Orlando's 'Locker Man' Saves The Day For Cash-Strapped Tourists Already reeling from the housing crisis, Florida's economy is now struggling with a drop in tourism. But in Orlando, home of Disney World, one small business thrives by helping repeat visitors cut their costs — by leaving their stuff behind in storage.
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'Locker Man' Saves Day For Cash-Strapped Tourists

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'Locker Man' Saves Day For Cash-Strapped Tourists

'Locker Man' Saves Day For Cash-Strapped Tourists

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, how some Saudis are turning against the religious police.

But first, during President Obama's first 100 days in office, our correspondent David Greene is on the road, talking to Americans about the recession. Today, David reports from Florida, where the vacation scene has certainly taken a hit. The number of visitors there were down last year, the first dip since 2001.

In Orlando, David spoke with some families who are still vacationing, but they want to trim their budgets and have found a business that might help.

DAVID GREENE: All along this road trip, I have seen the domino effect of this recession. People say they're cutting back on spending. That means the businesses they're buying from are making less money, then those businesses have to lay off employees, and so the story goes.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: But this is Orlando, the land of the Magic Kingdom and fairy tales. And just maybe this time,I've found a story with a happy ending. It begins with Kim Michaux. She and her family come to a faraway place, Orlando, very often.

Ms. KIM MICHAUX (Vacationer): Like we've been really, really a lot, by anyone's standards.

GREENE: A lot, as in three or four times a year. But it's getting harder. The Michauxes are from Richmond, Virginia, and back home, the force of the recession hit. Michaux and her husband sell Christmas decorations and other items in a shop and online. But over the holidays, sales were down. They've had to lay off two employees.

Ms. MICHAUX: That was hard, but we just had to. And we're working harder ourselves.

GREENE: If the Michauxes were going to keep bringing their kids to Orlando, they wanted to cut the cost. Michaux thought about it, and she realized one place the family spent too much money was as soon as they arrived in Orlando. They'd load up on those theme-park necessities: bottled water, the snacks, rain ponchos.

Ms. MICHAUX: You know, when we used to come down here, we'd make a trip to the grocery store and spend like 2 or $300.

GREENE: But no more. Kim Michaux discovered a company that came to Orlando in 2007. They rent lockers. They're these bright purple, plastic containers, about the size of a large suitcase. At the end of a trip, you put your leftover water, snacks, rain gear, clothes, anything that won't spoil, into this bin. You seal it shut and it's waiting for you next time you come down.

It costs around 100 bucks a year to store a locker, but Michaux says it's saving her money in ways she didn't even expect.

Ms. MICHAUX: We leave all our toiletries down here now, too. So it's really easy to carry on a bag. We don't have to check a bag, which everyone charges for now too, all the airlines do.

GREENE: And who's the hero who helped save the Michaux's vacation? Meet Locker Man.

Mr. JOHN VAN METER (Owner/Founder, Owners Locker): We've got one that weighs 90 pounds.

GREENE: Ninety?

Mr. VAN METER: It gurgles, so I suspect there's a lot of liquor in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: John Van Meter is the 57-year-old founder of the company Owners Locker. And somehow, even in a recession, his young business is picking up new customers almost every day.

Now, once upon a time, Van Meter was an executive for the oil giant Ashland. He worked at a desk in London.

Mr. VAN METER: In a suit every day, with the nice ties and the Mont Blanc pen.

GREENE: But he left that job four years ago and started the business he'd been dreaming up for years. You might say he did a Clark Kent-style transformation. The suit and the tie are gone and now, Van Meter's outfit is shorts and a bright purple shirt with the Owners Locker emblem emblazoned on his chest.

Mr. VAN METER: As you will see when we're out in the purple van today, everybody smiles when they see the purple guys coming up.

GREENE: Every morning, Van Meter drives his purple van to Disney Resorts and other hotels near and far.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VAN METER: These resorts have different music playing. Old Key West had Jimmy Buffett music, and I'm not sure what this is.

GREENE: One by one, he hand-delivers lockers so people have their stuff when they get to town.

Mr. VAN METER: Let's head back to the luggage room.

GREENE: And I only wish I could guarantee that storybook ending. In reality, start-up businesses have to fight to survive. And Van Meter is up against powerful forces. He's had trouble attracting investors in this economy. Recently, a bank hiked interest rates so high Owners Locker had to stop borrowing from them. The business is mostly living on Van Meter's money; he invested more than a half-million dollars.

Mr. VAN METER: You know, pouring the - all of the savings, the pensions plans, the 401(K)s, everything has gone into this business. Better believe it better work.

GREENE: As we drove around in his purple van, I asked Van Meter if he worries the recession may get worse. What if people just stop vacationing?

Mr. VAN METER: You'd be nuts not to worry about that. What could happen tomorrow? I don't know. But does it keep me up at night? Well, of course it does.

GREENE: For now, though, he's delivering lockers to another resort, always on the lookout for vacationers in distress.

I'm David Greene, NPR News.

SIMON: And you can track David's trip on interactive map at NPR.org/100days. You can also submit story ideas, read his blog posts, and see his latest photos. And you can talk to him on Twitter.

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