Thinking forward to Airstreaming 2017

Each year around this time I usually find myself considering our prospects for travel in the coming year.  This is when we start to sketch out a rough plan, starting with a possible post-Christmas or early January break.

(I know for most people in North America a trip in January isn’t very practical, and you have my sympathies. When we lived in Vermont all I could do in January was measure the depth of snow covering our ’68 Caravel, and periodically peek inside to make sure all was well.  It says something about our family’s dedication to Airstreaming that we chose to relocate to a place where it stays reliably above freezing day and night most of the winter.)

tucson-neon-signBut this year the Airstream has been mostly left to sleep through the winter in the carport, under cover.  It has served as our guest bedroom and spare refrigerator instead of as a travel vehicle. While I still have a list of improvements and fixes I want to make before we head out again next May, for now we’re staying put and focusing on other things.

This is why I’ve been silent on the blog since we returned to home base back in early October. I came back from our summer of travel thinking that it was time to take stock and focus on personal projects for a while. The break has been good, an opportunity to look at the big broad world and consider my place in it for the next decade. To do that, I forced myself to step away from the “usual” and build time into each day to think about something completely different.

I don’t know what’s coming out of that yet, but it has been a meditative sort of exercise and thus well worth doing on its own virtues. As an entrepreneur I’m accustomed to the ground moving beneath my feet, so once in a while it’s good to stop the motion and just feel the earth beneath—metaphorically speaking.

Still, life goes on and periodically I have been forced to come out of my trance to engage with it. On January 17 at 1:00 pm I’ll be at the WBCCI International Board of Trustees (IBT) rally in Casa Grande AZ to speak about Airstream maintenance stuff.  This IBT rally is an obligatory one for officers of the club and so the program tends to be loaded with business meetings rather than the sort of stuff we do at Aluma-events.  I figured the attendees might like something a little different, so I’ll try to be that.

Brett & I are also working on Alumaflamingo, since that’s right around the corner in February (20-26, in Daytona FL. Brett is handling the heavy lifting on that one (I did the same for Fandango last September, so it’s his turn). I’ll be there for 5 days and probably doing a talk or two on something. If you are going to be there and have a request for a seminar or workshop, let me know.

The Alumapalooza schedule is also underway. That event, our “signature” one at the Airstream factory in Jackson Center OH, will be May 30 – June 3.  Once again much of the program is changing; we’re going for a heavy hands-on workshop format in 2017, so there will be at least two different workshops every day for you to try.  No experience needed, and I guarantee you’ll learn a lot. Of course, we’ll still have lots of entertainment and fun, too, so don’t feel like you’ll be forced to work and think while you’re on vacation!

People are already asking if we are going to hold another Alumafandango in California in 2017.  Sorry, not in 2017 but there will be some sort of west coast event in 2018.  We’re working on locations right now.

My zen state has also been periodically interrupted by Airstream’s relentless development of new products.  You already probably know about the upcoming Nest fiberglass trailer. It’s in development and is expected to be released as a 2018 model year product but official details haven’t yet been released regarding how it will differ from the Nest prototype that you can see on the Internet.  We’re going to do an article on it in the Fall 2017 issue of Airstream Life.

The Basecamp (version 2) is already out and we’ve got a big layout coming in the Spring 2017 issue of Airstream Life.  You’ll see that in February, both in our print version and online versions. The new Basecamp looks cool and I predict it will be a success.

And then there’s a new Airstream trailer motif that I’m not allowed to talk about until January.  All I can say is that you’ll see it on the cover of our Spring 2017 issue and subscribers will see a beautiful photo spread with all the details.

And then … well, there’s more stuff in the product development pipeline in Jackson Center.  I won’t even give a hint of what’s coming (not yet, anyway) but rest assured the folks at Airstream are definitely not resting on their laurels. I really have to hand it to them. With sales growing year-on-year for five years in a row, other companies might be tempted to “innovate” in RV industry terms. That means putting a different color of swoopy vinyl decal on the outside and adding some LEDs. But Airstream is stretching the boundaries of what it has traditionally done, with entirely new concepts for travel vehicles. That takes guts, willingness to accept risk, and forward thinking.

That’s a good example for anyone in business. I’m going to be doing a lot of similar things in 2017, mixing up the staid old formula anywhere it needs to be invigorated. Or to put it another way: I’ll be trying to obsolete my own ideas before someone else does.

