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). 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.

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.
Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler boasts of interior design work we've been done in the past decade to update the venerable camper brand.

On top of that, we've packed a lot of technology into the trailers, in particular Blu-ray/DVD players, LED flatscreen TVs, Bluetooth connectivity -- LED lighting both interior and exterior for a minimal carbon footprint. We've tried to push forward aggressively in both interior design and in providing people the electronics they have in both their houses and cars. Those are things people have come to expect in a premium luxury product.

That seems to go back to Airstream's modernist beginnings. It was a space-age product that preceded the space age. How much digging through the crates took place at Airstream while coming up with the new designs?

Wheeler: It's always been a product that's been ahead of its time. It's the perfect embodiment of "form follows function" but it captures the imagination.

When we look at new designs, we have to strike a balance. We can't be too influenced by our past or you get products that look like everything we've always made. We have to respect and give a nod to our heritage, but luckily we're in a position where we don't really feel the need to tinker with the exterior shell that everybody loves. We really leave that alone and focus on the inside, because there is no iconic Airstream interior.

The interior's a place where we really feel we can flex our design muscle and push some creative boundaries and take some chances. When we look at our past, our company was founded on design quality and innovation, so in everything we do we use that as a touchstone but use it as a reference rather than looking at a lot of old photos of the '60s and '70s and trying to recreate designs that were popular then.

What kind of changes are you seeing within Airstream customers themselves? Who's buying Airstream these days?

Wheeler: We're very lucky in the fact that we have a strong foothold in the greatest generation. It's a product they've known and loved their whole lives. We've also maintained this uber-cool hip factor with design aficionados in their 30s and 40s. We've managed to straddle two very different worlds and create products that are relevant to both groups.

When we develop new products, we focus on understanding those customers. We have one line of products called the Classic Limited that's traditional, upscale residential design. It's something that many customers who are in their 60s and 70s can understand, access and appreciate. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the International trailer line, which is very clean, Danish modern design that appeals to the younger consumer that's grown up with the IKEA generation.

It's all encapsulated in the shiny aluminum exterior that everybody knows and recognizes.

What has the recent economic climate in the U.S. done for Airstream?

Wheeler: The entire RV industry benefited enormously from a post-9/11 stay-close-to-home, family-focused, don't-travel-by-air environment. There was a huge run-up in the industry from 2001 to 2006. Some of that effect was mitigated by the downturn in 2008 and 2009, but now we see that starting to come back.

Air travel's a hassle, there's no two ways about it. Taking a family of three, four or five on vacation anywhere by air is enormously expensive. People look at an Airstream and say they can have the same experience in a product that they've always wanted that retains its value. That's starting to make sense economically for a lot of people where, 10 years ago, it didn't.

Now that Airstream is broadening its customer base, what are some of the requests the brand is getting for additions to the product that Airstream may be considering?

Wheeler: There's an interesting trend that reflects the wireless communications capabilities that have become so prevalent in the last eight or 10 years, and that is for a mobile office. So many more people have a job that doesn't tie them to a location: They can work virtually.

For many, the next level is to take that experience on the road. There's no reason they can't work from an Airstream in a campground just as easily as they can for a house. We've had more request for desk space and thoughtfully designed workplaces in both the trailers and mobile homes as well as better communication tools.

We haven't pulled the trigger on it yet, but we're taking some big steps in that direction.

The company is still primarily known for its trailers, but Airstream's motor home business has nearly tripled within the last year. What has spurred the recent growth?

Wheeler: Airstream has been making motor homes since the early '70s, so we've got a long history. It's only been in the past few years, when the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van platform became available to build on for a small, Class B motor home that our business has really taken off.

People think "Well, they're Airstream and they're a trailer company. What do they know about motor homes?" Let me go back to those three tenets of design, quality and innovation. Those three things can be applied to things other than our silver bullet trailer, so when we developed this Interstate motor home and our Chevy ( GM)-based Avenue motor home, we apply those same values. We know what consumers want and expect and that they're willing to pay for it.

We take the opposite approach of the RV industry, which tends to be building as inexpensive a product as you can because that's where the volume is in the marketplace. We were able to carve out a niche in the Class B motor home segment much in the same way as the travel trailers, although obviously it looks much different and doesn't key into the heritage of the company in the same way.

That premium seems to attract the designers. Does Airstream get many inquiries from designers about partnerships, and are there more partnerships in the offing?

Wheeler: We get approached fairly regularly. It's one of the singular blessings of being in a company with such a strong design heritage and that's so beloved by the design community.

We politely decline most of those, but in some cases when we see something particularly special -- like the work that Chris Deam has done for us in the past -- we see it as an opportunity to broaden our horizons. We're a small company out here in the middle of Ohio and we need outside influences or we'll end up just creating the same buggy whip over and over.

Chris has been a great collaborator for 10 years. We've done three iterations of trailers based on his design. We partner with other outside companies like Ford ( F), Quicksilver brands, Swiss Army, most recently Eddie Bauer -- not just individuals, but companies that share some of our core values.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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