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The booming business behind Burning Man

A truck called "Ras Gamal" by its creators will be heading to the Burning Man festival.
Matt Hunter | CNBC
A truck called "Ras Gamal" by its creators will be heading to the Burning Man festival.

It's a sweltering mid-August morning in Reno, Nevada, and mechanics at Black Rock Bicycles on the outskirts of town are cranking away. Burning Man, the annual festival in the desert for 68,000 globetrotting free spirits, aging hippies and multimillionaire tech executives, is rapidly approaching. Trucks, buses and trailers will soon start rolling up to the store to pick up bikes that will serve as the primary means for traversing the 5-square-mile temporary city in the Black Rock Desert, 100 miles to the north.

Businesses like this bike shop are booming in Reno (population: 233,000), the closest big city to Burning Man. Whether it's providing bikes, renting out luxury motorhomes, leasing big trucks for hauling art projects or operating specialized airlines and bus fleets for the week-long event, Burning Man has turned into a major moneymaker for the local transportation industry in an area that's known for its high concentration of casinos.

Behind the bike store, a warehouse is packed floor to ceiling with two-wheelers headed to the festival. Some 800 of them will be rented out at $75 to $95 apiece in the days leading up to Monday's kickoff, with 200 or so others being sold for $175 and up, said Steve Cleek, who runs the Black Rock Bicycles website and helps coordinate festival-related activities for the shop. Then there are popular add-ons like super fat tires, lights and cushy seats that so-called burners will load up on.

"Originally, it was just bring the junkiest bike you can find out there," said Cleek, a burner since 2005, who helped get the bike shop started after noticing an apparent need for quality rides. "Pretty quickly, you find out you're on your bike all day. If you bring a piece of crap bike out there, it's not comfortable, not efficient, and you're wishing you had a decent bike."

Just how important is Burning Man to Reno? A large banner in the airport on the way to baggage claim reads "Burning Man" weeks before the event begins, as if it's the sole reason for a visit. Jim Graham, a spokesman for the festival, said participants pour $35 million a year into the northern Nevada economy, based on a survey conducted in 2013.

Reno's rides

Hot August Nights in Reno, Nevada, is the largest classic car and nostalgia event in the U.S.
Credit: VisitRenoTahoe.com
Hot August Nights in Reno, Nevada, is the largest classic car and nostalgia event in the U.S.

All of that money changes hands outside of Burning Man's gates, for the festival itself is a cashless economy. Dollars lose their value and are replaced by the spirit of "radical self-reliance, radical self-expression and art," as the website declares. It's all about gifting—donating goods and services, knowing that others will do the same. For Cleek and a team of five mechanics, that means setting up a bike tent on the desert floor, known as the playa, and repairing chains, brakes and whatever else needs fixing, all at no cost.

Cleek calls it a "labor of love." Long-time burners often speak of it in spiritual terms. The lovefest dates to 1986, when artist Larry Harvey and a friend somewhat spontaneously built and burned an 8-foot-tall figure on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Four years later, as local authorities grew uncomfortable with the gathering masses and the burning object, the festival moved northeast to the desert. From a free event with a few hundred people in the early 1990s, Burning Man has become, for a week each year, a mid-sized city, with attendees paying $380 to join the fun. Google co-founder Larry Page, Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos and Zappos leader Tony Hsieh are among the high-profile techy burners.

They travel by all means imaginable. Over 100 planes are expected to land at Burning Man's makeshift airport. Roundtrip flights out of Reno cost around $600 from companies including Advantage Flight Solutions and Black Rock Air, with Burning Man charging an additional $40 for people arriving by air. The Burner Express bus will haul more than 5,200 riders from Reno and San Francisco, up from 2,000 in 2013, Graham said. That's at least partly due to Burning Man's public effort to reduce traffic on the two-lane highway that leads to Black Rock City.

Read MoreBurning Man 2012

The RV business, seemingly created for Burning Man, is as hot as the summer sand. Twin brothers Tim and Steve Waldren are among the beneficiaries. They own a dealership in Reno called Paramount RV, started by their parents in 1977. The brothers took over in 2005 and expanded from RV repairs into rentals in 2011, as demand soared from burners who preferred the luxury of showers, beds and air conditioning to the open desert and temperatures that often hit the 90s during the day, before sometimes dipping into the 40s at night, not to mention the constant dust and occasional hail storms.

While this is their fourth year catering to the festival, the Waldrens are themselves making the trek for the first time this year as part of an art collective that's traveling by trolly, the kind that shuttles tourists around San Francisco. Of course, they'll be sleeping in an air-conditioned motorhome.

