Beautiful Thinkers: A conversation with Bob Wheeler, CEO of Airstream, on timeless design, the Midwestern work ethic, and new age nomads.
You can’t be in design and not have a love for the Airstream brand. The brand and its beloved silver bullet design are intertwined so elegantly that it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. I wanted to interview Bob because he has made bold moves to keep Airstream not only relevant, but at the leading edge of cool. And he’s done it without losing the iconic brand ethos Wally Byam created in 1931 when he opened the first Airstream factory.
How does your background in product development inform your role as CEO of Airstream?
Well, originally, I was trained as an engineer. When I got into product design and development, I didn’t know anything about design, frankly. My design education really started when I came to Airstream. The brand gets a lot of attention from top-class designers who have a lot of love for the brand. Getting exposed to those design minds has been my education. I’m kind of a work in progress, but I’ve learned enough that I can be effective in not tarnishing this icon — allowing it to grow without losing what the magic of the brand was to begin with.
How would you articulate the Airstream brand?
We inspire adventure. We enable people to hit the road, see something new, meet new people, in ways that they might have been scared to do otherwise.
Who designed the original Airstream?
The original Airstream design was created by a guy named Hawley Bowlus, the aircraft designer who designed the Spirit of St. Louis. He saw the opportunity to chop the wings off and put wheels under it. That’s a travel trailer. The 1935 and ’36 travel trailers that he designed were reasonably similar to what we build today.
Your design updates are infrequent, often spanning 30 years. How do you know when it’s time for an update to the design?
When I started as VP of product development and engineering, my friends said, “At Airstream? What are you gonna do?” It’s an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, this brand is part of the American fabric, which can restrict you. But it’s also a tremendous foundation and a tremendous opportunity. We try to respect our history and acknowledge it without being held back by it.
The exterior of the Airstream is the iconic image people know and recognize. We don’t feel we can change much or really need to. We can flex our design muscle in the interior design, where we’re really unrestricted. Then there are offshoot products like the Basecamp or the Nest that represent new forms for what we’re known for: aluminum and rivets.
I know you did a study where you found that people would stay out longer if they could stay connected? Did that surprise you?
It did. It dramatically changed our thinking. We’d thought: Camping means to disconnect. When you’re in nature, you turn your phones and your computers off and you sit there and enjoy the majesty. That is true, but we have to now embrace the fact that people expect connectivity in their Airstream like they do every other part of their life. The silver lining is that people stay out longer when they have connectivity. It’s an enabler rather than something that stands between them and nature. So it’s our goal to provide some kind of connectivity solution in everything we make.
Is it true that half of your customers are first-time RVers?
Yes. It’s gone from 10% to 50% in the past few years. When I started, our buyers were very traditional retirees — ex-military, ex-educators — and their average age was 63. We’re around 57 now. They’re buying their Airstream and using it for shorter trips and vacations in preparation for their full retirement. They’ve got the passion, and they’re coming straight to Airstream. They’re not out considering what other RVs to buy.
Some of the products we’ve been developing, such as the Basecamp and Nest, are really aimed at capturing a younger buyer. We want to make joining the Airstream lifestyle easier, whether it’s for an economic reason or just ease of use and time and schedule. That’s where the technology piece really comes into play. For a lot of these younger buyers, technology is really table stakes. Our buyers used to be exclusively couples, but now what we’re seeing more and more, interestingly, is small families. And mom and dad are digital workers: marketing, web-design, programmers, developers. They pull their kids out of school, and they homeschool them on the road. They’re new-age nomads. They’re not tied to a location.
There’s a great line in your literature: “In with the old. In with the new.” Where did that come from?
That’s a nod to the fact that we’ve got this great history. It’s rich and full of stories, and it built this brand in America and made us part of that fabric. But if we rest on that, we’re gonna become irrelevant. I live in complete fear and paranoia of irrelevancy — not just personally in my job, but for the brand. We’re really hungry to capitalize on that history but keep pushing the edge for the industry and for the brand. There’s a number of ways we do that.
Technology is an easy one to point to. But there are also product advancements that involve partnerships and collaborations. We love our special edition and limited-edition travel trailers and motor homes, where we work with partner brands that share similar brand attributes like Tommy Bahama and Pendleton, the National Parks edition travel trailer.
Which one is your favorite?
Quicksilver, believe it or not. It goes back 15 years. It was a really cool beach theme, very bright and upbeat. You couldn’t walk in there and not smile. So even though it’s an older one, it still strikes a chord.
