Airstream has differentiated its brand as a technology leader since it unveiled its very first trailer in 1931
Words Craig Ritchie and Antonio Mazzucchelli
Leading an iconic, heritage brand can’t help but feel like wielding a double-edged sword. On one hand it’s easy, because the product is nearly guaranteed to sell itself. But being trusted with the stewardship of an industry icon also brings enormous responsibility – and especially in the case of a brand that has differentiated itself as a technology leader for more than 90 years.
That brand, of course, is Airstream – easily the most-recognized RV builder in the world thanks to the enduring popularity of its iconic, bullet-shaped aluminum trailers. Although Airstream today manufactures both towable and motorized product, its timeless aluminum trailers still represent around two-thirds of its total annual production, with customers on multiple continents ranging from young families to celebrities to NASA.
Airstream president and CEO Bob Wheeler began his career with General Motors, before shifting to the RV industry in 1993. He joined Airstream in 2002 as vice president of product development and engineering and was named president and CEO in 2005. He was kind enough to speak with AboutCamp BtoB recently, sharing his thoughts in a wide-ranging conversation on everything from global markets to so supply chain the enduring appeal of a 90-year-old design.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Airstream has been uniquely successful in attracting new, young buyers with a product that doesn’t look all that much different from the original Airstreams built in the 1930s. How exactly does that work?
Bob Wheeler: Ever since the company was founded in the 1930s design, quality, and innovation have been the three pillars on which we’ve stood. This is our 90th year in business, and those values remain every bit as important to buyers today as they did back in 1931.
Of course, there’s more to it than that, and it starts with thinking beyond the immediate sale of the product. In the 1950s the founder of this company stepped back from overseeing the day-to-day operations and began leading fantastic caravans across North America, through Central America, into South America, and across Europe. In 1959, he led the famous Cape Town to Cairo caravan, in which 40 trailers traveled from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt. Then, in 1963, there was an Around the World caravan from Singapore to Portugal, which was all filmed and turned into a travel program narrated by Hollywood legend, Vincent Price.
It was initiatives like those which really cemented Airstream in the minds of RV buyers as this key to adventure. That’s an important element to understand, because as RV builders, we are merely the means to an end. We’re not here to make travel trailers and motorhomes, we’re here to make products that enable people to have adventures. People don’t buy an Airstream because they want an Airstream. People buy an Airstream because they want to have wonderful experiences.
Aboutcamp BtoB: That focus on positive experiences would seem to perfectly resonate with the enormous cohort of millennials now entering the RV market.
Bob Wheeler: It really goes across multiple generations. But there is a sense of authenticity that goes with having an Airstream, with its unique history and heritage. Unlike just about everything else in the modern world, Airstreams are still hand-made, and they clearly come from a different time and era.
You can see exactly how they’re assembled and built. There’s no mystery, it’s a very honest design. And I think the response of younger buyers is that they recognize, respect, and want things in their life that have those characteristics.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Is it not a bit ironic for a buyer to value those things, while still wanting solar panels and plenty of USB ports so they can keep their various next-generation devices charged?
Bob Wheeler: We’ve transitioned away from the idea that camping means you have to completely disconnect from the world. Camping is about focusing on nature, but we realize that people still need the opportunity to stay in touch. If they have that, then it makes them more comfortable to camp for longer periods. In a study of their campgrounds, KOA found that when there’s really good Wi-Fi, people tend to stay for three days longer. And that’s just an indication that they don’t need to be online all the time, but they need the ability to be online when they do choose to connect.
So we’ve taken this approach that we can capture all the brand value and all the history in the products we make, but we have to provide people with modern conveniences that they consider to be just as basic as water, power and LP, and that includes connectivity. So we’ve made connected kits standard in many of our models, and they’re available for aftermarket purchase as well. It gives people good, high-gain cell antennas so they can get a mobile signal in many places.
Of course, we’re looking at the next generation of connectivity as well. Satellite is becoming more widely available and far less expensive, so owners can connect literally anywhere they can camp. We look at what our customers are really asking for and try to respond.
Aboutcamp BtoB: It must be quite a balancing act, when the brand values that have been such a part of Airstream’s heritage include differentiating on technology leadership.
Bob Wheeler: We consider it a responsibility as a company to lead the industry and to continue to push innovation in the same way in which our founder Wally Byam did, starting in the ‘30s. Airstream introduced so many RV industry firsts – the first flush toilet, the first onboard refrigerator, and the first onboard water heater, for example. We consider that part of our DNA and part of our responsibility. Today, it takes the shape of connectivity.
We embarked on a path four years ago to create a smart multiplex system that also has cloud connectivity, allowing owners to control and monitor the product from anywhere. That was no small undertaking, but we knew that part of the positive experience for our customers includes giving them the confidence and the comfort to travel to remote places and understand what was going on with the RV in a very intuitive way that you can control with an app, whether you’re in your campsite or halfway around the world. Homes get smarter, cars get smarter, and people expect the same in their RV.
