Former Lime exec launches Cabana, a company that merges #vanlife and hotels

Is it glamping on wheels? Hotel #vanlife?

It’s Cabana, a new startup from a former Lime executive that’s bringing tricked out vans with all the amenities of a Holiday Inn hotel room to cities on the West Coast starting in Seattle.

Because of Lime I spent 54 consecutive weeks on the road staying at hotels,” recalls Scott Kubly, the co-founder and chief executive of Cabana . “I got this bug that there needed to be a better way.”

So with the benefit of a few years of startup salary in the bank, Kubly launched Cabana. “The way I would describe is vanlife, meets car-sharing, meets a boutique hotel. It’s a hotel room packed into the back of a van.”

The vans come with showers, toilets, a slide out two-range stovetop that can serve as a kitchen and the freedom to hit the road after a customer crushes that last sales meeting, conference appearance, convention, or just needs to travel and experience the outdoors.

The vans cost $200 per-night plus tax to rent and there’s a fleet of several vans already available in Seattle. Booking a van is simple through the company’s app and everything is contactless — an important feature in the COVID-19 era.

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Kubly estimates that there’s around $15 billion spent on travel that he thinks he can unlock with Cabana and the company is definitely tapping into a small, but not insignificant trend of glamping, vanlife, luxury experiences that investors are already backing.

Companies like Tentrr, HipCamp and even Airbnb have gotten in on the vanlife movement and Cabana’s founder definitely thinks he can ride the wave.

Cabana has already raised $3.5 million from investors led by Craft Ventures — the investment firm founded by David Sacks. Other investors included Goldcrest Capital, Travis VanderZanden, the chief executive and founder of Bird, and Sunny Madra, Vice President Ford X at Ford Motor Company.

“Cabana gives people an ideal combination of freedom, comfort, and convenience,” said David Sacks, co-founder and general partner of Craft, in a statement.  “Despite the societal upheaval of the last few months, the human desire to travel and explore remains unchanged. Why shelter in place when you can shelter in paradise?”

Sacks may be on to something. According to Kubly, the RV rental business has exploded and are up 650% year-on-year. “People are going a little stir crazy,” he said.

Back in 2019 when Kubly and his co-founder Jonathan Savage, a former nuclear engineer for the Navy and the bassist in the Red Not Chili Peppers (a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover band), launched the company, they weren’t expecting to have to deal with running a hospitality business during a pandemic, but they’ve adapted.

Image credit: Cabana

Cabana’s fleet of vans are cleaned and then irradiated with UVC light (the same treatment the President suggested, wrongly, for people) and then left to stand for six-to-eight hours between rentals.

The hardest part of the business hasn’t been handling the vans or disinfecting them for customers concerned about the novel coronavirus, but the more mundane task of cleaning out the toilets.

“There is a toilet and a toilet tank,” said Kubly. “At the end of every trip we swap that out. Just like scooters have swappable batteries we have swappable toilet tanks. It is the big downside of the business.”

He should know. He spent the first six months that the company was in business cleaning out the tanks himself on the retrofitted van that he and Savage had bought to test the business idea.

“Ideas that utilize existing infrastructure and satisfy a previously unseen or emerging consumer need are often the genesis of companies that can establish and lead a new industry,”  said VanderZanden in a statement. “Cabana fits squarely within this theory and provides travelers a new way to experience and explore destinations that might not otherwise have been available to them while also avoiding carbon-emitting flights.” 

Tentrr is turning private land into glampgrounds, with the help of VCs

If you’ve ever gone camping and found yourself thinking it kind of sucks, likely because you’re too close to other campers, you might be interested to learn about Tentrr, a three-year-old, 47-person company that’s promising to make it “dirt simple” to enjoy the great outdoors. How: by striking deals with private landowners who are willing to host semi-permanent campsites on their property.

What do these look like? Picture elevated decks with Adirondack chairs, canvas expedition tents, wood picnic tables and sun showers, not to mention a fire pit, lanterns, dry food storage, cookware, a camping toilet and air mattresses that, courtesy of most hosts, will come with fresh linens.

Venture capitalists certainly appreciate the startup’s pitch. Tentrr — founded by one-time investment banker turned former NYSE managing director Michael D’Agostino — has raised $13 million to date, including a newly closed $8 million Series A round led by West, a San Francisco-based venture studio that both funds startups and helps them market their goods and services.

No doubt the investors are looking at the overall market, whose numbers are compelling. According to one trade association, for example, the outdoor recreation industry represents an $887 billion opportunity, with Americans shelling out $24 billion annually on campsites alone.

