Airstream Inc.’s senior management presented a solid picture of business growth over the past year for the Jackson Center, Ohio-based division of Thor Industries Inc. during last week’s 2013 National Dealer Meeting in Reno, Nev. The company reported positive trends in terms of sales, inventories, retail turns, production hikes, dealer body growth, international sales and first-time buyer ratios along with a key new model debut on tap for later this year of the company’s highly publicized, high-end Land Yacht travel trailer.
First shown to dealers as a concept vehicle at last winter’s Louisville Show, the 28-foot Land Yacht, retailing for “just north of $140,000,” will go into production in August with most of the same interior touches originally developed by Airstream in conjunction with Italian yacht designer Mauro Micheli, best known for his work with Riva Yachts and Italian cabinet maker Technoform S.p.A.
“We’re very pleased with the results of the meeting – both the dealer council, which is more of a roundtable dialogue about a broad range of issues, and the general dealer meeting, which is an overall presentation of what’s happened in the last 12 months and what we expect to have in the next 12,” reported Airstream President and CEO Bob Wheeler of the May 15-17 event at Reno’s Peppermill Casino & Resort.
“We were very grateful to have our special guests – Phil Ingrassia from the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) and Craig Kirby from the Recreation vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) – and to hear their perspectives about the industry,” Wheeler told RVBUSINESS.com after the meeting. “All in all, I think our dealers got a lot out of it. We received many compliments about the quality of the meeting and the takeaways that the dealers had from what we presented. It was a great chance to reconnect with our dealers and to talk about different issues and maintain those partnerships that are so essential to our success.”
The meeting also included remarks from Bob Martin, president and COO of Elkhart-based Thor Industries Inc., plus presentations by Airstream’s Justin Humphreys, vice president of sales; Bruce Bannister, vice president of product development and engineering; Mollie Hansen, vice president of marketing; and Tim Garner, general manager of Touring Coaches.
Other highlights included:
• Airstream’s total dealer count is back to 78 globally – 68 in North America — for its travel trailer and Interstate Class B “Touring Coach” lines combined compared to a peak of about 90 in 2004-2006 and a recessionary low of about 50.
• Airstream’s retail turns today substantially exceed industry OEM averages, according to information provided to the company by floorplan lender GE Capital Solutions and presented at the meeting.
• Field inventories currently stand at fewer than 1,000 units, whereas, back in the benchmark years of 2006 and 2007, Airstream had almost 1,400 pieces in dealers’ showrooms. Given the current retail climate, however, Wheeler views that as a good thing. “Today, we’re under 1,000 (units) with greater velocity, greater turns, and we’re satisfied with that,” he said.
• In 2006, Wheeler noted, 18% of Airstream’s buyers were new to RVing. Today, nearly 50% of their buyers are first-time buyers.
• Corporate employment rosters today are at close to 335 workers versus 425 at the company’s modern peak and 160 in the pit of the global downturn. Airstream is currently in the process of hiring 50 to 60 people to keep pace with growing demand. “We can build more with 335 than we could with more than 400 previously because of process efficiencies that we’ve put in place,” said Wheeler. “I don’t expect to get back to 425 because we don’t need to. We can build a lot more with fewer people.”
• Among those employees, Airstream has experienced less than 1% turnover with 30% of its workers logging 20 years experience or greater.
According to Airstream management, the company has been on somewhat of a roll lately when looking at 2012’s pace of business versus 2011 as well as the first quarter of 2013. “We’ve had a fantastic run,” Wheeler told the crowd on Thursday (May 16) morning. “Overall, wholesale sales were up 21%, as were retails. So, on a year-over-year basis, it’s just been phenomenal for us. We’ve been rebuilding our dealer base very slowly and selectively. We lost a lot of really good dealers, so we’ve been very carefully and selectively adding the right dealers in the right markets.
“I think we’re approaching the (pre-recessionary) dealer count, and we’re very happy to see most of those faces here today,” said Wheeler. “By acclimating to the new normal, we’ve been able to survive and thrive and position ourselves for future growth. Today, we’re a leaner and more nimble company than we were before the recession. And, internally, we’ve made a lot quality and process improvements. We’ve really streamlined our operations to support the growth that we’ve seen and that we expect to see in the future.”
Airstream, Thor’s first acquisition back in 1980 when the late Wade Thompson and current Chairman Peter Orthwein first formed the company, also continues to expand into foreign markets like China, South Korea and Australia.
“So, why does it matter to you folks in North America?,” Wheeler asked the dealers. “Our strength globally helps make us a stronger company. It helps us offset downturns in the economy and production here in the U.S. and also helps with seasonal fluctuations. The more we can maintain our work force, the more we can maintain steady production across the year. So, we’re very proud of the fact that this little brand called Airstream from near Dayton, Ohio, has power in Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and Sydney. It’s a global brand and we’re just starting now to take advantage of that.”
