In Kirk MacKellar’s experience, Airstream travel trailers usually make an impression. The Dimondale, Mich., resident has owned one of the iconic recreation vehicles – known for their airplane fuselagelike design and aluminum exterior – for nine years.
The Lansing State Journal reported that three years ago, MacKellar and fellow Airstream traveler Chad Carlson of Grand Rapids decided to do a bit of “urban camping,” in downtown Rockford, Ill. Their presence drew a crowd. “We had so many people coming up to our trailers. We didn’t expect that but it was a great draw.”
So last October the two men teamed up to plan an event inspired by that experience. “Urban Air,” brought 33 of the airstream trailers to Eaton Rapids’ downtown. Trailer owners parked along Main Street and opened their vehicles up to anyone who wanted a look inside. Meanwhile the out-of-town visitors camped, shopped and networked with one another.
“You’re lucky to see one but to see this many all together is a kind of rarity,” said MacKellar, of the first-time event.
This year “Urban Air” will descend on Eaton Rapids again – and it is expected to have triple the number of participants, with at least 100 Airstreamers expected to be there Oct. 10-13. About 40 will line the sides of Main Street with the remainder camping at Howe Field, a block west of the city’s downtown.
The event offers a diverse crowd. Airstream owners from all over the country and from Canada will be taking part. In addition, a full schedule of events is planned – including nightly music performances, movies, group dinners and tours of the trailers.
MacKellar said the group is now an official nonprofit. The effort, entitled “Urban Air…Wake Up Downtown,” is focused on breathing life into small, historical downtowns and at the same time providing Airstream hobbyists the opportunity to network and socialize.
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Neither destructive rainstorms nor the shutdown of the federal government deterred a caravan of 64 people from hauling their iconic recreation vehicles across the Southwest to explore the natural wonders of the region.
The Farmington (N.M.) Daily Times reported that as part of a package set up by Wally Byam Caravan Club International, 34 groups of people are wrapping up a two-month trip through New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. The club is an RV organization named after the inventor of the Airstream travel trailer, which can be recognized by its distinct, round aluminum body.
Parked last week in a corner of New Mexico’s McGee Park parking lot near the San Juan County Fairgrounds, the 31 Airstream trailers and three motor homes formed an L-shape whose shiny, metal exterior reflected across the parking spaces. The group arrived in San Juan County on Tuesday and departed on Friday morning, bound for Albuquerque and the International Balloon Fiesta.
John Larson was traveling with his brothers, Harold and David, and sister-in-law, Donna. They used the caravan to spend time together as a family.
“We are on the Southwest caravan, where we will travel the Southwest in one big circle across 50 days,” Larson said. “The trailers are very distinctive in contrast to other trailers.”
The goal of the trip is to visit regions of the four states that casual tourists doesn’t see.
Of the national parks the group has visited, Larson said the only park they were unable to see was the Aztec Ruins National Monument because of the government shutdown.
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Carol Orvitz would be the first to admit that the national passion for Airstream travel trailers is not what it once was. Back in Airstream’s heyday, during the 1970s and ’80s, Airstream trailer owners from around the country would pack the exclusive Hawks Prairie trailer park in Washington State each summer, turning it into a sea of silver.
According to a report in The Olympian, the annual Washington rally would draw hundreds of the distinctive rounded aluminum trailers, and every one of the 192 residential lots in the Land Yacht Harbor subdivision, which requires an Airstream for ownership, was spoken for.
This year’s weeklong Airstream rally, which ended Sunday, was just a faint echo of that boom.
The club’s traditional salmon dinner Saturday night drew 160 Airstreamers – although, most were permanent Yacht Harbor residents. Fewer than two dozen visitors pulled their rigs in from outside the area.
“Age has taken hold,” said Orvitz, 72, one of the organizers of the rally and a past president of the international club’s Washington unit. “We have a lot of people, really, who came to the end of their lives or are ready to go into assisted living.”
But Orvitz has what she calls her “wave theory.”
Most of the first wave of Airstreamers, who bought their trailers in the 1950s and ’60s, Orvitz says, have gone on down the road. “They’re gone now,” she said.
Their children, who cherished their adventures in Airstreams as kids, inherited the trailers and formed the second wave, she said. Most of them are now, like her, in their 70s.
Now, Orvitz says, there’s a third wave, propagated by young, wealthy professionals who are taken with nostalgia for the classic rigs and are lovingly refurbishing them. They caught the disease Airstream owners laughingly call “aluminum fever” or “aluminitis.”
“We think we bottomed out and we’re starting up again,” she said.
