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RVs Mark a Different Road Back to Recovery

December 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The recreational vehicle industry, a gauge of Americans’ ability to splurge on adult toys, has been stuck in the slow lane of the road to recovery. Now, RV makers are trying to move things along with more fuel-efficient trailers aimed at frugal travelers tired of airports and motels, the Wall Street Journal reported.

U.S. sales of RVs — ranging from towable campers costing as little as $4,000 to bus-like behemoths with two bathrooms and king-size beds for $300,000 or more — boomed from 2000 through 2007 as Americans tapped their swelling home equity to buy shelter on wheels. The industry built bigger and fancier models, catering to those whose idea of getting away from it all involves taking a lot of it with them.

But RV sales began plunging in 2008 and last year were about 46% below the peak level in 2005, to around $6.2 billion, according to market researcher Statistical Surveys Inc. Several big manufacturers have gone through bankruptcy, and at least 200 dealers in new RVs, or 8% of the total, have left the business.

The industry is fighting back by offering lighter vehicles aimed at a broader range of buyers, while expanding advertising that touts the affordability of RV travel. It is also hoping that people put off by security pat-downs and other air-travel nuisances will turn to RVs.

“We have survived tough times in the past,” Richard Coon, president of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), said in a pep talk to members of the trade group at its annual convention last month.

One priority is to make more converts like Tim and Jennifer Tracy of Pennington, N.J., both lawyers. They bought their first RV — a 27-foot Airstream, with a list price of about $70,000 — last January. “We wanted to make memories for our boys,” ages 2 and 6, says Mr. Tracy. His idea of a vacation is backpacking; his wife prefers resort hotels. The RV was “a sort of compromise,” Tim Tracy says, and has proved a hit with the family.

Manufacturers are cutting the weight of RVs by as much as 25%, partly by using plastic composite materials instead of wood, to improve fuel economy and help counter fears of rising gasoline prices.

They also are trying to make RVs look less like white boxes. EverGreen Recreational Vehicle LLC recently introduced a sleek new trailer called the Element, which starts at $38,000 and is light enough to be pulled by a minivan. The RV industry gets a large share of its sales from buyers over age 50, but EverGreen’s 37-year-old engineering director, Dan Rodabaugh, hopes the Element, with its simple and uncluttered interior, will appeal to younger buyers like himself.

Airstream Inc., a unit of Thor Industries Inc., recently teamed up with the retailer Eddie Bauer LLC to design and market a model aimed at younger and more active people who want to haul kayaks or mountain bikes inside their trailers.

The industry association spent about $8.25 million in 2010 to buy TV and other ads using talking animals to tout the economy and family-friendliness of RV trips. It plans to increase that budget to about $11 million in 2011 and run the ads in movie theaters as well as on cable TV, online and in print.

“Our best commercial for our industry is the airlines,” Robert J. Olson, CEO of Winnebago Industries Inc., told analysts recently. “If you haven’t gone on an airline lately, it’s a real hassle.” Meanwhile, the recent bed-bug scare helped make people warier of motels, says John Lenzo, an owner of Colonial Airstream, a dealer in Lakewood, N.J.

The industry’s biggest manufacturer, Thor, was founded in 1980 when Wade Thompson and Peter Orthwein acquired an ailing Airstream. Since then, Thor has made a series of acquisitions that, along with organic growth, have given it about a third of the RV market in terms of sales. In 2009, Thor also shored up the industry’s largest retailer, Camping World Inc., by lending $30 million to the owners of that chain so they could put more capital into the company.

Camping World, which has 78 stores, accounts for around 15% of Thor’s total RV sales. “It would have been pretty messy if they had gone under,” says Richard Riegel, senior group president of Thor. Marcus Lemonis, CEO of Camping World, says his company could have survived without the loans but wanted a “more flexible and comfortable balance sheet.”

In the first nine months of 2010, U.S. retail sales of new RVs totaled about 152,000, up 5.5% from the depressed year-earlier level, according to Statistical Surveys. Manufacturers’ shipments of RVs in 2011 are projected to rise 4%, to about 246,000 units, the RVIA trade group says. Thor’s Riegel says shipments will grow to 300,000 annually by 2013, which would still leave them 23% below the market peak in 2006.