“The future is very bright,” said Wheeler. “I’m so happy to be able to stand up here and say that the best years of this company are ahead of it, and that creates a tremendous sense of optimism among everyone who works at Airstream. I hope you get that same sense here today.”
In addition to honoring 25-year Airstream sales exec Tom Parnell upon his retirement, the following travel trailer sales volume leaders (in order) were recognized in Reno: Colonial Airstream, Lakewood, N.J.; Airstream Adventures Northwest, Covington, Wash.; Airstream Adventures Northwest, Gladstone, Ore., Airstream Los Angeles, San Gabriel, Calif.; Windish RV Center, Lakewood, Colo.; Toscano Recreation, Los Bano, Calif.; Camper Clinic II, Buda, Texas; Bates RV, Dover, Fla.; George M Sutton RV, Eugene, Ore.; Airstream Adventures Northwest, Nampa, Idaho. Touring Coach (Interstate Class B) sales leaders were Colonial Airstream; Camper Clinic II; Bates RV; Dave Arbogast RV, Troy, Ohio; Vogt Motor Home Center, Fort Worth, Texas; Schumacher European, Scottsdale, Ariz.; Airstream Adventures Northwest; Crain RV Supercenter, Little Rock, Ark.; Airstream of Chicago, Joliet, Ill.; Wagon Trail RV, Las Vegas. (There was a tie for 4th and a 4-way tie for 7th).
The “Top Service Dealerships” were Colonial Airstream and Woodland Travel Center, Grand Rapids, Mich., and the “Top Parts Dealer” was Out of Doors Mart in Colfax, N.C.
Airstream Inc. announced that 2012 was the best year for sales in the company’s 81-year history, according to a news release.
Airstream, which manufactures travel trailers and Class B motorhomes, saw sales climb 16% year-over-year, outperforming the RV industry which reports approximately 11% growth for the same period.
Airstream’s travel trailer business was up 7% in 2012, while the company’s Class B motorhome sales jumped 28% over 2011.
Airstream attributed the increase to:
• An expanded product offering including Airstream’s Class B Interstate model, which appeals to luxury buyers along with the traditional RV customer.
• An expanded dealer network, which includes 17 new retailers – 12 for the B-Van business and seven new travel trailer retailers.
• Prominent marketing partnerships in 2012 targeting younger consumers, which exposed Airstream to a group of first-time RVers.
“We are pleased to report 2012 was Airstream’s most successful year, and not only are we still in business after 81 years, we’re doing better than ever,” said Airstream CEO and President Bob Wheeler. “We anticipate a very active 2013 in both North America and abroad as Airstream continues its expansion into new global markets.”
Airstream recently unveiled the Land Yacht Concept Trailer at the National RV Show in Louisville and will announce a decision on production in the months ahead. The company is forecasting 15% growth in its business for 2013.
The following is a Q&A with Airstream Inc. President and CEO Bob Wheeler conducted by The Street.
Airstream trailers are finding new life along open roads in the U.S. and abroad, but that shiny, iconic aluminum body is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to wooing consumers.
The Airstream was born in 1929 when founder Wally Byam built the first model on a Model T Ford chassis using only a teardrop-shaped shell of a shelter, an icebox and a kerosene stove. The trailers went into mass production in 1932 after Hawley Bowlus, the man who designed Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit Of St. Louis aircraft for the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris, designed the rounded aluminum body to reduce drag by 20% compared with square trailers.
It became one of the great symbols of roadside America from the 1950s through the 1970s, but has found an audience beyond the greatest generation and baby boomers in recent years. Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler says an increased focus on Airstream’s design elements helped double trailer sales to more than 1,500 in 2011 and nearly tripled sales of the company’s motor homes. Thor Industries Inc.-owned Airstream is also predicting 15% to 20% growth in 2012 against a forecast of 4% industrywide decline.
Recent company partnerships have only helped matters as the company’s 27-foot trailer collaboration with Eddie Bauer has built on the company’s work with outdoor-oriented brands such as surf- and skate-focused Quicksilver. Designer Christopher Deam, meanwhile, last year unveiled an Airstream concept trailer replete with stainless steel appliances and storage, bright white vinyl seating, illuminated translucent cabinets and Kennedy-era lime carpeting and throw pillows juxtaposed with Obama-era tech such as flatscreen televisions and super-slim climate-control systems. Nintendo uses an Airstream trailer painted with a giant Mario face and illuminated with LEDs as a mobile testing facility for its games and consoles.
