Landing at The Mothership … again!

At long last, I’m in Jackson Center, Ohio. After 2,000+ miles of driving and seven stops, I’m parked next to what Airstreamers call “The Mothership”, the factory where all Airstreams have been birthed since 1969.

This is a near-mythical place for Airstream fans. Located in the middle of soybean and corn farms and far from any significant population centers, it’s not a destination you’d seek out for any reason other than to visit Airstream. The factory is here because Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream, needed an east coast production facility and he got a deal on a disused WWII-era bazooka factory in the middle of nowhere (the place you’d probably want to locate a bazooka factory). Some of the old factory buildings are still here, still in use, but mostly Airstream has grown into a massive campus on both sides of the main street, and they are adding another 700,000 square feet right now.

The biggest reason to come here, in my biased opinion, is Alumapalooza, which Brett and I hold once a year in the week after Memorial Day. We’ve been doing it for ten years. It’s a 5-day camping event that lasts for 10 days (because most of the attendees show up early).

The other big reason is the factory tour. It’s an old-school tour where you walk right down the production line, meet the people who are building Airstreams, and get sawdust and aluminum shavings in your shoes. No “virtual tour” here, and no “Exit through the Gift Shop”.

Sonora KY overnight parking

Being here at last always make the tribulations of the long drive seem worth it, and this time there were plenty of tribulations. I spent the last night on the road next to a noisy highway in Sonora KY, woke at 3:10 a.m. and decided to hit the road around 5:45 to get an early start on what I expected would be a long day.

In four hours of driving I encountered rush-hour traffic in Cincinnati studded with commuters who clearly wanted to be crushed by 7 tons of Mercedes and Airstream, construction delays, and thunderstorms. Then I picked up Eleanor in Dayton and we began to do the mandatory errands (groceries, photocopies, various other supplies) that lead up to our final arrival at Airstream.

When we landed in the Terra Port and freed the Airstream from its harness, a dozen or more friends were already on hand and eager to say Hi. As I walk through the Service Center and around the campus I see dozens of familiar faces from Airstream, all smiling and welcoming us back. Each visit feels like a homecoming. Even the newbies are not strangers for long; Airstreamers are tremendously gregarious.

Alumapalooza is a big deal here. It’s a chance for Airstream employees to meet the people who buy their product, and there’s a lot of feedback that goes into product improvement. Relatively speaking our group of 450 is also a tidal wave of humanity for the tiny Village of Jackson Center (pop. 1500). The local restaurants like Heidi’s “Heidout” have to anticipate us.

Alumapalooza has been the only event held at the Airstream factory since 2010, when we started it up. Back then I didn’t think about how long we’d be doing it and I guess I never expected it to last this long, but a decade later here we are and the event is the biggest it has ever been. We’re expecting something like 225 Airstreams.

Alumapalooza 10 staff meeting

To pull off an event of this size is a big logistical challenge. We do it with a volunteer staff of just 22 people (having a meeting above) and some help from Airstream.  The trick is to have really good people. Most of our volunteers have been helping run the event for years and they are smart folks who hold (or held) positions of significant responsibility in their real life. Here they wear orange shirts and work hard in the Ohio humidity, hence the nickname “the Dirty Oranges”. They sweat, and sometimes melt like coconut butter in the heat, and for this they are the heroes of the event. We provide them with lots of cold water, clean shirts, and not much else, and yet they keep coming back.

For the next ten days the Dirty Oranges will be handling the bulk of the work. I’ll be like Marlon Perkins, back in the safety of the RV while others tackle the Komodo dragons. Once the event officially starts on Tuesday my job will mostly be to run the Airstream Life Pop-Up Store, host Happy Hour daily with Brett (the funnest part of my day), troubleshoot as needed, and do a few presentations. Eleanor is on tap to make dinner nightly for the Store staff, and she also does the Dirty Orange laundry, in addition to doing two fairly complex culinary presentations.

So we’ll all be busy. And it has begun …

Alumapalooza 8

I’m overdue to report on Alumapalooza, and part of the reason is that I don’t want to be repetitive. Every year we do it, the event seems to become bigger and better—and this year it was just fantastic.