RVs have never appealed much to urban hipsters, and sales tend to be concentrated in smaller cities, towns and rural areas. The RVIA estimates that 8.3 million American households, or about 7%, own RVs. At this point, it remains largely a domestic industry. It’s too costly to ship the big products around the world. Some of the manufacturers do have vague hopes of implanting themselves in China at some point in the future, but that’s just talk for now. They say China lacks the infrastructure of places to park RVs.

Makers of RVs say the 76 million Baby Boomers remain a very promising market, though many have lost their home equity and savings and aren’t in a position to buy now. As a result of those financial pressures, many boomers are likely to rent or share RVs rather than buy them, says John W. Martin, CEO of Boomer Project LLC, a market-research firm.

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National Airstream Tour Promotes Linen Line

September 23, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The 1977 Airstream in use by Peacock Alley

The 1977 Airstream in use by Peacock Alley

A restored 1977 Airstream travel trailer has been outfitted to promote the Peacock Alley collection of fine linens in the Southwest.

Linens on display inside Airstream trailer.

Linens on display inside Airstream trailer.

The Airstream, owned by Dallas-based Peacock Alley’s Josh Needleman, vice president of business development, has hit the road, conducting a national tour in a vintage Airstream decked out in the company’s luxury linens.

The restored 1977 travel trailer is making stops in Dallas, Solana Beach (San Diego), Jackson, Miss., and Houston as part of Peacock Alley’s Silver Home Tour.

Among the items outfitting the Airstream are fall 2010 bed and bath linens, decorative pillows, table accessory linens and 100% bath robes.

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Airstream Caravan Attracts Veteran RVers

July 26, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

The types of people and where they travel on a Wally Byam Caravan, like the one that stopped in Helena, Mont., recently, are as different as the variety of styles of Airstreams they drive, but nearly all have one thing in common: they all camped in a tent once.

Times have changed for these friendly, travel-loving campers who believe that as we age, our bodies need more amenities like water and electricity, as well as some cushion under the covers, the Helena Independent Record reported.

“We were once flat on the ground, until our bones needed a pad or a blow-up,” said Phil Glassey, wagonmaster for the caravan  of about 50 Airstreams on the National Landmarks Caravan, which started in Hardin, Mont., in early July and will end some 45 days later in Arcata, Calif.

Participants wear name tags that include their hometowns, making it apparent that Airstream zealots come from all over — New Jersey, North Carolina, and Ontario, Canada.

Cecil and Kathryn Childers are from Corpus Christi, Texas. Cecil retired from psychiatry two weeks before they set out on their first caravan tour. Kathryn was one of the first female agents in the U.S. Secret Service, has hosted her own television show and most recently started a publishing company.

Bob and Nancy Russell are from Diamondale, Mich. Bob is retired from the state’s highway department. The couple began Airstreaming 30 years ago and have done 25 trips.

John and Cissy Thibadeau are native Atlantans and have been married 42 years. Cissy is a retired teacher who still substitutes when she can. John is a mechanical engineer who spent four years on active duty in the Navy nuclear submarine program. He started a real estate company, development and construction company. Today, he manages investment properties and tries to work one day a week, unless a better opportunity to play golf or tennis comes along.

The group  visited Montana’s capital city about 10 days into the trip and set up camp at the Lincoln Road RV Park. During their first group outing, they enjoyed a wagon-train dinner ride at the Last Chance Ranch, 9 miles south of town up Grizzly Gulch. The next morning they headed north to ride the tour boat through the Gates of the Mountains and visited the Historical Society in the afternoon.

They traveled in their Airstreams north to Great Falls and are scheduled to be in Glacier National Park this week. From there, they’ll head west to Washington, then south through Oregon and end in California.

Airstreams were first officially made under the name in 1934; each trailer was custom-made because developer Wally Byam didn’t have a production line. In 1936, Byam built a riveted aluminum shell that looks similar to modern models.

