Peace Vans Going Strong as COVID Wanes
By Brian E. Clark
Like a lot of small business owners, Harley Sitner was greatly concerned about his company’s survival in the early days of the pandemic.
But for Seattle-based Peace Vans – which rents VW buses and Mercedes vans for road trips in the Northwest – the Covid headwinds turned into tailwinds.
And while supply chain problems have hampered his operation, Sitner said there is no lack of demand for his services and products as he prepares for the upcoming rental season.
“There were some moments in March of 2020 when everything shut down and I was pretty panicked,” said Sitner, 54. “This happened right after the Chicago Auto Show when initially everything was looking great and it was all systems go.
“I didn’t know if people would rent vans and still shell out $100,000 for a converted Mercedes Metris. I really had no idea what the future held for us.”
Sitner, a Detroit native who started Peace Vans a decade ago, was able to stay open with a skeleton crew because he also runs a VW repair shop.
“We hung on through the worst of it and by early May, we started to see that people were coming out of their shells and desperately wanting what we had to offer, which was a summer of socially distanced travel.”
He said demand “exploded and within three months, things had begun to turn around.
“It took awhile, though, because we had 150 cancellations in the rental business, representing about 60 percent of the customer base. But by June, we had completely refilled with all locals. No one was getting on a plane and we had all these openings because out-of-town guests cancelled.”
That season turned into the best in the company’s history and Peace Vans sold more modified Mercedes vans than expected, he said.
“The VW shop also was busier than ever and it’s been kind of that way since,” he said.
“But what did happen about six-to-nine months ago was that the supply chain became gummed up. Everything you read in the paper about being unable to obtain parts is true for a small manufacturer like us.
“Things like curtain rods or fabrics for curtains that we could normally get from multiple vendors vanished, which caught us by surprise. And VW parts for fuel lines and radiators have disappeared. When they come back, we’ll buy and stock 30, which will make it harder for other folks and contribute to shortages.”
Moreover, he said, shipping charges have gone through the roof.
“It’s insane,” he said. “We were just hit with a $6K demurrage, a penalty you pay for a container that sits. We can literally see the containers stacked up at the Seattle port. Ours sat there for five weeks with a $160 per day charge and there was no recourse.
“Normally a container costs us about $6,000 to get from Europe to Seattle. Then, the base rate went up to $13,000. So with the penalty, that container was about $18,000 to ship. It’s great that people want the Mercedes vans, but the shipping shortage is affecting Mercedes’ ability to manufacture and deliver the vans.”
Sitner has been able to attract and retain employees because he said they find it an enjoyable place to work.
“And we’ll be fine, but it’s a super-challenging time now to be a small manufacturer. There is no shortage of demand for what we do. So it is kind of frustrating, but it’s the world we’re living in right now.”
Sitner said the Mercedes’ side of the company continues to grow with the number of conversions doubling year over year. In 2022, he predicts Peace Vans will do several hundred makeovers.
At the same time, he said the VW rental and repair business is “super vibrant and strategically important because we are seen as a leader for keeping old vans on the road. It’s fun to keep these cultural icons running, sort of like a public service.”
He said both Mercedes’ Metris and VW vans rent for the same price, about $1,800 a week including insurance and taxes. (The cost to buy a restored Vanagan ranges from $30,000 to $50,000 for one including a Subaru engine and lots of power, while a new, Metris conversion is around $100,000.)
Sitner describes all of his customers as “salt-of-the-earth road trip lovers. In one way or another, they’re all old hippies. But Mercedes clients want the piece of mind you don’t quite get with an old VW.
“Because no matter what, with a Vanagan there may be an old part in there or archaic technology that could disrupt your road trip or at least create a hiccup for you. For the Mercedes customer, the ‘romance’ of that experience doesn’t have that same value.”
Sitner said his team is working to develop more itineraries for road trips.
“People tell us that they can be life-changing experiences, which is really cool,” he said.
The most popular one remains the circumnavigation of the Olympic Peninsula, which features beaches, rainforests, hot springs and a national park with snow-capped mountains.
“If you come from outside the Pacific Northwest, you’ve got to try the Olympic Peninsula,” he said.
Peace Vans now has nine itineraries, but will add two more by spring.
“And we are investing in managed, Peace Vans campgrounds,” he said. “Some are leased and we are trying to buy a few. We are trying to get out of sometimes crowded big state parks and national park campgrounds to better spots.”
One is on a small farm on the the Hood Canal and is called “Camp Forever Young.” He said it features a zip line, while another sits on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean just north of the Quinault Indian Reservation and a third is in the Skagit Valley and includes a Finnish sauna, an heirloom apple orchard and a “secret swimming hole” on the Skykomish River that is a 10-minute walk from the campsites.
New for this year are something called Peace Van Experiences for groups.
“We recently took some owners to the Skagit Valley for a weekend of birding,” he said. “We provided the campsite, light meals and birding expert. We have a mushroom foraging one and an oyster farm tour planned.”
He’s also putting together a four-night photography trip come spring and thinking about an adventure to Baja California for next winter.
Though Sitner spends the majority of his time managing Peace Vans, he occasionally gets out on the road himself.
In March, he and his daughter will be driving a Vanagan to Mexico to be painted and to scope out setting up a Baja office.
“She’s 12 and it should be fun, because who knows how much longer she’s going to want to hang out with me?” he mused.
“All in all, though, running Peace Vans has been a dream job,” he said. “I’m grateful for my team and this community because we get to deliver so much joy in the world. Heck, sometimes when people drive by our business, they honk, wave and give us a thumbs up.
“You can’t beat that…”
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.