The 9 mile shakedown cruise

We’re back from Alumafiesta … and a bit worn out.

It was great to make so many people happy.  We essentially held a five day party for 150 guests, and managed to keep them occupied the entire time.  The feedback was good, we had a little time to visit with our friends, the weather was fantastic on four days, and nothing went terribly wrong.  All in all, it was a big success.  We’ve already picked out the dates for 2014 (Feb 4-9) and opened up registration for next year.  I can tell already that it will be even bigger.

So all’s good, the Airstreamers are smiling, and everyone on the team (me & Eleanor, Brett & Lisa) feel like we’ve done a good thing.  But it does take a lot out of all of us to run these things.  People kept asking if we’d “take over” certain other rallies, or if we’d bring an Aluma-event to their area, and we had to keep saying that we just didn’t have the energy to do this more than three or four times a year.  Right now I feel like I need a vacation.

I’m not going to get it, at least this week.  Beside the work I need to do for Airstream Life, the two Airstreams have spoken up about what they need.  Our little nine mile camping trip to the west side of Tucson was sufficient to blow the dust off the trailers, metaphorically at least, and reveal the little issues that must be resolved before we go on our next real expedition.

As I mentioned before, the Caravel has suffered from sitting, and we discovered several plumbing leaks and a bad propane regulator right before the event.  Since then we’ve found that one of the two Optima batteries has begun to leak from the negative terminal.  This leakage damaged the Marmoleum floor (fortunately a place you can’t normally see).  So I yanked out the battery today and we neutralized the remaining acid with baking soda.

After looking at the mongrel plumbing in the Caravel, I’ve decided that the best approach will be to totally replace the plumbing system with all new PEX lines and fittings.  I really don’t like the system we’ve got (which was installed by a prior owner; the only major system we haven’t already replaced).  It has too many types of fittings, too many bits scabbed together with hose clamps, a lot of lines that are stressed going around corners where they should have neat elbows, and definitely not enough Teflon tape. Plus, this will give me the opportunity to quiet the vibrating water line that comes from the pump, add insulation, and install a real city water fill with check valve & pressure regulator. Today I placed an order for $287 worth of parts and tools to get this job done.  I still need to order the city water fill, so the total will exceed $300 for this particular project.

I also ordered a new propane regulator, two pigtails, a new main supply hose, and an adapter to connect the modern regulator to the original gas plumbing.  That’s another eighty bucks or so.  I’m going to skip replacing the failed battery, since the trailer now has all LED lighting and we really don’t need more than one battery for it.

A while back we tallied up the total “investment” in the Caravel.  Let’s just say it far exceeds the trailer’s current market value (are you surprised?) so it really isn’t a good investment.  Still, it seemed time to insure it for something more realistic than the “book value” of about $2,000, so I bought an Agreed Value Policy from Progressive with a $25,000 valuation and this week got a professional (IRS certified) appraiser to write up an appraisal.  I haven’t seen the appraisal yet, so I don’t really know how well the insurance valuation matches reality.  In any case, insuring for approximately true value tripled the insurance cost.  At least if there’s a total loss we’ll get some of our investment back.

You might wonder why we keep this antique Airstream that we hardly ever use.  The reasons are:  (1) We want to give it to Emma someday; (2) We can’t bear to part with it; (3) The current market probably won’t give us a price we can accept.  So we keep it ready to go for an average of one trip per year, and wait for Emma to learn to drive.  I’d hope for that day to come sooner, but I know that even when Emma inherits it I’ll still be the guy fixing it and paying for it …

For its part, the Safari is mostly fine.  We already knew that it needs a fresh floor covering, and I’ve already got the materials for that.  (That project starts soon.)  The problems I discovered on this trip were with the accessories. My laptop battery has died again ($95), and for some reason the Cradlepoint router is no longer happy with the Verizon Wireless Internet card (a Pantech UML-290).  The replacement battery is on order but I’m going to have to do some digging to figure out the router problem.  Both of these issues have to be resolved before we can go on the road again.

I also discovered that the new tire pressure monitor system I bought last August is really junk.  It’s a cheap system sold under a variety of names (and it’s not the Doran system I was using earlier).  It has managed to give terribly inaccurate readings ever since I got it, and also caused one of the tires to loose quite a bit of air.  I filled up the tires last week, and re-seated all the sensors, but I think this system is going to get returned.

I do like the security of having tire pressure monitoring on the trailer, but on the other hand we have enjoyed 100% reliability since we switched to the Michelins.  No flats, no punctures, no belt separations, no problems whatsoever.  I know that no tire is bulletproof, and yet we’ve been doing so well that I may skip tire pressure monitoring for a while.

It’s debatable whether we are more worn out by Alumafiesta, or the trailers are.  They are getting the post-event TLC, however.  In this case it’s better to be the horse than the rider.

I’ve got about six weeks to get everything buttoned up.  We are considering a three or four week trip in late March/early April up the California coast, and all systems need to be 100% for that.  Even if we end up not going (or being out for a shorter time), it will be good to know everything is ready for the big summer trip to Alumapalooza and beyond, which starts in mid-May.

