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.

Aluma-Zooma

This may go down as one of the most busy February months of our family’s life.  On Sunday we wrapped Alumafiesta in Tucson, which was a considerable event in itself, and now we are embarked on a 2,000 mile cannonball run across the southern tier to Florida, where we will work on Alumaflamingo for another week.

Fiesta was a success.  We had about 100 Airstreams in the campground (after a few last-minute cancellations) and it seemed that just about everyone had a great time.  The program was as packed full of activities as we could make it, and so Brett & I were busily running around for five days making sure it all happened as we’d planned it.

During the week Eleanor was commuting from our house to complete preparations for the heavy travel yet to come, and finalizing all those other details that come before departure.  Emma, meanwhile, was parked inside the Safari with a cold, not doing much except Pokemon-related activities. (You might be surprised to realize what a wide range of Pokemon-related activities exists, but listing them all is far beyond the scope of this blog.)

After running all the activities of the event (many seminars and off-site tours, five Happy Hours, a bike ride, two walks, one hike, two breakfasts, one dinner, three Open Grills, four evening presentations, Food Truck Friday, a ukulele practice session, etc.) we were all completely exhausted.  And that’s where Aluma-Zooma comes in.

Due to a series of circumstances mostly beyond our control, we have a second event this month: Alumaflamingo in Sarasota Florida.  Because it is the first year for Flamingo, we decided it would be best if we took the Airstream to that event rather than flying in, which means that on the last day of Alumafiesta we were re-packing for immediate departure east on I-10.  We have to traverse seven states in a week, a rapid pace in the best of circumstances.

These are not the best of circumstances.  On the last day of the Fiesta I began to detect the impact Emma’s cold virus on myself, and then Eleanor began to feel some symptoms too, so our tow vehicle became a sort of plague ship with the three of us all sporting various symptoms—and nearly 2,000 miles of rapid driving ahead.

Brett, meanwhile, has flown ahead and will be spending the next week trying to get all the remaining pieces of the Flamingo event puzzle into place; not an easy task with nearly 240 trailers expected, 23 vendors, and a schedule just about as packed as the one we just completed in Tucson.  I can’t do much to help while I’m driving, so at this point I’m just a telephone consultant with a hoarse voice.

Fortunately we are joined on this adventure by our supportive friends, Alex and Charon (famous for their talents in the sideshow arts, including fire breathing and swordswallowing) and their hairless cat Brundlefly.  With us they form a 2-Airstream caravan, and it is making the trip much more fun to travel to together.  Alex has painted a sign on the back of their 1960s-era Airstream Overlander which says:

ALUMA-ZOOMA
Tucson to Sarasota
180 hours

We left Tucson at about 3:30 pm on Sunday and pulled into Lordsburg NM that evening for an overnight boondock behind a restaurant.  I was feeling pretty poorly and crashed into bed at about 8:00, waking at 4:45 with a raging sore throat, but got back to sleep and by 7:00 a.m. was feeling much better and looking somewhat less like a person with terminal fatigue.  Eleanor pitched in later on Monday by towing the Airstream 100 miles of our 350-mile daily quota even though she wasn’t feeling top-notch herself, and so tonight we are in Balmorhea State Park in west Texas and all is well.

As expected, we have driven out of the balmy southwest weather and into that deep freeze that we keep hearing about on the news.  Even here in southwest Texas, it was 38 degrees before sunset, a horrifying change from the lovely 70s that Tucson is currently enjoying.  I couldn’t hook up the water hose because it is going to freeze tonight.  Balmorhea is famous for its crystal-clear warm water springs, and normally we’d go swimming or snorkeling here, but even with water at 80 degrees or so it is just too darned cold outside to even consider the idea.  So instead we just fed the catfish and watched the turtles swimming before the skies became dark and fiendishly cold.

The trip plan is to drive about 300-400 miles daily all the way to Sarasota.  With time being short, it’s going to be Interstate highway all the way.  Not very interesting. Still, since we’ve all done this trip many times (but not as a caravan) we have the opportunity to share our favorite roadside stops with each other, and that’s fun.  I’ll update the blog as often as I can while we are traveling, and you’ll also see brief updates and more photos on Twitter (follow @airstreamlife).

A great week ahead

That energy level I mentioned in the previous post has very suddenly kicked into a higher quantum state.  (Apologies to real physicists who are wincing at that statement.)  Airstreams are pouring into Tucson from all over, and it’s impossible for me to remain calm about it.

