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Airstream's CEO is bringing the American icon into the future by selling millennials on adventure

Business Insider | Jan 8, 2018, 09.56PM IST

Airstream Trailer

Airstream

  • Airstream's CEO says the company is in a unique position.
  • It has a powerful, 85-year history.
  • The company is preparing itself to sell RVs to millennials, deal with the arrival of self-driving vehicles, and address the opportunities that electric cars present.


Bob Wheeler might have the best job in America. CEO of Airstream since 2005 and charged with steering the iconic, Ohio-based manufacturer of silvery, sleek, space-age trailers into the future, he's found himself extremely comfortable with several major challenges that are keeping other executives up at night.

His burden could be huge - Airstream has been around for 85 years and for many, it symbolizes the all-American trailer at its best, crafted from shimmering aluminum and exuding timeless cool. And the company isn't without challenges, particularly as they relate to Airstream's historic reliance on the human need to hit the open road. What if, in the future, we stop driving?

Wheeler, who saw Airstream thorough a rough patch during the financial crisis, is taking it all in stride.

"We see everything as opportunity rather than a threat," he told Business Insider.

Opportunities are everywhere and threats are refreshingly limited

Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler

Screenshot via YouTube/Airstream

Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler.

Airstream makes everything in the US - "Nobody wants an Airstream built anywhere else," Wheeler said - and even in a world in which humans aren't behind the wheel, towing a trailer on a weeklong adventure isn't intimidating.

Wheeler and his team have been asking themselves what an autonomous vehicle looks like, and what happens when you don't have forward-facing seats. The mobility experience might make them more social, involving more entertainment and even sleeping.

"That starts to seem a lot like a recreational vehicle," he said, adding that Airstream is now focusing intently in on the intersection between transportation and residential design. "We want to make sure we're in that conversation."

Wheeler is also making sure that Airstream can satisfy the demands of a broad range of customers. The company, a subsidiary of Thor Industries (Thor was created when it bought Airstream in 1980) doesn't do just towed trailers, for example. It also manufactures what it calls Touring Coaches in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz (we sampled one for a week a few years back).

In 2016, the company acquired the tiny Oregon startup NEST Caravans, which was barely out of the prototype stage for fiberglass RVs.

"It struck a chord," Wheeler said, noting that NEST is a departure from the "bulleted" Airstream shape but consistent with the overall Airstream brand.

"It's the kind of fiberglass trailer we'd design, so we bought the company," he said. "We like to think of ourselves as curating good design."

Capitalizing on new trends

Airstream Basecamp

Airstream

The Airstream Basecamp.

Beyond that, Airstream wants to curate diverse customers. Several years ago, Wheeler said, the company recognized a trend.

"Your value is measured by the the things you've done, not the physical assets you've accumulated. You don't need a big house in the suburbs to show you're successful."

The insight has positioned Airstream - familiar with older customers who desire a "house on wheels" - to understand what millennials want.

"We didn't have to shift," Wheeler said. The "old school" brand, as he he sees it, appeals to younger people because it's a "counterpoint to the 100 million identical cell phones."

And whether a customer wants a big Classic Travel Trailer that can sleep five and costs $140,000, or one of Airstream's newest products, the relatively humble Basecamp that sleeps two and goes for $36,000, according to Wheeler, "they all share this common element of understanding adventure is somewhere past the end of your driveway."

Airstream Trailer

Airstream

A home on the road.

Taking on the out-there ideas

Insulated from the Trump-era debates about outsourced manufacturing - Wheeler said that he considers Airstream fortunate to have been able to avoid soul-searching on that score - the company can turn its attention to some out-there ideas.

For example, Wheeler said that as electric vehicles become more prevalent, owners will encounter range issues that an Airstream can deal with.

"We've been toying with an idea of onboard battery tow vehicle," he said. "It could double range and double capacity."

The more you talk to Wheeler and learn about Airstream's goals for the next 85 years, the more you realize how many advantages the brand has.

"We have to honor our history and our legacy, but we're in a unique position," he said. "Airstream is a conduit to a lifestyle, and with that, the possibilities are endless."

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