Cavins said. “My board has been behind it all the way. I said, ‘I am going to lean forward on this, guys. We are going to be the safest recreational platform on the planet.’ We agree it is not negotiable.”

 jeff cavins and jen young of outdoorsy
Outdoorsy co-founders Jeff Cavins and Jen Young — Outdoorsy

Outdoorsy renters undergo DMV checks to ensure clean driving records plus something Cavins calls “multilayered identity and social graph verification” that serves as a background check, including behavior on other peer-to-peer platforms.

“You might have a good driving record but you might have just trashed the last Airbnb you rented or you may have gotten into a big argument with your Uber driver. We’ll know that when you come in,” Cavins said. RV owners handing over the keys to a high-value asset need assurance they are renting to responsible people.

“We send a stranger to someone’s home to take their most personal, high-value asset and drive it away and potentially never return,” Cavins said. “That’s a scary thing and we’ve never had a stolen unit on our site.” Outdoorsy’s background check system is enabled by ID verification and social media aggregators TINT, EvidentID, Sift and IDology.

Another point of distinction is Outdoorsy’s turnkey approach, offering roadside assistance, park guides, fleet management software, ratings and reviews, insurance and soon financing for those who aspire to build a fleet of rentals as Pro Hosts, who number 15,000 on the platform today.

Traditional insurance prohibits owners from converting their RVs into business assets, but in March 2019, Outdoorsy partnered with Liberty Mutual to overcome this obstacle with special coverage. In May 2019, Outdoorsy plans to announce new financial and automaker partnerships to assist with RV loans and a new supply of vehicles.

Cavins estimates 708 million people search for RVs and other vehicles to rent each year and yet there are only 18 million privately owned idle RVs available. The estimate of idle vehicles available swells to 54 million when campers, vans and trucks are counted.

“So you will see supply, you will see financing, you will see insurance all come together in one solution through Outdoorsy,” he said. “That way, you can break open supply constraints for the 708 million people around the world who want to rent one of these for their holiday or sporting events or music festivals.”

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Published May 15, 2019