Airstream trailers, known for their sleek and shiny aerodynamic aluminum bodies, first came on the market in 1936. With the shortage of aluminum during WWII, they lost their appeal. Then, in the 1950s, they re-emerged and became a camping mainstay. They gained more notoriety a few years ago when celebrities started owning them. Now they are now making their mark in a totally different market — the rental industry — in part thanks to Elyse Kane, owner of Lux Lounge, Jackson, Wyo.
It all started about 2½ years ago, when Kane, who has been a builder, decorator, real estate paralegal and property manager with her own vacation rentals, decided to attend an entrepreneurial boot camp called The Startup Intensive in her hometown of Jackson, Wyo.
“More than just taking us through the financial aspects of starting on the business, they [the entrepreneurial boot camp instructors] were really focused on the personal aspects of what we wanted to get out of it. One of the exercises we did that had a profound effect on me was having to hone in on our personal values — things we wouldn’t do well living without. We started with 100 words that connote value and, over a period of weeks, we kept whittling them down to finally three words. My values were freedom, creativity and community. After going through this exercise, I felt like the original idea I had was not congruent with those values. I thought really long and hard about what do I really love, what do I have. My thoughts kept turning back to the Airstream,” she says.
Kane has owned an Airstream for the past 14 years. “I used to build property — develop single-family home property. When I did that, I would live on site in my Airstream. Otherwise I used it recreationally. So I had this back and forth of being in it for a length of time. When I was building property, I could legally live on site in a camper. I was very connected to my Airstream as it has taken care of me for many years,” she says.
The question remained: How could she make a business out of an Airstream?
“I kept going back to that,” she says. “I was looking into camper rentals as Jackson is very destination-oriented and camping in the park is very popular, but I realized that I am much more partial to the vintage ones, and I realized that if I let people trailer them themselves, it could be high-risk if something got damaged. It didn’t seem like the model I wanted to pursue. Airstreams are hard to fix because the skins are aluminum. They are not your typical camper.”
She kept exploring different business models. She found one person using an Airstream as a mobile hairdresser shop, another was a mobile retail store and one person had converted his trailer into a beer distribution unit.
Those ideas began percolating in her head. She knew that she wanted her Airstream to be more than a dispensing unit. She wanted to have people be able to go inside and use it as a lounge “because that is what people want to do. They want to be inside the Airstream and not just see it,” she says.
With that clarity, she knew what her new business would be: She wanted to convert Airstreams into destination settings for weddings, parties, corporate events and such. They could be a center of attention while serving as a congregating site for conversation and refreshments.
To make sure her vision was in line with what the market needed, she did her research.
“I polled a lot of people — brides-to-be and caterers. In a 17-week period in our area, there are more than 400 weddings that take place. For a population in a town of our size, that is significant. Most of our events here are outside in the summer. $10,000 will buy you a field with a view. You have to bring everything in. I kept asking what some of the amenities are that people need and want,” she says.
She discovered that Airstreams can set the space. “It is kind of like the centerpiece because it is shiny — where there are tents, a band, etc. It gives people a destination to go to even when they are outside. You know that when you have a party, everyone ends up in the kitchen. Everyone wants to congregate in the Airstream. People do circulate through, but they also want to come inside as it is a more intimate setting,” she says.
During her research, she also learned about the American Rental Association (ARA) by talking with a rental operator who specialized in party and event. “I talked with him about business, contracts, etc. I asked him who he was insured with. He told me about ARA Insurance. I gave them a call. For me it was such a perfect fit. I didn’t even know there was such an insurance company like this,” she says, noting that “ARA offers such great resources” that she plans to take more advantage of them in the near future.
With all this research in hand, she knew it was time to get to work. “I kept my original camper as a camper, and I bought Airstream shells that had already been gutted. These didn’t have useful lives as campers anymore,” she says.
She first worked with craftsmen at a shop in Salt Lake City.
“Everything in these campers was redone. The whole shell was taken off the chassis. We rebuilt it from the ground up because these were going to get some miles. They did the floor, service window and second door. Then I finished everything else in my own shop in Jackson. I put in new insulation, electrical, plumbing, etc. I was trying to design something that would work in a camper. Airstreams are based on aviation technology. You don’t want to attach things to the walls. You want to attach it to the floor because it is monocoque engineering. Knowing what weight distribution in a trailer should be also was important. You want to put everything heavy over the tires. Because I have owned an Airstream for so long, have been a builder and decorator for so long — so much of my background could be applied to this business model. If I didn’t have all of that experience, I think this would have been too daunting,” she says.
Last summer, all of that hard work paid off. Her reconverted Airstreams were on rent for weddings, nonprofit fundraisers, private parties, anniversaries, graduation parties and a few corporate events such as the Walton Family Foundation event and a fundraiser in Malibu for the wildfire victims.
Response has been extremely positive. “I have to say that when people walk in the big Airstream, their eyeballs really widen and their jaws drop because it is stunning. I used to have an old classic yacht, so that informed some of the design. The Airstreams are called land yachts. They lend themselves to that — the mahogany-lined interiors, the rounded sofas and such. I wanted to design something that was elegant and classic and could lend itself to a lot of different styles and branding. It could fit in weddings and with companies for product launches,” she says.
For Kane, this is just the beginning. She is already targeting key cities within a five-hour drive as well as towns with a more temperate climate in the winter months. Because she designed it to be “plug-and-play so it is user-friendly,” she says that all she has to do is drop it off, set it up, stabilize and level it, work with the caterer on site, leave and then come back and pick it up.
“It’s a mobile business. It doesn’t make sense to leave these trailers idle in the winter months. I am a gypsy. Having my home base as Jackson and then being on the road and having my trailers be utilized in the winter months in a different area is my next ramp-up for the business,” she says.
Looking back, Kane realizes that she has finally created a business that meets all of her core values. She used her creativity to design and build unique and luxurious trailers. She has fostered community by meeting so many diverse customers and helping bring joy to their events. She also has nurtured her sense of freedom by creating a business that allows her to travel to different destinations. For Kane, her dream has become her reality.