The Airstream “sharing economy”

Last week a woman who knows us only slightly asked Eleanor if we ever rent our Airstream to other people.  She wanted to see if an Airstream might be right for her family and thought she could evaluate it by trying ours first. Perhaps more to the point, she noted it would also be useful as housing for her visiting sister for a few days.

The idea comes up now and again, but to date we’ve always passed over the opportunity to collect a few dollars.  An Airstream is very personal, especially to us since we’ve lived in ours for several years (cumulatively) including a three year period of full time travel.  Renting it to a stranger would feel like an invasion of privacy.

Lately I’m hearing more inquiries and I attribute it to two things:

  1. The so-called “sharing economy”, where people rent their homes through VRBO, AirBnB and other sites. Heck, people even rent overnight space on their guest beds through sites like CouchSurfing.org, and use of their personal cars through GetAround and Turo.  There’s talk that car sharing will be a big thing among Millennials and younger generations, especially as self-driving cars become the norm. (They’re coming sooner than you think!)
  2. Lots of interest in Airstreams in general.  For the past four years Airstream has been selling as many trailers & motorhomes as they can make and there’s no sign of a slowdown yet. Those of us in the business think the Baby Boomer retirement tidal wave may propel the RV industry for up to 10 more years. So people who can’t afford an Airstream or who don’t think they’ll use one enough to justify a purchase are looking to borrow or rent instead.

Ten years ago I had to search around for the few places in the world where you could rent an Airstream “hotel room”.  These days there are literally hundreds of Airstream hotel rooms (at dozens of locations) and more keep popping up. That’s a trend that I suspect may be a bubble and I’m wondering how soon it will pop.

It might be hard to resist the call when someone is willing to pay $100-200 a night to sleep in your Airstream—until you look at the risk and expenses. The woman who inquired most recently wanted us to put the trailer on her land. Let’s see, that’s about two hours of my time for hitching up, towing across town, unhitching, setting up utilities, and explaining how to use everything.

Then there’s the time spent getting the trailer ready for guests, which we do often in the winter for friends. That normally takes a couple more hours, including doing the sheets & towels, stocking a little food & coffee, and removing our personal items. Afterward of course there’s cleanup and more laundry.

Finally, there’s the hassle factor. One set of friends had a little boy who didn’t get the memo on how to flush the toilet, so he filled the black tank in the first evening. When I was called the water level was within half an inch of overflowing the toilet bowl. If we didn’t have a handy sewer hookup in the carport that would have been a massive problem.

Another guest left such a mess (I’ll spare the details) that it took several hours to restore the trailer to habitable condition. (That person was put on double-secret probation, which means “never again”.) And we take precautions even with our friends: dogs are carefully screened and smokers are forbidden. Fortunately we’ve never had any permanent damage but there’s no question being an innkeeper comes with certain risks.

But what about the idea of buying a used Airstream cheap and then setting it up as a permanent rental? Sure, lots of people are doing that. From what they tell me, there’s not much of a business model in renting to individuals but the corporate rental gigs can be nicely profitable—when you can get them. The “cute” vintage trailers tend to get the biggest bucks, as long as they look nice.

Airstream Caravel Monahan Sand Dunes

Personally I’ve been offered as much as $2,000 for “three days” of rental of our 1968 Caravel (pictured above) at a trade show, but in the end we’ve never actually gone through with a rental deal. The $2,000 was predicated on my towing it for six hours up to Las Vegas, and there were load-in and load-out dates that had to be respected so my total time investment was going to be nearly a week. It just didn’t make sense once I factored in my time, travel mileage, and either airfare or hotel for several days—not to mention the risks associated with putting a delicate vintage trailer in the middle of a trade show floor.

Airstream Caravel in driveway

So in my opinion there are a lot of problems with the “sharing economy” at least as far as it applies to Airstreams.  Still, I would like to find a way to either make the Caravel stop costing us money every year (insurance, minor upkeep) and get it out of our carport. We hardly ever use it and two Airstreams are too much for a suburban driveway. But like an elderly pet, the Caravel is so beloved that we can’t just get rid of it.

Right now the grand plan is for Emma to inherit the Caravel at some point. I wonder if that will actually happen. A characteristic of her generation that I’ve been noting lately is they don’t want their parents’ stuff. [See articles: 1, 2, 3, 4]  It’s not just the silver tea set and ridiculously formal dining room furniture they don’t want. This allergy extends to pretty much all the material goods. The kids want to make their own lives, not duplicate ours—and they are accustomed to getting the latest new version of everything every year or two.

