This is a test … of Alumafiesta

Although this month is one of the really great ones for Airstreaming in the southwest, we’re mostly staying at home.  Since the Airstream is usually out from May through September, the mild weather of a southwest Fall season is the ideal opportunity to catch up on the rest of life.  Maintenance on both of the Airstreams is part of it, thanks to cooling temperatures and a near-total lack of rain, but far more interesting is the process of planning for the next round of events.

I have spent much of the past week trying to wrap up the event schedule for Alumafiesta.  After many hours of research and coordination, I am extremely glad to say that a Preliminary Event Program is ready for public release!  We posted it on the Alumafiesta website today.

The program is looking very ambitious and I think it’s going to be another hit.  We’ve got seven seminars, four evening presentations, musical entertainment, sword swallowing, five Happy Hours, four yoga sessions, a bike ride, a big hike and two walks, glass-making, six meals, five off-site tours, a cooking demo, cooking contest, three Open Grills … AND we’re working on a few surprises that aren’t on the Preliminary program yet.

One of the requests we got last year after Alumafiesta was to make sure it didn’t repeat exactly in 2014.  I get that.  If I were attending from another state, I’d be disinclined to drive back to Tucson and do the exact same things all over again.  So we tossed out most of the excursions we did last year and substituted five new ones, plus we brought in two new entertainers, and added more seminars. We will do the same again in 2015, because there’s a lot of stuff to do in this area!

There are still a dozen details to nail down, but we are close enough to done that I can relax a bit and do the fun research.  You see, somebody has to actually go to all of the places that we will visit during Alumafiesta and check out the details. This includes the tedious details like verifying that the driving maps are good, and that each parking lot has enough space, as well as the fun stuff like testing the menu at the various restaurants.  I always leave this part for last because I regard it as my reward for weeks of desk work.  I get to abandon my desk, get out for a few hours, and make sure that everything we’ve planned for the event meets a high standard.

For example, yesterday Emma and I loaded our bikes up on the roof of the trusty old Mercedes 300D to test a bike ride I’ll be leading during Alumafiesta.  The ride is only 16 level miles round-trip, entirely on paved trail, so it wasn’t terribly challenging and it was very fun to do with my teenager.  (It seems like this will be one of the last rides Emma does on her current bike—she’s managed to outgrow it yet again—so soon I’ll be shopping for a replacement.  Ah well, it’s worth it to be able to have days like that with her.)

Restaurant testing will be next.  I suspect I will have volunteers to help with that task, too.

I hope to see you in Tucson next February!

Someone to blog over me

Hmm.. another long absence from the blog.  I can only plead guilty.  Life has interfered with blogging in so many ways I can’t begin to count.  But here’s a synopsis of what’s been going on.

The virus I mentioned earlier dogged me right through the week when I was supposed to be getting ready for Alumafandango, and then into the event itself.  The Saturday prior to the event I dragged my pathetic self out of bed, drove to Phoenix, caught a plane to Portland, and then rode four hours with Brett down to Canyonville to do pre-event work.  Sadly, I was in no shape to do any of those things, and so upon arriving at the hotel I collapsed into bed and proceeded to be fairly useless all weekend.  Brett did the heavy lifting, demonstrating once again that we could only do this as a partnership.

It was looking like I might even miss a few days of Alumafandango, but then on Monday things began to improve and by Tuesday when our first guests appeared I was able to approximate a smile and help kick off the event.  From there it was a marvelous week.  I didn’t have time to blog at all from the event, but you can probably read more about it from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and various blogs (Casarodante, TinCanz, Notes From The Cabin) than I could ever say.  (If you Google it, be sure you’re looking at comments about Alumafandango Seven Feathers, not the 2012 Alumafandango in Denver.)

What I really need these days is someone to read my mind and blog for me.  That’s not likely, so I recommend following my Twitter feed (“airstreamlife”) as a way to keep abreast of events.  These days I’m much more likely to get a quick tweet and a photo out, than a full blog entry.  I am, however, in active talks with a few folks who each want to become Editor of Airstream Life, and I have high hopes that one of them will work out and thus free up some time.  And I doubt I will ever stop blogging entirely, as it is a very useful outlet for thoughts.  As fellow Airstream blogger Ramona Creel says, “There’s too much stuff to keep in my head!”