Lately I can’t drive in the southwest corner of Tucson without seeing one on the road.  Normally Airstream spotting is a rare event, but this week it’s a regular thing.  Today I made my daily trip to the Alumafiesta site and found silver dots all over the 400-site campground.  Right now they are a minority but by the end of the day Monday a giant aluminum formation will take shape: Airstreams lined up in rows, signalling by their shiny presence that something interesting is about to happen.

My main mission today was to drop off the ’68 Caravel for Brett to use.  While I was trying to set it up in the site, two non-Airstream owners came by separately to talk about vintage trailers, and one Airstream owner as well.  This was fun but it made setup take about an hour.  That Caravel sticks out in a crowd.  There is no flying under the radar in a vintage Airstream.

In just a couple of hours I ran into Koos and Stefan (who flew in from The Netherlands to attend Alumafiesta), Rob, Chris, Stevyn & Troy, Numeriano, and a few other people who waved from a distance. I’d say there are about 15 Airstreams in the park right now, and that’s just the beginning.  That’s in addition to the several Airstreams that are boondocked in BLM land off Rt 86, near Saguaro National Park West.

Tomorrow I will go over to drop off the Safari in site 1415. The guy occupying my space today is in an Airstream but he is not coming to Alumafiesta. He came last year, and so tomorrow he’s heading to Sarasota to attend Alumaflamingo!  Lucky guy—he’s got two weeks to make the trip, so he gets to spend six days chilling in Destin FL on the way.  We have only one week to go the same 2,000 miles, so we have to zip along I-10 in a sort of Airstream Cannonball Run with no fun stops.  (Alex & Charon are making the trip with us, and Alex is already calling it “Aluma-zooma”.)

Yesterday I had lunch with Chris and Leslie.  They are attending Alumafiesta in a brand-new 30-foot Airstream bunkhouse.  Leslie writes for Airstream Life, and Chris is the developer of our new—TA- DA!—  iPad app.  Yes, Airstream Life is finally available in digital format on iPad. Almost every issue published (minus two) is available, which is pretty remarkable considering most have been out of print for years.  If you’ve got an iPad you can check it out (free) by clicking here.  We’ve got a special limited time offer on eight of the back issues for $0.99 each, and if you are a subscriber you get four issues for free!

I had a small surprise this week after sending out a notice to attendees that we would be doing an informal “beginner class” on ukulele.  I figured that maybe two or three people would be interested.  Suddenly about 15 people came out of the bushes waving ukuleles, and about a third of them had never actually played one.  So I’ll be leading a group at 1:00 on Tuesday, and if it goes well we will probably have a few sessions during the week. I’m excited about that.  Maybe we’ll get a few songs up to performance quality and play for the attendees at one of the Happy Hours.

Tonight we are having a pre-event “kick back” dinner at home, before the heavy action begins tomorrow.  This is our last chance to have a meal as a family at home, so Eleanor has made some nice mushroom risotto and a cake, and I’ll be grilling steaks.  Tonight we feast, for tomorrow we enter the fray …  It should be a great week.

Aluminum energy

“It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon …”  So starts many a tale from Garrison Keillor, and many times I have been tempted to lift that line in prelude to a blog entry that, like a Wobegon story, gradually reveals events that are anything but quiet.

Here in the desert I can feel the energy ramping up.  While the polar vortex captures the attention of those in the north, we have our own sort of vortex which re-directs RV travelers to Arizona right around February every year.  First it’s the annual migration to Quartzsite, where thousands of RV’ers congregate for cheap camping and flea-market shopping every winter.  Now Alumafiesta has entered the picture in a small way, bringing our Airstream friends from all over the country to Tucson for a week or two of warm weather and camaraderie.

I can tell by many signs that the Airstreams are approaching.  The most obvious sign is the mail piling up in our front hallway.  Several friends have asked if they can have their mail forwarded to our house, and of course we always agree because it’s the right thing to do for fellow Airstreamers.  When we were full-timing we often were helped by people along the way who received mail for us, so this is a sort of “pay it forward” gesture.  Looking at our hallway right now I see three boxes, two large flat envelopes, and four other large boxes that contain Alumafiesta supplies sent by Brett.  My email inbox contains a bunch of tracking numbers for additional packages to arrive this week.