Big sigh. I can relate to that. I never wanted anything of my parents’ either. They gave me a rusty 1977 Chevy Camaro in 1984 and it was helpful for a while during college, but once I had my first post-college job I preferred to buy my own stuff even if I had to take out a loan to do it. Fortunately there are always going to be a subset of American society that values nice old vehicles, and if Emma doesn’t show marked interest in the Caravel someday one of those other folks will get it instead.

And now that I think of it, there’s the original “sharing economy”: If you don’t need it, sell it to someone who will use it. Airstreams last a long time with proper care. I think I’ll offset my costs by keeping mine in good shape and hopefully someday sell it and get my money back, or make a little bit on appreciation.

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.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

humboldt-redwoods-eleanor-emmaIt’s hard to drive through the northwest corner of California and not stop to see the Pacific Coast Redwood trees.  I mean, it’s possible to avoid them by sticking resolutely to Interstate 5, or perhaps driving Route 101 with blinders on, but for us the temptation to take a detour to Avenue Of The Giants is overwhelming.

So we don’t fight the call of the majestic trees. We exit the 101 and meander down the winding road that brings us eventually to Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and we camp for a couple of days.  It’s rejuvenating to unhitch and explore one of the redwood groves on foot.  There’s a certain peacefulness that comes from being among the great old trees and the mossy ground, deep in the shaded glens.

We’ve seen the Pacific Coast Redwoods (and their relatives, the Giant Sequoias) before but they never fail to impress. Each time we visit the forest we learn something small that makes the experience unique, so it’s not the “same old trees” every time.  Wandering a grove without any goal in mind, just letting inspiration flow, is the key.

Since on this trip we were heading toward Alumafandango, I suppose it was also inevitable that a phone call come in to interrupt our moment.  In this case it was an anxious tour leader wanting to get reassurance from Eleanor.

Wisely, she decided to complete the call before we started our walk, so that she’d be clear of business things while in the redwood grove. That’s a lesson I had to learn early on in our travels as well.  Mental compartmentalization is crucial if you want to work and play on the road. You don’t ever want to embark on a hike or any relaxation until you’ve cleared your head of the cares of the working day, otherwise they will haunt your experience and taint the happy memories you’re working to build.

humboldt-redwoods-eleanor-phone

These were our last two nights before landing in Jackson CA for pre-event prep, so I particularly valued them.  Once we hit the event site, it’s always go-go-go, and we’ll have 12 nights sitting in the same spot. The redwoods were an ideal spot to mentally escape the concerns ahead, and get ourselves psyched to work hard for an extended period.

Where have all the megabytes gone?

Modern tech is great.  Cellular networks and the Internet are like oxygen to us frequent travelers, especially people like me who work from the road.  I couldn’t do what I do without those two technologies in my Airstream.

The really amazing part of this is how quickly the capabilities of mobile tech improve. In 2003 we had no mobile Internet at all.  You had to find public wifi or haul a satellite dish around.  In 2005 we got one of the first cellular Internet data boxes on the market, as a loaner for evaluation.  It cost $3,000 and was the size of a dictionary.  When I went to rallies everyone wanted to borrow the signal.

Just a decade later we have devices the size of a pack of gum that give us Internet at speeds literally thousands of times faster.  We talk to our phones and think it’s no big deal that an artificial intelligence answers with a cogent response. And every serious Airstream traveler I meet has some form of this tech, so nobody thinks it’s worth borrowing anymore.

But there’s a big hairy downside to this, which is increased complexity.  If you don’t understand the implications of the new tech as it arrives—and some technological update arrives almost every day—you’re going to eventually get caught at the losing end of something you never saw coming.

I’m pretty tech savvy and it still happens to me regularly.  Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, and a million other players are constantly coming up with new stuff to make my life better, and most of the time it does, but at the same time it’s like someone changed the dance floor to an ice rink in mid-step.

Well, I can handle tech stuff, given some time. The human element is trickier. I’ll give you an example.

When we got on the road last May I noticed an amazing spike in the amount of data we were using.  We have a Verizon Jetpack like many other people, and I had bumped up the data allowance to 24 gigabytes (gb) per month, which is a lot.  The previous year we had gotten by on 6-8 gb per month, so I was feeling pretty smug about how we’d never have to worry about data usage again.

