Free Campervans? Company Gives Away Trips Amid Outbreak

    By: Jonathan Stull + Save to a List

    Two winners, both nurses on the pandemic's front lines, have already been announced in Oregon-based ROAMERICA's weekly contest. The contest is open to all, but to enter, you must nominate a member of the community.

    Ordinarily, April and May are the busiest months for Gretchen Bayless and her campervan rental service, ROAMERICA. But with the pandemic forcing stay-at-home orders and statewide closures of parks and some public lands in states like Oregon, where ROAMERICA is based, the 2020 road trip season is shaping up to be singularly unique. Amid furloughs and closures industry wide, Gretchen and her partner Taylor Bayless have chosen a different course of action: free campervan vacations.

    Photo courtesy of Gretchen Bayless.

    To support the outdoor adventure community during the lockdowns that have gripped millions of Americans, ROAMERICA, an adventure campervan company based in Hood River, Oregon, is giving away free campervan rentals. The rules are simple: nominate a friend, loved one, grieving members of the community or frontline healthcare workers, whomever might benefit from the respite of the road. Once a week, a winner will be selected for a trip of their choice to be redeemed when lockdowns end and it’s safe to be back on the road.

    "Back in February, we thought that we were in a really good position,” Gretchen said in an email to the Outbound. "Parks were still open, so why wouldn't you want to take a van and stay out of airports and hotels? But then the news just kept coming and we learned a lot more about the virus after I got sick.” Bayless fell ill with COVID-like symptoms but was unable to get a test in Hood River, a small gateway town of about 7,800 in the Columbia River Gorge. She also suffers from an autoimmune disorder that makes her especially vulnerable.

    Bayless recovered from the illness, but the episode and swift economic downturn forced her and her partner to have difficult conversations. "We found ourselves getting really stressed out and talking about 'us and the business,’” she said. "Then Taylor and I had a moment, a moment of clarity. We have an amazing team, loyal customers, and incredible support from our community. And we have something to offer in this time of need—hope, positivity, and VANS!” Thus, the weekly contest was born.

    The contest will last likely until stay-at-home orders are lifted. The terms for winners are open-ended, and Bayless is flexible, but most trips will likely span about a week. "We're not putting any rules in writing because we just want to get people on the road and into nature,” Bayless said. She will discuss with each winner individually to determine the best prize package. So far, two winners have been announced, both nurses. Bayless lets her employees narrow the nominees, and she and her husband make the final selection.

    Taylor and Gretchen Bayless, owners of ROAMERICA, and their two children. Photo courtesy of Gretchen Bayless.

    It’s unclear how the contest will impact ROAMERICA, but the small business is subject to the same turbulent market forces that are affecting industry giants like REI and VF Corp. REI closed all 162 of its retail locations and furloughed most of its retail and field employees. VF Corp, which owns several apparel brands including The North Face, has also closed its retail stores, extended a $1 billion line of credit, and slashed executive pay while it continues to pay its employees. As of April 9, Columbia furloughed 3,500 workers and slashed their pay by 75%. Others have followed suit as the industry pivots to helping however it can.

    Meanwhile, Bayless said ROAMERICA has been hit hard. "April and May are typically our highest grossing months because people are planning their summer trips and looking to buy their own van,” Bayless said. "Right now is when we book up for summer, which means reservation deposits are coming in. People are not booking trips because no one really knows when it'll be safe to travel and parks and camps will be open.” The company has fully refunded virus-related cancellations, and Bayless cut her and her partner’s salary to zero in order to pay their employees in full. “Year to date, we are down $96,000."

    So why run a contest offering free campervan rentals? "Taylor and I decided to focus our energy on something positive,” Bayless said. "This is about community, and giving what you can, even though we are all losing a lot. This is about the therapeutic benefits of nature."

    To nominate a member of your community, visit ROAMERICA.com/free-campervan-trips/.

    Cover photo courtesy of Gretchen Bayless.

    We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

    Do you love the outdoors?

    Yep, us too. That's why we send you the best local adventures, stories, and expert advice, right to your inbox.