Still, it’s easy to wonder how scalable the company will be. Tentrr had 100 campsites up and running in the Northeastern U.S. as of the end of last year. D’Agostino expects it will have 1,000 sites by year-end, including on the West Coast, where it will begin installing camps this summer — but this assumes that Tentrr can convince enough families with sufficiently large properties that partnering with the company is worthwhile.

D’Agostino says its landowner partners need to have 15 acres at least and that the average property on the platform currently is much larger than that. He also says they keep 80 percent of whatever they decide to charge campers to stay on their grounds.

For what it’s worth, Tentrr doesn’t seem to have much in the way of direct competition if you exclude state campgrounds. Venture-backed Hipcamp, for example, which raised a small amount of seed funding back in 2014, partners with private landowners to help arrange camping experiences, but it mostly acts as a search engine. Meanwhile, industry giant Airbnb offers unique experiences that include camping, but Tentrr is largely about offering a standardized experience. The idea is to leave fewer questions about what to expect. In fact, D’Agostino says that roughly 40 percent of Tentrr customers are first-time campers.

We know that if the service makes it way to California, we’re likely to try it, having suffered through some fairly crummy camping experiences. If you’re also interested in learning more, you might check out our conversation with D’Agostino, edited for length. We chatted yesterday.

TC: You were a banker, then you traveled around the country and world, trying to convince companies that they should list on the NYSE instead of Nasdaq. How did this company come to pass?

MD: When I was a little kid, we’d sometimes stay at a family friend’s farm in Litchfield, Connecticut. I assumed that every kid had a Litchfield farm where they could camp, which isn’t the case obviously. Meanwhile, working 100 hours a week as an investment banker, it just became harder and harder to get out of the city and have great experiences.

After a couple of disastrous camping trips at noisy, dirty campgrounds with my girlfriend and now wife, Eloise, we just realized the idea [of camping as it’s known today] is stupid. It’s taking a bunch of people who are living on top of each other in a city and moving them to a campground where they’re living on top of each other in flimsy tents.

The legacy campground industry hasn’t changed since the Civil War. It’s run by the government — which I’m happy to compete with all day long. And these are just terrible businesspeople. We want to wipe away this infrastructure by distributing it among rural landowners.

TC: So you’re building these semi-permanent camping sites. How standardized is the pricing?

MD: Pricing is variable and set by the landowner who keeps 80 percent of that fee. We keep 20 percent; we also charge a 15 percent fee on top of that nightly rate. Right now, the average price per night is $140, but we’re introducing more features for [hosts], including minimum-night stays, and [surge] pricing if they have demand for a bunch of bookings at the same time.

They can also offer extra amenities and experiences that will allow you to have a personalized experience. For example, landowners or “campkeepers” as we call them can offer extra bundles of wood or luxury bedding or horseback riding or skeet shooting. It’s really only limited by the imagination. We’ll also soon allow third parties to provide curated activities so that when you log on to our app, you can book a whitewater rafting trip, for example, or reservations at the best farm-to-table restaurant nearby.

TC: What happens if something goes wrong? Who insures what?

MD: Every campsite is covered by a $2 million commercial insurance policy. It’s a benefit not just in terms of liability but in making people feel more comfortable during these stays — both the hosts and guests.

TC: Where are you building these sites, exactly, and how long do you estimate that they will last?

MD: We build them ourselves, right now in places from southern Maine to eastern Pennsylvania.

We get our tents from a family company in Colorado that’s been around for 90 years and that still receives requests to repair tents they’d built 30 years ago [meaning they’re durable]. We also use pressure-treated lumber and marine-grade plywood, so we expect they’ll last for 10 to 20 years.

TC: You’re having to convince people to let strangers onto their properties, sprawling as they may be. What’s that sales process like?

MD: It used to look like me putting 45,000 miles on my Jeep Cherokee and explaining to families why they should have a Tentrr campsite in their hay fields. Today, direct mail campaigns work beautifully. [Hosts] are also hearing about us from other [hosts] and we make it easier for them to [apply] to join the platform. You click on a link that says “List my property” and you’re walked through a 20-point checklist, including about accessibility and how secluded a property is, and using that feedback, we know with 90 percent accuracy whether or not a property is appropriate. If we think it is, we’ll send out a scout.

TC: Are there sometimes more than one campsite on a property?

MD: No, and we ensure the sites are secluded from neighbors, as well as the landowners, as well as other possible distractions.

TC: What does the clean-up process look like?

MD: It’s relatively maintenance free. There’s no maid service. No keys. No worries about someone stealing silverware. Homeowners have to make sure there are no beer cans left behind, but we place a high priority on land stewardship and emphasize a leave-no-trace approach when it comes to our guests.