Sportsmobile President Jonathan Feld reclines in a finished van. Demand has it so customers can expect to wait up to 15 months for one. Photo by Edward Smith.
As attendance at national parks steadily rises, peaking in 2016 at 5 million visitors in Yosemite alone, according to the National Parks Service, outdoor adventurers and enthusiasts are finding different ways to explore and get away from the city.
“We’ll hit some dirt roads and drive until we find a creek, park there, and stay there for a couple days. You won’t see another person,” said Jonathan Feld, president of Sportsmobile West about his family’s trips in their outfitted Mercedes Sprinter 4×4 van.
Sportsmobile came to Fresno from San Diego in 1990 where it started near the airport with only 10,000 square feet, then moved to Herndon and Minnewawa avenues with 16,000 square feet and finally to Central Avenue.
Feld’s father, Alan, started the business when he saw an outfitted van with a pop-up top and thought California would be the perfect market for them. He started the Sportsmobile franchise and is now geared to take advantage of a booming market.
“What our rigs allow you is the opportunity to be off the beaten path and out in the middle of nowhere,” said Feld.
At Sportsmobile, off of Central Avenue and Highway 99, a team of about 65 people retrofit vans with shelving, bunk beds, water filtration systems, solar panels and anything else a world traveler might want to make a self-sustaining unit capable of taking them to deserts, mountain peaks and cliffside hideaways. And even at $130,000 average ticket price, demand has never been higher.
Customers looking to invest into what is essentially a smaller RV are looking at a 12-15 month turnaround due simply to the demand. Sportsmobile West is one of only three locations in the country along with Texas and Indiana.
“We’re bursting at the seams,” said Feld. The 60,000 square foot building where they fabricate, stitch, weld and grind bodies and parts for gutted vans may be enough space for the time being, but finding people capable of doing the work is difficult.
“In our business, it’s not like we can just add 30 people,” Feld said, who is currently working on bringing in another dozen or so people.
In April, they opened a satellite showroom and e-commerce center in Reno as a test to see if a smaller site can work. At the location, they’ll have a couple vans for customers to see so that orders can be made and built out of Fresno. But, the future of their location in Fresno is still in the air. Considering the business climate in California, Feld said, nothing is off the table.
Sportsmobile does two different kinds of work on vans. They do partial jobs on vans people bring in, installing 4×4 capability or pop-up tops—canvas coverings that give vans more overhead space, and they’ll put out about three of those a week. The rest of the work is a complete van overhaul that they get straight from the dealers and they’re doing about 350 of those a year.
They’ll get vans sent over from manufacturers like Mercedes Benz of Fresno, who sends over basically empty versions of their Sprinter 4×4, which according to Gary Smith, sales manager for the Sprinter division there, is the only 4×4 van available of its type. Aside from just Sportsmobile, the Sprinter on its own is about a year and a half out. That means for people looking to buy the only 4×4 van on the market will wait about 18 months.
But, for other vans without 4-wheel drive, they have the lifts and equipment on site to convert to make virtually anything capable of traversing paths.
The sales staff at Sportsmobile has to be fully familiar with the mechanics of the van. They’ll walk customers through all the options and discuss the kinds of amenities available to suit their needs. Furnaces, water filtration systems, shelving and storage space, anything a customer might need can be made in-house at their facility or outsourced online.
““She can be totally comfortable and get a hot shower of out of the back,” Feld said. “It’s like a full house in a tiny package.”
The franchise has attracted more than just adventurers. They did a contract for about 20 vans with a search-and-rescue team out of Qatar. They’ve done mobile offices, vans for photographers and even a van for dog trainers, full of crates to transport dogs. Recently, they sent a van to Australia.
“Tiny houses are kinda in,” Jonathan Feld said. “Traveling, camping getting an Instagram shot by the waterfalls in Yosemite—all that stuff is really trending and it just filters right into what we do. We’re in a fortunate spot right now.”