For the past two years I’ve helped organize the Vintage Trailer Jam each summer. I can honestly characterize those two years as a tremendous learning experience, and I mean that in a positive way. VTJ ’08 and ’09 taught me a lot about how to structure an event for the Airstream community. That’s because we started off with a blank sheet of paper. Steve, Colin, Brett and I talked about what sort of event we’d like to go to, and what we needed to supply, and then we built up the Trailer Jam from there.
The first year we made a lot of mistakes, but the event came off well anyway. People begged us to do it again, so we did. The second year we made fewer mistakes and it was much easier, but by then the four partners were getting distracted by their core businesses — all of which were feeling the pain of recession — and so we decided to disband the event.
After all the effort, six months of organizing, dealing with a dozen vendors, accountant, tax and incorporation forms, insurance, permits, and sweating in the heat while I helped haul trash — and a thousand other details that weren’t much fun — I thought, “I’ll never do this again.”
But either we’re getting smarter about it, or the passage of time has helped me forget the pain, because now I find myself partnered with Brett to organize an even bigger event next summer. We call it Alumapalooza 2010.
Actually, the real reason I’m once again plunging into the event business is because I am a believer in the value of re-inventing ideas, starting with blank sheets of paper, and thinking outside the box. (Also, apparently, I’m a believer in business cliches.) It bugged me that we hadn’t yet perfected the event formula. On top of that, Brett kept calling me and suggesting we do something completely new. I think he knew he was hitting a weak spot in my personality. I couldn’t just leave it alone.
Whatever you call it, there’s value in starting without preconceptions. That’s what made Alumapalooza possible. We looked at recent history, and the needs of potential partners, and realized that there was a distinct need we could fill. See, Airstream used to run “Homecoming” events at the factory in Jackson Center, but they died out, in part because they got too expensive for the company. By keeping the spirit of Homecoming but re-inventing the structure, we figured out a way to hold a really fun Airstream event that would work for everyone (organizers, participants, Airstream, the village of Jackson Center, and vendors). We even picked a different name, so that it would be clear we were going for something completely new.
You know when you’ve got a good idea when everyone else starts piling on, the minute you announce it. That’s a validation clue that I always look for. First we bounced ideas off each other, and when we had a concept that felt good, we took it to Airstream. They loved it, so we told a few other people. Next thing we knew, we were getting ideas and assistance from the village, the local businesses, the Airstream club, Airstream vendors, and even Airstream Europe! While not everyone can get everything they want, we have explored every avenue that has opened, and I would guess that about one-third of the new ideas have become part of the event.
So, Alumapalooza is being organized by Brett and I, but that just means our main job is to bring everyone else together. The real contribution is coming from many others. At last count, four of the Airstream service and management staff are planning to attend and give talks. Ultimately I expect we’ll have six or seven from the factory. Eleven other people have agreed to deliver seminars and slide shows, too, coming from all parts of the US, including Airstream Life contributors Bert Gildart, J. Rick Cipot, Jody Brotherston, and Forrest McClure.
We have already lined up several vendors who will be giving demonstrations and selling products — and I expect many more to sign up in the coming months. David Winick just signed up for a vendor space this morning, and Michael Depraida joined a few days ago. David is contributing some of his fancy custom screen door guards as door prizes, and Michael is contributing his fun “Artstream” t-shirts. The village of Jackson Center is making an incredible contribution with their concurrent event downtown, called “Jackson Center Community Days.” They’re giving us an advance purchase rate on ride wristbands. A nearby hotel is offering us a special rate for those who are not staying in their Airstream.
And of course the biggest contribution comes from the people who are attending. Hardly a day goes by now where I don’t hear from someone who plans to bring something cool (a restored vintage trailer, some art, a door prize, some special food, etc.) or who has a good idea. Our community is filled with interesting people who all add something good to the whole. Even people who can’t attend due to schedule conflicts are helping out, like our friends the “executive hobos” Alex and Charon.
One of the big “blank sheet of paper” ideas that we’ve implemented is to invite everyone, regardless of what brand of RV they own. We figure if you want to show up at the Airstream factory, you’re probably interested in learning more about Airstreams. You don’t have to own an Airstream to subscribe to Airstream Life, so why limit attendance at Alumapalooza to only people who own Airstreams? It’s the common interest in the lifestyle that binds us together. We’ve already got a couple in a vintage fiberglass Trillium trailer planning to come. Diversity makes life interesting. And yeah, we’ll probably get some of those “other brand” owners to buy Airstreams in the future!
Another idea is self-parking. Most rallies I’ve gone to have had dedicated volunteers who direct you to parking. We’ve taking a big leap and set up a self-parking system. That saves half a dozen people from having to spend all day, every day, in the hot sun waiting for trailers to arrive. We all park ourselves at every campground we go to; why can’t we park ourselves at Alumapalooza? Of course we can!
Yet another idea is flexible attendance dates. Some people only can show up for the weekend, others are free to spend the entire week. We’ve set up the registration form so you can choose whether you want 3, 4, or 5 days on site, and you only pay for the days you want.
More ideas? How about online registration: The whole system is automated, saving paper, labor, and time. Online registration means you can pay by credit card, get instant directions from Google Maps, join up with other attendees via Facebook or AirForums, and shop for Alumapalooza merchandise. Plus, it allows us to hold down the event price since we don’t need someone to process registrations. Pretty much everyone has access to a computer these days, but if someone doesn’t we can still take a registration via phone (802-877-2900 extension 4).
And another idea: why not let kids come free? They don’t take up much space, they add excitement, and it makes attendance a lot easier for younger Airstreamers with families. So we set that policy too. It worked very well at the Vintage Trailer Jam.
It’s fun, building a new paradigm (whoops, there goes another business cliche!) Tearing down the old way of doing things makes sense if you’re willing to build something up in its place. Dreaming up ways to make a better mousetrap (cliche #5) is like a game once you get rolling: how many ways I can think up to improve my product? It makes the job more exciting. Each new idea that works is like the thrill of finding an Easter Egg. This is a game that any small business owner can play.
Now that we’ve gone public and launched registration, I can talk a little about what goes on behind the scenes. As things progress, I plan to write about the little lessons learned and how it’s going. We still have six months before the event, so there’s a lot of work yet to do, and many interesting challenges undoubtedly lie ahead. I hope we’ll see you at Alumapalooza next summer!