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Near the end of a runway-straight stretch of pavement that parallels Interstate 87 in Plattsburgh, N.Y., sits a cluster of shiny silver pods glistening in the summer sun. The pods, which look like alien spacecraft that have just touched down to visit Adirondack Park, are Airstream travel trailers for sale to customers all over the world.
As reported by Seven Days, this is the home of Nomad Airstream. The 35,000-square-foot facility, formerly an April Cornell warehouse, is the exclusive distributor of Airstream travel trailers in Vermont and New York. Situated at the gateway to the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain, Nomad Airstream has become a global destination for recreational and business clients obsessed with the world’s first-ever modern recreational vehicle.
Anyone unfamiliar with the Airstream name has undoubtedly seen these iconic silver bullets sailing down the highway, parked in campgrounds or featured in countless films, TV shows and advertisements. Their sleek, art-deco designs have captivated consumers’ interest and affections since the first ones rolled off a Los Angeles production line back in 1936.
Since then, Airstreams have been used by everyone from U.S. military commanders and NASA astronauts to screen actors, directors and other celebrities. In 2001, Pamela Anderson reportedly received an all-white Airstream from Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Dubbed the “Lovestream,” it was outfitted with a mirrored ceiling, white shag carpeting, a vibrating bed and a stripper pole.
Today, Airstream trailers occupy a unique niche in popular culture. There are now campgrounds, motor clubs, conventions, magazines, websites and even insurance companies devoted exclusively to Airstream enthusiasts, aka Airstreamers. And, though many people naturally associate the chrome domes with the national parks and deserts of the American Southwest, more of the trailers are sold in New York State than anywhere else in the world.
Capitalizing on their exclusive status in the North Country and the global Airstream phenomenon are Nomad president Steven Clement and CEO Guillaume Langevin. Three years ago, Clement, then a high-end Canadian clothier, and Langevin, a Montréal advertising executive, set up shop not far from Plattsburgh International Airport with modest plans to renovate three Airstream trailers with $100,000.
Today, Nomad has become North America’s largest restorer and renovator of new and used Airstreams. From four employees in 2010, the company has grown to 17, many of whom, Clement notes, are former airplane technicians.
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In a completely new twist for the RV industry, former Thor Industries Inc. executive Dicky Riegel in May will launch Airstream 2 Go LLC, a company that plans to rent Airstream travel trailers hitched to GMC Yukon Denali SUV tow vehicles to retail consumers.
”Airstream 2 Go is entirely new for people who never have had the experience of an Airstream,” said Riegel, former president of Airstream Inc. and senior president of Thor, Airstream’s parent company.
Airstream 2 Go initially will make available through facilities in Las Vegas and Los Angeles a fleet of 20 Airstream International Signature travel trailers, offered in 23- and 28-foot lengths, with interiors by noted designer Christopher C. Deam.
Rates for a weeklong rental will range from $5,300 for people who just want to pick up a trailer/tow package and range up to $7,500 for a customized itinerary developed by Airstream 2 Go’s partner Off the Beaten Path, a Montana-based travel planning and outfitting company. Riegel noted that Airstream 2 Go would limit rentals to five days or longer.
”It’s a premium experience,” Riegel said. ”Many in the RV industry will say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money.’ But if you think about how unique Airstream 2 Go is, and the ability we give to visit America’s great venues in a quintessential way, we know there will be demand for the experience at the premium price point.”
Rental customers will be covered by their automobile insurance, Riegel said. ”Insurance coverage will be just like when they rent an automobile,” he said.
Riegel said Airstream 2 Go, in developing its novel business plan, surveyed 60,000 consumers about their interest in renting an Airstream and found a substantial number of positive responses.
”For all those people, Airstream 2 Go presents an exciting opportunity never offered before,” Riegel said.
Also as part of its game plan, Airstream 2 Go has an exclusive arrangement with Airstream Inc. to provide rental travel trailers to the public, which heretofore had not been available.
In California, Airstream 2 Go will offer rentals at the Airstream Los Angeles dealership in San Gabriel. In Nevada, the new company will have a 28,000-square-foot lot in a redevelopment project in downtown Las Vegas.
Riegel said Airstream 2 Go over the next three to five years expects to establish facilities in Florida, Texas, the Pacific Northwest, Illinois and New England, among other locations.
Editor’s Note: The following column is penned by Dutch Mandel, editorial director for Autoweek, chronicling his association with former Airstream and Thor Industries Inc. executive Dicky Riegel over the years and the pending launch of Airstream 2 Go – the only factory-authorized Airstream trailer rental company in the U.S.
