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Let the good times roll

Vanna Adventure Vans taps nationwide emerging market for living, working, playing on the go.

In Jason Gilbraith’s final year of college, he realized he needed a change of pace. The classroom didn’t satisfy his craving for an up-close-and-personal experience of the world. He left behind the syllabus and hit the road with a videography drone, traveling across the region to perform media production services for a variety of residential and commercial clients from Bozeman, Montana, to Breckenridge, Colorado.

He was spending 75% of his time on the road and wasting money on an unlived-in apartment. So, after two years of deep research into carpentry, wiring and plumbing, he dropped his lease and pulled the trigger on living the van life.

“I bought a van out in New York. It was about $8,000, an old used one. I put about $30,000 into it,” Gilbraith said of his first custom-built camper van. “It probably took a month and a half building it out in my parents’ driveway in South Fargo, with just a small folding table with tools.”

That first van led to what is now a thriving entrepreneurial endeavor – Vanna Adventure Vans, co-founded in 2020 with business partner Ben Gleason. Vanna works with clients to custom build the off-grid camper van of their dreams, complete with beautiful finishes like bamboo and cedar, powerful Starlink Wi-Fi, and an internal battery-and-solar power system that recharges on the go. Vanna vans can be built to suit any lifestyle, from snowboarders to medical practitioners.

After growing its way out of several shops in Moorhead, Vanna moved into a 29,000-square-foot facility in West Fargo in March 2023, becoming one of Cass County Electric Cooperative’s (CCEC) newest business members. Every Thursday afternoon, Gilbraith, Gleason, and other members of the 30-employee “Van Fam” lead tours through the space. They point out the eight-stage production line, the custom wood shop, and the several smart machines that help them design, cut, sand, finish and assemble all of the vans’ furnishings.

“Better than a folding table with tools,” Gilbraith said with a smile.

An idea with power
Co-founders Gleason and Gilbraith now serve as Vanna CEO and CTO, respectively, initially drawn together by the uniqueness of Gilbraith’s camper van. Both devotees of travel, adventure and photography, it’s no surprise they met and bonded at kite crossing festival on Minnesota’s frozen Mille Lacs Lake.

“He needed to edit some photos for a client,” Gilbraith said. “I had the desk in the van, and I told him if he wanted to go sit at the desk instead of his car, he could go in there.”

Gleason appreciated the 72-degree reprieve. “It’s February. It’s -20 degrees outside. It’s cold cold,” he recalled as Gilbraith added, “He comes out and says, ‘Dude, that thing is sweet!’”

The devising of Vanna began when they ran into each other again three months later. Over the course of several long coffeehouse meetings filled with market analysis and research, the two learned that the RV industry had been growing steadily for four decades, with more aggressive growth over the last few years. Off-grid battery power systems were larger and faster charging, and few (if any) companies were offering the level van customization and quality that the duo envisioned.

“After 12 weeks of meeting every week and planning, we got a shop,” Gleason said. “We started with half a shop and spent six months prepping to open, working logistics, and Jason rebuilding and remodeling his current van. Then we launched February of 2021 – just me, him and my cat Della.”

Vanna Adventure vans received 80 requests in the first 12-16 weeks its website was live. The market was as huge as they expected. They were able to sell more vans and hire more people, and they needed more space for it all.

The industrial area of West Fargo provided the new home they needed, with a facility just the right size available at just the right time. Vanna Operations Manager Travis Blake worked with CCEC to ensure the building had the power needed keep the production line cruising. Although the vans don’t need the grid, the creation of the vans does.

“Having reliability from the grid for everything … making sure that everything can continue to run is huge,” Gilbraith said. “As far as the facility itself, the grid is very important.”


Building dreams
The versatility of a Vanna custom van has caught the attention of folks beyond adventure seekers. Small business owners like vets, dentists and even salons have reached out to ask about building a mobile service. After a pilot project on a mobile medical unit (MMU) for a Minnesota clinic, other healthcare organizations are requesting to work with Vanna on mobile exam stations.

“It’s a super exciting time right now, because we have our first four-van contract with Arkos Health and Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota,” Gleason said, explaining that the four MMUs will be used to serve rural areas of North Dakota. “The mobile medical unit market is expanding exponentially.”

Vanna also recently partnered with the North Dakota State Department of Commerce on its first ever mobile classroom. The North Central Planning Council will use the unit for career development opportunities at smaller high schools in the region, allowing students to use virtual reality goggles to experience what it looks like to work at local companies.

“My main dream was just getting people camper vans to experience what I got to experience,” Gilbraith said. “But I always wanted to give back to the community in some way or another. When all of these opportunities arose, we were like, absolutely, we’ll hop onboard with this.”

Vanna will spend a couple of years in its current facility as the team refines its processes to gain speed and efficiency. The upward trajectory of orders and interest from larger business clients will have them on the hunt for more space yet again, but Gleason and Gilbraith are game for the ride.

“I didn’t know if the community was going to grab onto this – a bunch of weirdos building these vans. It completely surprised me when everybody was blown away by them and everybody loved them,” Gilbraith said. “It has given us hope for the future of everything.”


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