Another sign of the impending aluminum invasion can be seen at our friend Rob’s house, not far away.  He has a bit of acreage and a few hookups, and the word got out, so now he has four RVs camped by his house, one of which is waiting to attend Alumafiesta.  On the southwestern side of Tucson there’s a bit of BLM land that allows free camping, called Snyder Hill, and the first Airstreams have appeared there as well.  Over at the Alumafiesta campground (Tucson/Lazydays KOA), I can see a few glints of silver starting to take over.  In nine days, about 110 Airstreams will be camped there.

Last week I started getting emails from people who are on their way.  One photo came from Rockhound State Park in Deming, NM (at left).  Other emails have come from central California, Texas, Florida, and a few from frigid parts of the north country.

Everyone wants to get together, of course, because Airstreamers are generally social types and we see many of our good friends only once a year or so.  This year it’s a little frustrating because we are deeply engaged in getting ready for two major events (Alumafiesta and Alumaflamingo) and about six weeks of Airstream life/travel between here and Florida.  Eleanor has been working on a new food demo that she’s going to do at both events, and I’ve been trying to get the Summer 2014 magazine at least 70% done by February 1. Plus, Emma has been working toward a higher rank karate belt and so we’ve been taking her to practice five nights a week.  It’s really a drag when work and school get in the way of having a good time.

A few days ago I pulled out the “Safari Departure List” that I maintain for pre-trip preparation. This list has checkboxes for about eighty things that we need to do before we head out on a multi-week trip.  It covers everything: what to pack, taking care of the house and utilities, prepping the Airstream and car, and various notifications we need to make.  Completing this list takes about two weeks if I don’t rush, so every day I’m trying to check off at least five or six items.  Lots of them are easy, like filling the car with fuel and updating our mail forwarding order, so it’s not terribly hard, and having the checklist means I don’t have to try to remember what’s next—which is good, because with everything going here I can barely remember what comes after I put toothpaste on the brush.

With all the activity comes a certain amount of excitement.  Great things are about to happen. We’ll see lots of Airstream friends, travel cross country, present talks and demonstrations, tour Tucson and Sarasota, lead a ukulele band (at Alumaflamingo in Florida), and then hit the beach on our way home for a bit of vacation.  It’s hard to complain; Airstreaming is fun.

The anticipation keeps us energized.  Some would say “stressed” but I prefer to think of it as all positive energy.  A hundred+ Airstreams parked together will raise the temperature of Tucson and make everyone smile.  All these people coming to town with great intentions, friendly faces, and interesting thoughts to share, will infuse us and give us the boost we need to get it all done.  So I say, “bring on the aluminum energy!”  The fun is about to begin.

News from the industry, late 2013

I just got back from the annual RV Industry Association trade show, which is held in sunny Louisville, KY the first week of December each year.  This is a trip I normally dread, because it’s right after the Thanksgiving travel season and the airplanes and convention center are inevitably filled with people who have viruses to share. Being a human virus magnet, I almost always get sick.  And it always rains in Louisville this time of year.

So it is with great trepidation that I force myself to leave sunny southern Arizona to spend a few days under the big tungsten lights.  But this year, I’m glad I did.

Sometimes the big draw for me is the chance to see the latest things from Airstream.  This year the big draw was the knowledge that the RV industry has fully escaped the doldrums of the recession and for the past year the manufacturers have been cranking out product at full speed.  The RV industry is a “leading economic indicator,” which means that when the RV industry speeds up, the rest of the economy is not far behind.  (Of course, this goes both ways—about eight months before the Bush administration admitted we were heading into a recession, we knew the bad news because RV sales had already plummeted.)

I was looking forward to smiling faces and busy people at RVIA, and I was not disappointed.  For example, Brett & I were approached by our friend, the president of Zip-Dee, who suggested that perhaps we should suspend his full page ad in Airstream Life for an issue because, “everytime it comes out our phones go nuts for two weeks, and we can’t keep up!”  Only in boom times will you hear such a complaint.  (Instead of suspending his ad for the super-cool Zip-Dee motorized awning, we are going to run a different Zip-Dee product ad in the Spring issue.)

Airstream, you may have already heard, is having the biggest year they’ve seen in decades.  In terms of dollars of sales, it’s their biggest year ever.  The Airstream Interstate motorhome continues to be the best-selling Class B moho in the industry, despite also being the most expensive.  Trailers are flying off dealer lots, and the production backlog is several months long.

