Escapod's rugged, customizable Topo Series trailers are resonating with the market. "In a single season of sales, we've sold almost as many trailers as we built in our history," says Director of Operations Chris Eckel.
The growth curve went from single digits in 2016 and 2017, then the trajectory spiked to 20 trailers in 2018 and 35 in 2019. "This year, we'll build 85 trailers, but we sold 80 trailers in the last month and a half," Eckel says. "I'd say this year we've sold about 110 to 120 trailers." As of late August 2020, Escapod's site says new orders will take about 11 months to build out.
The growth reflects other trends that show aspects of outdoor recreation doing well despite COVID-19. Escapod has seen some negative impacts from the pandemic, but thankfully all of its employees are healthy.
"We've had huge, huge disruptions in supply chain and availability," says Eckel, describing "an interest level that was unprecedented as far as camping and just outdoor activities in general."
Certain parts, like water pumps and heating units, come from Elkhart, Indiana, which Eckel calls the RV capital of the world. But he adds: "We use a different caliber of product. A lot of things we make ourselves. . . . That increases our ability to sustain difficulty in the market."
Some components are imported from Great Britain and France. "Those international ones have been particularly difficult . . . not only the borders being not quite as free flowing as it used to be, but just labor and staffing being down," Eckel says. "We were lucky enough that we did have a little bit of a war chest back in March in April to get us through the initial month or two and then we kind of ordered a big bulk order to get us through the drought."
When Eckel joined the company, which he co-owns with founders Chris and Jen Hudak, in 2018, he was the third employee. "It was only six of us up until the end of last year," Eckel explains. "This year we've grown into a much bigger space. . . . We actually had two people start today. We had one person start last week. We've got an engineer starting hopefully within a week or two."
Escapod's 10,000-square-foot facility could accommodate about 25 employees, he notes. With future hires, each employee will be better able to focus on their appropriate tasks and won't have to wear as many hats as when the company had fewer employees. "We're basically trying to get to the point where the company can fill out all the roles that are really critical to our group plans over the next two years," Eckel says.
It plays into a broader strategy. "What we're trying to do is, grow a foundation for our company and build a product that is highly functional, in terms of just making it really usable for the widest amount of people. So we're not building something that's specifically for leisure travel, we're not building something that is exclusively for really crazy rough terrain overlanding. It's something that can do both of those things very well and it comes in this really well-considered and intuitive aesthetic package."
In addition to sales, Escapod also offers rentals with a fleet of four rental trailers in 2020. "We have been literally booked back-to-back with those four," Eckel says, noting the rental season started in May this year and the trailers are booked through October as of August.
Rentals start at $125 a night (with discounts for multiple days) and are also an effective part of Escapod's growth and sales strategy. It's also planning to sell off this year's rentals at a discount and launch a new fleet of up to six rentals in 2021, according to Eckel.
That's led to at least 10 sales conversions in 2020, Eckel says. "That is very much a core kind of aspect of our business plan, our strategy -- which is to get people in in some capacity, show them the product, get them to have an enjoyable experience, and then convert it to a sale."
Escapod also has plans to branch out across the country with branches in strategic locations. After the Rocky Mountains, he could see expanding into markets like California, North Carolina, and the Great Lakes.
These wouldn't be big showrooms. "Just little one- or two-person operations. So that ideally people don't need to travel further than a day trip to rent an Escapod or pick it up," Eckel says. He could even see expanding that sales model to international markets to meet demand.
All of this is based on the company's endlessly configurable Topo Series. "Right now, we have enough orders to fully satisfy the growth projections for our manufacturing operations for the next year," says Eckel, noting that a second model is at least two years out. "So we are currently locked into smaller refinements for the foreseeable future."
Challenges: "The biggest challenge is that we make a handmade product and we really care about quality, but we are also trying to meet demand," Eckel says. "Refining the product for manufacturability is going to be the next big step that we take and making sure that we can efficiently meet domestic demand."
Opportunities: Converting would-be RV buyers to Escapods. "We're trying to create a tool that really is a tool and an experience that allows you a little bit more convenience and a little bit more options in the wild outdoors, without compromising on some of the simple things," says Eckel.
Needs: "One of the things that's definitely needed is companies like ours need to become a little bit more acknowledged as a viable part of the industry," says Eckel. "Then you'll have other kinds of tangential companies start to make products that are really optimized for this type of product."
Such equipment could be sized to meet the needs of teardrop trailers, like air conditioners that work on 12-volt DC power. "It really requires a scrappiness to kind of find parts and industries that are creating a product that may work for us, but are not necessarily built for us," he notes.