In 1942, the War Production Board ordered the manufacturing of house trailers to be halted, except when making them for government purposes. When the war was over and the ban lifted, Byam struggled to get his business going for lack of capital.

There were two Airstream factories in 1952, one in Van Nuys, Calif., and another in Jackson Center, Ohio, where the corporate office is today.

During the following 10 years, the company grew. Byam and his wife, Stella, led every caravan between the winter if 1951 and the spring of 1960.

The Wally Byam Caravan Club is now one of the largest clubs in trailering. There are currently 19 planned caravan tours listed on its website.

It’s not a requirement to be retired, but because the trips are sometimes months long, it helps.

The only person not at or nearing retirement age on the caravan is 11-year-old Michaela Heese, of Arkansas, who was spending time with her grandparents, Florene and Selwyn Heese.

The trip appealed to the soon to be seventh-grader because, she said with a giggle, it got her away from her three brothers.

Michaela didn’t seem to mind not having access to video games, a cell phone or online chatting with friends. She was happy enough to test her creativity by taking pictures using a red Vivitar.

“I loved going to Yellowstone because I saw stuff I haven’t seen before,” she said.

Kathryn Childers says part of the charm of the caravan is the pets that accompany the group.

“Everyone brings their animals,” she said.

When entering the Childers’ 25-foot Airstream with pink flamingos painted on the side and chili pepper lights strung outside, Ellie, the happy cocker spaniel, greets you at the door. When it’s time to travel to the next stop along the way, Ellie is even buckled in a seat belt before they push off.

Kathryn says traveling the country was a “bucket list” item.

“I wanted to get it done before I’m not able,” the vivacious author said.

Visiting new places with an Airstream was more appealing than traveling by plane, staying in hotels and renting cars, she said.

“It’s like every night you go home,” Kathryn said.

Many say it’s nice to have the trip organized by someone else.

Glassey, an outdoor enthusiast and mountain climber from Olympia, Wash., is just that person on this particular trip. He’s been Airstreaming for the past decade, and started leading caravans in 2008. It’s his job to organize and plan the entire trip, not to mention be the “go to” guy for everything.

An Airstream caravan will likely become an annual tradition for Bernie and Doris Goldstein and Tom and Nancy Harrington, who have been close friends since 1965, when they were neighbors in Bakersfield, Calif.

Today the Harringtons reside in Sunlakes, Ariz., and the Goldsteins in Ventura, Calif., but they’ve managed to plan a trip together nearly every year since they first met. They can’t remember ever having an argument.

“We just stay together long enough not to get in an argument,” Nancy said.

The Goldsteins got their Airstream first, but it wasn’t long before the Harrington’s got the bug and joined them.

Nancy says that when she thinks about the Airstream caravan, the word “hospitality” comes into her mind, followed by “fun, fellowship and adventure.”

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Watch Today’s Video on Airstream Alumapalooza

July 9, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Today’s Featured Video is a slide show from last month’s Airstream Alumapalooza Rally in Jackson Center, Ohio.

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13 Great Centennial RVs – 1 of 13

July 6, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

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Bob Wheeler, president of Airstream

Bob Wheeler, president of Airstream

According to Airstream Inc. President and CEO Bob Wheeler, “A monocoque shell is a perfect design to build a long-lasting travel trailer.”

It is also, apparently, a perfect design with which to build a long-lasting travel trailer company.

The Thor Industries Inc. subsidiary has in fact been in business since 1936, making it the oldest continually active manufacturer in the RV industry. Not surprisingly, the riveted aluminum shape has become the unofficial silhouette of the RV industry. While “Winnebago” has entered the lexicon to become the generic equivalent of “RV,” the Airstream has come to represent the look of the lifestyle.

The Airstream wasn’t company founder Wally Byam’s first foray into trailer manufacturing. His earliest efforts — the Torpedo Car Cruiser — were egg-shaped units produced in 1931. When Byam acquired the assets of the Bowlus-Teller Trailer Co. in 1936, the familiar monocoque design soon graced the first Airstream Clipper.