Strangely, before we even got to Alumapalooza in Ohio, half of our data allowance was gone.  The rest disappeared by the end of the billing cycle. I queried my fellow travelers but they denied responsibility.  I re-iterated the importance of not watching YouTube or other videos, and avoiding sites where video ads automatically load.

I pointed the finger particularly hard at Emma, since she’s a known bandwidth hog. Many teenagers these days use the Internet as a hangout, constantly interacting on social media, chat rooms, forums, even shared Google Docs—and Emma in particular is famous for having twenty to thirty tabs open simultaneously on her browser.  Her defense has always been that she avoids videos and doesn’t leave web pages open that might automatically refresh themselves (or have ads that refresh).

So I dug into the tech problem.  First, I made sure nobody else was using our wifi.  I’ve used the name “Airstream Life” for the wifi ID for years and it was possible a few other people had devices that would log onto our wifi automatically when they were nearby.

I also looked at usage logs, changed the password, checked all the laptops for applications that would automatically update themselves, and turned off or limited cloud services that automatically sync data (like iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.)

What I found is a deck stacked against RVers who use cellular hotspots like Verizon Jetpack/Mifi devices.  There are many ways your laptop can be using data when you don’t know about it.  Some applications will automatically send data reports, synchronize files, or update themselves unless specifically told not to.  The problem here is that you’ve got to find them all.  There is no single setting that takes care of this, so the job requires a methodical approach, checking each application and service individually.

The other problem is that Apple has set up mobile operating system to update certain things when the phone or tablet is connected to wifi.  This means when your iPhone or iPad is sharing your hotspot, they think they have unlimited data and they begin to use it as such. So it’s a good idea to tell your iDevices to “forget” your hotspot.

I did all that and it didn’t help.

Last Friday Verizon notified me that 18 gb of our data plan had been eaten up by the Mifi in just two weeks.  At that rate I would run out of data in a week or so, and be unable to work, so this was serious.  I started digging through the computers, iPad and iPhones again in a frantic search for a clue as to where the data was going.

On Monday, Verizon informed me that another 4 gb had disappeared over the weekend.  I started physically turning off the Mifi whenever I wasn’t using it, but now the crisis I had feared was upon me.  I spent most of Monday at Panera Bread, nursing a chai tea latte and using their free wifi.

Then I found a useful app which helped me identify the problem.  It’s called Bandwidth+ and it’s free to Mac users on the App Store for free.  I highly recommend it.

Bandwidth app

It just sits in the top toolbar and shows you how much data you’ve used since reset.

I put Bandwidth+ on all the laptops this morning, and checked a few hours later. In four hours  … (wait a second.  Let me put that into Daddy-speak) … in four hours of working my fingers to the bone trying to provide a living for my family and put food on the table and save for a college education for my beloved daughter,  I used a grand total of 100 mb.  That’s not a lot.

Emma woke up at the crack of 10:30 a.m., promptly got on her laptop to check in on her virtual world, and in one hour she used 145 mb. In other words, she was consuming data at a rate almost six times as fast as her under-appreciated, hard-working Dad.

I also looked through the data usage logs with Verizon tech support and together we found several evenings between 9 pm and midnight when our usage exceeded two gigabytes.  (A gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes.)  That’s like eating the entire buffet table at a Las Vegas casino. You could stream a feature-length movie with two gigabytes.  Funny thing, though: those nights I wasn’t working late.

So the problem seems to be identified:  TEENAGER.

At this point there was only way to deal with the problem.  I bought another 6 gb from Verizon to get through the rest of the billing period and changed the wifi password.  If you are parked to an Airstream on the west coast sometime this month and you see a wifi signal called “Sorry Emma”, well, you’ll know why.

Modern day problems.  They’re different, but in the end, they’re the same.

Temporary Bachelor Man strikes again

Temporary Bachelor ManRight now he is lurking in his secret lair, but soon that superhero of summer, Temporary Bachelor Man will appear.

It has been too long since he donned the Mighty Vest Of Masculinity, slipped on the Sacred Sunglasses Of Limited Eyesight (e.g., ne-cherchez-pas-la-femme), lifted the Flaming Torch Of Bachelor Cooking, and wore the all-powerful Cuffs Of Household Servitude.

Each summer I take a few weeks away from the Airstream to fly back down to southern Arizona and bake in the heat, solo. It’s a great opportunity for me to get serious projects done, since there’s nobody else here and little going on to distract me.

