Imagine getting on a flight to Florida, getting off the plane and not being able to rent a car to get from the airport to your next stop. To his dismay, this was Andrew Goodyear’s experience back in the late 1980s.

The problem wasn’t an absence of rental car agencies like Hertz or Avis serving the South Florida area, nor that these agencies were fully booked. It was that Goodyear—being a quadriplegic—needed a wheelchair-accessible van. So, Goodyear took the solution into his own hands.

“In 1990, I decided to start a wheelchair-accessible van rental company, because there was no such animal here in South Florida,” Goodyear says. “Since so many are traveling these days with power chairs and scooters, having access to a wheelchair-accessible van is really important.”

He got wind of the Wheelchair Getaways franchise and—one year later—Wheelchair Getaways of South Florida opened its doors in West Palm Beach, Fla.

While there are no specific skill or experience requirements to become a Wheelchair Getaways franchisee, you do need “a strong desire to help the handicapped,” says Dale Richardson, president of Wheelchair Getaways. Richardson adds that this type of franchise could provide additional revenue for someone who already runs a rental car operation.

Maybe you are considering expanding your rent-a-car business with specialized rentals or pursuing a new franchise opportunity. If so, here is an in-depth look at Wheelchair Getaways and what it takes to make it as a franchisee.

The Accessible Vehicle Market

In 1988, J. Edward Van Artsdalen founded Wheelchair Getaways after seeing the lack of transportation options for disabled wheelchair and scooter users. The company became a national franchise the following year. The current owners, Dale and Jennifer Richardson, purchased the company in 2006.

Wheelchair Getaways has two national competitors: Accessible Vans of America (AVA) and Wheelers Accessible Van Rentals. AVA requires that its members are mobility dealers, or dealers who sell and service wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Wheelers Accessible Van Rentals is not a franchise system.

While mainstream auto rental companies such as Dollar-Thrifty and Avis offer vehicles with hand controls, they do not offer vehicles with wheelchair access. Colorado franchisee John Anderson says the Hertz, Avis and Enterprise operations in his area often refer wheelchair and scooter users to him.

Wheelchair Getaways has 50 franchises covering more than 450 cities across the United States. Still, the marketplace is nowhere near being saturated, according to the company.

“We have some prime metropolitan areas available, like the panhandle of Florida, Texas, California, Oregon and some areas on the East Coast,” says Dale Richardson, who hopes to double the number of franchises soon.

The target client base is also growing. In 2002, approximately 51.2 million people—18 percent of the U.S. population at the time—reported having a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among the disabled population age 15 and older, 2.7 million people reported using a wheelchair. The Census Bureau also found that the likelihood of having a disability increases with age; 72 percent of people 80 years and older had disabilities. The Census Bureau projects that by 2030, 20 percent of the U.S. population will be age 65 and older.

“The baby boomers are getting older and they don’t want to hang around the house because they are used to going places,” Richardson says. “So our market is increasing exponentially, and there is a huge growth opportunity.” The company markets to the vacation and business traveler as well as the local replacement market. [PAGEBREAK] The Franchising Process

It’s possible to start a Wheelchair Getaways franchise for less than $100,000. That would include the franchise fee and the cost of two vehicles. Wheelchair Getaways also offers qualified franchisees financial assistance to get started.

A major reason the cost of entry can be so low is that the franchise can be a home-based business, Richardson says. “Approximately 50 percent of our franchisees are currently operating out of a storefront and the other half are home-based,” he says. The largest Wheelchair Getaways franchise— located in Michigan—is a home-based operation with a fleet size that ranges between 40 and 50 vans.

The company supports franchisees by providing on-site training. The franchisee gets a complete course in rental operations, the handicapped market and its unique needs, wheelchair-accessible vehicle conversion and operation, and marketing. The franchisor also provides a proprietary software application with fleet management, accounting, reservations and scheduling components.

As for the fleet, about 80 percent of the Wheelchair Getaways vehicles are converted Dodge or Chrysler Grand Caravans and 20 percent are Sprinters or full-size Ford passenger vans. The franchisees are required to get vehicles that are converted by two major mobility manufacturers: Braun and VMI. These companies receive vans directly from the auto manufacturer and perform the conversions, which include lowering the floors and installing lifts. Franchisees can buy converted vans from the franchise company or from a local mobility dealer.

Wheelchair Getaways requires that vehicles be less than five years old and have 60,000 miles or less on them. Richardson says the majority of the nationwide fleet is about 18 months old. Since “the resale value of these (converted) vehicles is really high,” according to Richardson, he advises franchisees to turn them over quickly. The franchisor offers the resource of its nationwide network to remarket vehicles to disabled customers. “We have a central database and actively promote to our end users,” Richardson says.

He also recommends that franchisees purchase “used-new” vehicles, which are rental fleet vans with low mileage that are converted and resold. They cost about $35,000 per vehicle. “When you buy a used-new, the retail price on those to an end-user customer is so high that when you buy them at wholesale and sell them within a year, oftentimes you can sell them for profit,” he says.

Service Guarantee

Although serving the customer is always an important part of a successful business, Wheelchair Getaways franchisees need to make a “100 percent commitment to service,” Richardson says. This means never missing a reservation, delivery or pick-up, even if you have to drive 100 miles or wait several hours to keep the commitment.

Many of the current franchisees, like Andrew Goodyear, are in wheelchairs themselves. “It gives us a unique angle to understand our customers,” Goodyear says. “They know what a comfort it can be when the rental van a client has reserved is waiting for them on time every time.”

“Once I had a client whose flight was four hours late,” Goodyear recalls. “I met him at 2:30 in the morning, and he was so impressed by this.” The client was impressed enough, in fact, that he ended up purchasing his own Wheelchair Getaways franchise in Northern California.