The rest, to used a well-worn cliché, is history.

The consummate promoter, Byam toured the world in his Airstreams, which grew in size and complexity — and, eventually, into self-propulsion. After a series of starts and stops — and well after the debut of the Argosy, known as the “painted Airstream” in 1972 — Airstream finally plunged into the motorized sector in 1979. The company continues to offer both motorized (Class B) and travel trailers around the world.

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Thousands of RV-Dwellers Work on the Road

June 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Brad Herzog and Family

Brad Herzog and Family

Pleasant smells wafted from the little kitchen inside Brett and April Denson’s Open Range recreation vehicle parked in the Cozy Acres Campground in Virginia’s Powhatan County.

Brett, a boilermaker by trade, had come in for the evening from his job on a crew building a storage tank for a Virginia client of Fisher Tank Co., his Lexington, S.C.-based employer.

April was preparing dinner while he relaxed and played with their dogs. They had been in Virginia for 2 ½ months, and his job was nearly done.

A couple of days later, having received his next job assignment from the foreman at Fisher Tank, the Densons battened down their belongings, dismantled the satellite dish, hitched the RV to their truck and headed off to Lawrence, Kan., according to the Richmond (Va.) Times Dispatch.

Brett Denson, 43, has been traveling around the country building storage tanks since he was 19, part of the time alone, other times with his wife, also 43, and their three children.

Their children are now adults — and living in the family home in Kentucky — so the Densons travel fulltime together.

“I guess it’s because it pays good,” explained Brett Denson about his career, while noting that using the RV beats staying at motels. “I don’t know how to do anything else. I took spells where I wanted to get a job at home, but I got over it.”

While some people use their RVs to chase work while seeing America, others simply live in their RVs and commute to their regular job. Some travel from place to place trading their work for a free campsite. But how many there are is anyone’s guess.

Anywhere from 25,000 to 250,000 working Americans travel around in RVs, motoring from state to state and job to job to earn a paycheck, according to Arkansas-based Workamper News, a website that caters to RV migrants.

“We definitely know that work camping is alive, well and growing in numbers,” Workamper News owner Steve Anderson said. “I know that because our subscriber base continues to grow.”

The biggest national RV trade organization, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) in Reston, Va., does not keep statistics on RV owners who travel from job to job. Spokesman Kevin Broom estimated that 400,000-800,000 people live full time on the road in an RV. “Many are also working,” he said.

Jean Daniels, who owns Cozy Acres with her husband, Larry, said RV workers are frequent residents there.

“They stay here until the job is completed and then they move on to the next job,” she said. “We had somebody building a Joseph A Bank Clothier store and one of the guys here is doing something with that American Family Fitness facility. . . . When they built [state] Route 288, a lot of the foremen on that job stayed here.

“There’s always people working in the area,” she said. “They don’t want to stay in a hotel. They have figured out that they can buy an RV and have the comfort of their own place, fix their meals and watch TV.”

Sonny Allen, manager of Americamps KOA Richmond, which is near Ashland, said about 30% of the campground’s tenants are workers traveling from job to job. They have included a computer analyst who sets up computer systems for companies, a nurse working under contract to a local hospital and an employee of a tobacco company transferred here from another state.

“The people we have in here right now — some of them are pavers,” Allen said. “They go around to different places and do paving projects” such as fast-food or grocery-store parking lots.

Erik Bjorklund, a 54-year-old carpenter, lives in a 26-foot Airstream RV at Americamps. He said he is kept busy by a small clientele of doctors, lawyers and other professionals. One job performed in 1993 for a urologist led to all the work he can handle.

“I’ve never had to look for work, and I’ve never been out of work,” he said. “I hardly have a day off.”

Bjorklund decided to live in, and work from, his RV after divorcing from his wife, who got their house in Richmond. “I’ve been here since October,” he said.

Brad Herzog of California has researched and written three books based on his RV travels.

For two months every summer, Herzog travels with his wife and sons, ages 8 and 9. He blogs and researches books.

