Holding an Airstream event is always fun for us even when the workload is heavy, which it usually is. This one is going to be particularly fun because the workload is light.
When Brett and I first started producing Airstream events, we had no idea of what we were doing. So we just made choices based on what we’d like if we were attending, much like the choices you’d make if you were holding a party. In those first few events, we made a lot of choices that were based more on perception than reality, and one of them nearly killed us.
See, the first event was the Vintage Trailer Jam in 2008. We were up in the Saratoga Spa State Park (Saratoga Springs, NY), camped on the grass across from the Saratoga Automobile Museum. This location was selected by one of our partners (it was a four-way partnership at the time), because historically nobody had been allowed to camp inside the park before, and so it was an exotic spot to park 80 or 90 vintage trailers. We all heartily agreed: scoring this location would make our event unique.
We did the Vintage Trailer Jam again in 2009, and then in 2010 Brett & I launched Alumapalooza at the Airstream factory in Ohio. At this point we were believers: having unique locations that nobody else could camp in was our major differentiator. I suppose we were in part rebelling against the many lookalike rallies we had attended at boring campgrounds and fairgrounds all over the country. We believed in our “unique setting” doctrine so much that we began looking only for non-campground locations, and we’d even tell people that it was a critical element for any future event we might do.
People who liked our events started passing on tips of “great” spots where we might hold another, including a wildlife sanctuary in Arkansas, a field near Austin, and a barren patch of desert in the southwest. We eventually settled on an amusement park in Colorado, but even as we were planning that event it began to seep in that perhaps our perception was dead wrong.
That was because we were getting feedback from past attendees that suggested what they really valued was the opportunity to meet other people in a fun setting. The setting wasn’t fun because it was a patch of grass in a “different” spot, it was fun because we kept the participants entertained and gave them plenty of chances to meet other like-minded people.
In other words, we were selling ourselves short. The effort that went into programming the event to make sure it was a good time was the real differentiator. People came to our events not because of where they were, but because of what we offered them to do. The setting was secondary. It was a revelation, and actually a little bit of an embarrassment because for the previous three years we’d been spouting utter nonsense about why our events were good. It is true that even successful ventures sometimes aren’t fully understood by the people who run them.
Not only had we been missing the point, but we were killing ourselves in the process. Running a big Airstream event at a location which is not set up for camping means lots of advance work. We’d hassle with various authorities for permits, scour the Internet for vendors to supply all the services, beg for volunteer help for months, build multiple contingency plans for the zillions of things that can go wrong, make multiple (expensive) site visits, and then worry for months that we might not get enough participants to cover costs. During the event, we and our immediate family would spend days sweating out every minute, getting little sleep and occasionally (because of the stress) causing painful interpersonal rifts. For all of this, Brett & I could easily end up earning less than minimum wage, while neglecting the day jobs that actually keep us fed. It wasn’t much of a way to make a living, and I seriously contemplated the point at which it would have to end.
The final confirmation came at that amusement park. Through a series of misadventures and unfortunate occurrences, we ended up parking 200 attendees on a patch of dirt (we had planned for grass), crammed in far too tightly, lacking reliable water or electricity, and occasionally gave them serious fear that their Airstreams might at any moment be electrically disabled by a power spike.
And yet, most people had a good time.
I really had to go think about that for a while. Was it possible that the bar was just set so low for Airstream rallies that even an event that fell short of our expectations would still be a success? Are Airstreamers just very forgiving people? I’m sure there is some truth to both of those, but when we went back and talked to people it became clear that the real value was, and always has been, the opportunity to see, do and experience fun things with other Airstreamers. Wally had it right all those years ago: See More, Do More, Live More. It didn’t matter where we did it, because for many people the journey was enough for them to see new places. Our job was to give them a setting where they could share it all.
That was why we began to look at holding our Tucson event at a campground. It was a complete reversal of our earlier stylings, with full hookups and swimming pools, and restaurants, but I wanted to test the idea that we could still bring people in even without a unique setting. We eventually picked Lazydays and now, 12 months later, we are on the cusp of proving it. About 80 Airstreams are due to arrive by Tuesday (many of them have already arrived), and nobody seems to be the least bit bothered that we are in a place anyone could book into.
I’ve been over the Lazydays every day since Thursday to arrange final details. Our two trailers are now parked there (one for us, one for Brett & Lisa), and nearly everything is set for our Tuesday opening day. I’m actually looking forward to the first day with no trepidation because the staff of Lazydays are doing all the heavy lifting. Unlike those events held in grassy fields, we don’t have to direct all the trailers to parking. We don’t have to string electrical wire or water lines. We don’t have to set up a registration tent, or deal with a dozen vendors. We’re concentrating on what we do best: putting on a fun program.
It’s a real “DUH” moment for me. I can’t believe I didn’t see the obvious value we’ve been adding all this time. Instead, for years I’ve been hassling with pump-out trucks, hauling garbage bags, and worrying about a thousand details. This is the end of the most encompassing case of tunnel vision that I can recall having. And all it took was a change of perspective, to realize that we were completely wrong about what we thought we needed.
Perhaps some of this applies to your own life or business too. Even if you are succeeding at something, you could be unhappy because you’re trying too hard to be something you aren’t, or provide something that isn’t really needed. I guess it pays to take a look at yourself, your business, or your profession once in a while and challenge the assumptions that you’ve held dear. You never know how happy it might make you to ditch an old paradigm.
jerry thacker says
Although I have yet to attend an event. I can see your passion at work. It makes me want to attend. Not for the place, but for the community. Life is full of lessons to be learned. If we knew it all, how fun would that be?
marie luhr says
Just watched a TED Talk entitled “Shut Up & Listen”–Funny, Great Speaker–worth listening to! Congratulations, Rich & Brett, for having an open mind (and reaching that light at the end of the tunnel!).
Tom Bentley says
Rich, I’ve liked a lot of your posts, but I think this is one of your very best. Seeing that it’s not the trappings of the experience, but the experience itself, it’s emotional core. Seeing what the people want and giving it to them. Good business lesson all around.