A change of perspective

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.

Yesterday

For a couple of weeks I’ve been anticipating Alumafiesta kicking off, and the key day in my schedule was yesterday.  Yesterday was the day Brett & Lisa were scheduled to fly in from Florida to help with the pre-event arrangements, and so Eleanor and I had to get the Airstream Caravel over to the campground in the morning to serve as their housing.

Eleanor has been working hard to get the Caravel set up for guests, since it’s not normally prepared that way.  She’s added some useful kitchen items that it really needed, bought new towels, cleaned, checked all the supplies, loaded in special items that Brett & Lisa will need, etc.  It took a surprising amount of time, probably because the Caravel hardly ever gets used and things were really not well thought out.  In a space that small (17 feet long), you need to think carefully about every item that goes in it, and every item that needs to get out of the way.

Lack of use has been bad for it, too.  All RVs and travel trailers need regular attention in order to stay in good shape.  The Caravel has been sitting for about nine months, visited only for repairs in the past few months when we discovered the water leak in the fresh water tank.  I’ve been apprehensive about putting it back into service, since the long hiatus probably allowed a few new problems to crop up unnoticed.  The large temperature swings of the desert in winter and the intense UV light are enough to break down almost anything over time.

For that reason I wasn’t surprised to discover that the propane regulator, which tested fine only two weeks ago, was now leaking gas.  I found this problem yesterday as I was hitching the Caravel up the GL320 in the morning.  It was too late to do anything about it, so our guests will have to keep the gas off except for when they need to make some hot water for showers, or cook on the stove.  I’ll install a replacement regulator later.

While setting the Caravel up at Lazydays, I heard a sinister hissing near the water pump.  It turned out that a hose clamp on the water line had worked loose somehow.  A single turn of a screwdriver fixed that, but now I was on Full Alert for other water leaks.  We’ve had a lot of trouble with the plumbing in this trailer in the past, and frankly I don’t trust any part of the plumbing system at all.

So we pressurized the water system and checked all around for other leaks. Found another one under the kitchen sink, which was resolved with a twist of wrench. This confirmed my paranoia (or whatever, since it’s not paranoia when you know the trailer is out to get you).  I left Brett a message to be observant for other signs of water leaks in the plumbing when he arrived.

And sure enough, they found another one the next morning, a pinhole leak in the line leading to the water heater.  This sprayed water inside the closet and forced them to de-pressurize the water lines between uses of water.  Not a great hotel room, as they go but hey, the price was right.

I have reached the end of my patience with the plumbing.  It was one of the few systems that wasn’t completely renovated with the rest of the trailer, and it’s a hodge-podge of hose clamps, different fittings, adapters, and three types of tubing.  The various leaks that have sprung up from fittings coming loose and pinholes have managed to put water stains on all the new birch furniture that we spent weeks fabricating.  It’s time for a major overhaul with all new materials, so you can expect to read about that sometime this year when I get a chance.

But I didn’t have time for that yesterday, because I needed to run around town all day doing errands for Alumafiesta.  My first and best job was to take Bert Gildart over to the Tucson Mountains and Saguaro National Park, both on the west side of town, and help him scout out sites for his upcoming Photo Safaris.  That took a few hours, but the results were very gratifying, and we had a nice time, followed by lunch downtown with other Airstream friends.

If only the rest of the day were so pleasant.  I ended up logging 110 miles of driving around the city yesterday, battling slightly-worse-than-usual traffic caused by an influx of snowbirds and gem show attendees, while trying to get a few errands done.  At the end I was wondering why I was anticipating Thursday so cheerfully.

I guess it was because Thursday meant that things were finally, truly, honestly, happening.  I have been working on this event for a full year.  Only elephants take longer to gestate.  It was immensely gratifying to drive through the Lazydays campground and see already half a dozen Airstreams parked and waiting for the festivities to start next week.  That sight, and the smiles on peoples’ faces when they start meeting each other, really makes it all worthwhile.  By Tuesday afternoon, we’ll have eighty Airstreams parked together.  As one participant wrote to me a few weeks ago:  “Can. Not. Wait.”

There are undoubtedly some epic tales to be told of the trips people are making right now, to get here.  I know that many of our attendees are coming down fro snowbelt states, possibly battling snowstorms and headwinds to get south or through some mountain pass before descending to the desert floor.  Even coming from as close as Flagstaff could mean a tough drive through snow at 7,000 feet. Other attendees are facing personal barriers.  I got an email this week from a friend whose mother died on Wednesday.  The funeral is Saturday, and he’s leaving Sunday from his home state up north to drive through winter weather over 1,500 miles and get here by Tuesday afternoon.

When people are making that kind of effort to come to our event, well, that’s a very positive kind of pressure.  We all want to make sure they feel the trip was worth it.  We’ve got to put on a great show.  And so help me Wally Byam, we will.  With that perspective, I guess I can live with the minor hassles that popped up yesterday.  There are worse things than water leaks and traffic.  It’s going to be a good week.