I met Dicky Riegel about 10 years ago. I’d been wandering the halls of the annual Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) convention in Louisville, Ky., and Dicky was completely blocking the doorway of a bright and shiny Airstream trailer. I wanted in.
At 6 feet 7, Dicky blocks a lot of passages, but opens up many more. As then-president of Airstream Inc., he afforded adventurers a chance to see the world, one iconic aluminum tube at a time.
When we found out what each other did, neither of us could stop asking questions. Dicky is a car fanatic — a nut of the finest order – and from an early age, he consumed car magazines, including Autoweek, like oxygen. As I’ve an interest in design, the open road and a cool, hip life I envision leading someday with an Airstream on my bumper and miles of roads ahead, it was an ideal match. For days, stories and vodka gimlets flowed.
Over the years, I visited Dicky and right-hand-man Bob Wheeler — an unassuming engineer the ladies adore at their Jackson Center, Ohio, headquarters. We did projects together: When Autoweek competed in a human-powered Red Bull Dragster event, we promoted a righteous Airstream SkyDeck motor home. Every successful race team needs hospitality, right?
In time, Dicky moved from Airstream to parent company Thor Industries Inc. (and Bob became Airstream president, a position he still holds today). That was the beginning and the middle of this story … that gets better.
Move forward several years, and Dicky wants to do something on his own. He conjures up a brilliant plan.
Understand that the only way anyone could experience the Airstream lifestyle was if they went all in and bought one. It was a commitment to be part of a life enjoyed by many and envied by more.(Who among us, upon seeing a summer sun glint off that shiny carapace, has not breathed the sigh of a beckoning road?) Until now, there’d been no way to rent an Airstream to live this fantasy.
Dicky started Airstream 2 Go, the first and only factory-authorized Airstream trailer rental company in the States. He raised capital, bought a squadron of trailers and a fleet of GMC Yukon Denalis, and created a mobile destination getaway we all can enjoy. (Its soft launch is this month, but he’s booking clients for May already! Go to airstream2go.com to learn more.)
He’s made it simple — a concierge will plan stops, coordinate your adventure, plot your path and, of course, make reservations. Before you go, a full-blown ground school will walk you through how to care for the trailer. Or you can fly in, rent the rig and off you go. The level of engagement is customizable and fits every customer.
Have you dreamed of a roll through America’s purple mountain majesty? A 23-foot Airstream could fill your needs. A family of six can vacation to the Grand Canyon or the Pacific Ocean in a 28-footer. Each model is fitted with air conditioning, power awning, backup camera, lawn chairs, gas grill, available bike rack, generator, bathroom with shower, kitchen with refrigerator and microwave, duvets (!) and flat-panel TV.
You could float down a river, spelunk a cave or lie on a beach, but until you’ve enjoyed the openness this country offers, you’ve not lived. Dicky, like I said, has opened up America to many, and I can’t wait for my Airstream vacation.
What is it about Airstream design that continues to engender such passion more than 80 years after the trailer first appeared? Is it the alluring, streamlined aluminum shell? The cozy interiors? The nostalgia for a simpler era?
“It’s a part of American culture that transcends time,” architect Matthew Hofmann told the Los Angeles Times. “It symbolizes style and adventure. There is something very fundamental about getting in your car and driving across country. It’s in our blood.”
Hofmann opened an Airstream hotel last month consisting of four tricked-out trailers at the Santa Barbara Auto Camp. On a recent afternoon, curious pedestrians repeatedly interrupted Hofmann and business partner Neil Dipaola to ask if they could take a peek inside the trailers. Upon entering, they found renovated interiors with hotel upgrades perfectly suited for “glamping” — mini-bars, wall-mounted flat-screen TVs, air conditioning and 1,000-thread-count sheets, all for $150 per night.
According to Airstream, about 70% of all the trailers ever manufactured by the company are still in use, so it is not surprising that Hofmann, as well as other entrepreneurs, would think to use them as lodging. Singer Kate Pierson of the B-52’s opened her second vintage Airstream hotel in November.
But unlike Pierson’s playful kitschy decor (think the B-52’s “Love Shack” video), Hofmann’s Airstreams stand out for their surprising elegance. The modern updates are no different than any home remodel, he said, and he viewed his trailers from the 1950s to 1970s as floor plans for small-space living.
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Airstream Inc. announced it has appointed new dealers in China, South Korea and Australia as part of the company’s global expansion strategy.
According to a press release, Airstream will manufacture and assemble the trailers at the company’s factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, but redesign the units to “fit the unique specifications of each country.” Once completed, the units will be shipped abroad to independent dealers in each market.