“Fifteen years ago, we didn’t have a cell phone, no e-mail, no wireless Internet,” he said. “Now, when you hit the road, you can be as connected as you want to be. I think that’s why more and more people have found that it’s pretty easy to work from the road from an RV.”

Herzog also noted the money saved by not staying in hotels, not buying restaurant meals, not renting cars and not booking flights “makes up for what we spend in gas.”

Americamps charges $33 to $53 a day for a site with water, sewer and electricity, or a weekly rate of $275. Cozy Acres has daily rates starting at $37 and monthly rates starting at $475 plus electricity. Many campgrounds offer a variety of discount plans.

The Densons note that RV living is not for everyone, and life on the road can be tough.

A lot of the reason that some jobs pay so much is because people don’t want to be gone all the time, Brett Denson said. “Some do it for a little while and quit.”

Also, “you’re away from your extended family,” April Denson said, and “you really have to not mind being in close quarters.”

But the lifestyle offers a lot of variety. It has taken the Densons to more than 40 states.

“We really like going to different places,” she said. “We always have a good time.”

“It’s better doing it when you can take your family with you, especially your wife,” Brett Denson said. “It’s more like a regular life.”

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Airstreamers Begin Arriving at Wyoming Rally

June 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

International_Rally1More than 800 Airstream trailers and motorhomes are expected to arrive in Gillette, Wyo., this week for the 53rd Annual International Convention/Rally of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International.

Organizers say about 1,500 people are expected for the rally, which starts Saturday and runs through July 4 at the Gillette Cam-plex, according to the Gillette Record.

The club holds rallies throughout the year in different locations across the country. Some participants tour from one rally to the next.

International President Tom Collier says the rally should provide a $4 million economic boost to the local community through the use of local services.

The organization also will have an on-site blood drive and food bank, and contribute to Habitat for Humanity and Salvation Army.

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College Design Students Redo ’58 Airstream

June 21, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Design students will tackle redesigning interior of this 1958 Airstream travel trailer.

Design students will tackle redesigning interior of this 1958 Airstream travel trailer.

Six graduate students from the Interdisciplinary Design Institute at Washington State University, Spokane, were just introduced to an American icon in the travel industry — a 1958 Airstream Overlander trailer. They have eight weeks to delve into the world of travel trailers and transform the interior into livable space all while exploring the sustainability issues of today’s society and challenging the current image of the travel trailer industry, according to WSU Today.

The 26-foot trailer is the focus of a summer design studio — WSU Airstream Studio 2010. Led by clinical assistant professor Todd Beyreuther, students will not only redesign the trailer, but they will think about how its design can solve very global and economic issues related to mobility and living in small spaces.

“The design will likely be a fluid, digital form within an American icon of manufacturing and mobility with its aluminum skin, rivets and curves,” said Beyreuther. “We don’t want to touch the iconicity, but we do want to address some of today’s larger scale issues with the new design.”

The team of students has taken on the management roles of construction, marketing, social media, financing, digital modeling and manufacturing to simulate what they would normally experience on a construction project in their practicing professions. The course will concentrate on the design transformation of interior components of this Airstream chassis while preserving its historic exterior character.

When designing a new interior for an older object, there are many challenges. Fortunately, this group started with a blank slate — this trailer was gutted prior to arriving at  Spokane. With the latest technology in their hands, they have the means to digitally map the surfaces to 1/100 of an inch and later create a 3D digital design to give exact specifications directly to manufacturing for a perfect fit of the new materials.

“It’s a great opportunity for the students to explore global scale issues of sustainability and mobile lifestyles through a design | build project that that focuses on product design, materials and manufacturing at a scale much smaller than typically addressed in architecture and interior design,” said Beyreuther.

Marketed as one of the lightest travel trailers out there, the trailer’s original logo even depicts a person on a bicycle pulling the Airstream. This group takes that logo one step further and tackles the issues of sustainability and explores the possibility of taking this trailer off the grid.

