“Some people prefer a hotel bed and a television. I get that,” says Melody King, of Urban Escape Vehicles. “But some of us really love the idea of taking our home with us.”
For some, Western North Carolina is more than just a destination, and that applies to tourists and residents alike. Indeed, there has always been an existential quality to our locale, and increasingly, the regional experience is turning fully immersive whereby people want to lend their vacation visits and weekend getaways a uniqueness beyond simply booking a room, renting a cabin, or pitching a tent.
Enter a new breed of entrepreneurs aiming to address this. And meet Melody King, previously from Madison County and nowadays a devout Ashevillian, who operates Urban Escape Vehicles, which proudly advocates for the #vanlife4ever lifestyle (look it up, Instagrammers) via her custom-converted camper vans that allow clients to literally roll up to their mountain destination-of-choice—campsites, RV-style motor parks, backyards of friends and relatives, etc.
“In my 20s I had spent quite a bit of time travelling around in my old VW bus,” explains King, of the initial spark that would lead to her founding the enterprise, “roaming around the United States, visiting national parks and selling my homemade jewelry as a street vendor at music concerts. That feeling of freedom has been unparalleled by anything I’ve done since that time. So, I launched Urban Escape Vehicles in the spring of 2019 to share my love of adventure travel—and to promote convenient access to the countless outdoor recreation opportunities in the Western North Carolina region.”
King is certainly not the first person to recognize a van’s mobility and flexibility, because who hasn’t suffered through lodging check in/check out delays or camping hike in/hike out hassles. But she’s still pretty confident that Urban Escape Vehicles is relatively unique to our area, saying, “While camper van rentals are popular in Europe and in our West, this business model is not as popular in the Eastern United States. So I’m happy to be Asheville’s homegrown, locally-owned camper van rental business.”
She elaborates further about her business model, which is a canny blend of travel pragmatism and idealistic vagabondism.
“The camper van is a vehicle that supports an adventure, but this business is not really about the van itself. It is about access. When you’re travelling in a camper van, regardless of where you’re parked at the moment, you are home. You have everything that you’ll need with you wherever you go: your kitchen, bed, the gear you’ve packed; it’s ready for you when you come off of the river, or the rock, or the trail. For that matter, it is ready for you when you come out of the antique store, the casino, or the restaurant. There is no need to re-pack the suitcase between destinations. You’re always home.
“I had initially assumed that my typical customers would be couples in their 30s, whether local or travelling in from out of town. Although this will be a large segment of my customers, I’m finding that the van camping lifestyle appeals to many different demographics. It is ideal for parent/child camping trips and is also a perfect fit for those of us who used to do more backpacker-style camping, but have found a new appreciation for a comfy bed.
“It is also the perfect festival rig. Anyone who is considering getting into van life full-time should try camping in some vans to learn more. Several renters have expressed interest in building out their own camper, but first want to get a sense of van life to determine which features are important to them so that they can set priorities accordingly.”
If it wasn’t already clear, King speaks from experience. She’s a single mother with a pair of two teenage boys and holds down a full-time job with a hospice agency. She also has what she admits is a work-hard/play-hard approach to life (“Eventually, I’ll need to learn to slow down!”), which means that currently she’s focused on her day job during 9-5 weekdays, and then zeroes in on the camper van rentals nights and weekends—not to mention going camping herself.
As noted above, Urban Escape Vehicles is still in its first-steps stage, but King says she’s already anticipating being able to serve clients well beyond the summer: “I plan to continue building the fleet and learning from my customers which features and arrangements are best for supporting their adventures. The milestone that I intend to reach this year will be to have rentals extending into the winter months. Camping is not only a summertime activity. I hope that potential customers will recognize the value of being able to bring their ‘rental cabin’ along with them as they travel for the holidays and for winter sports.”
King clearly picked the right place to bring her vision to the public; what could be more ideal than Western North Carolina? And she says that she’s also greatly encouraged by the camaraderie and mutual support that local businesses here share.
“When one of us succeeds, we all succeed. I don’t have the sense that we are competing with each other for local dollars. There are enough customers for all of us, and I look forward to partnering with complementary, or even competing, businesses for mutual benefit.”
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