Airstream said its three new dealers in China, located in Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen, will service a “burgeoning population of consumers that are discovering the RV lifestyle.” As China continues to grow its campground infrastructure, Airstream expects to be a brand in demand by both traditional RVers and collectors because of its iconic American design.
Airstream’s retail expansion into South Korea and Australia allows the brand to “tap into existing RV markets and reach outdoor adventure enthusiasts looking for a well-built RV that represents the highest of quality and design.”
Airstream is already established in the UK, continental Europe and Japan, and is evaluating interest from other markets including South America, South Africa and Russia.
“The addition of these five dealers to Airstream’s global network is a key part of the company’s long-term strategy that we anticipate will generate a new group of passionate Airstreamers abroad,” said Airstream CEO and President Bob Wheeler. “Advancing Airstream’s international business with the right partners is the key to our success in foreign markets, and through the highly selective process I feel we have found great representatives in these new countries.”
In China, Airstream will operate under the name Flying Cloud by Airstream Inc., USA, and produce units no larger than 23 feet and 2.5 meters wide in accordance with regulations set by China’s department of transportation. By early 2013, each dealer across China, South Korea and Australia will have product inventory available including the Sport, Flying Cloud and International models.
Additional information on the new dealers includes:
• Shanghai, China: Ameritrade Trading Ltd. will represent Airstream in Shanghai. The dealership owner has a deep fondness for the brand, so much so that he named his son Wally after Airstream founder Wally Byam. As former president of the Harley Owners Group in Shanghai, the dealer has a unique understanding of how to market American products to the Chinese.
• Beijing, China: LanDE currently has a network of Jaguar/Land Rover dealerships and has an outstanding reputation for attention to detail and customer service in the luxury automobile sector. The Beijing retailer brings a blend of successful business background with knowledge and passion for Airstream and the lifestyle it represents.
• Xiamen, China: Smart Hero, based in the picturesque city of Xiamen, has a diversified portfolio of unique dealership businesses. They are the authorized Chinese dealer of recreational products such as Cessna aircraft, John Deere utility vehicles, and Sea Ray Yachts. The addition of Airstream travel trailers to their current lineup of these well-known brands is intended to establish Smart Hero as the marquis dealer of high-end recreational products.
• Bateman’s Bay, Australia: A&A Industries will operate Airstream Australia and specializes in providing recreational vehicles to high-end luxury travelers who want to experience long term travel on the open roads. Wheeler recently attended the grand opening of Airstream Australia as the brand’s official launch in the market.
• Seoul, South Korea: Bluebird RV is a full-service RV dealership in Seoul that retains the experience and manpower to make Airstream a key competitor in the market. The dealership’s location provides access to more than 400 commercial campgrounds and national parks.
The first time Ben Jenkins met Billy Gibbons, the guitarist and lead singer for the rock band ZZ Top, they sat in Jenkins’ 1958 Airstream trailer in the parking lot of the Four Seasons Hotel outside Dallas.
“The meeting was supposed to be at the hotel bar, but once he heard I had the trailer in tow, he commandeered a hotel golf cart and we went out to do the meeting at the trailer,” says Jenkins, the 39-year-old owner of the Texas design company OneFastBuffalo, whom Gibbons had hired to help launch an online store. Jenkins bought the renovated trailer four years ago. It serves as a mobile office and, occasionally, his second home.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that for adventurous entrepreneurs, architects, graphic designers, engineers, and salespeople, the office is wherever they choose to park. These professionals are “location independent,” in the words of Airstream owner Sharon Pieniak, a 41-year-old designer and photographer.
Pieniak doubts she’ll ever go back to working in a regular office. “I’m a freedom junkie,” she says, “though I might decide to have a home base to return to every now and then, where I can keep things I collect from traveling.” Pieniak plans to spend the fall working with clients in Napa.
Much of the mobile office buzz stems from the weakened economy. Airstreams cost from $50,000 to $60,000; for an independent contractor on a budget with a demanding travel schedule, that makes them a tantalizing alternative to renting expensive office space by the square foot, says Wally Hofmann, co-owner of Hofmann Architecture in Santa Barbara, which specializes in the renovation of Airstream interiors. With 12 trailers in production, Hofmann says he’s operating at peak capacity and receives more than 50 calls a month.
Sales of brand-new Airstreams are up, too. Over the past 12 to 18 months, says Airstream Chief Executive Officer Bob Wheeler, “we have seen a significant increase in the amount of people who are utilizing their Airstream for both professional and recreational use.”
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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.