Connelly and his girlfriend took the souped-up Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van out west to Santa Cruz, Calif., exploring, hiking, and rock climbing along the way. Six months later, Connelly, back in New England, where he said there is a dearth of van conversion businesses compared to the West Coast, set his sights on starting one of his own. In 2018, Nirvana Upfitters was born.
“That trip really cemented the ideas of how valuable access to van travel can be,” said Connelly, who lives in Hudson. “This is really a culmination of all my passions. It’s very analytical, technical work; it’s design work, it’s building work.”
In a typical van’s 50 to 90 square feet of space, Connelly and his team can install hand-made cabinetry, skylights, flooring, and furniture, among other amenities tailor-made to the specifications of the vehicle and the customer’s wishes, like extra gear storage for bike riders. They can also outfit the vehicle with plumbing, electricity, heating, air conditioning, insulation, and exterior accessories, like awnings to allow for outdoor lounging.
“When you’re off-grid and you’re traveling and living in a van, you’re looking to have some comforts from home,” Connelly said. “Or all the comforts from home.”
The pandemic gave the van conversion industry a major boost, resulting in a backlogged supply chain for parts and unmanageable demand for projects, Connelly said. Nirvana Upfitters now sees 25 or more inquiries a month for custom builds. Before the pandemic, they saw less than 10 a month.
“The onset of COVID really drove inquiries and leads and customers coming to us, probably, ten- to twenty-fold, easily,” Connelly said. “It hasn’t really let up.”
The pandemic changed not only the level of demand for vans, but why customers are demanding them. Air travel and hotels were deemed risky, remote work was made more feasible, and some people became wary of making and remaking travel reservations. A “nomadic vehicle,” as Connelly dubs it, is one remedy to these tribulations.
“There’s so many families, and individual couples, and just folks out there that want to have a safe, flexible, controlled space that they can travel in, and that’s sort of from COVID,” said Connelly. “They aren’t tied down to one place.”
Take, for instance, Kirstin Lynde, who lives in Quechee, Vt. Not a fan of hotels or Airbnbs, Lynde started work with Nirvana Upfitters on her Ford Transit van in April 2020. In February 2021, her van — complete with solar panels that help to power her fridge and freezer, storage space in ample wooden cabinets, and flares on each side of the van to accommodate a sideways bed — was ready.
“The van gives me lots of flexibility for places to go and stay and an ability to explore,” said Lynde, who is planning to travel to Florida this winter in the van. “It’s just given [my husband and I] a sense of mobility and freedom.”
Before people can hit the road, however, Nirvana Upfitters conducts an initial assessment with customers, asking them what they’re looking for in a van and discussing the ballpark cost and timeline. Then, there is the “design phase,” Connelly said, which consists of six to 12 more meetings with the client, as well as determining the layout of the van, finding the components to match, and modeling the completed project. Only then does Connelly’s team get to building, putting an emphasis on eco-friendly materials.
The custom nature of the build is what drove Connelly’s family friends, Robert and Margot Shuford, who live in Hailey, Idaho, to enlist Nirvana Upfitters to convert their Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, which was completed in June 2020. The couple wanted a van to go on week-long camping trips, but most of the conversion companies near them, Margot Shuford said, use kits, and the couple wanted personalized amenities like a tongue-and-groove ceiling, an induction burner cooktop, and a shower that goes out the back of the vehicle.
“It’s just been a way to get us out of the house and into the woods and to see places that we might never see,” she said.
Due to Nirvana Upfitters’ limitations — the eight-person team typically works on only two custom van projects at a time, and each van takes about four months to build — the company is now booking new building projects for the fall and winter of 2022. For less strenuous “component” projects, such as the installation of a fan or a window, or a complete build from a non-custom conversion kit, are being booked for spring 2022.
These custom conversions don’t run cheap — Lynde’s project, for example, cost $100,000, and the Shufords’ $75,000. “These are big investments in a customer’s lifestyle,” Connelly said. “We want to provide them a van that is going to really allow them to live the life that they’re looking for — and that’s something that you just cannot get off a lot.”
Running Nirvana Upfitters, Connelly said, has been the life he was looking for. His brother, Dylan, died in 2013 of brain cancer, which spurred him to lean into his zeal for working with his hands, studying at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield, Vt. “I changed my value system and how I viewed what I wanted to pursue and do on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
And this is precisely what Connelly said his customers are doing, too, in light of the ordeals of the past year-and-a-half.
“They’re realizing that life can be really short and it’s important for them not to wait to do the things that they love, with people that are important to them,” he said. “For some folks, it really is a life changer, but for some folks, it just elevates their ability to enjoy life and to pursue happiness.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at [email protected]