JACKSON CENTER – A six-week production shutdown last spring that was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has given way to one of the most prosperous periods in Airstream’s history.
Jay Cullis, a content manager at Airstream, was the featured speaker during the Great Miami Riverway’s Riverway Conversations webinar on Tuesday. He discussed the company’s history and its current outlook, which has been boosted by people’s desire to get outdoors and avoid crowds during the pandemic.
“You won’t get your Airstream for almost a year in some cases,” Cullis said. “We have about a year backlog of orders, which is just bonkers.”
When the pandemic began to grip the United States, Airstream furloughed all of the approximately 800 production workers at its Jackson Center factory. Since then, all of the employees who wanted to return to work have returned.
“We went from just incredible revenue to zero dollars overnight,” Cullis said. “We shut down the factory on March 17; we were shut for about six weeks with no production.
“For six weeks it was very scary. We didn’t know what we were going to do. We didn’t know when we would get everybody back in the factory.”
Following the shutdown, Airstream had one of the best months in the history of the company in May 2020. That’s part of a larger trend of manufacturers of outdoor goods seeing great sales numbers, Cullis said.
“We have an unprecedented number of new RV owners who are coming to the brand,” the Troy resident said. “We estimate about 50% of all the trailers that were purchased since the pandemic began were bought by people who have never RV’d in their life.”
With a shift to online work and schooling, people have the ability to work from anywhere they can get an internet connection. That’s prompting more people to hit the roads and traverse the country in recreational vehicles such as Airstreams.
One of the new owners, Troy City Council member John Schweser, said during the webinar that he and his wife purchased a 1977 Airstream Trade Wind travel trailer. They’re having it remodeled at Vintage Base Camp in Kentucky, a company that restores and repairs Airstream trailers.
Schweser will get his remodeled Airstream sometime in June, he said. In the meantime, he’s been exploring websites that provide guidance on the ins and outs of owning and operating an Airstream.
One of Cullis’ responsibilities the past couple years has been working to create content that helps people understand what they’re getting into when they purchase an Airstream and how to deal with issues that arise.
“These are not vehicles,” Cullis said. “They’re not precision-made automobiles that will last you for 10 years with no issues. They’re homes on wheels, and they’re towed down the highway in what’s estimated to be a 4.0 earthquake.”
The Airstream community, both online and at campgrounds throughout the world, also is a big part of providing assistance to fellow owners and marketing to potential owners.
“They’re our greatest advocates, the folks who are out there,” Cullis said.
While Airstream now has a loyal fan base, it took time and bold ventures to build that support.
Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream, built his first travel trailer to make camping more comfortable for his first wife, Marion, building the trailer on top of a Model T chassis.
“The marriage doesn’t last, but the idea does,” Cullis said.
Byam began selling plans for his first travel trailer for $1 in Popular Mechanics, and the idea took off like wildfire. People asked him to build trailers, and in 1936 he introduced the Clipper model, the first silver bullet Airstream trailer.
“He calls it Airstream because he believes they’ll sail down the highway on a stream of air,” Cullis said.
After a break during World War II, the then-California-based company resumed operations and saw a boom in business. Needing an eastern distribution point, Byam toured the Midwest in 1952 and selected a former bazooka factory in Jackson Center.
Also in the 1950s, Airstream began caravans to market its trailers.
“If he’s going to convince you to buy one of these things, hitch it up to a car, take it to Yellowstone, he has to convince you that you can take it anywhere,” Cullis said.
The first major caravan included 40 trailers traveling through Mexico and Central America.
“It is an unmitigated disaster,” Cullis said. “Only about 20 trailers make it to the Yucatan Peninsula, and they’re ferried back on the ocean.
“(Byam) says, ‘I’m never doing this again,’ and within a year he’s out doing it again.”
Airstream’s caravans returned to the road with trips throughout the United States and Canada. In 1959 another caravan of 45 trailers traveled from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt, during which Byam relayed feedback to Airstream headquarters on how to improve the trailers while traversing rocky and muddy terrain.
“It’s crazy. It’s nuts,” Cullis said. “It’s a wild adventure that ends parking at the base of the pyramids.”
To this day, Airstream continues manufacturing its trailers in Jackson Center with riveted aluminum like it did decades ago, each one handmade.
“You see new ones going down the highway and you see ones from the ‘60s, and it’s very hard to tell the difference unless you really know what makes them different,” Cullis said.
While the exterior has remained largely unchanged, Airstream has updated the interior of its trailers and partnered with Tommy Bahama, Pendleton Woolen Mills, the U.S. National Park Service and Pottery Barn on projects.
Airstream also is working on a project with Boeing for its Starliner astronauts, continuing a tradition that included working with NASA for its Apollo and Space Shuttle missions.
The company also regularly hears from movie studios, businesses and nonprofits that want trailers.
“We regularly entertain calls from very well-known people who want trailers for this or want trailers for this,” Cullis said. “Many times they want us to give them a trailer. We’re not really in the position to do that, but we are in the position to work with as many of them as possible.”
While Airstream has a strong following now, it’s experienced struggles throughout its 90-year history.
Airstream almost went under in 1979 during the oil crisis that led to people staying at home more often. The company was saved in 1980 by investors from Thor Industries, which still owns Airstream and considers it to be the crown jewel of its recreational vehicle portfolio.
Then in 2008, during the housing market collapse, Airstream dropped down to fewer than 200 employees. It’s since rebounded, now boasting 1,000 employees and a 750,000 square foot production facility in Jackson Center, the largest RV manufacturing space in the country.
“We just have been on a crazy upward trajectory for the last 10 years, selling more and more units, becoming more and more popular,” Cullis said.
There are approximately 80 Airstream dealers across the United States, including Arbogast Airstream in Troy and Mark Wahlberg Airstream & RV in Columbus. The Midwest doesn’t see as many Airstream sales as other regions of the country, though.
“Interestingly not many are sold in Ohio,” Cullis said.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Airstream had about 10,000 people a year tour its production facility in Jackson Center. The company hopes to resume daily tours later this year and open the Airstream Heritage Center, a museum at its factory that will showcase Airstream’s vintage collection of travel trailers.
Also during Tuesday’s webinar, Sidney Mayor Mike Barhorst said the city recently received $825,000 of state funding to extend the Canal Feeder Trail more than a mile. Once that extension is complete, Sidney will focus on connecting to the Great Miami River Recreational Trail in Piqua.
“The overarching goal has always been to allow travel on the Great Miami River Recreation Trail from Sidney to Middletown with no gaps in between,” Barhorst said. “We’re excited to be adding more miles of paved trails to our regional recreational trail system.”
Dan Foley, director of the Great Miami Riverway, said several communities have seen investments along the 99 miles of the riverway that will benefit the entire corridor.
“We’ve seen more than $100 million invested in our trails and public spaces over the last decade. That momentum in continuing,” Foley said. “There’s broad agreement that every new mile of paved trail makes the investment in the previous miles that much more valuable.”
For more information about the Great Miami Riverway, visit www.greatmiamiriverway.com.
For more information about Airstream, visit www.airstream.com or call 877-596-6111.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-538-4824.