What do you see is the biggest opportunity for the Airstream brand today?
As soon as our customer drives their Airstream off the dealer lot, we’ve lost touch with them. We can follow through social media, but their experience is completely on their own. We’re really starting to get excited about how we can help participate in their Airstream lifestyle experience. Can we help plan trips, find and book campgrounds and attractions? Can we help with roadside assistance? Can we help stock and supply and resupply your Airstream? Can we better connect you with the Airstream community?
There’s this great Airstream kind of subculture and safety net. Airstreamers love Airstreamers. How can we help enhance those relationships? The idea that our participation can extend beyond the dealership is really exciting and points to a lot of interesting business opportunities. You’re going to see us evolve again from products to products and services and lifestyle around Airstream land-based adventure travel.
The other piece the brand is doing is environmental responsibility. I loved this line from you, “We promote being in the outdoors; therefore, we have responsibility for the outdoors.” How are you making that a reality?
We’re doing a lot, but not as much as we can. One thing we’re doing today and will continue is paying the renewable energy credit. So we’re paying more for our resources to represent that philosophy. We source only low volatile organic compound materials. Everything meets California CARB requirements for formaldehyde. We use low-flow water fixtures. We use all LED lighting, so the amp draw from the unit has dropped dramatically.
There’s always more we can do, but we’re quietly trying to do it — both on the manufacturing side, where we try to reduce our footprint, and then by trying to promote leave no trace camping (or leave it better than you found it) to support the Natural Forest Foundation. I’m on the board of the National Forest Foundation.
And you are working with having a lithium battery in some of your models?
We’re getting closer, so battery capacity’s getting better. The tipping point is when you can run your air conditioning, which creates high demand on a battery, and we’re really, really close. Our goal is one less energy source in a unit. If we can get rid of the LP gas and then run on electricity, which can be sourced by the customer, we’ll be there.
Do you have a recycling program in place to recycle Airstreams when they reach their end?
They don’t reach the end. That sounds facetious, but I’m serious. Airstreams don’t end up in landfills. They get refurbished after maybe 50 years. The shells don’t corrode because they’re aluminum. You can take the shell off and old rotted steel chassis from the ’50s, put it on a new chassis, you’re back in business. We’re building products that are heirlooms to be passed on and on and on.
Why did Airstream, which was founded in California, migrated all operations to the Midwest?
In 1953, Wally realized shipping from Southern California to the East Coast doesn’t make a lot of sense, so they opened a second location here in Jackson Center. In the early ’70s when Beatrice Foods purchased the company, they built this plant we’re in now, then closed California operations and brought everything to Jackson Center.
And why have you stayed in the Midwest?
It’s because we can’t find the workforce anywhere else. Airstreams are built by hand. There’s very little automation. The main assembly of the shell and everything is 100% by hand. The most important resource is dedicated craftspeople. Every job is a skill. It’s not pushing a button. Loyalty and dedication are so central to the brand and what we produce, that the thought of recreating that somewhere else is daunting. We’ve got history here. In some cases, we’ve got three generations of families working here simultaneously. That kind of continuity is essential, so we’re going to make our stand here in Jackson Center.
What role do you think manufacturing plays in the rise of American business and culture?
Manufacturing is changing. Automation is driving efficiency and product quality up and driving costs down but also eliminating jobs. There’s a kind of man-versus-technology evolution that has to take place. But because of the nature of what we make, I don’t see Airstream manufacturing evolving much honestly.
On your tour, you’ll see a solid rivet being put in by two guys with a rivet gun and a bucking bar, who can’t see each other because they’re on opposite sides of the shell. It’s so central to who we are, this kind of clunky industrial art that we make, rivets and kind of old school stuff, that fulfills a modern need. That blend is so part of our brand that I don’t think we could ever get away from it.
Who do you think your biggest competition is?
What other brands inspire you?
Harley is a great parallel. It’s got wheels. It’s manufactured. It’s a hundred and something years old, all American. Also brands as diverse as Herman Miller or Ford, the Mustang brand in particular.
What would the founder, Wally think of Airstream today?
I often wonder what Wally would say. I think he would be baffled at how his relatively simple travel trailer designs have taken on such complexity and luxury, for one. But he would also see that behind all of our actions lies the passion to inspire in our customers the same sense of adventure and discovery that motivated him to start Airstream in the first place. And that would give him peace.