An Airstream dealership is returning to Idaho, the first in more than a decade, said Ted Davis, co-owner of Airstream Adventures Northwest. The company, which sells the sleek, silver travel trailers, will open in next to Bish’s RV in Nampa, according to a report by the Idaho Statesman.
Davis said the dealership will start small with five employees ranging from manager to technician, and see how sales go. The leased property vacated by a manufactured home dealer is a good location, and there’ll be little cross-over competition because of the difference in the products sold by Airstream and Bish’s RV, Davis said.
In the past two years, Davis and his partners opened up dealerships in Portland. Ore., and Seattle, Wash., that only sell Airstreams.
“We saw it as an opportunity when the market bottomed out and a lot of dealers went out of business,” he said. “It felt good the last couple years as people laid people off and ran for cover, we generated 30 new jobs.”
The business model of selling only Airstreams has proved profitable for the company, as well, he said. Revenues topped $10 million in 2011, and the company operates in the black.
Davis, a native of Idaho Falls, said it’s good to be back in Idaho, at least for business, and he called the state’s approach with his company business-friendly. “Idaho, so far, has been the easiest to deal with,” he said.
Airstream Adventures Northwest quietly opened on Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard in Milwaikie, Ore., a Portland suburb, about a month and a half ago and the shiny Airstream travel trailers on the lot are already attracting attention from passersby, reports KATU-TV, Portland, Ore.
“I just can’t get over the response of people coming in,” said co-owner Ted Davis. “Young, old — it doesn’t matter. And this is just from being on (highway) 99 — we haven’t even gotten the word out yet.”
Airstream trailers have a way of bringing back the nostalgia of a bygone era and it’s no surprise that people driving by would want to stop and see one for themselves.
“Sometimes people come in because they are seeing a piece of history and they feel like they just want to touch an Airstream,” said Davis. “And it’s so iconic. And then for others, it’s the benchmark for adventure.”
For Airstream, opening up a dealership in our market was a no-brainer.
“If you look at the values of this community — outdoors, adventure, active, an appreciation for design as well — you just checked off all the factors for Airstream,” said Airstream President and CEO Bob Wheeler, who was in town this week to showcase the new dealership.
Airstream is no stranger to the Pacific Northwest (the West Coast is the company’s strongest region) but Wheeler said they realized early on that the Portland area was a place where they could thrive.
“We have a great dealer in Eugene and one in Seattle but Portland in particular is under-served for us,” said Wheeler. “The Airstream thing just resonates here in a way that it doesn’t necessarily do everywhere else.”
And for Davis, who splits his time between the Airstream dealership and a nearby car dealership, it was a chance to connect with customers on a deeper level.
“It’s just wonderful,” he said. “The people come in here and this is about a lifestyle and about memories they want to create and adventures they want to go on. When you get to engage with people on that level, it’s so much fun.”
Is This Really a Good Time to Open a Dealership?
The RV industry has definitely seen its share of heartache in the past few years and Airstream did not escape the sour economy.
“We spent two years kind of backpedaling, along with everybody else,” Wheeler said. “It’s a big, discretionary purchase. You don’t need one and it’s kind of the first thing people elect not to buy.”
At its worst point, Airstream lost half its employees in four rounds of layoffs but Wheeler said things have turned around and the company is on the upswing again. They’ve even been able to rehire a big part of their workforce that had been laid off.
“It’s interesting because nobody’s leaving the lifestyle,” Wheeler said. “The decision is just you’re deferring that purchase, you’re putting it off. You’re not getting out of the lifestyle altogether. Now we’re starting to see those people who have been sitting on their wallets for two years coming back to the market.”
“We know we’ve taken a pretty big risk opening up an RV franchise during what is still a recessionary period,” said Davis. “We feel that we are certainly at the bottom but are starting to move up. There has been a repositioning in the RV business and a repositioning of values.”
Airstream Then and Now
Airstream, which is the oldest manufacturer of recreational vehicles in the world, was founded in 1931 by Willy Byam, whose successful article ‘How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars’ led him to start his own company. He is said to have created the unique trailer in response to his wife’s refusal to go camping without a kitchen.