Despite knowing all this before I went, I was absolutely astonished at the level of bullishness we found at the trade show.  We signed more new advertisers for Airstream Life on the spot than we have done in the last three or four years combined.  We found eager new sponsors for our R&B Events, including Alumapalooza and Alumaflamingo (we’ll announce those when the deals are finalized).  Every aftermarket manufacturer we talked to was interested in sending someone to represent their company.  The Grinch of prior years was thoroughly banished.

What’s behind this?  Well, recessions don’t last forever.  Also, the baby boomers, who have been retiring in droves for several years, are eagerly buying Airstreams so that they can finally indulge life-long fantasies of freedom and travel.  Airstream says about half of their new buyers are new to RV’ing entirely, meaning that they went from nothing to an Airstream.

This has changed everything, no exaggeration.  The content of Airstream Life, the content of our events, the future projects I’m working on, the design of Airstreams, dealerships—nothing is untouched by this massive change.  It used to be that Airstreams were the trailers you ended up with after years of climbing your way up the ladder through lesser brands, but now we have all these newbies showing up who very suddenly want to live the dream.  So everyone who makes, sells, or supports Airstream has to look what they do and figure out how to do it differently.  I think this is great fun.

In terms of new products, we saw only a few things of note.  The re-boot of Trillium fiberglass trailers seems to have faltered a bit, but they are now being sold by Great West Vans as the “Sidekick Trillium“.  Certainly well worth consideration by anyone looking for cute weekender on a budget.  Jayco was showing a European spec caravan to attempt to show American dealers how EU models can make a lot of sense.

The guys at Primus Windpower picked up the pieces from another RV wind power company that failed last year, and will be having a product re-launch in 2014, which I’ll be watching.  The Airstream Interstate has been updated for the new Mercedes Sprinter chassis, but it’s essentially the same as before, meaning quite long and very plush.  Likewise, the $146k “Land Yacht” trailer has been updated a bit.

We met with Dicky Riegel of Airstream2Go to talk about his new Airstream trailer rental business.  He showed us the incredibly cool app that they give, pre-loaded on an iPad Mini, to each rental customer.  It has maps, explanatory videos, helpful guides, checklists, equipment lists, even song playlists.  It’s first class, and I was very impressed.  Sometime next year it will also have a full set of Airstream Life back issues pre-loaded, too.

I have to admit I was a skeptic about the concept of Airstream2Go, but Dicky seems to have found and tapped into a base of well-off customers who really want to rent new Airstream trailers for a “vacation of a lifetime” but don’t want to buy one.  If that’s you, there’s no better option than Airstream2Go.

I also had a rare chance to sit down with Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV.  Andy writes a series on towing that we publish in Airstream Life.  His last article, about load capacity, really tweaked a few people because Andy showed how some cars which aren’t rated to tow much at all can actually perform better than the traditional pickup truck.

A few people asked my why I’d publish such an article (which gored a sacred cow in the towing world), and I tried to explain that the discussion of the vehicle and hitch dynamics helps us all understand what we are doing.  You don’t have to like Andy’s choice of vehicle to benefit from his knowledge, no matter what you drive.

The same people typically suggested that I shouldn’t publish such articles because (a) I’d get sued; (b) “somebody will get killed”; (c) Andy doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.  I don’t buy any of those excuses.  My response is usually that you may not agree what you read, but don’t ask me not to publish it.  Cancel your subscription or flip to the next page.  I believe in the free exchange of knowledge and I’m not in favor of quashing new thinking.  If you pay attention with an open mind, you might just learn something.

I tell ya what, I certainly learned a few things this week.  In addition to all of the above, I learned not to eat the egg & guacamole biscuit thing at the hotel breakfast buffet.  By 4 pm on the final afternoon of my trip I was feeling a bit “off,” and by 11:30 pm I was doubled over in agony.  Didn’t sleep much that night.  My personal “Louisville curse” got me again.  On the plus side, I also learned that Louisville airport has very clean bathrooms, after visiting several of them in the pre-dawn hours the next morning while waiting for my flight.

Well, as my associate David told me, “a stomach bug is a small price to pay” for a successful week.  (Of course, that’s easy for him to say.)  My take on it is that I learned, I lived, and overall I’m glad I went.   Of course, there is one other bit of sobering news to consider:  this means I have to go again next year.