Wheelers Accessible Van Rental is an affiliate program that specializes in wheelchair-accessible van rentals in every major airport and metropolitan city within the United States and Canada.

Wheelers was born in November of 1987 after co-owners Tammy and Ron Smith recognized the need for wheelchair-accessible rentals while operating a non-emergency ambulance service.

“Customers were asking to take the vehicles without the driver, and I thought ‘what a great idea,’” Tammy says. The reservation calls started to roll in when a writer named Cliff Craze published an article about the Smiths’ business plan in Paraplegia News Magazine. The calls haven’t stopped.

“People were so hungry for resources and news that would improve the quality of life for the disabled that they just ate his article up,” Tammy says.

Based in Phoenix, Ariz., Wheelers quickly expanded its operations to include Florida, California, Texas and Hawaii. To further expand, the Smiths implemented a licensing agreement program to involve other businesses.

Some 20 years later, Wheelers has more than 73 locations serving 350 cities with a fleet of more than 500 vehicles.

Unique Online Reservations Network

After signing up with Wheelers, members are linked to both the centralized phone and online reservation systems and gain access to the national insurance program.

The Wheelers affiliate can use the Web site to retrieve reservations, marketing programs and reports as well as Web traffic reports. [PAGEBREAK] On the flip side, customers either call the 800 number or book a reservation at www.wheelersvanrentals.com for any location nationwide. They get an online reservation confirmation and a cost estimate. Then the Wheelers location follows up with the customer to confirm and complete the reservation.

“The reservation network seems like such a simple thing in the mainstream car rental industry, but since our market is so specialized, what we’re doing has never been done before,” Tammy says. “We think it’s going to change the way the disabled travel. That one-to-one customer attention is what sets Wheelers apart from all competition.”

The affiliate can link its Web page to the Wheelers site for online reservations and referrals. The Wheelers site provides free online classifieds for members’ rental fleets and their customers.

No Royalties, No Percentage Fees

Unlike a standard franchise program, Wheelers does not collect royalties or percentages from its affiliate members. Rather every member, regardless of fleet size, is required to pay a flat yearly membership fee of $2,000 to $10,000 depending on geographical location. There is also a monthly Web software access fee of $25 to $35.

Wheelers helps its members with financing and passes down discounted rates on the vehicle modifications.

Diversify Your Business

Affiliates hail from a wide range of businesses, most looking to supplement their current business with added income from a wheelchair-accessible van rental service. The majority of Wheelers’ members are mobility equipment stores, while other affiliates come from home medical supply businesses, equipment rental, mobility shuttle services and traditional car rental.

Dealers start out with as little as two vehicles. Then, depending on call volume, dealers can grow their fleet as their business requires it. Since customers in this specialized market generally make reservations a couple of months in advance, vehicles aren’t waiting for business.

Currently, Wheelers has dealers who rent out from two to 70 wheelchair accessible vehicles. “It just depends on the location,” Tammy says.

How Much Can I Make?

Wheelers estimates that each rental van should make from $2,500 to $3,000 a month, with an average vehicle operation cost of $1,000 to $1,200.

Wheelers members are able to purchase vehicles at dealer cost. Resale value is strong for handicapped modified vehicles, Tammy says. The wheelchair accessible modification retains a high value; resale prices remain fairly high. The disabled market is a receptive market for used modified vans, says Ron Smith. [PAGEBREAK] Wheelers markets and promotes the business nationally at trade shows and in publications, email and newsletters. The company is linked with every major car rental company as well as handicapped organizations, nonprofit agencies and rehab facilities across the country.

The dealers are responsible for getting the word out in their local markets.

In order to garner business within the community, Tammy suggests that dealers develop relationships with all of the neighboring hospitals, rehabilitation clinics and non-profit organizations.

“This is a referral-based business,” Tammy says. “We have repeat customers because they trust us and know the type of vehicles they’re going to get.” Wheelers serves a very appreciative market, Tammy says, and the vehicles generally come back as clean as they were when they were sent out.

“We want our affiliates to stay in business with us for years,” Tammy says. “We have an investment in that location, in the person and in their business. We want the consumer to see a reliable company that they can trust and know they can come back to time and time again and get the same quality vehicle and service.”

Getting Started

Wheelers still has a good number of territories available in much-needed areas to this specialized market. Operations can be up and running in less than 30 days, Tammy says.

Wheelers walks new members through the process and provides them with rental contracts, policies and procedures. “We give them everything we possibly can to help their business be successful,” Tammy says. “You’re buying into the long-standing tradition and the 20-year name of Wheelers Accessible Van Rental.”

Interested parties can call (800) 456-1371 and say “corporate.”