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Airstream sales surge in pandemic

by EILENE ZIMMERMAN THE WASHINGTON POST | February 25, 2021 at 2:07 a.m.

Last June, Amy Geren bought a $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 to-anticipated,” said 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, according to morrow for more than I paid for it,” Geren, 49, said.

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% in 2020 and demand is still on the rise. It’s “beyond anything we 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 labor of two people.

Perhaps because Byam grew up in a boom town along the Oregon Trail, or because he started the company in California, Airstream has long been an iconic symbol of the West and Americans’ fondness for road trips. 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 nonprofit. But life in the city didn’t suit her, so Geren put the home up for sale in March, 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, in 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 said. “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, Wheeler said. “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% 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, Wheeler said, has a separate, tech-enabled office, including being Wi-Fi-ready and with hookups for a computer and mounted monitor. The new model goes for $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 said the widespread adoption of remote work has enabled greater flexibility to travel — but not for everyone. “It’s true mostly for higher-income individuals and white-collar workers,” he said, noting that the option of remote work is far less prevalent among lower-income and minority employees, who are also more likely to be essential workers.

Airstream owners have an average income of at least about $150,000, according to the company. New Airstreams cost between $39,000 and $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, when the couple bought their first house. The cost of gasoline, propane for heating and cooking, insurance and camping ground fees, among other expenses, can add up, she said.

“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,” Oliver said.

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