This means I tend to put my head down and tackle those projects that have accumulated in the first half of the year. It’s much like hacking away at an overgrown kudzu in the back yard, except it’s in my brain. After a few weeks, things are much clearer and the mental constipation that comes from having too much unfinished business is gone.

But there’s a real risk of being over-focused.  I could easily end up resembling Howard Hughes in his final days cooped up in his penthouse at the Xanadu Hotel.  I get so engaged with my projects that it is easy to forgo the niceties of shaving, eating, and engaging with humanity.

That’s the reason for TBM.  His heroic character inspires me to escape laptop computer bondage once in a while, and go explore Tucson for those little details of the city that I would miss in the busier snowbird season. TBM is a mighty tester of local restaurants and food trucks, prowler of odd corners and back streets of Tucson, and watcher of movies featuring absurd testosterone.

In other words, there’s nothing like a little deprivation to make you appreciate what you have.  “Nothing going on” means there’s reason to go digging a little deeper, which means just going out and poking around until something (a historic building, a cultural event, a rattlesnake) emerges.

Tucson is a curious city and most people miss that fact. It’s the only city I’ve ever seen that has dirt roads and horse ranches right in the middle of everything. It has all kinds of strange and historic neighborhoods that are so cut off by latter-day road projects that you almost can’t get to them without knowing the secret route. In a country driven by chain-store development, the illogical corners and little urban mysteries are exactly what I like about the place.

Last Sunday I picked up my buddy Nate for a day of cruising the parts of inner Tucson that we had no business visiting, looking for interesting things. It was perfect weather for it: 107 degrees and blazing sunshine ensure that very few other people will be out, so whenever we found something worth photographing we could simply stop the car in the middle of the road and take our time. It was a uniquely Tucsonian thing to do, and given a liter of water per person for a half-day, I would recommend it to any urban explorer.

One easy aspect of Tucson to explore is food.  For such a small city, Tucson has a remarkable range of cuisine. I don’t know why. Restaurants keep popping up and disappearing, so much that I once calculated I could visit a different restaurant five days a week for a year.

Sadly, half of them would be hamburger places. I have nothing against hamburgers but I don’t know why we need McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King, Five Guys, In’n’Out, Whataburger, Smashburger, Monkey Burger, Blake’s Lotaburger, Zinburger, Freddy’s, Fuddruckers, Culver’s, Diablo Burger, Graze Premium, All American Burger, and many other local spots.  They’re mostly good, but a dozen or so chains selling essentially the same product is not the definition of “variety”.  Hamburger joints are second only in number to the Mexican restaurants, but since we are only 70 miles from Mexico I can understand better why those are plentiful.

One of my TBM goals this year is to explore new and different local restaurants.  I think the only way to know if you’ll like a place is to actually eat there.  Yelp, in my opinion, is worse than useless.  Too many of the reviews seem to be from whiny people talking mostly about themselves and complaining in a most disgusting tone of entitlement about how the waiter didn’t bring their ice water fast enough.  I have found several real gems of restaurants that I love, and every single one of them is panned mercilessly by the self-absorbed Yelpers, people who think Cajun cooking comes with red sauce because that’s what they get at the mall Food Court.

Whoops, did I just go off on a rant there?  I was going to say that my prowl with Nate ended up at a local Indian cafe and market, which wasn’t bad at all for a late lunch, and that seemed like an excellent reward for our efforts. My goal therefore, for the two weeks I have left as TBM, will be to explore other local hidden restaurants as frequently as I can.

Now, I won’t be telling you about what I find unless you come to Tucson. In our new world of crowd-sourced information, there’s benefit to keeping a few things quiet. A quick way to ruin a good local attraction is to tell the world about it. But I mention this as a suggestion to you.  If you live in, or near a place that you have never really fully explored, perhaps it’s time to do so.

By this I mean walking or driving through the places you have never had reason to go to, just to see what’s there.  Walk along the river that runs through your city (or in our case, the dry washes). Check out that bike path, even if you have to do it on foot.  Try a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and banter with the waitress. Waltz into that bookstore in the old brick building. Make a list of odd places you’ve seen and start ticking them off, one by one.

Then you’ll have adopted the heroic and expansive attitude of Temporary Bachelor Man, Discoverer of the Unexpected. It’s just like traveling in the Airstream, only very very local.  So I predict you’ll be surprised and somewhat invigorated by whatever you find.