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Airstream CEO Shares Secret Of Resurgence

JACKSON CENTER, Ohio ( MainStreet) -- 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 (THO)-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 (ZQK - Get Report). 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:

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.
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