Having a travel trailer is a great tool for that. You can sit at home all day thinking but sooner or later you’ve got to cross-pollinate, share ideas, get inspired, challenge your own thinking, etc.  And what better way than to find all those opportunities than to hit the road next spring?

So I can see a 2017 travel plan developing. Our Airstream, when it wakes up, will find a whole new set of roads ahead to explore. Where they lead, I can’t say.  For now I guess it’s good enough to start thinking about the first mile of exploration. After that, the story tends to write itself.

News after Alumapalooza 7

We’re all OK.  That’s the first message I have to put out to friends and family when there’s a blank spot in the blog.  People often wonder if something horrible has happened to us, but it’s always more benign than that. Usually it’s just “life” that has happened—and we’ve had quite a bit of “life” lately.

I won’t try to recount it all in one blog entry, so expect a few over the next week. Right now I just want to run through where we’ve been.

We left off in the Chicago area, visiting Zip Dee. After battling the Chicago area traffic and interstate highway potholes, we ended up at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and spent a quiet night at the Dunes Campground before moving on to visit a friend of Emma’s down by Indianapolis.  (I did post a few tweets during this time just so followers on social media would know we were still alive.)

Airstream wet parking lot IN
After one of many thunderstorms along the way

From there we went to Alumapalooza 7, and that’s a whole week of stuff that I could write about, but these days with the extensive Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and various blogs by attendees, it’s been pretty well covered.  My take is that this was one of the best Alumaploozas yet and we all (even the hard-working volunteer crew) had a great time.

There were two big changes in the format this year.  We put in a full day of music and a half day of hands-on workshops. These were huge hits, especially the workshops. People really got pumped to try things like PEX plumbing, using a torque wrench, testing for propane leaks, etc., with their own hands under the guidance of an expert. They got a lot of confidence from it, so expect to see more workshops next time.

We also made a big announcement at Alumapalooza:  We are bringing Alumaflamingo, our Florida event, back in February 2017!  The location will be the Daytona FL area, and the dates will be Feb 21-26 (it will be a six-night event!)  Expect something very different from the prior Alumaflamingo events … and if you want a clue, think about the fact that Speedweeks at Daytona is the week after our event.

Right now we aren’t accepting reservations but we expect to open up online registration in a few weeks, so check the official website or become a friend of Alumaevents on Facebook to stay updated.

While I was in Jackson Center I had some meetings with Airstream management and we talked about ways to coordinate their upcoming new product launches with upcoming publication dates of Airstream Life magazine.  Everyone already knows about the new Nest fiberglass trailer, which is expected in late 2017 or early 2018, but there are some other interesting developments pending as well that currently nobody can talk about.  (Don’t ask me for hints!)  All I can say is that you’ll see the best pictures and read the most in-depth coverage of every new product in the pages of Airstream Life.

We have a certain routine after Alumapalooza which involves a decompression session at our friends’ home near Cleveland.  That’s essential for good mental health after a week-long party with 250 guests, at least for me.  Two days is about right to get me feeling less crazed. From there we roamed further east to Hershey PA to visit family and then north to Plattsburgh NY to spend a few days at Colin Hyde Trailer Restorations for a major project.  I’ll talk more about that in a future blog.

Numbers games

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I am in the business of publishing stuff about Airstreams primarily because it allows us to travel frequently as a family. It’s a fun job and I meet a lot of interesting people, but the big benefit is lifestyle. With the Airstream we can go out for long trips and it’s not expensive. “Will work for cheap travel,” might have been my motto in the early days.

Every time we are forced to travel without the Airstream I am shocked at the cost and reminded why most families travel rarely. At the moment I have an uncomfortable sensation of impending poverty as a result of traveling without the Airstream. We are in Europe, and it’s lovely, broadening, and expensive.  The apartment we’ve rented in Milan is very nice, but there’s no denying that our cost per night is strikingly high compared to staying in the Airstream.

This year the Airstream will be out for roughly 20-22 weeks (not counting the time we are in Europe), at an average cost of about $25 per day including fuel & campgrounds. (It’s a low number because many days we are courtesy-parking in driveways for free.) We can be away from home for about five months on the same budget as a couple of weeks in Europe, even if you don’t count the airfare. In other words, our daily cost is about 10 or 11 times more expensive without the Airstream.

