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.”