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“Boondocker” the dog, who travels with Jim & Lynda Polk

I know, it seems like I’m just blowing my own horn. After all, nothing is that great, and things always go wrong.  That’s true: we had a case of heat exhaustion on the staff, we had to cancel one of the contests due to equipment failure, and the caterer performed below expectations.

But those problems were overshadowed by absolutely flawless weather (far better than we’ve ever had in eight years of running this event), a really happy crowd, a solid program of education and entertainment that kept everyone engaged, our superb volunteer staff, and a first-class effort by the Airstream people to make us all welcome despite being flat-out busy.

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Drone photo by Randy Miller

It was so successful overall that I was joking to people we should just call it quits this year, getting out on top. But we’ve already registered 36 sites for next year’s Alumapalooza 9, so I guess we’re committed now.  (Public registration is now open; just call Marie at 813-200-8877 and leave a message if she doesn’t answer. She’ll call you back.  We’ll have online registration open in a week or two.)

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The program was pretty packed so I won’t go over everything that happened, just a few highlights. Let’s see, we had about 45 early arrivals over Memorial Day weekend so the Monday cookout was well attended. Eleanor did a foodie seminar again, this time on “plate presentation”.

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Eleanor’s “plate presentation” seminar

Colin Hyde’s trailer was the site of nightly “trailer jams”, although I have to admit I was in bed too early to attend any of them. As is traditional, he taped an episode of The VAP from Alumapalooza.

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We gave away two Pedego electric bicycles, valued at $2,950 each.  The winners both decided to donate the bikes back, so we auctioned them off for charity. Between those auctions, the Gong Show, the chicken barbecue lunch, and other things I think something over $8,000 was raised for charities. Most of it went to the local food bank, and the rest went to cancer research and Habitat for Humanity.

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The musical performances were great. Myles and Tim Thompson were talented and well-received, the Open Mic night was a success as always, and then the Thompsons backed up Antsy for the final show on Saturday.

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Antsy McClain

I feel like Alumapalooza has matured. It’s got a momentum now, a vibe that people expect, and lots of people who support it. I feel like it can continue for years. The only trick these days is finding space.  Airstream is expanding so quickly that we are never sure if we’ll have room to park. This year we had room for about 140 rigs.  Next year, who knows?  We’re looking for more space in the area but can’t make promises yet, so if you want to go to APZ9 in 2018 I strongly recommend you register early.

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Lisa and Beth at one of the factory entrances

At the end we were all happy, tired, and officially in summer mode.  I even picked up a moderate tan, despite trying to avoid the sun. I think this is an omen of a nice long traveling summer ahead.

Our next event will be APZ9 in 2018 since we’ve already done two events this year (Alumaflamingo in Florida was the other). That means we’ve got a break to relax. Our personal plan is to stay in Vermont through July, and then head to Newfoundland in August. That plan could change depending on other circumstances, so we’re not making reservations for the ferry or anything else yet.

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Once we finish up in August it will be a long sprint back to Arizona for arrival in late September. But we’ll think about that later. Right now it’s only June and there’s quite a bit of ice cream and sunsets and boat rides to be had. The Airstream is parked at its summer base and all is well.

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.)

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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.

Alumapalooza 6 begins

The show is beginning.  We spend all year thinking about Alumapalooza, and when it finally comes together here on a patch of grass in central Ohio, it’s a great thing. Today is the day.

The past few pre-event days have been mellow.  All of the volunteer staff are very experienced at their jobs, and we’ve cross-trained people whenever possible, so if we hadn’t been required to relocate some things as a result of the factory expansion there wouldn’t have been much to talk about.  Everyone would have just gone ahead and done their job without any instruction. As it was, things were still pretty smooth. We’re lucky to have such great people who come back year after year to make this event happen.

A lot of attendees are repeat visitors, too.  We had 25 spots in the Service Center lot for early arrivals to boondock a few nights, and most of them were taken by people who had been here before. They just roll in at their convenience, settle in, and gab with their neighbors. We didn’t schedule anything except a cookout on Memorial Day, but the folks who arrive early generally don’t need scheduled activities to stay entertained.

