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90 years after becoming an American icon, Airstream’s beloved silver campers helped it weather the pandemic

Summary List PlacementThe onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 shocked a lot of companies, including Airstream — the 90-year-old American manufacturer of those iconic silvery aluminum travel trailers. CEO Bob Wheeler and the company he's run since 2005 were worried, to put it mildly. But a new documentary...

Alumination Airstream

Summary List Placement

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 shocked a lot of companies, including Airstream — the 90-year-old American manufacturer of those iconic silvery aluminum travel trailers.

CEO Bob Wheeler and the company he’s run since 2005 were worried, to put it mildly. But a new documentary from noted filmmaker Eric Bricker outlines why they didn’t need to be: Airstream’s ascension to legendary American brand gave it the resilience it needed when crisis struck.

“We had anticipated in April that we’d be off by 70% year-over-year for retail sales in the US,” he told Insider in an interview last July. “But we were only off 30%. Then in May, we broke our all-time record for a month, dating back to 1980, when we started to keep track.”

The 77-minute documentary, “Alumination,” comes from Bricker and producers Lisa Hughes and Allison Light. It was supposed to debut at several film festivals in 2020, but the pandemic intervened, and now the film is slated to premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in October. The filmmakers are also arranging for private screenings. (Airstream itself cooperated with the filmmakers but provided no funding.)

The film is a deep dive into how Airstream became a legendary American brand — and how its flinty, determined, visionary founder, Wally Byam, established the DNA it needed nine decades later when the pandemic struck.

Wheeler and Airstream, which has been making its trailers in Ohio for decades, had already been riding a wave of renewed interest in this lifestyle and had just opened a new, 725,000-square-foot factory. But the pandemic provided a host of new reasons for families to invest in an Airstream and avoid less socially distanced types of travel.

“It’s hard to imagine a product that checks as many boxes as a [recreational vehicle] for the pandemic lifestyle,” he said.

Alumination Wally Byam Airstream

It’s difficult to decide who the star of the show is: Byam, the silvery trailers that were a revelation when they first appeared in the 1930s, or the many people who have taken up the Airstream lifestyle over the years, including a postwar cadre who were effectively led by Byam and caravanned around the globe.

Customers actually capture much of the spotlight, either through the interviews that Bricker logged after the documentary got underway in 2013 or in extensive archival footage, stylishly interwoven with modern-day Airstream events and narrated by Kate Pierson of rock band The B-52s. 

But if you didn’t know anything about Byam, his mettle as an entrepreneur is what truly drives the tale. His ancestors migrated west in the US in the 19th century riding in covered wagons. This mode of transportation recurs for young Wally, whose youth included a stint as a shepherd living out of a wagon.

Byam suffered personal tragedies and setbacks, but he persevered, graduating from Stanford University and eventually getting into the business of providing plans to build trailers. The jet-age Airstreams came later, inspired by a short-lived design that swapped aerospace aluminum for canvas and wood. (Byam died in 1962, aged 66.)

Airstream now sells numerous models, ranging from large and expensive travel trailers that can sleep entire families to smaller, adventure-oriented rigs that don’t require powerful vehicles to tow. The company also sells full-on RVs and intends to build on its good fortune from 2020, offering its products and services to a new generation of fans who learned during the pandemic that their home can actually be the open road.

It’s a lesson that never went away, and “Alumination” reminds us of that. And by the way, the open road hasn’t been confined to the USA. One of the most spectacular images from the film is an Airstream excursion to Egypt, where a caravan of trailers formed a silvery ring in the shadow of the Pyramids. 

But that’s Airstream: It’s an icon for a reason.

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