Wheeler gave us a call a few days ago and spoke about the Airstream’s resurgence, tinkering with an icon and the delicate business of growing a legacy brand:
The Street: During summers my family and I spent camping in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains in the mid-’80s, there was always a lot of chatter when an Airstream pulled into the campground. I remember being drawn by that aluminum exterior, but getting the feeling that there were tight quarters inside. How has Airstream approached consumers who remember its trailers during eras of stripped-down amenities?
Wheeler: That’s been our constant challenge: to get people to understand that this iconic shell that they recognize from their childhood, when you walk inside, isn’t your grandfather’s Airstream. It’s modern both in its technology and interior design and meets people’s current tastes and lifestyle needs.
The Street: What features in recent models have been getting the buyers’ attention and bringing them beyond that novel exterior?
Wheeler: First and foremost is some of the interior design work we’ve been doing in the past 10 years specifically. Starting in 2001, we introduced a line of travel trailers called the International Line that represented very cutting-edge, modern design in any venue — either residential or, certainly, in the RV world. Those products started to get the attention of the design aficionados and design press. more than anything, that has attracted attention to our brand and cemented it in people’s thinking as current and relevant to their lifestyles.
To read the entire interview and view photos and a video click here.
Editor’s Note: The following is a Q&A conducted by Forbes with Bob Wheeler, president and CEO of Jackson Center, Ohio-based Airstream Inc.
Some products transcend their milieu to become icons. In the world of recreational vehicles, Airstream is the icon. The aluminum-skinned “silver bullet” trailer has retained the same streamlined aesthetic since its creation in 1931. A division of Thor Industries since 1980, Airstream produces a lineup of six travel trailers and two touring coaches. Airstream’s products are considered by many to be the finest production RVs in the world.
Bob Wheeler has been president and CEO of Airstream Inc. since August, 2005, having previously served as the company’s vice president of product development and engineering. Before working in the Airstream division, Wheeler worked for Dutchmen Manufacturing Inc. and Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. Wheeler began his professional career at General Motors after receiving his MBA from the State University at New York in Buffalo and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Rochester.Wheeler spoke about the current state of the recreational vehicle market, projections for the future, and Airstream’s plans for the future in a brief telephone interview.
FORBES: Airstream sales for 2011 were up 175%, with trailer sales doubling and coach sales increasing as well.
BOB WHEELER: Coming out of our big industry trade show in Louisville, those numbers are in comparison to last year’s result.
FORBES: What’s the trend been over the last five years? I’m assuming that the 2008 financial crisis hit you hard.
BW: Yeah, since RVs are a big-ticket discretionary purchase industry. It got hammered and we were no exception. ‘08 and ‘09 were pretty bad years. Significant recovery in 2010. 2011 was a strong year as well. Things have leveled out industry-wise. But everything continues to grow at a pretty good clip.
FORBES: And you’re anticipating 2012 to continue the trend, level or are you looking towards a growth trend?
BW: Well the predictions for the industry are down about 4% but our plans show us growing 15% – 20% in the calendar year.
FORBES: Can you give me an idea what the raw numbers are? How many trailers and vans?
BW: Sure, we’re building about 27 trailers a week right now. So that’s 1,550 trailers at our current clip. And we’re building 5 vans a week. We plan in the spring based on an uptick in spring demand that we see typically to increase production to at least 30 maybe more trailers and vans probably to six or seven a week.
FORBES: And you have a dealer network, how many dealers across the country?
BW: We have about 65 dealers, they’re not distributed evenly. We have a lot of dealers in key markets like Southern California and California in general. About 65 dealers coast-to-coast and Canada. We’ve got about 5 in Canada. Most of them are multi brand outlets. We’ve got a handful that are exclusive. Most of them carry other lower price products, helping bring cash flow.
FORBES: Are you building to order or do you maintain stock and inventory?
BW: We build to order no, those orders pertain to the dealer orders. But we’ve been able to go several years now without having to build any open units that we call them, unsold units. We’ve tried to maintain that position as you might imagine.
FORBES: What’s the build time from order to delivery?
BW: Right now, trailers are running about 12 weeks and vans are about 8 weeks. Between the dealer placing an order today and the delivery of a trailer or van.
FORBES: Are your dealers maintaining stock or are they pretty much taking orders and promising delivery around your schedule?
BW: All of our top dealers contain a strong inventory. When someone comes in to buy an Airstream, as you might imagine, they want to be able to see all the options, all the floor plans, all the colors. That helps them make a decision on which one they want to buy. So our top guys maintain a pretty healthy inventory and they reorder usually on a monthly basis, so that 12 weeks out or 10 weeks out they can get the trailers they need to keep inventory of the stock.
To read the entire article and view photos click here.
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.”