We also recognize that the world is shifting to an electric vehicle-based future, and much more rapidly than anyone would have predicted even five years ago. We have to be responsive to that challenge. It’s a huge opportunity, but it also could be a crisis to the industry if it doesn’t figure out how to make its products attractive to people who want electric vehicles, both in the towable space and the motorized space. We’re keeping a close eye on how the technology is evolving, and exploring the ways we can bring those innovations into the RV world.
Aboutcamp BtoB: That continuing focus on technology must be a relief to NASA, since they’ve been using your products for decades.
Bob Wheeler: We love our history with NASA, it’s something we’re so proud of. It started in the late ‘60s when we built the mobile quarantine facility for the first lunar astronauts returning from the moon. From there, we built the first Astrovan as part of the Space Shuttle program. It’s not just part of our history, but NASA’s as well, and there’s one on display at Cape Canaveral.
More recently, we worked with Boeing to recreate the Astrovan in a more modern form to shuttle their Starliner crews to the launchpad on their way to the International Space Station. Space isn’t as elusive a frontier as it used to be, and in addition to NASA itself there are dozens of commercial ventures making great strides. We’re excited to continue our role in helping American astronauts launch into orbit.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Here on earth, Airstream has long been a bit of an explorer as well, as one of the first RV companies in the US to develop an export business. How does that look today?
Bob Wheeler: One of our founder’s core beliefs was that international diplomacy could be fostered by leading caravans around the world. The belief was that face-to-face contact is the key to developing international understanding and friendships.
As a result, we’ve had a business presence in Europe for many years. It’s a comparatively small proportion of our business overall, really based upon customers who want something that’s completely different from the domestic product available there. But it’s forced us to innovate on that front. European RVs are generally lighter in weight than North American product, so in order to meet the demands of European markets we’ve had to lighten the product and understand tongue weight in ways that we haven’t had to before. It’s been good for us as a company to force some of those disciplines into place, while enjoying greater exposure in many different markets around the world.
The European product looks like any other Airstream on the outside, but the chassis, the suspension, the underpinnings, the electrical system, even the way the cabinets are built is different in order to fit the market requirements. That experience is going to help us as we move toward a future with more electric vehicles, as an example, which will also require lighter weight product.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Do you see any clear synergies with European markets?
Bob Wheeler: We are enjoying a fantastic opportunity with our sister company, Erwin Hymer Group, to see the best of RV manufacturing and design in Europe at every level, through multiple companies that are part of the Hymer AG family of products. So we’ve already visited a number of plants in Europe to better understand their approach to product design, product manufacturing, and material management. In some ways they’re far ahead of companies in the US.
The European approach to RV manufacturing is very different, there’s a lot more money spent on development, tooling, and capital equipment. But as a result, you get a product that’s built to a very high-quality standard yet involving fewer labor hours. European builders invest upfront in the design, tooling and equipment.
I like to say that I think the European RV industry is about 15 years ahead of where it is in the US, and that’s not good or bad, it’s just been driven by the needs of the market and the size of the tow vehicles, amongst other things.
In terms in further Airstream products being sold into Europe, we’re exploring. We have a small, but successful, business model doing things the way they are. But shipping Airstreams across the Atlantic isn’t the most efficient way, perhaps. If we see a good opportunity to work with our partners there that makes economic sense, we’ll certainly take advantage of that. It just hasn’t presented itself at this point.
Aboutcamp BtoB: In terms of potentially expanding the product offering, are we talking about product like the Basecamp?
Bob Wheeler: That was an interesting project because we had to set aside some of the things that we felt were really core to the Airstream brand. We knew the Basecamp was going to be aluminum, rivets, or round in profile, but we couldn’t hold on to all three elements. So we kept the aluminum and the rivets, and set aside the round profile. And it turned out to be very popular with people that want to go off road, including a number of younger buyers.
The Basecamp is more rugged, it’s less cushy and comfortable than some of our other products, and really built for those off-road adventures. Now we recently expanded the line to add a 20-foot model, along with the 16-foot original.
The Basecamp 20 has proven very popular, and we have a big backlog on those. We’re building all the 20s we can, trying to get a better sense of that customer and what their wants and needs are moving forward. It could potentially lead to larger products in that family. And it’s certainly influenced the design of our recent motorhome launch, the class B Interstate 24X, which is really like a Basecamp on a Mercedes Sprinter chassis. It has a similar design language and feel, it’s a rugged, outdoor, off-road product. So that segment appears to be growing strongly, and we’ll continue to try to innovate in that space, both in the towable and motorized products.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What other markets would Airstream be active in, apart from North America and Europe?
Bob Wheeler: We have a successful partnership in Japan, that one goes back 25 years, and we do business in South Korea.
We went into China about seven or eight years ago, but we were too far ahead of the market, unfortunately. There is a future there, it’s a matter of when, not if.
