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Vanna Adventure Vans shares the van life with nationwide audience from here in Moorhead

The Moorhead company Ben Gleason and Jason Gilbraith founded over a year ago has found quick success with outdoor and travel enthusiasts across the country. “We want to build some of the best camper vans that people could get their hands on,” Gleason said.

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Jason Gilbraith, left, and Ben Gleason, the founders of Vanna Adventure Vans, a conversion van business, sit in a custom camper van outside their Moorhead shop on Jan. 31, 2021.
Chris Flynn / The Forum
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MOORHEAD — Reflecting on the one-year anniversary of Vanna Adventure Vans from a loft above their shop, Ben Gleason and Jason Gilbraith couldn’t help but feel thankful.

A passion for the great outdoors and a serendipitous meeting back in 2020 led Gleason and Gilbraith to launch Vanna Adventure Vans over a year ago. The Moorhead company dedicated to building and renting custom camper vans has grown rapidly since.

Rounding up Vanna’s milestone, Gleason landed on a simple summary of the whirlwind year. “It’s been a really exciting year,” Gleason told InForum Monday, Jan. 31.

Exciting would be an oversimplification. In the past year, Vanna Adventure Vans has quadrupled its shop space, hired seven full-time employees for construction, design and overseeing rentals, and become a nationwide player in the market for camper vans.

Gleason called 2021 “the startup year” for Vanna Adventure Vans, an impressive start by any measure.

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“It was really just foundation-laying and figuring out how that will all work,” he continued. “Now 2022 is still building on that foundation that we can grow off.”

‘The greatest thing ever’

Vanna Adventure Vans traces its roots back to a fortuitous meeting in February 2020 at Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota.

Prior to that, however, the seed was planted when Gilbraith decided to move his minimalistic lifestyle into his Mercedes Sprinter on a full-time basis. He lived in the Sprinter for two-and-a-half years while running his own drone videography firm, JLG Productions, from the road.

Living in the Sprinter saved him between $800 and $900 per month, plus it gave him easy access to the slopes in Breckenridge, Colo. “Being able to live down in Colorado, work four to six hours with a company, edit, send the product out and then have two days off to go skiing was the greatest thing ever,” Gilbraith recalled.

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The inside of "Mae's Moon," one of the camper vans available for rent at Vanna Adventure Vans.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, Gilbraith, who was born and raised in Fargo, moved back to his home city. Gleason, a Devils Lake, N.D., native who had worked with various new companies and traveled five continents himself, had also recently settled in Fargo.

“I moved to Fargo two years ago with the intent of wanting to do a business startup that was passion-driven and purpose-driven, but I wasn’t sure exactly what,” Gleason said.

When the two met while at the Mille Lacs Kite Crossing, with Gilbraith camping in the Sprinter, the lightbulb immediately went off for Gleason.

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“When we met, it was, ‘You know vans and I know how to do the rest of it.’ For us, there was that natural synergy there,” Gleason explained.

A nationwide market

After months of planning throughout the pandemic, Gleason and Gilbraith launched Vanna Adventure Vans that winter.

The original plan was to rent out camper vans to travelers, but the duo quickly found there was strong demand for custom-built camper vans as well. “Now we’re kind of combining the two things that we found are in our demographic and in demand right now, both rentals and conversions,” Gilbraith said.

It didn’t take long for requests to pour in from throughout the tri-state area and across the country. Every van they’ve built, Gleason said, “has a really cool story to it.”

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Vanna Adventure Vans in Moorhead specializes in custom camper van builds.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

Vanna has worked with customers ranging from a Duluth ultramarathoner looking for a five-person van for family skiing and winter trips to a retired South Dakota couple who will be taking their van down to Baja California to live on the beach while biking and kite boarding.

The company has even built vans for clients from Austin, Houston, Wisconsin and the East Coast. “One thing we realized fast when we opened, for the nature of our work, is it really is an online business in a national market,” Gleason said.

While the Rocky Mountains and West Coast are hotbeds for camper vans, Vanna Adventure Vans is still the only rental van and custom van conversion firm in the Upper Midwest, Gleason noted. Local clients have been “really excited” to discover another option for all things camper vans, he said.

