Matt Cullens is a man who is at ease outdoors. He has an easy smile, expressive eyes, and the tall, lanky frame and fluid movements of someone who has spent his years enjoying active outside activities.
Originally from Oregon, Matt has lived in Alaska for the past 12 years with his wife and young son. He is passionate about the abundant outdoor activities available in the 49th state, and found a great way to allow others to experience them through his small local business, AlaskaVans.
While sitting on a beach in Maui celebrating a friend’s birthday in 2015, Matt had an inspirational moment that would evolve into a great idea and eventually launch a business venture. Near the beach, a man was renting his Volkswagen campers to visitors so they could enjoy the island at their leisure, camping as they explored.
Since many people visiting Hawaii needed both transportation and lodging, it made sense to combine those needs into one solution. And for the folks who enjoyed the outdoors and camping, using a camper van provided a great way to explore with a nice camping spot wherever you ended up parking. The similarities to many visitors to Alaska were not lost on Matt, and with so many people enjoying the van life, it seemed like a perfect business opportunity.
Matt wanted to create a traveling camper that people visiting Alaska could rent in order to explore the more remote corners of the road system, or to attend one of the many festivals and have the flexibility to explore the surrounding areas. He wanted to create a mobile base camp for fishing excursions, mountain biking adventures, visiting national parks, exploring the coastlines, or hiking through the spectacular Alaskan scenery.
He wanted his rig to be comfortable, functional, reliable, and at the same time, not be overly intrusive or scream “I’m a tourist!” It had to be a van that he and his friends would want to use, and marketable to outdoorsy visitors who wanted similar experiences.
Using his personal interests and passions to draw inspiration, Matt designed his van to be an elegant camper that has the function and comfort that he would want himself: the ultimate “camping habitat.”
After a year of research and number crunching, he settled on using a newly purchased Ram Promaster cargo van. He designed and outfitted it himself by adding substantial insulation, abundant storage, a camping kitchen, sleeping platform, and counter surfaces.
Matt admits the hardest part of the build was to cut holes in the sides of the van to install five windows–not because the install itself was difficult, but the idea of cutting into the side of a brand new vehicle was initially hard to wrap his mind around. After a few months of hard work and about $7,000 dollars invested, the first van was ready to be rented in the spring of 2017. AlaskaVans was officially launched.
The van is beautifully finished with maple, birch, and walnut woods that feel light and spacious. Hardwood flooring provides a durable walking area. The full-sized bed doubles as comfortable seating in addition to the swivel driver and passenger seats. The camp kitchen is set up with everything you need, including drinking water (purified by reverse osmosis), coffee pot, propane stove, camp table, LED lighting, a small electric heater, cooler, and even wine glasses. An outside awning, camp chairs, and amenities allow renters to make the most of the outside spaces they visit. All you need to do is to grab some groceries and get out there!
Matt’s first season renting his van was more successful than he had imagined with the van rented for more than 50 nights. With his natural knack for the hospitality industry, Matt is able to assist his clients with some of their trip planning, providing recommendations on where to go, where to eat, and places to visit as well as airport pickups and drop offs. After his first season, he was able to buy a second van to outfit that will be ready for use in Spring 2018.
Matt has learned many valuable lessons along the way, from dealing with insuring out-of-country drivers to legal checklists and advertising nuances. He is always looking to innovate, and is developing a way to include another small table in the space. He hopes to continue to grow his business and support his family with the income.
His advice to those seeking to launch their dreams: find a mentor, do your due diligence, identify what makes your product or service unique and market that, and most of all “don’t listen to internet trolls!”