Win the Airstream

When all is done, this newly designed trailer will hit the road for various events throughout the fall semester. At the end of its journey with the design students, it will be sold. Readers can follow the project on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and the WSU Airstream Blog to find out how they can have a chance to be the next owner. Tour dates will be announced at a later date.

Current partners of the WSU Airstream Studio are Composite Materials and Engineering Center and the Institute for Sustainable Design at the WSU Pullman campus. As the project progresses, future partners will be sought. Stay in touch and let us know if you want to help support the WSU Airstream project. Contact Todd Beyreuther beyreuther@wsu.edu or Brady Crook at crook@wsu.edu for more information.

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KOA Calls Airstream Trailer Plan Successful

March 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

About a year ago, when the weather was getting nice and people were starting to think about going camping, the folks at Billings, Mont.-based Kampgrounds of America  Inc. (KOA) came up with this crazy idea about parking some “silver bullet” Airstream trailers at their facilities and letting campers rent them like hotel rooms.

KOA chose its recreational vehicle park at Circus Circus on the Strip in Las Vegas, Nev., as one of the first places in the United States to try the experiment, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

With fabulous hotel rooms up and down the Strip, would people really want to camp in an Airstream trailer when in Las Vegas? KOA worked a deal with Airstream, considered the Cadillac of the travel-trailer, to place 10 of its 25-foot Flying Clouds on KOA’s 366-space RV park at Circus Circus.

The concept was rolled out in Las Vegas and Key West, Fla., and gave KOA franchisees the opportunity buy Airstreams at discounted rates and rent them to campers who wanted to try out the $50,000 units.

“Even in Las Vegas, there are some people who just like to camp out,” Shane Ott, then president and chief operating officer of KOA, said at the time.

Ott considered Las Vegas to be a perfect startup location because 4% of KOA’s most loyal customers reside in the greater Los Angeles area and he thought Southern California campers would embrace the Circus Circus Airstreams.

“We look at this as the best of both worlds,” said Ott, who is now a campground liaison for Thor Industries Inc., the parent company of Airstream. “You can enjoy the benefits of camping. You can grill outside, right next to where you’re staying. You can meet up with people who share that lifestyle. There’s a well-stocked convenience store in the campground and, if you want, you can just walk over to the hotel for your entertainment.

“And then, when you’re done for the day, you’ve got very comfortable accommodations.”

And comfortable they are.

Each unit has a different décor, but they all have a galley with a stove, a refrigerator, kitchen pantries, a 48-by-78-inch bed, a flat-screen TV (with cable hookup), a lavatory and shower and a dinette that converts to a 38-by-76-inch sleeping area.

When a Sun reporter went to the Circus Circus RV Park last week, he saw only two Airstreams and surmised that the experiment didn’t go as well as KOA would have liked.

But the reality was that it worked well enough in Las Vegas that the Airstreams were shipped to other locations.

“I wondered when someone down your way would notice that there are a few less ‘silver bullets’ at the Circus Circus KOA,” company spokesman Mike Gast said in an e-mail. “We are moving them around to test the concept in additional locations. We were happy with the Las Vegas experience, even in a down economy. They did OK.”

Actually, they did better than OK, according to Greg Dunagan, general manager of the KOA at Circus Circus.

The Airstreams commanded a nightly rate of $99 on weekdays, $109 on weekends with even higher rates during holidays and special events. Moving the inventory out of Las Vegas will create greater demand for less commodity, assuring that KOA can get top rates on the units.

“It’s kind of a good thing-bad thing for us,” Dunagan said. “It’s nice having a larger inventory, but because we have fewer we can maintain our rate.”

In essence, Circus Circus KOA is taking a silver bullet for Team KOA, as more of the company’s franchises will get to offer the iconic trailers.

Dunagan said the Airstreams offer an unusual opportunity for people who are considering buying one because renting them at a KOA “is the only way you could stay in one short of owning one.”

Gast said the company earlier moved some of the trailers to Santa Cruz, Calif., and they did even better than in Las Vegas.

“That caused us to think we needed to experiment more and faster,” he said.