Early parking at APZ6

Jackson Center weather is always tricky this time of year, with frequent and un-forecast changes.  When people ask us what weather to expect, we say “all kinds.”  This year has been a great example.  When I arrived it was dropping down to about 42 degrees at night.  Other years it has been 101.  You just never can be sure what’s coming, despite the attempts of the weather reporters to stay ahead of nature.

Airstream Life flagsThis year the major weather event has been wind, lots of it, which finally got strong enough to make everyone take in their flags, awnings, and patio mats (or stake them down very securely).  I was working on the roof of the Airstream with Super Terry over the weekend, scraping old cracked sealant off the aluminum with a putty knife, so that we could re-seal a couple of spots that might have become leaks. When I’d get a small piece of sealant scraped free, it would sometimes blow right off the roof.

Because of the uncertain weather, we decided to keep the job list to the bare minimum, so all we have done so far is replace the entry door lock and replace sealant in six or seven places.  Sometime this week I’m still hoping we can remove the wheels to check the brakes, but now that the event has started it will be hard to find the time. I might have to get to that job at a later stop in our travels.

The big news has been that E&E will miss Alumapalooza. They had planned to catch up with me by flying to Dayton, but Emma got a cold a week ago and still can’t equalize well enough to fly.  Our only good option was to have them fly to Cleveland next week, where I’ll pick them up as I’m heading east with the Airstream. So I’m still solo in the Airstream and will remain so quite a lot longer than I had expected.

Without Eleanor to back me up, I’ve had to make some adjustments and rely on the support of friends. There’s still plenty of food in the refrigerator but friends here have been inviting me to dinner nightly, which means I probably won’t have to go grocery shopping until next weekend.  That helps a lot, because during one of these events my time is always at a premium.  Our friend Mary has volunteered to throw my laundry in with her family’s on Thursday (she pointed out that Eleanor has done the same for them in the past).  Others have offered help, too. It’s nice to have such good friends. In this community you can almost take that for granted, which is a big part of the reason Airstream has been so significant in our lives.

APZ6 decal

As I mentioned, the factory expansion has changed a few things. We can only park about 50 Airstreams in the main field next to the factory, so Airstream personnel electrified another area closer to the Terra Port, and we plan to put another 50 or so there. This also meant the event tents couldn’t go in the usual spot, but we found a really pleasant location in the shade of mature sycamore trees, right next to the Terra Port.  The grass is nicer, the ground is more level, and we like how it turned out, so we’ll probably do it the same way again next year.

This also means the staff can park in the Terra Port for the entire event. After six years of parking in the field, I think the volunteers deserve the perk of full hookups during Alumapalooza. They work hard, sweating and getting sunburned (or rained on) every day for a week, and at the end of the day they have to haul the gray water from their shower several hundred feet in a portable tank to dump it.  Most of them didn’t get power for air conditioning, either.  We supplied them with ice cold water, laundry service, and a free pass—that’s it.

So now they have a well-deserved better deal. Our new spots in the Terra Port put all of the staff very close to the tents, so they can go back and forth quickly, and if the windows are open you can hear the chatter and laughter of attendees having a good time nearby. It’s perfect.

Jessie Kresa at AlumapaloozaBy 9:30 this morning we had already parked 25 trailers and a steady stream has continued to come in. It’s starting to look like Alumapalooza today, with rows of shiny Airstreams parked in the grass, flying flags and displaying lawn chairs and patio furniture under the awnings. By the end of the day we will have close to 100 parked, and more coming on Wednesday.

One of our special guests this year has been Jessie Kresa, a professional wrestler, who is here to show off her hot sauce. She was featured in Airstream Life in our Winter 2014    issue, and it’s great to finally meet her in person. Tonight she’ll join us on stage and give away some stuff, and then on Thursday she’s off to London England to wrestle someone to the ground. After meeting her, I suspect quite a few guys here are going to wish it was them.

I’ll be running a couple of events later today, so for the morning I’m just watching the parkers and water/electric crew do their job. This afternoon the program starts at 2:30 and runs to 8:00, and then tomorrow we go into it full-tilt starting at 7:30.