Airstream was a hit from the get go and within five years after it was founded, nearly 400 companies tried to cash in the craze. Out of all of those, only Airstream remains today.
Despite its popularity over the decades, the company has had some dark times.
“It’s not always been successful,” said Wheeler. “There was a period in the ’80s or ’90s when the product had gotten stale. The decors were not moving forward and weren’t cutting edge. A lot of people still loved the exterior but they would walk inside and say ‘oh, that looks like my grandma’s kitchen.’ ”
Today, the Airstream’s popularity is soaring once again and Wheeler said its thanks to the company’s focus on design aesthetic and the launch of the Airstream International in 2001. The new trailer was designed with the help of an architect and furniture designer out of San Francisco. Wheeler said suddenly new life had been breathed into the Airstream’s decor and customers responded.
“As soon as it hit the market, for all those people who loved the outside but hated the inside, that was it,” said Wheeler. “And it just took off. And that became 40 percent of our sales very quickly.”
It also changed how Airstream did business.
“The success of that model changed Airstream in a very fundamental way,” said Wheeler. “Our understanding of what an Airstream was or could be was completely changed. And our dealers who would say ‘Classic Airstream is all I want and all I know’ were like ‘bring it on.’ They could see the possibilities.”
Airstream was founded on three tenets — design, quality and innovation — and Wheeler said they still hold true to those core values today.
“Cutting edge design – we try to push the envelope within our industry and out,” he said. “Product quality is paramount and that ties in with the durability of the product and the fact they they last so long. And innovation – new features, new functions. How do we make this thing that is the ultimate expression of ‘form follows function’ and make it that much better. How do we make it relevant for today’s consumers.”
The one thing they are focusing on right now is lightweight design.
“There’s been a big push in the last year or 18 months to produce lighter weight products,” said Wheeler. “That is really no surprise because the vehicles coming out of Detroit are smaller and more fuel efficient and they can tow less. So that’s a phenomenon, obviously, that we have to be keenly aware of and be able to respond to.”
Coming up with a lightweight design is a challenge, though, especially when consumers these days want things like flat screen TVs and other extras in their trailers – all of which add extra weight.
“There’s a middle ground we are trying to shoot for and we know that is a real movement that has to be addressed,” said Wheeler.
How Much Do Airstreams Cost?
Airstreams run between $35,000 and $110,000 and while that might sound expensive, Wheeler said you have to remember that Airstreams are designed to last.
“We make a product that doesn’t last a lifetime – it lasts several lifetimes,” said Wheeler. “We take a lot of pride in that.”
“These products are not disposable,” said Davis. “They’re not meant to last five or ten years, they’re meant to last you a lifetime or more than that. They’re actually designed to last generations.”
“If your interests are outdoor and adventure and you appreciate iconic design, quality and durability, come look inside one,” said Wheeler. “Don’t just look at the outside.”
Used ones can cost you less, of course, but they are hard to come by.
“Typically if one of our dealers takes a used Airstream trailer in trade, they might have it four or five days,” said Wheeler. “They go that quick. Usually, we’ll have a waiting list of people who have said ‘I can’t buy a new one right now but if you get a used one in…’ They come in and we start going down that list.”
And the older an Airstream gets, the more valuable it can become.
“They’re kind of like classic cars,” said Wheeler. “After 25 years, they start to appreciate. And our residual values are higher than anyone in the industry – bar none. Just go on eBay and you’ll see.”
Celebrities Love Their Airstreams
A number of celebrities have taken quite a liking to Airstream trailers. The company’s A-list clients include the likes of Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock and many others.
Wheeler said he enjoys working with celebrities and Airstream has good relationships with them but he wanted to stress that the company isn’t all about catering to the rich and famous.
“Airstreams are for everybody,” he said. “They’re not just for the celebrity set.”
And Wheeler said when it comes down to it, celebrities are just Airstream owners like everyone else.