So yeah, I miss the Airstream. Someday I’m going to work out an European Airstream and travel in that.

If we were using an Airstream right now, we probably would have camped at Camping Ca’Savio (a 45 minute ferry ride away) when we wanted to visit Venice. Actually you can camp there right now in an Airstream if you want, because they have six of them set up as permanent rentals right by the beach. Eleanor and I rode a ferry from Venice and walked across the narrow peninsula (stopping for gelato along the way, as is mandatory in Italy) to check it out.

Camping Ca'Savio Airstreams

Even though we can’t roam as much as we would with the Airstream, it has been a good trip. I find it useful to take some time to reflect on everything from a distance. The past few years have been heavy with obligations and challenges, and now I think we have the chance to get back to the sort of life we have enjoyed in the past.

That means working less frantically, leaving more time our daily schedule for ourselves, and taking more time on trips. For example, it has been about five years since we attended a good old fashioned weekend rally that we weren’t hosting ourselves.  I miss the simplicity of just showing up and hanging out with friends and fellow ‘streamers without any obligations at all. I guess you could say that my goal for the next few years is to “see more, live more, do less.

This is part of the reason why there will be fewer Aluma-events next year and in 2017. It was a lot of work to run around the country to host five-day events in Oregon, Ohio, Florida, and Arizona (all the while doing advance work for new events in California and Ontario). So in 2016 Brett & I will be hosting Alumapalooza and Alumafandango only.  Alumapalooza will continue as an annual event because it’s the “homecoming” event at the factory.

Other events, such as Alumafandango and Alumaflamingo will show up perhaps every other year. Alumafiesta in Tucson is gone forever*. So if you want to go to an “Aluma-event”, don’t wait for “next year”—there may not be one.

 * The brilliant campground management decided they could make more money by refusing rallies during “peak season”, AKA the only time anyone wants to be there. They offered that we could hold Alumafiesta in May. Let’s have a show of hands: who wants to go to Tucson in May?

Cutting back the events has given me time to work on other projects, which is why I finally managed to complete my Airstream Maintenance book this summer. If you don’t have a copy, check it out. Initial reviews have been great on Amazon, Airforums, and blogs.)

And that brings me to a minor rant. This has nothing to do with Airstreams and probably few people other than me care about this issue, but I have to say publicly that Amazon has done a serious disservice to niche publishers with their Kindle royalty scheme. You see, Amazon says that if you publish your book on Kindle with a retail price between $2.99 and $9.99, they’ll give you a fair 70% of the revenue.  That makes sense. After all, the author/publisher does the heavy lifting in this equation and takes on most of the risk, including research, writing, editing, design, and marketing.

But if you set a price above $9.99, Amazon cuts the royalty to 35%. This is their way of discouraging “expensive” Kindle books (since when is $10 expensive for a book?) In other words, Kindle authors gets less money for books priced at $19.00 than for books priced at $9.99. Amazon snarfs up the rest, even though their work is the same regardless of the retail price.

This sucks for a niche publisher like me.  I can’t justify spending years writing lengthy niche books (219 pages in this case) which only a few thousand people will buy, and letting Amazon take 65% of the revenue. Basically, their Kindle pricing penalizes people who publish specialized information.

So I won’t sell my maintenance book on Kindle.  Sorry, Kindle owners. But the good news is that Apple is more reasonable, and so you will find Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” in the Apple iBookstore at $24.99.  You’ll even save a few bucks compared to the print edition, if you like e-books. I hope you’ll give it a look either way.

We’ll be back in the Airstream in October. In keeping with the “see more, live more, do less” philosophy, we have no particular agenda for the trip back west from Vermont to Arizona, but we will take some time to allow things to happen along the way. After all, taking extra days in the Airstream is easy and affordable.  That’s a place where the numbers always work.

Flamingo done, what next?

Let’s start with the biggest and best news: Alumaflamingo was a big success.  I know a lot of long-time Florida State Rally attendees were wondering if it would be worthwhile, and from the anecdotal reports we received on-site, they drove away with smiles on their faces.  We had over 250 Airstreams parked on the field, and next year I would be surprised if the number wasn’t much higher.