One challenge with developing export business today is that as demand for RVs in the US has spiked over the last couple of years, especially during the pandemic, it makes it that much harder to dedicate resources to really exploring markets outside our own country. There are clear opportunities, but exploring those is tough when the inventory pipeline domestically is so heavily depleted already.
Aboutcamp BtoB: On that note, how is Airstream doing these days in terms of supply chain and inventory pipeline?
Bob Wheeler: Supply chain has consumed probably 50 percent of our effort over the last 12 months. It’s everything from air conditioners to refrigerators and cooktops to vinyl and seat foam, mattresses and pillows. Even commodities like lumber, hot- and cold-rolled steel, aluminum, copper have become scarce, and more expensive.
Not having access to materials has forced workarounds on many facets of our production. Right now, we’re building units that are in some cases 95 percent complete and having to put them in the yard and bring them back in to finish them later when the missing parts arrive. It’s terribly inefficient.
With supply issues as they are right now, we’re moving steadily – we’re not where we want to be, but it’s where we are at the moment. Ask me again next week and you’ll get a different answer. It’s very up and down.
Last year our RV shipments were down 14 percent because we shut down completely for six weeks, and we just couldn’t make up that ground through the rest of the year. Now, like everyone else, we have supply chain headwinds. But even so, this year we expect our shipments to be up in spite of the supply headaches, so we feel bullish about where we are looking forward.
Aboutcamp BtoB: In the last 100 years, very few industrial products have remained faithful to their original design, yet Airstream travel trailers are one of these products. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being linked to this product image?
Bob Wheeler: The Airstream trailer is the perfect example of form following function. It’s perfectly designed to do what it does. It’s based on an aircraft fuselage design, which was a proven approach to semi-monocoque engineering.
Because that basic aluminum shell has been so durable, it’s become iconic and instantly recognizable as the brand – that silver shell. Luckily for us, it’s so perfect for what it does we really don’t have to tinker with it. So, the advantage is that we’ve got something great, we know how to build it, it lasts forever, we don’t really feel like we need to innovate tremendously terms of its shape.
Now the disadvantages are sometimes that can be constraining to be tied to this history, but where we’re able to flex our design muscle is on the interior. There is no iconic Airstream interior, the shell is just a vessel which allows us to take creative approaches to different interior designs, and in particular, with respect to the technology that goes inside.
So it’s the best of both worlds. I like to say we acknowledge and respect our history, without being constrained by it. We’ve got this beautiful piece of industrial art, this iconic shell, but inside we can pack in new technology that people expect, we can offer creative designs from very modern to very traditional, and appeal to all sorts of buyers and all sorts of tastes.
In that sense, our history is perhaps our greatest advantage of all.
Aboutcamp BtoB: And that internal flexibility would permit Airstream to really appeal to the glamping movement.
Bob Wheeler: We love the glamping movement because it gets people into the camping space that probably never would have done so otherwise. Our biggest involvement is with the Auto Camp organization, and their line of Airstream-based luxury accommodations. Auto Camp was founded on a model of stationary Airstreams. They went from a small location in Santa Barbara, California, to additional operations in Napa Valley, Yosemite, upstate New York, Cape Cod and Moab. They’re buying properties all over the US with this business model, which has proven very successful.
We’ve never been in the hotel space, we’ve always been in the RV space so this seemed like the perfect entrance into that world, with a partner that understands hospitality innately while also loving and respecting the Airstream brand. We see it as a great way to both get into an adjacent industry, but also introduce that customer to the idea of an Airstream. And who knows how many buyers would go stay there and have this great experience in the wilderness and decide, maybe at some point I want to go and get one of my own and travel with it? We think it’s a great way of planting seeds with these buyers that they may have an Airstream experience in their future.
Aboutcamp BtoB: With Covid-19 and so many people working from home, are you now seeing people buy Airstreams as residences?
Bob Wheeler: In the US you’re not supposed to live in your RV, so I don’t really have data on that. But what we have seen, especially in the last year, is more people who used to work in an office realizing that their jobs can be done from anywhere. If they have decent Wi-Fi and a good cell connection, anyone can work from an Airstream.
We launched a floorplan earlier this year that had an office in it – we know that a best practice for working-from-home includes having a dedicated space, and we’re trying to create that kind of approach to floorplan layouts for people that want to take their jobs on the road. But certainly, the connectivity factor is probably the most important part of that, and we’ve done everything we can to help facilitate that for our customers.
The whole development of power systems is also very exciting because more people want to camp off-grid, especially as campgrounds become more congested. People camping off-grid need good batteries, they need solar, they need energy-efficient and water-efficient systems so they can stay out longer. We’re seeing more and more demand for that, both in our travel trailers and our motor homes. There’s a focus on lithium-ion batteries, better inverters, better solar, better monitoring of systems and usage. All of it represents an opportunity for Airstream to continue innovating, as it has done for the past 90 years.