KOA starts renting nights in iconic Airstream trailers

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Emma Luhr, 8, of Tucson, Ariz. plays outside an Airstream trailer following a news conference at a Kampground of America on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009 in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

By OSKAR GARCIA Associated Press Writer

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Three campgrounds across America are getting some new tenants, but campers need not be jealous of their shiny silver neighbors — the Airstream rigs are for rent.

Kampgrounds of America Inc. and Airstream Inc. are placing 25 of the company's most popular model trailers at KOA campgrounds in Las Vegas, Bar Harbor, Maine, and Key West, Fla., letting travelers rent the recognizable trailers like hotel rooms.

"A lot of people, frankly, don't know we're still in business because the trailers have looked largely the same over the years," Airstream chief executive Bob Wheeler said. "We know there's a demand — so it's just a matter of providing it in an easy and successful way in a great setting."

Airstreams are instantly identifiable by their long, rounded shape — imagine a giant aluminum Twinkie — and have been a historic part of American culture since the company began manufacturing trailers in the 1930s.

Wheeler said the company has been looking for years for ways for introduce potential customers to the iconic trailers. Until now, people have had to purchase an Airstream or know someone who owns one to sleep in its silvery confines.

The models at the campgrounds — the 25-foot Flying Cloud — retail for about $67,000, Wheeler said.

"It's a trial experience," he said.

Wheeler and Shane Ott, chief operating officer of Kampgrounds of America, said the Airstream rentals do more than just familiarize customers with the cushy amenities of a high-end recreational vehicle.

The rental trailers come fully stocked with linens and kitchenware. Tourists need only open the door to a turnkey travel experience, just like a hotel room. Other than that, the Airstreams are largely unmodified from factory versions, Wheeler said.

Ott and Wheeler said they hope the program expands. There are more than 450 Kampgrounds of America sites in North America, but the vast majority are franchises with independent owners.

KOA was offering nights in one of 10 Airstreams at an introductory $45 rate in Las Vegas, and expected to make $170 to $220 a night from 10 trailers in Maine and five in Florida, Ott said.

Ott said nightly space rates at the Las Vegas campground — on the Las Vegas Strip next to the Circus Circus Hotel and Casino — run $30 to $100 for a spot for visitors who arrive with their own trailers or RVs.

In the hotel next door, room rates were as little as $26 for weeknights in February.

"Talk to any of these people here and none of them have made a decision to stay at this campground based on the hotel rates," Ott said. "It's a lifestyle decision — people love the nomadic lifestyle of owning an RV and packing their stuff."

Airstream trailers have a particularly devoted following, spawning clubs for owners and books and Web sites for fans to brush up on Airstream history.

NASA paid $250,000 in 1963 for a set of four modified Airstream trailers to isolate astronauts after a series of planned moon landings. One of the units was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1974.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has a Bambi model Airstream from 1960 in its permanent Architecture and Design collection.

But why put a travel trailer in a museum? The collection's senior curator, Paola Antonelli, says the Airstream was modern during a crucial time in U.S. history.

"The Airstream — both an object of architecture and one of design, both a technological and an aesthetic masterpiece, and a triumph of design for the people — came to embody the sense of progress, dynamism, curiosity, and energy that are at the basis of MoMA's idea of modernity," Antonelli said.

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Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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