Where were we?  Ah yes, Alumafandango.  We had about 65 Airstreams on site, and people just raved about everything: the campground, the seminars, the activities, entertainment, meals … Even the wildfires in the area were blowing away from us, so we had virtually no smoke.  The weather was great except toward the end where we had some pretty exciting thunderstorms.  Three awnings were damaged in the first round of storms, which the Sutton guys fixed on the spot using parts scavenged from their new display Airstreams.  After that everyone knew to pull in the their awnings when they were away.

Brett and I ran a seminar in which we accepted written questions on any subject related to Airstreaming, which we called “Airstreaming for Newbies” but really got into some advanced topics.  Nobody stumped us, and I got a few good ideas of topics to cover in the upcoming Maintenance book, from the questions people asked. We will definitely do that one again sometime in the future.

The highlights of the week were many: Randy Grubb’s “Decopod,” Antsy McClain & Edgar Cruz performing on stage, the frankly awesome seminars by Thom the service manager at George M Sutton RV, the Saturday night banquet, the on-site wine tasting and off-site winery tour, several really fun Happy Hours, Indian drumming … I knew we had a hit when people kept smiling at us and saying things like, “Wow, it just keeps going!”  About 1/3 of our attendees told us they were already planning to come again in 2014, and we haven’t even announced where or when we’re doing it again!

Now I’m back in Tucson, picking up where I left off two weeks ago, and thinking about what’s coming up.  There’s a lot of work ahead.  Our event planning team (Brett, me, Alice) is already working on the programs for our February 2014 events: Alumafiesta in Tucson and Alumaflamingo in Sarasota.  We want to have the tentative programs released in October.  Alumaflamingo already has 100 trailers signed up, so it looks like it will be a big one and we want to respond to that vote of confidence with a truly amazing program of activities.  It’s pressure, but the good kind.

I’ve also got to get the Winter 2013 issue in some sort of shape for publication this month, even though it’s not due to layout until later.  It’s looking like a good issue but there’s about 20 hours of editing work ahead.  And lately I’ve been consulting to the organizers of Tucson’s new Modernism Week event (now in its second year) on how to put together a vintage trailer show this year.  They are trying to get about ten nice vintage rigs for their show in the first week of October this year.  I may do a presentation there on the history of vintage trailers as well, if they need it. It will be a great event to attend, in any case, with lots of architectural tours.

Back in Vermont, Eleanor has managed some repairs to the trusty Mercedes GL320.  It had some minor body damage from two separate incidents (one dating back a couple of years), and we finally took it to the body shop to get all of that cleaned up.  Little dings can add up: the insurance claim was over $3,000 thanks to a ridiculously expensive front bumper part.  It’s the sort of stuff that could be—and was—easily ignored but I hate to see it accumulate and make the car look junky before its time.  The GL has about 74,000 miles on it so far, mostly towing, and I certainly intend to keep it for a few more years, so it was time to bite the bullet and pay the deductible to keep the car looking good.

In two weeks I need to head back to Vermont and then set out with the Airstream (and once again, E&E) on our voyage west.  We don’t have the slightest plan yet what route we are taking.  All we know is that we need to be back in Tucson by Oct 1, which gives us about a month to travel roughly 2,500-3,000 miles (depending on route).  I’m looking for little things along the way to fill up our itinerary so we won’t go too fast.

This is a nice problem to have, after last year’s mad dash over the concrete Interstates. Slow travel is the best.  It won’t be a vacation, but at least it will be an opportunity to take in some fresh new scenery in the Airstream before we settle back into home base for the winter.  And there will be plenty to blog about!

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.

It’s as easy as bungee jumping

Quiet blog?  Only above the surface.  Back here at Airstream Life World Headquarters, things have been pleasantly busy.

These days my work as Editor of Airstream Life has been almost a backdrop to putting together events.  Financially this makes no sense, as the magazine pays the bills and the events are more of a hobby business, but I can’t stop myself.  Either Brett or I will come up with an idea for “something cool” and then suddenly we are spending far too many hours to make it come off.  I think we are both just compulsive about building new things, and we enjoy that more than our day jobs.

Back in late October we flew out to Oregon to do a site visit to the Seven Feather Casino/Hotel/RV Resort, wondering if we could put on an event there.  (By the way, I think that I spent more nights in hotel rooms last year with Brett than I did with my wife, and that’s slightly disturbing.)  Once on-site, we found a charming and well designed campground and a staff of extremely nice people who convinced us that it was the place to go next, and that’s how Alumafandango Seven Feathers was born.  We announced it a few weeks ago, for August 6-11, 2013, and now we are hustling to get seminars, entertainers, and tours put together so that everyone who comes will have a great time.

