Airstream was looking for ways to increase its appeal to younger buyers, and the Columbus College of Art and Design needed a project to engage its students. Thus was born a collaboration that has students designing a travel trailer for people who both live and work in their RV.
As many as 170 students are working on the project that is but the latest example of Airstream’s continuing efforts to keep the 82-year-old brand fresh.
No RV brand has lasted as long as Airstream, and there is no more recognizable sight on the road than the gleaming, polished aluminum exterior of an Airstream trailer. But with any product that has been around for a long time, the challenge is to extend the appeal to new generations. Airstream does not want to be known as your Grandpa’s RV.
So when Tom Gattis, the dean of the School of Design Arts at the college in Columbus, Ohio, approached executives at the Airstream factory about 75 miles away in Jackson Center with a concept for a student project, he caught their interest immediately. Gattis said most current Airstream buyers are 50 to 80 years of age, and “the reality is that market is slowly dying.” The challenge for the company, he said, is to reach more people in the 25-45 demographic. One way to do that is to pay close attention to how people in that age group want to use their RV and design it accordingly.
It appears that a growing number of people are working full time or part time while traveling in an RV. Some need an office in their RV; others may sell items in their RV and need retail space.
The students in their analysis identified an RV that would serve as both a living quarters and work space as an unmet need in the industry. Bob Wheeler, Airstream president and CEO, said his company has been getting requests for that sort of an RV, so that quickly became the focus of the student project.
Airstream is providing the shell of a 23-foot trailer for the students to fill with their concepts. The interior will include mockups, components and furnishings. Students from nine college majors are involved in the project, which began in January and will conclude with a presentation to Airstream on May 7. If Airstream likes the design, it may build a prototype that could be used to promote both Airstream and the college. Some student ideas could wind up in production models.
Besides designing the interior of the trailer, students are working on related marketing projects, such as Airstream clothing and an animated cartoon called “Wally Byam’s Cartoon Caravan” (referring to Airstream’s founder).
For the last decade, Airstream has been working hard to stay on the cutting edge. The iconic “silver bullet” exterior defines Airstream, but what has kept the brand relevant are the sleek interiors that appeal to upscale buyers.
The entire RV industry experienced strong growth last year, but few brands did as well as Airstream. Its trailer sales rose 49 percent and its Interstate motorhome led the Class B touring coach market, posting a 48 percent sales increase. With its highest order backlog in 30 years, the company added 200 employees.
Wheeler, the company CEO, attributed part of the sales increase to a stronger, expanded dealer network. Like other RV companies, Airstream lost dealers during the Great Recession, but is now back to 70 in North America, and has room for about 15 more, Wheeler said. Some of the most successful dealers carry only the Airstream brand. Because Airstream trailers and motorhomes are so distinctive, they appeal to a different market from other RVs, Wheeler said, and it takes a different approach to sell them.
Foreign sales are a small part of Airstream’s business, but Wheeler sees great opportunities in the future, particularly in China where there are Airstream dealerships in Beijing and Shanghai. Wheeler said RVing will be accelerated by China’s growing middle class and the government’s efforts to promote internal tourism so money is spent at home rather than abroad.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. some of Airstream’s growth is coming from individuals and companies that acquire trailers for uses other than camping. Levi’s took a customized Airstream to flagship stores during the holiday season to offer free gift wrapping, and Fender, the guitar maker, has outfitted an Airstream as a recording studio and lounge for use at music festivals. Airstreams are used as food trucks, as pool houses, and as places for stars to lounge on movie sets.
Meanwhile, at the Columbus College of Art and Design, students are busy trying to figure out how to equip travel trailers for the next generation of Airstream owners.
Wheeler said he and others at Airstream like to think they are connected to the latest trends, but it’s always good to know what younger people are thinking so that Airstream products are kept fresh and appealing.
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Find First Glance online at rvlife.com.