“It’s funny — they’re not movie stars, they’re just Airstream owners when they come around,” he explained. “They’re like ‘oh, I want to show you this thing on my trailer — I changed this one thing. Hey — you really ought to think about redesigning this part. Here are my ideas for it.’ They’re as passionate as anybody who walks off the street and buys one.”
Oregon consistently ranks among the top five states for sales of Airstream travel trailers, the aluminum “spaceship on wheels” that launched America’s love affair with the open road 80 years ago. And it’s done so without a metro-area dealer, according to OregonLive.com.
That’s changed with the recent arrival of the region’s first authorized seller, and comes amid a thawing economy and an industry in resurgence. Nationally, RV shipments are projected to jump 39% year, to 215,900, from 2009.
“We have about all the business we can handle,” says Parker Johnstone, co-owner of Airstream Adventures Northwest, which opened recently in Milwaukie. “It speaks to the quality and reputation of Airstream.”
It also speaks to the culture of the Portland area, said Airstream chief executive Bob Wheeler, in town this week to tour the dealership. “You love outdoor adventure, and you appreciate design and sustainability,” he said. “The stars are perfectly aligned.”
The recreational vehicle industry was hit hard during the recession, and Airstream was no exception. From mid-2007 to mid-2009, sales plunged as dealers sold off inventory and didn’t reorder, Wheeler said.
But with the economy picking up, consumers are coming back.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand,” Wheeler said. As the economy tanked, people postponed buying, “But they never gave up on the lifestyle.”
Airstream traces back to 1929, when founder Wally Byam began building trailers in his backyard in Los Angeles. Byam loved traveling since childhood, when he used to accompany his grandfather, a mule train leader, on trips to Oregon.
He purchased a bankrupt trailer manufacturer and, in 1936, introduced the Airstream Clipper, the first of the now iconic round-shouldered aluminum trailers. He was a master promoter, often organizing caravans of trailers in exotic locales. In one highly publicized event in 1959, he led a group of 41 Airstreams on a 14,000-mile voyage from Capetown, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt.
His legacy stands: Of the more than 400 travel trailer builders operating during the Depression, Airstream is the sole survivor.
Wheeler notes that 70% of the Airstreams ever sold are still registered. Their longevity might be tied to how little they’ve changed over the years.
“We don’t tinker,” he says. “It’s harder than it sounds.”
The strategy appears to be a selling point. Johnstone notes that his customers generally fall into three camps: those who’ve always been curious about Airstreams, those whose parents or other relatives owned one and former Airstream owners.
“It’s the only product I know of that’s futuristic and retro at the same time,” he said of its appeal.
Airstreams are 15 feet to 34 feet long and can run from $35,000 to $110,000. There are four basic styles, all equipped with a kitchen, a bathroom, beds and a flat-screen television, and come with varying add-ons.
The Jackson Center, Ohio-based company, now owned by Thor Industries Inc., is not alone in seeing an upswing.
“We’re seeing a huge resurgence of interest in RVs,” said Shannon Nill, president of the Oregon Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association. “We’re having a fantastic year.”
To Nill, owner of Guaranty RV Centers in Junction City, the appeal of RV travel is easy to explain.
“It’s less expensive than air travel, you don’t have to go through airport screening, you can sleep in your own bed and there’s no waiting in line.”
Even the state’s hard-hit RV manufacturing business, focused in Lane County, is starting to see signs of life in the aftermath of bankruptcy filings by Monaco Coach Corp. and Country Coach LLC in 2009. Employment in the sector — as high as 4,796 in 2006 — plunged to 1,924 in January 2009 before climbing to 2,315 in December, according to the Oregon Employment Department.
Monaco got a new lease on life as part of a large multinational corporation, Navistar International Corp. And Nill said Northwood Manufacturing Inc. in La Grande is making a comeback with Nash and other brands.
Wheeler says Airstream is excited about the new dealership; the only other one in the state is in Eugene.
“We think they will do well,” he said. “They get it. They have a twinkle in their eyes.”