Today, KOA’s fleet of 25 Airstreams is scattered across the country, from Las Vegas to Bar Harbor, Maine, and from Trinity, Calif., to Sugarloaf Key, near Key West, Fla.

Although Snow Bird campers are fewer, KOA had its best year for summertime reservations in 2009, Gast said. He attributes that to the public refusing to give up its leisure time and going to a lower recreational entry point: camping, instead of expensive resort visits. The Airstreams became a part of KOA’s high-end experience.

“They are such great conversation pieces that we feel we have to maximize that exposure, even if it means we have fewer at any one location — at least in the short term,” Gast said.

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Airstream Owner Creates Restoration Business

October 26, 2009 by · 5 Comments 

Tucked in the northern corner of Tennessee’s Hamilton County, north of Chattanooga, across the street from a picturesque white clapboard church on a country highway, sits Paul Darden’s Airstream RV restoration business.

The front lot gleams in the bright fall sun as a half dozen of the iconic silver jelly-bean-style travel trailers await some tender loving care, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

“People drive by, and they just have to stop and ask,” Darden said. “They see the trailers, and they want to know more.”

Until four years ago, Darden had little interest in Airstreams, which are known for their bright aluminum art deco-style exteriors. But then his wife acquired a 1973 18-foot Caravel Airstream.

It needed all sorts of work, but the Dardens imagined themselves hauling it across the country, experiencing the great outdoors while sleeping in a little piece of restored Americana.

“I had always liked fixing things,”Darden said. “I worked at an antiques shop as a teenager and I was buying, restoring and selling houses at the time.”

But just as soon as the Dardens had their Airstream restored to its original state, offers to buy the vehicle came flowing in, and a business was born.

“My wife made a lot of money on that,” Mr. Darden said. “And it was right around the time when house flipping was slowing down.”

So the Birchwood, Tenn., shop Darden had acquired as a real estate investment became a classic RV restoration enterprise. In the four years since he has refurbished two dozen classic RVs — most of the iconic Airstream variety.

COLLECTOR POPULARITY

Collecting the vehicles has grown in popularity mostly because of their storied link to the 1950s, when Americans popularized highway travel.

New Airstreams are among the more expensive travel trailers on the market, with a 23-foot model selling for about $60,000. Classic prices are significantly less than that, but collectors swear by their vehicles as fun investments. On ebay recently, classic Airstreams were selling for between $8,000 and $20,000.

On top of that monetary motivation to fix up the trailers, there is an entire culture of Airstream enthusiasts. RV parks that cater just to Airstreams dot maps. Two such parks are in Helen, Ga., and Crossville, Tenn.

Willa Davis is the winter host at Helen’s Top of Georgia Airstream Park. She has owned three Airstreams over the years.

“It’s all a matter of personal taste, but I just love the way Airstreams handle,” she said. “They are so aerodynamic and handle so well on the road.”

The Helen park hosts annual summer rallies that feature hundreds of Airstream lovers, she said.

BUILT TO LAST

Darden, who is a lover of antiques, said he prizes the vintage Airstreams for their unique interiors. He loves the old-style vehicles for their wood cabinets and walls, which he painstakingly refinishes.

It’s not a cheap venture. He charges $5,000 alone just to bring the exteriors of the bright-silver Airstreams to a mirror-like sheen. That doesn’t count the work many of the trailers require to fix rotted floors, bad plumbing and wiring, he said.

“But anything you put into these trailers is going to double in value,” he said. “You will get your money back if you sell it.”

David Hughes, director of boarding admissions at McCallie School, owns a 1990 25-foot Airstream he bought used.

“We bought ours in 1999 and have taken it all across the country,” he said. “It’s held its value remarkably well.”

Hughes said the vehicle has made two cross-country treks and goes to Florida twice a year.

The vehicles have held their value mostly because they were built so solidly, said Randy Shipp, a general manager at Camping World in East Ridge.

“It’s just like a classic car,” said Shipp, who said his RV dealership soon will sell Airstreams. “If you invest the time — and the key is the investment of time — you are going to have a really nice piece of restored American history that can be quite valuable.”

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