But before we can pull that off, we need to get Alumapalooza 4 on track.  I got tired of some of the repeat seminars, so we’ve basically started over with a list of new ideas—which of course means a lot of work.  Only a few favorites will repeat, and they will all have interesting twists.  Alex & Charon are coming back but instead of vacuum-sealing Alex in a bag they are going to do something else horrible.  We’ll do the Backup Derby again but this year I think the windows of the tow vehicle will be blacked out.  We’ll have yoga again, but this time it will be in the nude.

Just kidding about that last item.

And before we can pull off Alumapalooza 4, we need to get past Alumafiesta in Tucson.  That’s coming up in two weeks.  Registration closes today, so soon I’ll be putting together all the attendee lists and various other things we need, and then Eleanor and I have to finalize our trailers.  Yes, I said “trailers” plural.  Because Brett & Lisa are flying in, we have to supply them with our 1968 Airstream Caravel for housing, completely furnished & equipped.  We have never loaned out this trailer before so it has meant a lot of extra prep work to turn it into a “rental”: lots of cleaning, re-packing, testing, and counting the silverware…  I may have to ask Brett for a security deposit.

Ah, kidding again.  I’ll just replace the silver with flatware from Home Goods.

Things have been complicated lately by two factors:  (1) This is the season for all good snowbirds to arrive in Tucson.  A few friends have popped by already, and in a week or so we will be inundated.  I wouldn’t dare complain about this, since we look forward to our friends coming to town, but it means that all our prep has to be done well in advance.  (2) It has been unbelievably cold (for Tucson) lately.  To put that into perspective, keep in mind that here we never have to winterize the trailers.  We just leave them parked and turn on the furnace for a night or two.

Since New Year’s Eve we’ve had at least five freezing nights and more are forecast through Thursday (then we get back to the normal stuff for this time of year, 68 by day and 45 by night).  Our propane ran low very quickly, so I popped an electric space heater in each trailer instead and went off to the local LP supplier to get four 30# LP tanks filled plus a 20# for the gas grill.  This is what we call “winter” in Tucson.

In the process I discovered that one of the propane “pigtails” on the Safari was leaking.  These are the flexible hoses that run from the propane tank to the regulator (see video explanation from last year).  They’re stupidly unreliable lately.  I don’t know if the quality of construction is dropping or I’m just buying the wrong brand, but lately it seems I can only get a year out of them before they start leaking at the crimped metal connections.  The current pair date from last summer.

I called Super Terry for a consultation on this, and he recommended going from 12″ to 15″ lines so that there’d be less stress on them.  I ordered four new ones (about $11 each), being quite sure not to get the same brand as before, and will just keep a pair in the Airstream from now on as spares, along with the wrenches needed to remove and install them, and my soapy-water spray bottle and plumber’s tape.  You know yours have gone bad when you smell gas around the propane bottles, and your furnace quits.  Usually this happens in the middle of the night.  Once you have the pigtails in hand they take only a few minutes to swap, but sometimes finding the right type and length is harder than you’d think, so I’d recommend everyone carry at least one spare with them.

I had a nice meeting with the people at Lazydays last week to finalize details about our event and the food & beverage.  They are really rolling out the red carpet for us, including an open bar & appetizers at our first Happy Hour, and generally first-class service all around.  I had a pre-event dream last night, which always happens to me a few weeks before we do an event, and for the first time it wasn’t a nightmare.

We must be getting better at this event business.  At least I should hope to have learned a few things, after all the ones we’ve done: Two Vintage Trailer Jams, two Modernism Weeks, three Alumapaloozas, one Alumafandango, and in 2013 three more events.  That’s eight behind us and three ahead, plus two on the drawing board.  I guess people are taking notice, because in the past month we’ve had two inquiries about running events for other people.  Probably only one of those will actually pan out.  It’s flattering to be asked in any case.  I don’t know if it makes business sense since (like bungee-jumpers) we are mostly in it for the thrill, but you never know where an opportunity might lead.  I’ve learned to check out every opportunity that pops up, as sometimes even things that look hopeless will take an unexpected turn for the better.  Except at a Bourbon Street bar, looking is usually free.