Pulling off an event of this site was a monumental task, and of course a few things didn’t come off as planned, but overall I was pleased with the results.  The SNAFUs were minor: two presenters failed to show up (in one case, an attendee jumped in to take over), we ran out of Airstream t-shirts, we had to cancel the third campfire night because of wind, etc.  These small glitches were outweighed by the successes, in my opinion.  Several presentations and tours got high praise, the meals were a hit, the entertainment and vendors were great, and as I mentioned before, the parking crew managed to park over 200 trailers in a single day.  We kept the attendees busy day and night with things to do, and I think a lot of them were surprised by that.

About 30 Airstreams have been signed up for next year already, and we haven’t officially opened registration yet!  It’s great that the event has been so well accepted, but of course that means we need to start planning for next year … and right now I need a vacation.  We’ve just completed a marathon of sorts: five days of Alumafiesta, a week-long drive 2,000 miles across the south, and then five days of Alumaflamingo.  Time for a break.

Our first post-event stress reliever was to visit Lido Beach in Sarasota before hitching up the Airstream.  The beach is a great reviver, with the sound of waves and the squinch of white sand beneath one’s toes, and the seagulls & pelicans flying around.  In just a couple of hours, most of which I spent lying on a beach blanket, I started to see what we’d managed to accomplish—and it feels good.

Now parked in Tampa, we are spending three days at an RV park to catch up on things, and then we will go offline for a four-day weekend.  The trip back west will begin on Tuesday, March 3.  I don’t have an itinerary for the return trip, but I can say with some confidence that we will go a lot more slowly.  I can’t face another 2,000 mile race along I-10.  People keep asking when we will get home (including people in Tucson who I need to see), and I keep saying “sometime in mid-March.”  At this point that’s a good answer. The return trip is an opportunity, and if we do it right, it might be the best part of our entire voyage.

Alumaflamingo day one

When I left off last we were on the final leg to Sarasota to run Alumaflamingo.  Now we are in Sarasota, and have been running around for two days trying to make everything come off as best it can for this very ambitious event.

On Sunday at about 5:30 p.m. we finally pulled into the fairgrounds where Alumaflamingo will be held.  The fairgrounds are pretty roomy, and I remember seeing 700 Airstreams parked here back in 2004, when we first attended the Florida State Rally.  That rally ran for decades, and last year it took 67 committees to run it.  It was humbling to think that all the responsibility for a new generation of Airstream events in Sarasota was falling entirely on us.

The magnitude of the task was even more obvious in our Sunday night staff meeting.  The entire staff numbers about twenty people.  We assembled them in a room and talked about what it would take to make everything go well, and I was gratified to see them nodding and smiling, ready for the challenge.  Nobody seemed scared that they would have to be doing the work of six people.

On Monday we set up the facilities, which means working with the fairground staff to establish water and electric hookups for everyone, and laying out the parking grid, stuffing goody bags, organizing registration and the greeting station, receiving deliveries, setting up the stage, etc.  The details are monumental, and since we are here for the first time, there’s a learning curve too.

Now it’s Tuesday.  I write this at the end of a very long day, but ultimately a successful one.  Our parking and registration teams managed to get 243 rigs settled in one day, which is absolutely amazing.  It’s a record for the most trailers and motorhomes we’ve parked in a single day —in fact, this is more than double what we’ve ever done before.

Of course there were many problems, and I spent part of the day rolling around in a golf cart to resolve them.  Most were minor issues, easily resolved.  Three were a little challenging,  but everything worked out in the end.  Between bouts of trouble-shooting, I  managed to get the ukulele group together (8 ukes plus Curtis Remington on guitar) and we practiced enough to be comfortable serenading the Happy Hour attendees with three songs:  Tonight You Belong To Me, Little Grass Shack, and I’m a Believer.  Dr C, please note that we got real and enthusiastic applause, and requests for an encore.

The weather has cooperated, too.  While lots of people had to fight their way down here from snowy spots all over the east coast, it’s absolutely beautiful here: clear skies, warm afternoons, light breeze, and we are expecting more of the same most of the week.  Can’t ask for much better than this!  It’s beach weather.  Maybe if I get lucky with timing I’ll actually get a chance to see the beach before this week is over!

So the event is rolling ahead.  Tomorrow will bring its own challenges, but at least 90% of the Airstreams expected are already here.  Everyone on the staff has done an incredible job, and I have to say I don’t feel like I deserve such wonderful people.  I’m glad they are here.  I’m glad we are here.  And I’m glad that after a year of planning and organizing, Alumaflamingo is now real.