CBU Researcher Test Drives Vanlife

Feb 17, 2023

As we make our way through another chilly winter, CBU’s Dr. Leslie Wardley is already planning for summer 2023, when she will mark the mid-point in her research on vanlife. This past summer, Dr. Wardley joined a growing number of RV enthusiasts who are taking a minimalist approach to vacation travel. We’re not talking about a luxury motorhome that offers modern comforts. Dr. Wardley spent the better part of three months in a 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia (better known as Ginger), a campervan with just 83 square feet of living space.

Dr. Wardley describes her travels as a mix of business and pleasure, combining her sense of adventure with her marketing expertise to study the motivations and brand attachment that drives the campervan nation. This year marked the first of three summers that she will dedicate to vanlife in hopes of gaining insights to inform economic development strategies.

“An internet search of the hashtag ‘vanlife’ will result in over 12 million photos and videos, just from the Instagram platform alone,” says Dr. Wardley. “There’s a culture of self-drive tourism worldwide, a phenomenon that’s worth considering from a research perspective.” As an Associate Professor of marketing and SSHRC Exchange University Research Chair in Social Determinants of Health at CBU, Dr. Wardley’s research seeks to uncover the inspirations of self-drive tourists, their approach to travel planning and the social interactions within a specific and unique subculture made up of VW brand campervan drivers.

“If you have a mental image that resembles the 1970’s VW van in your mind, you’re not wrong,” says Dr. Wardley. “The VW subculture is comprised of lots of vintage camper vans, which certainly creates a common thread of mechanical knowhow or better yet, need-to-know-how among the VW crowd.” Dr. Wardley adds that she’s not the mechanic behind the mission, but is familiar with the unexpected challenges. Her life and travel partner, Pascal Giasson, also a sessional lecturer at CBU, packed the toolbox, as the couple crossed their fingers and hoped their well-loved VW would go the distance. ”We didn’t have any mechanical issues, but we helped out a few others who weren’t so lucky,” says Dr. Wardley. “The VW group is closely intertwined which makes emergency repairs a collaborative effort.”

The journey began in mid June, as Dr. Wardley and Pascal made their way to Maine in search of VW van enthusiasts to begin data collection. Continuing on to New Hampshire, they attended the Jerry Jam Music Festival.

“Jerry Jam offers free admission to the VW crowd, so the brand-loyal travelers become part of the attraction and a featured image used in event promos,” Dr. Wardley explains. Immersing herself in this living laboratory, Dr. Wardley conducted observational research and in-depth interviews at Jerry Jam and other event locations along the eastern seaboard. This work builds on her previous studies of consumer behaviour and she says the research has the potential to inform an already evolving tourism sector, especially in Cape Breton.

“The results may help retailers, campervan clubs and festival organizers to better communicate something called their Unique Selling Propositions (USP) by identifying preferences, motivations and buying behaviours,” explains Dr. Wardley. Through these insights, organizations are better able to predict and possibly amend behaviour. This could inform the active promotion of events like the Celtic Colours Music Festival and the Cabot Trail and other outdoor adventures.

Dr. Wardley’s preliminary findings suggest owners are very attached to the VW brand, with many owning more than one VW vehicle. Succession planning was discussed as owners want to select who would inherit the vehicles when they are no longer able to use them. Their approach to travel planning is often based on mechanical expertise. “Similar to our approach, some are willing to venture anywhere the road leads,” says Dr. Wardley. She adds that others stay closer to home due to a lack of confidence in their ability to get their vehicle to farther destinations.

“Tapping into local VW communities (people with expertise) may improve outreach efforts from tourism destinations,” she says. “These enthusiasts are desirable because they are so networked. A positive response from one leads many to follow.”

When asked if she could ever image herself adopting a minimalist way of life to become a fulltime member of the VW campervan subculture, Dr. Wardley says she’s not ready to permanently reduce her closet or quit her day job just yet.

“I’m super excited for the personal and professional growth that this experience offers, but living in a van full-time expands beyond freedom, a love of exploring and being open to new experiences,” she explains. “The internet and COVID-19 have created more remote work opportunities for some. But with this type of lifestyle choice, one would need to embrace a truly minimalist approach with long stretches of isolation and a life of constant instability. I am not up for this shift just yet.”

Wherever Dr. Wardley’s adventures take her next, we are eagerly following along and can’t wait to learn more!