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A custom conversion van inside the Vanna Adventure Vans shop in Moorhead on Jan. 31, 2021.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

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Built for the long haul

The nationwide appeal came with a swift reality check for Vanna Adventure Vans: they were going to need more hands on deck and more space.

"When we opened our doors, there were a lot of requests for custom camper vans,” Gleason said. “That motivated us to want to try and get help and acquire some good talent.”

Since their opening, the company has hired seven new employees. On the construction side are senior technician Curt Bracken, cabinetry specialist David Hiles-Kolberg, electrical and mechanical technician Chuck Rolie and interior finish specialists Brian Gaukler and Romin Johnson. Josh Dean serves as the creative director, while Amber Dean is the rental manager.

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The crew at Vanna Adventure Vans in Moorhead includes, from left to right, Curt Bracken, David Hiles-Kolberg, Brian Gaukler, Josh Dean, Jason Gilbraith, Ben Gleason, Chuck Rolie, Romin Johnson and Amber Dean.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

Meanwhile, the shop, located at 1710 26th St. S., has swelled from its original 1,800 square feet to 7,200 square feet. The timing has been perfect every step of the way, with Vanna outgrowing its space at the same time adjacent units have become available.

The staff have helped bring to life Gleason and Gilbraith’s vision of building the highest-quality custom vans with top-tier components.

“Our vision for the company as a product is we want to build camper vans of the highest quality. We want to build some of the best camper vans that people could get their hands on,” Gleason said. “We want to build these where they will shake, rattle and roll for five or 10 years down the road.”

In order to do so, it means Vanna’s conversions don’t cut corners on components, especially considering the brutal winter conditions vans often face. “There are a lot of people up here that live in those conditions, they ski in those conditions. They want to go backpacking in northern Minnesota,” Glibraith said. “They need a vehicle that will be able to survive in those conditions.”

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A camper van in the process of being customized at Vanna Adventure Vans in Moorhead on Jan. 31, 2022.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

Most vans feature beds up to queen size, a kitchenette with a sink, cooktop, microwave and refrigerator, and an indoor shower and toilet. Vans come sound-dampened and insulated with additional interior and exterior upgrades available.

The company works with a variety of manufacturers, including Oregon’s Van Life Tech, whose “Roman Holiday” system offers radiant floor heat, air heat and on-demand hot water. Eberspacher’s Airtronic heaters, common in semi cabs, provide additional interior heating, while off-grid power comes from Victron Energy’s solar technology.

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This camper van by Vanna Adventure Vans is equipped with an indoor toilet and shower.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

While it can be a costly proposition, Gilbraith said the investment is worthwhile in the long run. “If you’re putting all this money into a vehicle, why save $500 or $1,000 on a cheaper component rather than getting the best of the best component?” he asked.

Sharing the van life

Since their opening, Vanna Adventure Vans has been met with an “overwhelming response,” Gleason said.

That trend has shown no signs of slowing down anytime soon, with 2022 nearly booked up for conversions. The plan is to convert 16 vans this year and double that figure in 2023, with an ultimate goal of converting 100 vans per year, Gleason said. Doing so will require even more shop space, which is why Vanna is eyeing another shop expansion to between 25,000 and 30,000 square feet.

For now, the focus is on streamlining and mastering the conversion process. The plan is to debut more rental vans as well as a line of van-related accessories in 2022.

Gleason said there have been no shortcuts to the challenges of launching the business. “Any new company is a whole lot of legwork and nose-down, behind-the-scenes logistics,” he said. “It’s been just learning a lot of patience and just embracing the journey.”

Gilbraith looked forward to the chance to share his own experience of living in a van with more people.

“With every van that we’ve done so far, our favorite part of the build is the end when it leaves,” he said. “All of us get to see the ecstaticness in their faces and how happy they are. … My favorite part is just seeing that we got more people to experience what I got to experience.”

Readers can reach InForum reporter Thomas Evanella at tevanella@forumcomm.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasEvanella

Thomas Evanella is a reporter for The Forum. He's worked for The Forum for over three years, primarily reporting on business news. He's also the host of the InForum Business Beat podcast, which can be streamed at InForum.com/podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Reach him at tevanella@forumcomm.com or by calling 701-241-5518. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasEvanella.
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