"The perception has been that it's a full-on rock and roll party," said Tim Waldren. "That perception is changing. You talk to good-hearted, good-souled people that go. It's time to experience it."

Read MoreBurning Man founder Larry Harvey

Paramount has a fleet of 12 RVs, all booked for the festival, and has plans to expand. Units rent for about $500 a night, double the rate for the rest of the year. The repair shop also benefits from the many RVs that have to drive through Reno from San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Broken refrigerators and sputtering air conditioners are no way to start a Burn.

For the extremely well-to-do, luxury motorhomes can run into the five digits. El Monte RV, which rents vehicles nationwide, was listing bus-style RVs that sleep six for over $12,000 from Aug. 24 to Sept. 1 from its Reno location. The same unit a month later goes for less than $2,000. Burning Man's Graham said they've heard anecdotally for the last several years that almost every RV in Northern California and Nevada is rented for the week leading up to Labor Day, coinciding with the festival. Paramount sold out in early 2014 and has been getting calls continuously since.

A couple miles from the Waldrens' dealership, Ciaran O'Brien, an architect from London, is hanging out at the Generator, a community art space where groups of burners erect their installations before transporting them to the desert. O'Brien is a second-year burner and enters with big plans. Along with an international team of 10 specialists, he'll be constructing a 25-foot-tall, 4-ton pyramid with an aurora borealis lighting vibe, the end result of a two-year project and over $60,000 of invested capital, mostly from grants and a successful Kickstarter campaign.

"We designed this over dinner one night two years ago and said we should take this to the Burn," O'Brien said. "And we did. It's quite emotional."

Were this any other event, O'Brien would likely be in a mild panic. The installation was shipped from London in three crates and should arrive any day, though he can't be sure. And the RV that O'Brien was originally supposed to pick up from a dealership 13 miles from the festival entrance has been rerouted because of logistical problems. It's now meeting him at the Motel 6 in Reno in the next day or so, at least that's what he hopes. Because it's Burning Man, O'Brien is taking it all in stride.

A trailer is loaded up in preparations for the Burning Man Festival.
Matt Hunter | CNBC
A trailer is loaded up in preparations for the Burning Man Festival.

"There are only so many things you can control," O'Brien said. "The rest is just going along for the ride."

O'Brien is quite excited about the ride he has lined up. He calls it a Scooby-Doo mobile, based on the classic American cartoon. In reality, it's an old GMC motorhome made of aluminum and fiberglass that has a bathroom, mini-kitchen and should comfortably sleep six. The vendor is called Black Rock Desert RV Rental, an outfit that rents out old motorhomes for $3,900 to $6,500 for Burning Man and ceases to operate the rest of the year.

David Gourdine, the owner, can't build up inventory fast enough to meet demand. Since 2012, he's gone from zero to 18 RVs and is trying to buy more. He's been sold out since January, and attracts renters looking for more affordable options than the big corporate shops can offer. And he places fewer restrictions on their behavior.

"It's got a 70s retro look, and hipsters love it," Gourdine said of his typical coach. "I paint them white and they're allowed to decorate them and do whatever they want. I just spray paint them white again." His website tells customers just how rare that flexibility is. "Try returning your rented RV to the other companies out there after you glued pink fur and bunny ears to it," the site says.

O'Brien will have the RV for three weeks, giving him plenty of time to set up and deconstruct. Joining his entourage is James Baumgartner, a Los Angeles-based production supervisor for HBO shows, including "Silicon Valley." O'Brien and Baumgartner met at last year's festival and have come together this time around for the art installation as well as the building out of a campsite that will host 50 or so people.

Baumgartner is driving up in his personal SUV, with a trailer attached that's a rolling microcosm of Burning Man. A hodgepodge of poles, a ladder, a stuffed gorilla, 11 bicycles and a queen bed mattress are all strapped down in what Baumgartner calls his gypsy wagon. He has the tools with him to build a yurt with reflective homebuilding material and plenty of fabric for an expansive shaded living space. Most importantly, he's hauling 900 pounds of water.

Read MoreThe Changing Face of Burning Man

"You realize how much water you consume when you have to load up for three weeks," O'Brien said. "It's really quite graphic."

Between the RV, the travel, the tickets, a $700 rental truck for the art project, and all the many provisions they're bringing, the dollars add up in a way that makes eyes roll, even for the most resourceful burners. Surviving in the desert for a week, while also putting forth the resources to help keep a massive art project functioning as well as maintaining a campsite is no cheap endeavor.

"Just the logistics of bringing yourself out there with the whole radical self-reliance thing is a lot, and it's expensive," Baumgartner said. So how does he manage? "My annual budget for clothing is almost nothing," he said. "I won't even buy new shoes when I need them."

—By CNBC's Ari Levy

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