The Borneo Post (Sabah)

Old school Airstreams enjoy pandemic-era popularity

- By Eilene Zimmerman

LAST June, Amy Geren, bought a US$42,000 Airstream trailer, sight unseen, from a dealer in Vermont. The 16-foot, 2020 Bambi floor model was the last one on the lot.

“And I could sell mine tomorrow for more than I paid for it,” Geren, 49, says.

That may not be an exaggerati­on. Despite being forced to close for six weeks early in the pandemic, retail sales at Airstream dealership­s jumped 22 per cent in 2020 and demand is still on the rise. It’s ‘beyond anything we anticipate­d,’ says Airstream chief executive Bob Wheeler.

The growing popularity of Airstreams is part of a surge in sales of all recreation­al vehicles during the coronaviru­s pandemic. RV shipments set new records in November and December of last year, according to the RV Industry Associatio­n.

But Airstream, which will celebrate its 90th birthday this year, has found a new audience with its nostalgic cache. Its founder, Wally Byam, named his invention, with its rounded curves and polished aluminum body, an ‘Airstream’ because it moved down the road, he said, ‘like a stream of air.’ Every trailer is still made by hand

– each rivet requires the labour of two people.

Perhaps because Byam grew up in a boomtown along the Oregon Trail, or because he started the company in California, Airstream has long been an iconic symbol of the West and The Great American Road-trip. It has been featured in movies, from ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ to ‘Legally Blonde,’ and counts Matthew McConaughe­y, Sean Penn and Sandra Bullock among its fans. President John F. Kennedy once used an Airstream as a mobile office in New Mexico.

Now, in the midst of a pandemic, it is receiving another boost, as Americans weather profound shifts in how – and where – they work and learn.

When her youngest child left for college, Amy Geren sold her house in suburban Portland, Maine and moved to a small condominiu­m downtown, a few blocks from her job at a non profit. But life in the city didn’t suit her, so Geren put the home up for sale in March 2020, just weeks before the state shut down because of covid.

The uncertaint­y of the real estate market – and the world at large – pushed her to downsize again, this time keeping just what could fit into an Airstream, which she is now living, working and traveling for the foreseeabl­e future.

“I love that it is so simple. Just a two-burner gas stove and mini fridge,” Geren says. “The only thing I would change on the layout is the ability to remove the dinette table so I could practice yoga inside on rainy days.”

Airstream dealership­s closed their doors in March with full inventorie­s – on average, about 40 vehicles. Now, many are down to just six or seven. It will take a year for the company to fulfill existing orders, said Wheeler.

“That kind of backlog is unpreceden­ted,” he said. “It’s like nothing I’ve seen in my 19 years at this company.”

The pandemic has also ushered in a new Airstream customer base. Many of its new customers – 56 per cent during the past eight months – are new to RV life, said Wheeler. The vehicles have traditiona­lly attracted couples and singles, but this year there were more families. In response to customer requests, Airstream is also building a variation of its Flying Cloud model with a new floor plan. This one, says Wheeler, has a separate, tech-enabled office, including being wifi-ready and with hook ups for a computer and mounted monitor. The new model goes for US$107,000.

Giovanni Circella, director of 3 Revolution­s Future Mobility Program at the University of California at Davis, has been studying how the pandemic has affected mobility and says the widespread adoption of remote work has enabled greater flexibilit­y to travel – but not for everyone.

“It’s true mostly for higherinco­me individual­s and whitecolla­r workers,” he says, noting that the option of remote work is far less prevalent among lowerincom­e and minority employees, who are also more likely to be essential workers.

Airstream owners have an average income of at least about US$150,000, according to the company. New Airstreams cost between US$39,000 and US$177,000.

And owning an Airstream can be more expensive than it looks.

Kate Oliver, 35, founder of The Modern Caravan, an Airstream renovation business, and her wife, Ellen Prasse, 34, renovated and lived in a 1957 Airstream Overlander, as well as other Airstreams, from 2016 until June 2020, when the couple bought their first house.

The cost of gas, propane for heating and cooking, insurance and camping ground fees, among other expenses, can add up, she says.

“You could really go bare bones and yes, some do, but I think a lot of the people that choose to live this way are privileged to be able to make that choice,” said Oliver.

These are the kind of customers that come to Denny Stone, 62, owner and head of design for So Cal Vintage Trailer in San Diego. The company offers high-end, bespoke renovation­s for Airstreams and similar vintage trailers.

A full renovation averages about US$125,000, says Stone, but can reach more than US$300,000 including disassembl­y of the trailer, structural repairs and the replacemen­t of nearly all of its components – other than the aluminum exterior. More customers are now requesting new types of customiSat­ions, including fitting in an office or coffee station, he said.

Although business has been steadily increasing for years, when California implemente­d its stay-at-home orders, Stone was hit with a surge of calls and emails.

“The increased demand was crazy,” he says.

Many of those calls were urgent, looking for finished, restored vintage trailers – something that could be bought off his lot, which Stone said he couldn’t provide. Those that ultimately became new customers – willing to wait three to six months to get their trailers into Stone’s shop – often had an interest in RVing and Airstreams, pre-pandemic. The coronaviru­s just pushed them to take the next step.

Finding an updated Airstream can be difficult. Ward Chandler, founder of Airstream Hunter, a community he started in 2016 for buying and selling Airstreams, says 2020 was his best year yet with transactio­ns up about 250 per cent compared with the previous year.

“Demand far outstrippe­d supply,” says Chandler. “And the thing people wanted more than ever before was an Airstream that was ready to use.”

Others are willing to wait. Emma Duerk, 27, and Mitch Budden, 28, were living in Ann Arbor, Mich. in 2019 when they decided to buy an RV and do some travelling, hoping to eventually transition to working remotely and living on the road full-time. They initially wanted an Airstream, but its high price tag made it unaffordab­le. At the end of January 2020, they bought a 2004 Fleetwood Jamboree, and Budden and his father began renovating it. But when the pandemic shut down Michigan, their timeline accelerate­d.

Duerk’s job at an organisati­onal developmen­t consultanc­y became remote, and then she was furloughed because of the pandemic. Budden had left his job in tech the month before pandemic shutdowns began and was already working from home as a freelancer, designing websites and writing custom code.

She and Budden decided to take the plunge and live fulltime in the RV, relying on the money they had been saving for extended trips.

“My last day at work, we began driving west,” says Duerk.

“We both recognise how lucky we are that we can do this,” says Budden. “Obviously, I would never have wished for a pandemic, but it wound up being a good year for us. It put everything in a different perspectiv­e.”

The couple will soon move to Denver to work for a few years – and save up to buy their own Airstream.

 ?? — The Washington Post by Sandy Huffaker ?? Stone polishes a refurbishe­d Airsteam at his facility in San Diego.
— The Washington Post by Sandy Huffaker Stone polishes a refurbishe­d Airsteam at his facility in San Diego.
 ?? — The Washington Post by Sandy Huffaker ?? An interior view of a refurbishe­d Airstream camper at So Cal Vintage Trailer.
— The Washington Post by Sandy Huffaker An interior view of a refurbishe­d Airstream camper at So Cal Vintage Trailer.

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