RV News

Forbes: Airstream’s Bob Wheeler Talks ‘Unprecedented Transformation’


The following is a report from Billee Howard at Forbes.com.

Amidst the pandemic we saw crisis cut both ways. At times, it served to strengthen existing brand loyalties, while also catalyzing new ones. In other instances, it pushed customers farther away than ever, creating what appeared to be insurmountable challenges. Different leaders viewed the pandemic either as challenge or opportunity and those who did the latter seized the chance to innovate around everything from supply chain management to customer targeting to corporate culture.

With all that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to speak to someone who used the pandemic as an opportunity to drive unprecedented internal and external growth for their brand. And, not just temporary growth, but growth that has endured long after the pandemic has ended. For my latest column, I sat down with Bob Wheeler, president and CEO of Airstream. He has been with the company for over two decades, working toward a renewed appreciation by the public for the company’s long-standing authenticity and quality. Following is a recap of our conversation:

Billee Howard: Airstream is a brand that not only thrived but survived during the pandemic. Can you share some of the critical things you did to turn challenge into opportunity to drive toward unprecedented levels of growth during COVID and beyond?

Bob Wheeler: When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we had a few uncertain weeks, but then it quickly became clear that the RV industry was starting to boom. Within a few months, we saw explosive growth and we quickly identified a need to shift our strategy. Many new owners were coming to us looking for ways to travel safely – to get out of their houses and get away from the crowds – and they saw Airstream as the perfect solution. Many had been considering an Airstream purchase for a while, and the pandemic prompted them to take the plunge. That influx of customers forced us to shift our focus from attraction to retention. We realized we needed to help these new owners start their ownership experience on a good foot, and we developed support resources, engaging content, and dealer programs that ensured they became customers for life.

We’re a company founded on the idea of continuous innovation, and in many ways the pandemic challenged us to lean into this foundational philosophy to keep improving the products, the service experience, and the lifestyle resources we provide. We were also able to pivot quickly and create a new floor plan in one of our most popular model lines that catered specifically to people who were taking work on the road. In early 2021, we launched the Flying Cloud 30FB Office model, which has a private workstation, lots of power, and connectivity options.

The stereotype is that Airstream owners are an older demographic with the time and financial resources to invest in this type of travel. Though for the past several years, we’ve noticed a growing consumer base interested in taking a chance with adventure and living their life in a more balanced way. These consumers skewed younger, and they spanned socioeconomic groups, home structures, and geographies. The pandemic only helped to escalate the trend, showing consumers that there were more paths to enjoy life and recreation, while maintaining a profession. Part of it, too, is the advent of better technology for staying connected on the road.

While our Flying Cloud Office model was created during the pandemic, it has become a popular model for the younger work-from-anywhere crowd because it has a comfortable private workspace, plus room to bring the family along. We developed optional features, like a powered standing desk, in other models that make it easy to work from the road. You can work comfortably in just about any Airstream, but these features are aimed at making this lifestyle more conducive for a new generation that’s untethered from their desks.

To reach this wider audience, we’ve leaned into the lifestyle that’s at the heart of why we make these RVs. We shifted our distribution model to include exclusive Airstream stores, offering a premium brand experience to highlight Airstream products and our lifestyle and we evaluated our products to ensure relevance with new audiences. From a design perspective, we’re refreshing our décor packages more often with modern materials and styling. Additionally, from a technology perspective, we’ve built in more connected features, allowing owners to manage their vehicles and systems with Bluetooth capabilities and apps.

Howard: Supply chain issues came to the foreground amidst the pandemic, but they have always been a potential source of friction and continue to be. Can you talk about how you have innovated in your supply chain to inform a more agile approach that keeps customers delighted and engaged?

Wheeler: The pandemic put a spotlight on global supply chains and Airstream was not immune to these challenges. Early in the pandemic, we adjusted how we kept products moving down the line to account for shortages, and to continue at consistent production levels we re-engineered our products to be compatible with different readily available parts. As part of this adjustment, we redesigned specifications to fit new components, like fridges and faucets, among other fixtures. We brought in new tools to help streamline our handmade process, and we moved component production in house where we could. This industry largely relies on standard components, but in many cases we’re able to manufacture our own parts in-house. And since we engineer and manufacture at our own facility in Jackson Center, Ohio, we were able to remain nimble to ensure we continued to deliver a quality product.

We’ve also focused intently on creating a culture of quality through all these challenges. We’ve leaned into data – from the production line to customer service to the way we’re marketing these products. We’re closer than ever to the customer, and we’re finding ways to create engagement from the moment they start thinking about traveling, to their first road trip, and – we hope – all the way to when they decide they want something bigger and better than what they purchased first.

Howard: As a leader you have built a unique culture centered around collaboration, and merit—”a place where silos don’t exist and doing the right thing organically enables good outcomes to occur.” Can you talk to me more about your approach to leadership and things CEOs and other leaders should be thinking about when reimagining corporate cultures today?

Wheeler: Airstream truly has a special culture. We don’t maintain a Board of Directors, and we prioritize doing the right thing over profit. It’s a culture of deep collaboration, akin to a meritocracy. As a leader, I empower others to lead with humility and vulnerability – something I try to practice in all aspects of my role. This approach brings out our best work and the results speak for themselves. Airstream has been a category leader for over 90 years – an unmatched milestone in our industry, and rare across the broader spectrum of American businesses – and we continue to be at the forefront of innovation, supported by our partners at our parent company, THOR.

We say it a lot, but it really goes back to Airstream’s founder, Wally Byam. He had this genius for identifying places where innovation would create better products. We certainly empower our teams to do the same, but that extends to our innovative approach to finding talent, retaining employees and promoting a culture of teamwork and responsibility.

Read the full report from Forbes here.

Related Articles

Back to top button