As small businesses go, Florida Old School Campers is … really small.
Mike and Dixie Phillips rent two 1970s vintage Volkswagen Westphalia campers, one named Jasmine, the other Krazy Karl.
Mike works on the bare bones of a third camper in their garage/office at Rogers Business Park in Largo. Dixie helps customers plan their Florida vacations behind the wheel when she's not working at a Mexican restaurant on Treasure Island.
They started up last August and have sold 26 rentals — from a full month for a travel guide photographer to a doctor's two-night beach picnic with his wife. Mike and Dixie talked about their fledgling business last week with the Times.
How did you get the idea to rent VW campers?
Dixie: A friend lent us a restored one for a trip to the East Coast, Gamble Rogers park in Flagler County. It had a pop top with mosquito netting and a double bed. The park was hidden by trees with only 34 parking spaces. We could sit up at night and watch the breakers.
Mike: We were just tent campers until then. We were excited and wanted to share the experience with others. And she loves to plan trips. I was a cabinet builder by trade, and that's when the construction business crashed. I got on the computer and learned how to spread Bondo and weld.
Who are your customers?
Dixie: VW campers are huge with Canadians. We had a couple from Germany on their honeymoon. We had a middle-aged lady who rented one for her mother and father — it was one of the things on their bucket list. Parents like to take their kids on a bus for nostalgia.
Old hippies at heart?
Dixie: Some. People come with bandanas on their heads. They wear tie-dye. It brings out the hippie spirit.
How do they find you?
Mike: Ninety-five percent come to the website through Google. They're searching for VW rentals or small RVs. I pick them up at Tampa International and I drive them to Treasure Island or Fort De Soto if they're traveling south. If they're going to the East Coast, I met them in the cell phone lot.
You pitch the rentals as an alternative to staying in an expensive hotel or a little RV. How does that work?
Dixie: The whole idea is we stock it with everything they need: sheets, bath towels, beach towels, dishes, pots and pans, camping chairs, bug spray …
Mike: Wash cloths, clothes line, garbage bags, salt and pepper, cayenne pepper. They have a two-burner gas stove and sink, 110-volt outlets and onboard water tank.
Your VW campers are 32 and 35 years old. Isn't it hard to find ones in good shape?
Mike: You can go to theSamba.com (a VW vehicle and parts website). The first one, we bought in Tennessee had no heat, very little braking. We had to stop in Atlanta for a quick fix to stop a gas leak. We blast (the body and frame) down to bare steel and replace everything: brake drums, steering. Jasmine took about three months
Dixie: That's the hardest part, making it reliable enough to be a rental vehicle. With each one, we made three long trips — 3,000 miles total — before renting them.
How much does it cost to rent Jasmine or Krazy Karl?
Mike: $100 a day or $675 per week. You get 100 free miles a day and it's 25 cents per mile over that. The only restriction is they need to stay in Florida. For three-day rentals, we want them to stay local. If somebody wants to drive down to Key West and back in three days, we'd discourage that.
Dixie: It's not a new car, it's camper.
Mike: These are meant to go slow.
What effect do the old VWs have on people?
Dixie: You can't stop at a light without someone asking about it or waving. The VW bus looks like it's smiling all the time.
Contact Steve Huettel at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.